Public First Program


Shane Elson


email Shane

+61-3-5952 5780

+61-4-1349 7828

Feb 2008 # 2

(Right Click here to download Audio - MP3)

Back to Editorials 2008

Sorry is Hard to Say

They say saying sorry is the hardest thing to do. So, are you sorry? Really, truly sorry? That seems to be a key question in the big house in Canberra this week. The other key question seems to be, why should I feel sorry? Perhaps I’ll start with the latter first. 

Being born in the late 50s meant that by the time I grew into some form of understanding my community was still firmly of the view that the First Australians were inferior in many ways. I can’t recall anyone actually coming out and saying this to my young face, but I picked it up. 

I recall a boy who I befriended at primary school. We played about in the yard at recess and lunch times and we shared some common friends. Occasionally I would go to his house after school to play – usually because he lived near my other friends. 

At some stage, and I cant recall the exact details, it emerged that his family had an Indigenous background. As I said I can’t recall the details but I do recall all of us kids sitting around trying to work out if he was an quadroon, a septroon, an octoroon or whatever. I don’t think it really mattered but what I do recall was that he had something we didn’t and as young boys, jealousy rose and eventually divided us. Or at least that’s what I thought. 

I think what drove us apart was something far more subtle and devastating. Racism.

What precipitated our breakdown was that the local school was required to register all children who were of Indigenous descent. In Tasmania in the 1960’s race was (and I would argue still is) an important factor in ones life chances. How news leaked out – perhaps office staff or some nosey parent – is still a mystery. When it did get out our friendship was never the same. 

While I did continue to hang out with him into my teens, I must admit there was always uneasiness between us. Eventually we had a bust up over something and went our separate ways – as teenage mates sometimes do. 

The latent racism that infected my relationship with someone I was, at one time, close to, remains around me. It emerges from time to time in the most extraordinary ways. Like the time a much older man, for whom I held great respect, made a comment about the “coons” in town. I thought I misheard him referring to a family or someone I didn’t know so I asked him to repeat the name. Then it all came bellowing up. A stream of racist vitriol that still shocks me when I think about it. 

There was a child support worker, employed to assist families in need, who once confessed to me that she very rarely made recommendations to follow up on Indigenous families she was attending to because they “went walk about” and would waste her time. She was busy and there were other “people” more in need than “those” families. 

Last Wednesday we saw in our parliament the empty chairs of those whose racism is not disguised. John Howard, by his refusal to attend, demonstrated in no uncertain terms his contempt for a people he obviously views as being beneath him. While some pollies might of had legitimate excuses for not being there, the news reports of comments made by many others reveals to us that, for them, saying sorry is an act they too deem beneath them. 

So what are we to make of Rudd’s speech? Well, it wasn’t a great or even particularly good piece of oratory. It was obviously written by a committee, fine tuned by bureaucrats worried about the legal implications and delivered by a former toe cutter in the Goss, Queensland government. While some of the words were fine, they were delivered without real emotion or engagement. 

In short, Kev attempted to short circuit a number of potential problems his government will have. While he might have good intentions, he should pay heed to the comments made on the ABC by Anthony Albonese. Albonese said that the transition from the Howard government to the Rudd government was incredibly smooth. I wonder why? Possibly because there are really few differences below the surface. Saying sorry is one thing. Acting in a way that demonstrates true remorse and an attempt at rehabilitation is another.  

It’s been said that you can’t tell what goes on in a person’s heart. You can only find out who they are by watching what they do. So while Rudd has said he is sorry on behalf of former governments and parliaments of Australia, the question is, what is he and his government going to do? Will they do more than change the name of the occupation and martial law imposed in some remote communities? Will they really put more money into Indigenous health and education projects? Will they truly demonstrate their regret and sorrow by doing now what they say other governments have neglected? 

I am reminded of the hype and pageantry that surrounded Tony Blair’s election in Britain. He broke the back of the conservative rule but within two years was continuing the same policies – very similar to what Bracks and now Brumby are doing in Victoria. Blair’s words, speeches and declarations were delivered with sincerity and no doubt, good intentions. But then he too had to return to the real politic he was engaged with. 

The tears we saw flow from the eyes of Australians of all ages and races as Rudd delivered his speech were real. They were as intense and deep as the sobs that came from some in the crowds. The challenge for the government, should it really want to be remembered for something, will be to turn the national interest away from self interest and selfishness, to collective interest and healing. Indeed, many Indigenous commentators noted that this was just a first step on a long journey. So, to Rudd, well done in taking that first step. My hope is that he has the “ticker” to last the distance. 

Am I sorry? I’m sorry for my young friend all those years ago and the ways in which I acted and reacted. I’m sorry for my own inherent racism, a racism that rises from time to time in inappropriate ways. I’m sorry for all those communities who are excluded from the ‘economy’ because they have no ‘real wealth’ to be extracted. But most of all, I’m sorry that we as a nation are still, collectively, today, so small hearted and morally poor, that saying sorry is, obviously, still the hardest thing to do.



Recent Editorials

Anything is Possible (MP3)

The End of the Line (MP3)

A Return to Day Zero (MP3)

K07: The Aftermath (MP3)

Cup Day & Dictators(MP3)

A Day at the Races (MP3)

Gunns and Roosters (MP3)

We are all Witnesses (MP3)

Blackwater USA-Private War (MP3)

Agents of the State (MP3)

Cousins of Gunns (MP3)

Eureka and the ABCC (MP3)

Which god? (MP3)

Run to Paradise (MP3)

SIM Cards and Generosity (MP3)

Repackaging Cigarettes and Politicians (MP3)

Body of Evidence (MP3)

Oceans of Money (MP3)

Cold Racism (MP3)

Unspoken Words Among Friends (MP3)

All Along the Watchtower (MP3)


The Bridge Keeper's Son (Feb '06)



Aquaman Meets Pell (MP3)


The Reigning Rein(MP3)


Johnny GM Seed (MP3)


When Generals Talk (MP3)


Madam Economy (MP3)


Hitchin' a Ride



ANZAC for Whom?



Jones, Race and Class Interests (MP3)


Bombay Nights



The Politics of Convenience and Liability (MP3)


Tears, Perks and People (MP3)


Technically Speaking(MP3)


Hicks, Burke and Howard (MP3)


The Free Market on a Lazy Sunday (MP3)


You Lose Power (MP3)


Rearranging the Deckchairs (MP3)


Educated Ignorance (MP3)


Young Liberals

go to Town (MP3)


In a Funk - A 2006 Reflection (MP3)