Those two little words

by Beth Spencer

© all rights reserved

Walking around Jubilee Lake at Daylesford the other day, a friend was telling me about Baron Von Mueller. The story goes that in the nineteenth century the Baron, a keen gardener, wandered up and down the creeks and rivers of Victoria throwing blackberries onto the banks, hoping they’d sprout and take root so there’d always be refreshment for weary travellers.

“What a sad story. Wouldn’t he be sorry now,”  I said, as we walked past eight feet high banks of blackberries that extended way up the hill beside us and into the forest.

“He meant well,” she said.

“All the more reason,” I said, “that he’d be sorry.”


“If I’d only known…”

I can’t buy the argument used by John Howard, John Herron and their supporters that an official apology to the Stolen Generations is inappropriate because the intentions of those who took Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children away from their parents were to do good.

To do good for whom?

If they really did have the children’s welfare at heart, if they genuinely did mean to help Aboriginal people, then surely reading the Bringing Them Homereport should leaved them appalled and abject.

Like the Baron Von Mueller of my imagination, hearing the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people speaking of the immense pain and suffering directly caused by these actions, and still reverberating across the generations, I would have thought that anyone with good intentions would not only be apologising, but asking: what can I do now to help repair some of the damage? Tell me how I can help.

“I am so sorry that we didn’t listen to you, consult with you, respect you. Can you forgive me? Is it too late to talk now?”

The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, John Herron, is dismissive of the term “Stolen Generations” because by his calculations only one in ten Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children were removed from their families.  I think this gives a clue to the root of his problem: that he has no imagination.

Empathy for another’s suffering, even when that person is different from oneself (and thus what distinguishes empathy from sympathy) is dependant on a healthy imagination. An ability to imagine the pain and suffering the other is experiencing. And an ability to really listen, even when what the other tells you contradicts and challenges your own beliefs about yourself and the world.

Imagine the street you grew up in, or the country town, or the school you went to…

Imagine the authorities regularly coming to your school, or your street, and for no reason that you could see (except perhaps skin colour or religious beliefs), imagine them taking away a child or several children. You didn’t know when these government officials were going to turn up. You never saw those children again. You saw the parents weeping and trying to hold the child back, but the authorities brought the police, and instead of stopping them from taking the children, the police actually helped them to do it.  Your parents and the townspeople know no-one they can protest to, no-one who will listen.  You just have to go on with life after each raid, even if it was your brother or sister or your cousin who was taken. And you never know when your turn might come.

Sorry means: “If I’d known then what I know now, I would never have done it, never have condoned it, never have allowed it to occur without protest…”

If Baron Von Mueller was like Herron and many others in the current government, I guess if we met him on that walk he’d say, “Well, I only planted a few seeds, and it was a long time ago. I didn’t plant these particular blackberries. And I didn’t plant this many.

“Anyway,” he might add, “you should be thanking me, because I meant well, and without me you would never have tasted blackberry jam.”

But of course the difference is that Baron Von Mueller didn’t stand to gain anything personally, or politically, from spreading the blackberries along the creeks and rivers…


So why can’t, or won’t, John Howard apologise on behalf of the nation?

I think there are two reasons.

The first has to do with why I never once heard my father say sorry for anything. And why I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Deborah Tannen, in her book Talking from Nine to Five, explains how many men see relationships of any sort as a competition, a struggle for leadership or supremacy. And if you aren’t the one “up” in an exchange, then you are inevitably the one “down.”

This seems to be particularly true for many men of my father’s generation. In this way of thinking, to say sorry is to put yourself immediately in the one down position, to give power to the other: a tactical error, an admission of weakness. It’s to bow down symbolically, submit, hand over your sword. Like a child submitting to an adult. A kind of political or relationship hari-kari. A totally last ditch thing — something to avoid doing at all costs.

In this sense I think Howard probably believes that he is being a strong leader in refusing to give an official apology: refusing to put “White Australia” and all that it stands for, in a “one-down” position with Aboriginal Australians.

Just as my father was unable to see that maybe he was the one prolonging the argument, not my mother (“Can’t she just forget about it?”), by his refusal to say those two little words that would have meant so very much to her. I think if he had’ve said it, he would have been amazed at her response. Not the dreaded “Oh no, now I’ll never hear the end of it,” but a chance instead, at last, to move into a discussion, as equals, rather than the interminable cold war that was their marriage. I think it is enormously sad that he couldn’t, even at the end of his life, utter those words. That he didn’t give himself the opportunity to find out what would have happened.

For what Howard seems unable to consider is that there might be a different way of thinking about relationships and politics: with the possibility of a partnership of mutual respect. And that to apologise is not to weaken one’s position in this dynamic, but to strengthen it, consolidate it, to gain respect and trust.

