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Grace, Damien --- "The Question of an Apology: Reconciliation and Civility" [2001] AUJlHRights 4; (2001) 7(1) Australian Journal of Human Rights 77

The question of an apology: Reconciliation and civility

Damien Grace [*]

Reconciliation is a complicated but not intractable matter. Its realisation will depend on context, history, and a desired destination. If it were like a contract, then we might look to the terms of the contract to tell when it had been achieved. But it is not like a contract. If it were about recognizing legal rights, then reconciliation might already have been achieved by the fiat of parliaments and the decisions of the courts. But it is not a remedy for broken political machinery that can be ‘fixed’ by legal mechanics. Reconciliation is closer to a social movement or process, whose character is moral rather than legal. For although the rule of law and the regime of rights attached to it support the fabric of everyday life in democracies, law and rights require something prior, and that is the bonds that form a community. Those bonds are complex, but they are expressed in the trust and confidence of citizens in their political institutions, and in the civility with which a society conducts itself.

Civility and friendship

The fabric on the legal structure of a democratic state is civility. Law and civility are not fungible: both are necessary for a just and well-ordered society. In such a society, rights are lived out in the habits and commitments of citizens, and only occasionally tested in the courts. These orderly and respectful habits are the marks of civility, a moderating virtue in political and social life. Civility is concerned for the common good, even though this good is difficult to define in a pluralist society.[1] Because civility really only comes into being in such societies, it is also opposed to the imposition of the kind of uniform morality typically found in non-pluralist societies. Civility respects differences of belief, and restrains what may be demanded of others in the name of conviction. It is the classic political expression of the moral value of respect. Consider what civility excludes from politics: arbitrariness and partiality; zealotry and fanaticism; intolerance and bigotry; violence and coercion. What does it affirm? All the goods that can be enjoyed socially only during peace: disagreement and conflict within limits; the rule of law; the importance of public trust in legitimate authorities; impartial and fair judgement; civil and human rights. These are simultaneously the foundations of an open and liberal political community and the moral values that promote the development of a respectful and decent society. The qualities of a society committed to civility have analogues in both the public behaviour and the private lives of its members.

Civility begins in good manners and treating others – strangers and opponents – with respect.[2] Its opposite is found in adversarial relations in a zero-sum game. Civility does not require idealism because it can be based in rational self-interest. Self-interest, as distinct from selfishness, motivates people to brush their teeth, save for emergencies, drive safely and avoid foolish risks. Rational self-interest requires a level of disinterestedness, an ability to achieve perspective and to achieve distance from self-preoccupation. No society can afford a police officer at the end of every street. Civility makes this unnecessary, and more: it assists the growth of better human relations by making them an interest worth preserving. Strong as it is, this version of civility as a liberal political virtue has a weakness. It is in some respects too negative, too concerned with avoiding harm or offence, too concerned with the formalities of respect. A more positive conceptual vocabulary is required if the life of a community is to be captured adequately. Aristotle’s concept of friendship provides this.

For Aristotle, friendship is the bond of political community. He identifies three types: that deriving from common utility; that deriving from mutual pleasure; and that deriving from a shared pursuit of common goods. While the second is the most familiar to us, the first is also commonplace in businesses and other forms of enterprise associations. But only the third provides the basis for political communities. We have moved a long way from Aristotle’s conception of community, and even further from the kind of political community in which the term ‘friendship’ would be used to describe the bond among citizens. So, of what use are these conceptions to modern societies? In Book IX of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that all friendship seems to originate ‘in our relations with ourselves’.[3] For the things that we find good within us we also recognise in our friends. The goods which attract us to our friends are thus familiar to us in a personal way. Extended to the level of the political community, this kind of friendship implies a shared recognition and pursuit of common goods. This sharing is essential to the constitution of any form of community, but takes on a special significance in relation to civility and identity in the modern context, where shared public values have been displaced by personal preferences.[4]

If it is hard to imagine communities bound by friendship in an Athenian polis of thousands of citizens, how is Aristotle’s concept relevant to a nation state of millions? One response is to imagine a shared identity composed of overlapping rather than common elements, on the Wittgensteinian model of family resemblance. Shared conceptions of goods in such an arrangement could constitute sufficient identity to bind a people into a state. Such an identity is not merely utilitarian in Aristotle’s first sense of friendship, but lies in related conceptions of the good of the whole and of others.

