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01 December 2004




Sorry (sorta)

So I’m watching an episode of John Saffran vs. God.

Apparently many houses in Melbourne have a plaque on the front to “recognise the [I forget] people as the original owners of this land.” In his show, Saffran takes some aboriginal folk around to one of the home to have a chat with the residents. Hilarity ensues.

“Seeing as this is our land, can we come in and stay for … maybe a few months?”

“Umm, well I dunno…”

“We can make you some dot paintings!”

After a bit of negotiation they got to come in for a cup of tea.

It makes an interesting point: even amongst lefties there’s not a lot of talk about just how far we would go, and how much we would give up personally, in order to Make Things Right. Me, I’m not sure I’d want any group of people I didn’t know well (aboriginal or not) staying in my house for an extended period.

Saffran goes on to introduce the term “Sorry (sorta)” as what we, as progressive white Australians, really mean when we talk about apologising for past injustices. We’re often genuinely sorry, but not really all that willing to actually change as a result. Maybe offer a cup of tea, but that’s it.

I’ve heard it said that apologising is the first step to reconciliation between black and white Australia. Much was made back in 1999 over the semantics of “sorry” versus “regret”. I don’t dispute the importance of a formal apology, but surely there are bigger fish to fry. As Spike puts it:

You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. It's what Caesar did, and he's not going around saying, "I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it." [...] You exterminated [their] race. What could you possibly say that would make [them] feel better?

Instead of hand-wringing over how exactly to apologise for the inexcusable, surely we should instead apply the principle of Primum non nocere. Let’s stop making things worse, start making things better, and then worry about how sorry we all are. White Australia needs to consider exactly how serious it is about righting past wrongs, and demonstrate something tangible to aboriginal Australia instead of arguing over words.

Tea, anyone?