Shame and guilt no help to Wadeye

Date: May 28 2006

 Terry Lane

The Pope reckons we owe the Aborigines an apology. He told the new ambassador to the Vatican that the Australian Government should seek forgiveness from Aborigines. "Asking for forgiveness and granting forgiveness (are) two indispensable elements of peace."

We've heard it all before and many of us would like the PM to find it in himself to apologise and ask for forgiveness so that we can get on with whatever must come next. The whole issue of a ritual apology and forgiveness has now become such a psychological stumbling block that it has turned into an excuse for everything.

If only the Government would apologise, peace, goodness and light would descend on Aboriginal communities and the children would run happily to school, and booze would be kept out of the camps and no one would sniff petrol and there would be no more violence.

It's all nonsense, of course, but the constant bickering and hectoring over who should apologise for what is utterly distracting.

The admonition to apologise from Joseph Ratzinger raises some issues about who owes an apology to whom and when should leaders presume to offer an apology on behalf of an entire nation, most of whose citizens had no direct part in committing the crimes for which we are admitting guilt.

When the then Cardinal Ratzinger paid his respects at the grave of the German soldiers killed during the invasion of Europe by the Allies in 1944, he had this to say, by way of exonerating the dead from guilt: "In this hour we bow in respect to the dead of the Second World War. We remember the many young people from our homeland whose futures and hopes were destroyed in the bloody slaughter of the war. As Germans we cannot help but be painfully moved to realise that their idealism and their obedience to the state were misused by an unjust government."

Ratzinger, the Pope-to-be, said that "they simply tried to do their duty". He also said that it wasn't his place to judge the dead, which at the cemetery where he was speaking included members of the Waffen SS. Even the SS must answer to their own consciences "into which only God can see".

In other words, the apology for the murderous horrors of the war can only come from the Nazi leaders, now all dead.

The implication of what he said is clear: if you were only doing your duty you are not culpable; if you belong to a generation that wasn't there you are not guilty. There are big moral questions being raised here, and it is surprising that His Holiness applies different standards to Germans than to Australians.

The doctor at Wadeye, Patrick Rebgetz, says that "Australia should be ashamed" at what's happening there. But shame is no more helpful than contrition.

Shame and guilt are luxurious sentiments that do nothing to help. This is not South Africa or Alabama. The people of Wadeye do not live in squalor because it is enforced by the government or intended by the citizens. Australians are not so much ashamed of what goes on in the camps of the Northern Territory as we are perplexed.

Every federal government since Gorton's has treated Aboriginal disadvantage seriously and with compassion. Why do things get worse rather than better? Were missions really such a bad idea?