Friendship as a social bond relies upon care about the good of others. Caring is essential for the acquisition of the virtues. Only a limited range of virtues can be acquired without caring.[5] Hobbes made power and consent the foundation of society; Aristotle assigned this role to friendship. MacIntyre claims that modern individualistic societies have substituted rules and regulations for friendship in a Hobbesian fashion. Rights have moved to the focus of the social relationship, because rights can be enforced. Friendship, however, depends on care. So friendship has been consigned to the private world and a positivist regime of rights and laws has occupied the public domain to achieve what should be assented to in the name of civility.[6] It is within this conceptual context that I wish to discuss national reconciliation and in particular, the demand for an apology to Aboriginal peoples.


When evil acts are committed, they cannot be undone or retrieved. Justice demands at least two responses from the perpetrators of evil: admission of responsibility and contrition for their deeds. Where possible, restitution to the victim should be made. This is important for the perpetrator as well as the wronged. Personal relationships would be impossible if there were no way to restore trust and faith through an apology. Wrongs persist because an evil act as much as a good one changes the world in some way. A trustworthy person tells a lie. An honest person commits a fraud. A dependable person is unreliable when it counts. Something changes in these cases, and in order to begin anew, to indicate a recognition of ethical failure, an apology should be given. An apology does not obliterate a wrong. It is because acts cannot be recalled that we apologise. Ethical failure is a blow that harms perpetrator and victim alike. An apology establishes a pact of recognition, remorse and perhaps reconciliation so that even life’s evils are not wasted. This is recognised in the variety of apologies that governments have made in recent years. Some are for incidents remote from the present, as in the Vatican’s apologies for the Crusades, the Inquisition, the persecution of Protestants and the treatment of Galileo; or the Portuguese government’s apology for its conduct towards Jews in the fifteenth-century. Other official apologies, such as those of Indonesia to the East Timorese or of Hungary to gypsy students, are directed to injured parties in the present. For the majority of citizens to refuse an apology to a clearly wronged minority is uncivil, especially when this wrong is perpetrated because of membership of this minority group. Such a refusal creates a permanent opposition, does nothing to establish a reformed basis for interaction, encourages continual litigation, brings into question the motives of the majority, suggests that excuses have to be fabricated in order to conceal the legacy of history and undermines any genuine reconciliation. It is a denial of justice. It is bad manners and poor ethics. All of this is uncivil.

Now imagine how it might be for an Aboriginal Australian to be confronted with an argument about an official apology from the Federal Government. Every opportunity for an apology has been avoided. An apology would not have transformed sub-standard living conditions, but it would have been a mark of recognition, respect and reconciliation. This trio is lexical: recognition comes before respect and reconciliation. The failure to apologise and the subsequent equivocations of the Howard Government are, in the first place, a failure of recognition. Reconciliation cannot follow. In effect the government and specifically Mr Howard as prime minister, have said to Aborigines, ‘I do not see in you goods that I can identify as goods for me. I cannot see aspects of me reflected in you. I cannot find a basis for friendship with you. I cannot give you an apology’. This refusal has had far more impact than the making of a simple apology, and the implications for reconciliation, for civility in Australia are profound.