It would seem that Howard can only imagine a win-lose kind of world, and win-lose kind of politics and economics and development. As such he would rather stay at a position of stale-mate than to lose. But it would seem that what Aboriginal Australians are trying to explore here is a win-win politics.

This is what we are being offered. And this is what Howard is continually refusing on our behalf.

Howard also doesn’t appear to understand the difference between guilt and shame.

He seems to feel that as long as we refuse to acknowledge that as a nation we have done anything wrong, then we can stay feeling good about ourselves; feel powerful; be in charge. As a good leader, this is what he’s trying to maintain.

Gershen Kaufman in his book Shame, says: “Shame differs greatly from the feeling of guilt. Guilt says I’ve done something wrong; shame says there is something wrong with me. Guilt says I’ve made a mistake; shame says I am a mistake. Guilt says what I did was not good; shame says I am no good.”

I would rather belong to a nation that is prepared to accept guilt, and to work to repair what can be repaired, than to live in shame, which is what the Howard government continues to force on us.

The shame doesn’t go away because you refuse to acknowledge guilt. What happens is that it stays there, gets buried deeply, and the more you deny it the more it stops you evolving and moving ahead. A poison that retards growth.

And then we end up resenting and feeling angry at those we feel are responsible for this feeling of shame. Anger at those we have hurt, and to whom we refuse to apologise, simply because they continue to exist and remind us of our shame.

I’ve heard people apologise for men like my father, saying that because it’s not in their nature to say the words, we just have to accept that they are sorry without needing them to say it… That we should tolerate this in them. “Of course he really does feel sorry…”

If you can’t say the words, how are we to believe that you feel it?

And if you never act sorry…

You see, when it comes down to, I think the main reason Howard and Herron will not apologise is simply because in political terms they are not sorry for the policies of past governments, just as they are not sorry for the policies of their own government.

They may be sorry that individual people suffered , and be prepared to express regret for that suffering; but not regret the resulting fundamental and widespread weakening of the Aboriginal nation as a political, economic, cultural and social force.

In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that this Government, far from being sorry, is actually glad it happened, is pleased with the outcome.  Perhaps even relieved it happened back when it was possible to cloak genocidal policies in the mantle of religion and good intentions; paving the way for the enactment of their own destructive policies under the guise of good economics or good management.

For if to say I’m sorry, and mean it, is also to say: “I wish it had never happened. If I had known then what I know now… I wish I could turn back the clocks and do it differently…”Then it’s a bit ludicrous after all to ask the Howard government to apologise for land theft, arrogance and paternalism by people and official bodies in the past, when one of the biggest official land grabs has been set in train since they came to power.

For if Howard were truly sorry, he would be motivated to reverse the Ten Point Plan (the “Wik” legislation) enacted amid great controversy less than two years ago. And he certainly shows no indication that he’s about to do that.


To say sorry is to say: I no longer believe that my culture knows best in all things; I want to listen to you now, to learn about your culture, and how we might do better together in the future.

What advice do you offer to someone in a relationship with another who has repeatedly abused them, shown them little respect and who, even after much counselling from some of the top people in the field, refuses to say sorry, to act sorry?

Well what can you say?: give it up. You can’t change them. Either sever relations with them or if you cannot do that, keep your relations to a bare necessity. And don’t trust them.

This seems to be the position that Pat Dodson finally came to. His refusal earlier in the year to continue to try to negotiate with Howard had the symbolic significance of someone walking away from a relationship that is full of dishonesty and abuse. Clearing a necessary space for something new to arise.

The Council for Reconciliation, on the other hand, stayed within the battle zone, but they too came to a similar position in the end. For when a leader consistently fails to offer good leadership, then you have no choice but to ignore him, to take your lead from somewhere else.

As such, when the Council insisted on no more changes to their wording of the document handed over to political representatives on Sunday May 28th at the Corroboree 2000 Walk in Sydney, they were taking their lead instead from within the community of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. As are those organising the Melbourne chapter of the National Reconciliation Walks, due to be held on Sunday December 3rd, 2000, as the last major public movement towards reconciliation before the Reconciliation Council ceases to function.

Or as the I-Ching has it: when there is a boulder in your path, you don’t always have to put your shoulder to it; sometimes it’s better just to go around it.
Beth Spencer’s first book of fiction,How to Conceive of a Girl, was published by Random House in 1996 and was runner-up for the Steele Rudd Award. She is currently working on a novel. “Those two little words” will be broadcast on ABC Radio National’sRadio Eye later this year. This essay was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.

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