Australia to Apologize to the Aborigines

by Kevin Jon Heller

As has been widely reported, new Australian PM Kevin Rudd has promised to sign the Kyoto Protocol and remove the country’s 550 troops from Iraq. Good news on both fronts — as is a third promise that has received less media attention: a formal apology to Australia’s aboriginal population for the many historic injustices they have suffered:

Mr Rudd’s pledge to say sorry to Aborigines was a radical departure from his predecessor John Howard, who during 11 years in power argued that contemporary Australians bore no responsibility for past wrongs.

It would be the first time that an Australian federal government had apologized to the country’s 450,000 Aborigines, who after 220 years of white settlement suffer low life expectancy, poor health and high rates of joblessness and incarceration.

Mr Howard, whose humiliating defeat in Saturday’s election signaled the end of a political era, regarded a formal apology as symptomatic of what he called the left-leaning, “black arm band” version of history.

But Labour leader Mr Rudd announced that he was determined to say sorry early on in his term of office. “We will frame it in a consultative fashion with communities and that may take some time,” he said.


Surveys show most Australians support the idea of an apology, which Aboriginal leaders regard more as a symbolic gesture than as a basis for launching huge compensation claims.

No word on whether, as part of the apology, Rudd’s government will reverse Australia’s refusal to sign the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. If it is serious about promoting the rights of his country’s aborigines, it should.

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