It is understandable that critics of the Prime Minister, such as the late Charles Perkins, should declare that ‘He’s got no compassion, no sympathy for Aboriginal people’ and that he had ‘blown reconciliation out of the water’.[7] The words, ‘compassion’ and ‘sympathy’ recognise the implicit message in the government’s refusal to apologise: the want not just of shared conceptions of good between the government and its Aboriginal citizens, but the absence of care for indigenous people in the framing and administration of policy. An injured party has a right to an apology. An apology might well not make either party feel better about the injury, but that is not the point. Apologies are made because the wronged party has a right to them. It is important to found an apology on justice. Then it can be the basis for addressing feelings of resentment and anger, which are not always primary but should not be discounted.[8]

The government might reply that it has presented an official statement of regret in its Motion of Reconciliation, put to the House of Representatives in August 1999. This would be a reasonable response in one sense, for this motion was an apology in all but name. That, however, is also what is so objectionable about it. The motion is wrought in evasive and often odd language. It acknowledged ‘that the mistreatment of many indigenous Australians over a significant period represents the most blemished chapter in our international history’, and expressed ‘its deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices’.[9] By the time the Prime Minister put the motion, however, the issue of an apology had changed in character. The question was not whether this expression of regret was an acceptable, but why Mr Howard denied that his motion was an apology. Why did he contest that an acknowledgment of wrong doing and expression of regret was an apology? What was he holding back? Why did he appear to apologise but claim that his lips had not moved?[10] No sincerely offered apology will smell as sweet by another name.

As was only to be expected, the motion was searched for ‘apology’ to no avail. Moreover, the Prime Minister’s speech gave with one hand while taking with the other. He made it clear that the motion was not all that some people would want and was more than others would willingly concede. The Prime Minister was clearly sending a message that the Government was serious about reconciliation, but the effect of his speech was to weaken those aspects of the motion that would otherwise appear to be an apology to Aboriginal peoples. When he speaks of the great achievements of Australians, Mr Howard seems unconsciously to mean the successes of the past two hundred years, not the accomplishments of over forty thousand years. History still seems to be what happened after white arrival, and this says yet again to indigenous peoples, ‘I do not care. I cannot see in your culture the goods I celebrate in mine’.

By contrast another John Howard, a prominent actor, made a simple, truthful and sincere apology to Aboriginal Australians in the television comedy, The Games. In a speech much shorter than the Prime Minister’s, he managed to say many of the same things, and to name the wrongs inflicted on Aborigines (see Appendix for the text of this speech). He did not blame contemporary Australians for the suffering of generations of indigenous peoples, but nor did he avoid the central issue that two hundred years of European settlement had destroyed forty thousand years of traditional possession.

This speech captured the possibility of a public apology in terms that John Rawls has called the ‘duty of civility’. This duty is the moral duty of a democratic citizen to be able to explain to other citizens, ‘how the principles and policies they advocate and vote for can be supported by the political values of public reason’. Merely taking notice of polls or deciding policy by majority vote does not make a decision democratic. Public reason is aimed at the good of the political whole, and is the reason that prevails among free equals willing to defend the fundamental principles of justice. Democracy according to this ideal is more than a legal requirement: it involves a moral dimension, not least a willingness to listen to the views of other citizens.[11] The apology of John Howard the actor seems to embody exactly this quality of civility and democracy. It does not ask forgiveness because it is not a transactional document. It gives what is required of right without any expectation of a return. It is unconditional as an apology must be. It is a pragmatic refutation of the Prime Minister’s argument that the present generation cannot apologise for wrongs they did not commit, and that a national apology is therefore inappropriate. For this speech, unlike the Prime Minister’s, speaks from an assumption of common humanity to the impairment of comity and civility resulting from the mistreatment of Aborigines. The hesitations, equivocations, and strategic code of the Prime Minister’s speech are absent. John Howard’s simple and short address means what it says.

Despite the sentiments of the Motion of Reconciliation, Prime Minister Howard has not been ardent for reconciliation. A theme in his speeches echoes the refrain of Geoffrey Blainey that Australia should be proud of its wonderful achievements, which are indeed to be admired. Yet, this is an irrelevance unless achievement in one domain is taken to obliterate failures in another. And so Mr Howard finds in the achievement of the Sydney Olympics confirmation that his judgement about reconciliation is correct: ‘Our reaction to Cathy Freeman’s lighting of the cauldron and magnificent win in the 400m demonstrated that we are more reconciled than some would lead us to believe’.[12] While the Prime Minister should not feign an apology, there is something more to be added, namely that he is not entirely his own person. He lends himself, as it were, to the office and the nation. His office restricts his ability to voice his own views as and when he pleases, and sometimes requires him to take positions that he would not espouse as a private individual but which advance the interests of the nation. In all of this, justice should guide him. This is difficult but not impossible in public office. Doing the just thing does not always win the approval of those who drive polls.[13] But moral leadership comes with the office, and it should not be exercised for personal or party advantage at the expense of citizens. The moral ugliness of the Bjelke-Petersen regime in Queensland is testimony to the truth of this. For too many holders of public office today the message has not sunk in. Prime Minister Howard should be wiser. As the political leader of the country, he will be held to a higher standard than ordinary mortals. This is the price of incumbency.

Only the Prime Minister can apologise for the Australian political community. Mr Howard’s personal reluctance to do so should not be fatal: ironically, he has apologised personally but will not do so as Prime Minister. Mr Howard’s motives are not the issue: he should not apologise personally but on behalf of the nation. Mr Howard did not do anything to Aborigines for which he has to make a public apology, but this is not a personal apology, either from Mr Howard or to individual Aborigines. The question is whether a national apology is a matter of right for the injured party, and in the case of Aborigines, it is. Notice that it is as political leader that he should apologise. The Prime Minister’s position is that Australians have nothing to apologise for because the present generation did not perpetrate crimes against Aborigines. The Prime Minister’s understanding of an apology is utterly personal. He does not understand the notion of institutional apologies. For him, forgiveness is integral to an apology, and if you have nothing to ask forgiveness for, then there is no point in an apology. Given the thin moral personalities of artificial persons, and given that it is against groups qua groups that they are unjust, the notion of direct and personal responsibility does not make sense. The matters of deliberate policy, ignorance and inadvertence in the treatment of indigenous peoples are matters of government in the past and for the future. In failing to grasp what is a matter of right and for the common good in this matter, Prime Minister Howard has missed an opportunity to lead.

One of the strongest arguments of Prime Minister Howard is that his government and this generation of Australians are not responsible for the wrongs committed against Aborigines. Of course, he is largely correct in this. Many of today’s citizens came from other lands or are the children of migrants and have nothing to do with the imposition of injustices on Aborigines. So in an institutional and social sense, the Prime Minister might well feel justified in not issuing an apology on behalf of Australia. He might have gone further and argued that the Australian States and the Northern Territory had control of Aboriginal affairs until 1967, and that most of them have acknowledged their part in the destruction of Aboriginal societies and apologised. Should, then, the Australian Government apologise for the actions of others? Mr Howard, his ministry and some eminent scholars, such as Professor Geoffrey Blainey, believe not. Might not those Australians seeking an apology wish to relieve the burden of guilt and shame arising from the revelation of the appalling injustices done to Aborigines by having the government apologise for things that cannot be undone?

There can be no debate about the atrocities visited on Aborigines. They happened. Government policy was shaped by enthusiasts of eugenics, such as A.O. Neville, Commissioner of Native Affairs in Western Australia or Cecil Cook, Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory.[14] These are historical facts. The question is, what should be the contemporary response to them? This is also a question that has reverberated in Germany since the Second World War. A recent response by Professor Hubert Markl, President of the Max Planck Society (MPS), is similar to that of the Australian Prime Minister. He has refused to apologise for the inhuman conduct of some members of his organisation (then the Kaiser Wilhelm Society) during the Nazi era. His reasoning is that one should not attempt to apologise for those who showed no remorse in life and who would probably not regret their actions if they were alive today. ‘It is not within the moral authority of those who did not directly take part [in Nazi experiments on humans] to ask forgiveness for unforgivable crimes on behalf of others,’ he argues. Markl sees apologies of this kind as hollow and trivialising, and too easy to give. They do more for those making them than for those to whom they are directed. Hence, they devalue the suffering of the victims and their surviving relatives.[15]

Markl’s use of the word, ‘unforgivable’ is interesting: in seeking to deflect demands for an apology he uses the term emotively. An apology does not expunge a crime, reduce its enormity or diminish responsibility for it. The magnitude of experiments on human beings calls forth the rhetoric of unforgivableness, but if one took that literally, then the remorse of the perpetrators would have no value. The distress of survivors of Nazi horrors is at least partly caused by their devaluation as human beings. If there is any restorative justice to be had in such cases of moral extremity, then it will be in the acknowledgment by the perpetrator of the gravity of the crime and a show of remorse. An apology is just this: an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, an expression of remorse, and a request for forgiveness. Far from it being the case that apologies by proxy are too easy and devalue the suffering of victims, the opposite is the case. Apologies are ethically enlarging. They amplify our humanity, extend our capability to respond to others. Ironically, the Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has modelled this ethical response for Australia. ‘I have to take responsibility for the terrible situation we are in in Cape York,’ he has said.[16] He has not caused the problems in Cape York, but he has embraced them as his legacy. Avoiding such responsibilities diminishes us; accepting them enlarges our humanity. We owe it to others as a matter of justice to apologise; and we owe it to ourselves to be the kind of people capable of doing so.

Still, there remains a problem with this analysis, and it lies in the nature of the perpetrator and the difference between natural and artificial persons. Because they are artificial persons, organisations are without the emotional repertoire necessary for the acquisition of virtues and vices. In brief, they cannot care. As legal not natural constructions, organisations can have rights and duties, but not the life of virtues and vices.[17] This seems to disqualify organisations, let alone nation states, from making genuine apologies – pace the apologies offered from the US, the Vatican, Germany, Argentina and a host of other states.

A response to this objection is that it is precisely because of the thin moral personality of artificial persons, like business organisations or states, that they are able to apologise meaningfully. A natural person apologises for a personal wrong; an artificial person apologises for an institutional wrong. An apology from an organisation does not entail sorrow, even if individuals within it do feel sorrow. Consider an analogy. If one were enfeebled or incapacitated in a major way, it would be reasonable to place one’s affairs in the hands of an attorney. The attorney would then assume one’s legal powers and exercise them in one’s stead for one’s good. Prime Minister Howard is now essentially in the position of acting for a morally incapable predecessor. Previous generations and governments in Australia were morally deficient. Even today, some might well refuse to acknowledge the wrongfulness of their actions or to ask for forgiveness. But the Prime Minister and the Government are not deficient in that respect. They can act as the rightful exercisers of moral authority here, and they ought to do so precisely on the ground that their predecessors were morally deficient and incapacitated thereby from understanding the need for an apology. A cascade of representation from the past to the present is possible here precisely because of our legal conceptions of artificial persons.

Hereditary guilt has been a cause of difficulty in coming to terms with the dispossession, killing, abduction, torture and neglect of Aborigines. These things have been a hidden or at least a shadowy part of Australian history. In seeking to understand the Holocaust, Daniel Goldhagen questions blanket notions of collective responsibility.[18] His strategy is to identify perpetrators of atrocities and to sheet home responsibility to those persons. If he is correct in this, then Markl and Howard have a point in refusing to apologise for collective guilt and even more of a point in rejecting hereditary guilt (though neither seems averse to celebrations of the glories of Nobel prizes or sporting championships under a collective identity). What is at stake in the Australian context is not the identification of perpetrators, most of whom are long dead, but the recognition of two things: the failure of white settlers to recognise the good of Aboriginal life and culture; and the translation of that failure into unjust and oppressive policy, mainly at state and territory level. As Al Capp once wrote, ‘We have met the enemy and he is us’. Recognition, not hereditary or collective guilt is the issue - unless Australia now fails to assume its collective responsibility.

Grounds for apologising

It is not necessary to test every claim of injustice to Aborigines in order to justify an apology. Historians who write about Aborigines will differ on a range of issues and I do not wish to dismiss their debates as unimportant.[19] But there is enough uncontested history to justify an apology, and, enough evidence of good intentions gone astray to constitute an a fortiori case. For even when white Australians acted from good motives, as did Peter Howson, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Gorton and McMahon governments, and even when Aborigines benefited from the interventions, there remains something to apologise for. Indeed, it might well fall to our children to apologise on our behalf for administering a ‘passive welfare’ regime that, if Noel Pearson is correct, has kept Aborigines from exercising their autonomy and dealing with their problems.[20] Yet no one today would suggest that the motives of those who have supported that welfare regime were racist let alone eliminationist. This kind of ‘moral remainder’ is called dirty hands.

The problem of dirty hands arises from doing what is necessary, even morally necessary, in a particular role. Dirty hands is usually discussed in political contexts and has its classic expression in Machiavelli's The Prince. Bernard Williams has argued that in public life, particularly in politics, sometimes the ‘right’ thing is not the moral thing to do, and that sometimes there is a ‘morally disagreeable remainder’ even after one has done the right thing.[21] Dirty hands are not confined to politics: they are inescapable in life. A barrister avoids questioning her clients too closely about their guilt; a priest hears the confession of a child abuser and will not notify the authorities despite a risk that this person will reoffend; a journalist will not reveal her sources although this would help the police; a general will send soldiers to capture a position knowing that casualties will be high. None of the actors here has done the wrong thing, but there is still something to be apologetic about. Despite the moral defensibility of the reasons invoked by the barrister, priest, journalist and general, there remains a ‘morally disagreeable remainder’.

Even when white administrators and charities did what they thought was the right thing for the people involved, they also did things that were wrong. The forcible removal of children from their mothers, even when the motives were not overtly racist, is one such act. In the action brought by Lorna Cubillo and Peter Gunner against the Commonwealth, Justice O’Loughlin decided that the plaintiffs had failed to show that the government had not acted in their best interests under the law as it stood at the time of their removal. In Gunner’s case, Justice O’Loughlin found that his mother’s thumbprint on a document constituted consent to his removal. The judge clearly sympathised personally with the plaintiffs, and said that he believed their testimony of abuse and suffering.[22] Removal in the best interests of the child had terrible consequences, and legal action seems to add yet more links to the chain of harms. Legal decisions inevitably impact on the moral responsibility of the government and its agents. Justice in the narrower legal sense comes to be conflated with justice more generally understood as ethical obligation. Hence, after Justice O’Loughlin’s decision, Senator Herron, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, stated that the Government’s refusal to apologise to the stolen generations was ‘absolutely correct’.[23] Mr Gunner’s solicitor saw the matter differently: ‘The reasoning in the judgement does not diminish the powerful and emotional evidence of the trial, evidence that is Australian history, a history of great cruelty to Aboriginal people’.[24] The minister’s position is in marked contrast with that of his Canadian counterpart, who has recently faced similar issues. The minister acknowledged the role of the Canadian Government in separating children from their parents and cultures and in exposing them to sexual and physical abuse, and apologised to the victims for this: ‘To those of you who suffered this tragedy at residential schools, we are deeply sorry ...’. This apology is significant, as is the fund established to compensate victims of abuse, but Canada shares with Australia the refusal of the prime minister to apologise.[25]


Such refusals simultaneously make too little and too much of an apology. The Australian Government has overstated the complexity of an apology, magnified the legal ramifications and disclaimed its authority in the matter. Resistance to demands for an apology, has inflated the issue, as though all depends on it. Why has this issue become inflated? The answer lies not in an apology itself, but in what it stands for. The Government has made too little of what an apology signifies; of the bonds of comity; of the shared intangible goods that justice, rights and the fair sharing of wealth are founded upon. The unjust treatment meted out to Aborigines over generations, not only by individuals but by governments – well intentioned or otherwise – could only have occurred in a context which denied their humanity. Their ambiguous status as citizens, as members of the armed forces, as working men and women proclaimed this. An apology is an opportunity to recognise this past inhumanity and to affirm that indigenous Australians are indeed part of us. This message of belonging, of recognising ourselves reflected in the goods of different people, has been sent to ethnic groups through policies of multiculturalism. It was the message sent to the touring West Indian cricket team in 1961, when half a million people lined the streets of Melbourne to farewell them, and demonstrate that although the white Australia policy was on the books it was not in their hearts.

The Prime Minister is right to be proud of this country’s achievements. And he is right to refer to reconciliation as a priority as the nation celebrates the centenary of Federation. If the federation of Australia means anything in terms of common identity, it means assuming at the Federal level the responsibility to address over two hundred years of uncivil relations with indigenous peoples. An apology would go a long way to restoring with them the common bonds of Aristotelian friendship and civility, but a continued refusal will further politicise the issue and harm reconciliation. John Howard the actor demonstrated how it is be done. It is still not too late for his namesake to do it.


Apology made by John Howard on the 3rd of July on National TV

Any other John Howard who wishes to make this announcement should apply for copyright permission here, which will be granted immediately.

Good evening. My name is John Howard and I'm speaking to you from Sydney, Australia, host city of the year 2000 Olympic Games.

At this important time, and in an atmosphere of international goodwill and national pride, we here in Australia - all of us - would like to make a statement before all nations. Australia, like many countries in the new world, is intensely proud of what it has achieved in the past 200 years.

We are a vibrant and resourceful people. We share a freedom born in the abundance of nature, the richness of the earth, the bounty of the sea. We are the world's biggest island. We have the world's longest coastline. We have more animal species than any other country. Two thirds of the world's birds are native to Australia. We are one of the few countries on earth with our own sky. We are a fabric woven of many colours and it is this that gives us our strength.

However, these achievements have come at great cost. We have been here for 200 years but before that, there was a people living here. For 40,000 years they lived in a perfect balance with the land. There were many Aboriginal nations, just as there were many Indian nations in North America and across Canada, as there were many Maori tribes in New Zealand and Incan and Mayan peoples in South America. These indigenous Australians lived in areas as different from one another as Scotland is from Ethiopia. They lived in an area the size of Western Europe. They did not even have a common language. Yet they had their own laws, their own beliefs, their own ways of understanding.

We destroyed this world. We often did not mean to do it. Our forebears, fighting to establish themselves in what they saw as a harsh environment, were creating a national economy. But the Aboriginal world was decimated. A pattern of disease and dispossession was established. Alcohol was introduced. Social and racial differences were allowed to become fault-lines. Aboriginal families were broken up. Sadly, Aboriginal health and education are responsibilities we have still yet to address successfully.

I speak for all Australians in expressing a profound sorrow to the Aboriginal people. I am sorry. We are sorry. Let the world know and understand, that it is with this sorrow, that we as a nation will grow and seek a better, a fairer and a wiser future. Thank you. John Howard, July 3, 2000[26]

© 2000 Australian Broadcasting Corporation

[*] Please supply biographical detail for this footnote

[1] Shils E ‘Civility and Civil Society: Good Manners Between Persons and Concern for the Common Good in Public Affairs’ in S Grosby (ed) The Virtue of Civility (Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 1997) pp 71-4.

[2] For an interesting argument that connects good manners with the moral duty to acknowledging the dignity of others see Buss S ‘Appearing Respectful: The Moral Significance of Manners’ (1999) 109 Ethics 795

[3] Aristotle. R Crisp (ed and trans) Nicomachean Ethics (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000) p 1166a.

[4] Cf MacIntyre A After Virtue University of Notre (Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1981) pp 146-8.

[5] See Ewin R Co-operation and Human Values (Harvester, Brighton, 1981).

[6] Cf MacIntyre, above note 4, p 146.

[7] Grattan M and Metherell M ‘Howard worst prime minister ever: Perkins’ The Sydney Morning Herald 22 May 2000 p 2.

[8] For an argument that emotional acknowledgment is integral to the understanding of certain events see Rai Gaita’s discussion of the judgements of Justices Deane and Gaudron in Mabo in Gaita R A Common Humanity Text Publishing, Melbourne 1999 pp 88-92; cf pp 101, 105.

[9] All references to the Motion of Reconciliation are based on ‘Transcript of the Prime Minister The Hon. John Howard MP, Motion of Reconciliation’,

[10] The Prime Minister spoke of indigenous leaders having ‘come halfway. They have recognised that, in order, to move forward, there has to be an understanding of some of the concerns and some of the reservations that were genuinely felt by people in the Australian community on this issue and which prevented them, and continue to prevent them, from embracing, in quite the terms that were asked for several years ago, the sort of reaction and the sort of formal national responses that were called for then and may still be called for today ...’ This is Prime Ministerial code for refusing to apologise.

[11] Rawls J Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, New York, 1993) pp 212-18.

[12] Howard J ‘We must build on Sydney spirit’ The Australian 25 October 2000 p 11.

[13] According to an Australian Newspoll, most Australians do not support an official apology to Aborigines but do favour reconciliation: Shanahan D ‘Majority oppose apology to Aborigines’ The Australian 7 June 2000. PAGE

[14] MacIntyre, above note 8 pp 122-3.

[15] See the editorial in Nature 24 February 2000: ‘Hollow apologies should be avoided’ p 813. See also letters from Wirsing B ‘Not too late to apologize’ Nature 16 March 2000 p 222; and Grace D and Carmody J ‘We have moral authority to apologize for the past’ Nature 1 June 2000 p 508.

[16] Quoted in Jopson D ‘Pearson says bureaucracies perpetuate welfare dependency’ The Sydney Morning Herald 2 October 2000 p 3.

[17] This view of the organisation has been hotly contested by some philosophers who have tried to find in it analogies to human sentience and action. Hence, organisations are supposed to have a mode of practical reasoning and therefore conscience because they have a rational decision making process. I do not wish to enter into this debate here because my argument does not require it.

[18] Goldhagen D Hitler’s Willing Executioners (Abacus, London, 1997).

[19] In August 2000, Mr Peter Howson presented a submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee’s inquiry into the stolen generations. In part of his submission, Howson claimed that during his period of office, ‘only a handful of children were removed from their families each year for reasons of child neglect or clan exclusion’. This contrasts with evidence contained in the report. Sheehan P ‘Stolen generations report a “disgrace”’ Sydney Morning Herald 19 August 2000 p 10. The most recent historical debate centres on the journal, Quadrant, and particularly a revisionist article that appeared in it by Windschuttle K ‘The Break-Up of Australia’ Quadrant September 2000 pp 8-16. Cf Blackford R ‘The Inward Journey of Raimond Gaita’ in the same issue.

[20] Jopson D, above note 16 and Saunders M ‘Shake-up looming for black affairs’ The Australian 25 October 2000 p 4.

[21] Williams B ‘Politics and Moral Character’ in S Hampshire (ed) Public and Private Morality (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1978) pp 55-74.

[22] AUTHOR? ‘Personal histories at the core’ The Weekend Australian August 12-13 2000 p 6

[23] Saunders M ‘Herron rules out claims tribunal’ The Weekend Australian August 12-13 2000 p 7.

[24] Toohey P and Saunders M ‘Stolen children cases fail’ The Weekend Australian August 12-13 2000 p 1.

[25] Wright S ‘Reconciliation: a lot to learn’ Sydney Morning Herald 22 May 2000 p 19.

[26] ‘Apology made by John Howard on the 3rd of July on National TV’ The Games Australian Broadcasting Commission:

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