Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On Saying Sorry

Feb 9, 2008

On Wednesday the Rudd Government will offer a formal apology to the so-called Stolen Generation. The Prime Minister said this official “sorry” will come from the Parliament, not the people. And the Liberals have decided to hop on board with all this, although of the former PMs who will attend, John Howard will not be one of them.

So what is one to make of this government initiative to say sorry to the Aboriginal community? A number of questions arise. For example, if my great-great-great-great-grandfather stole the bicycle of your great-great-great-great-grandfather, am I required to make restitution to you? In other words, how much guilt and/or apology is needed on my part when dealing with something my forebears have done years ago, or generations ago?

Indeed, does it even make any sense for me to ask for forgiveness for something I have not done, but some previous family member may have done? Saying sorry may be just a symbolic gesture, but what exactly is it symbolising? Saying sorry obviously implies that you believe that you – or someone else at least – has done something wrong. And that is where things start to get a bit hairy.

Has there in fact ever been a “Stolen Generation”? The answer to this question seems to depend on which side of the ideological fence you are on. For the Left, not only was a whole generation “stolen,” but the entire thing amounts to nothing less than “genocide”. But the actual facts of the case are still being debated.

It seems, for example, that many well meaning people, including Christian missionaries, were acting out of some very high motives here. Aboriginal children who were being abused, neglected, abandoned, ignored or otherwise mistreated were indeed taken away. But the ones doing this would have regarded all this as a rescue, not theft.

We know of very real cases of child abuse and neglect, even horrific sexual assault, that is still taking place in Aboriginal communities today. Is seeking to help them and deliver them from these appalling conditions just a case of white superiority and genocide against blacks?

Andrew Bolt has long been challenging some of the myths of the “Stolen Generation” and the need to say sorry. His most recent column on this is worth referring to. Bolt argues that the evidence for a “Stolen Generation” is very thin indeed. He challenges his opponents to actually provide some hard evidence for this official policy of “genocide” but he is still waiting. Says Bolt:

“To Rudd and other Say-Sorries it simply doesn’t matter that there’s no evidence any Australian government had a policy to steal children just because they were Aboriginal. See the evidence they’ve ignored. In Victoria, for instance, the state Stolen Generations Taskforce concluded there had been ‘no formal policy for removing children’. Ever. In the Northern Territory, the Federal Court found no sign of ‘any policy of removal of part-Aboriginal children such as that alleged’. In Tasmania, the Stolen Generations Alliance admitted ‘there were no removal policies as such’. In South Australia, the Supreme Court last year found no government policy to steal Aboriginal children there, either. Rather, stealing black children had been ‘without legal authority, beyond power and contrary to authoritative legal advice’. But none of that evidence matters to Rudd.”

As mentioned, political correctness has become so prevalent, and the myths of the “Stolen Generation” so widespread, that we are now abandoning a whole new generation of Aboriginal children to further neglect and abuse. Bolt continues, “Rudd’s apology is happening and all I can hope is that he can still hear a little voice telling him he has a duty to truth, and to the Aboriginal children today who will suffer if he lies. Because suffer they will. Already we read almost monthly of Aboriginal children who are bashed, raped or killed because social workers and magistrates are too scared by the ‘stolen generations’ to ‘steal’ them.”

As Bolt says in an earlier column: “In December, for instance, we learned why a 13-year-old girl who’d been pack-raped was taken away from her white foster parents and sent back to her lawless and drink-sodden Aboriginal settlement – where she was promptly pack-raped again. As a welfare official involved in the case explained: ‘Two new social workers (had) expressed the view, which was repeated many times to the investigating committee, that putting an indigenous child with white foster parents was another stolen generation . . .’ Enough, for God’s sake.”

Bolt continues to challenge his critics to come up with ten actual names of children “stolen” by whites. No one has yet provided even these ten names. But Bolt provides real names of real children who were rescued from a pretty grim life. Says Bolt,

“I’ve asked, for instance, why I’d say sorry to Lowitja O’Donoghue, the Stolen Generations Alliance’s co-patron. O’Donoghue in fact was dumped at a children’s home by her footloose Irish father, to be educated by missionaries. For what should I say sorry to Peter Gunner, who sought compensation in the Federal Court for being ‘stolen’? Gunner, in fact, was sent to a home in Alice Springs with the written permission of his mother, to get a schooling. For what should I say sorry to Topsy, named by Manne as a ‘stolen’ child? Topsy, in fact, was just 12 when she was found, riddled with syphilis and far from hospitals, schools or police, with her parents unknown. For what should I say sorry to Mary Hooker, another Stolen Generations Alliance spokeswoman? Hooker, in fact, was removed with three of her 11 siblings because welfare officers thought she was neglected and ‘I was raped by my brother’.”

“For what should I say sorry to Lorna Cubillo, who claimed compensation? Cubillo, in fact, was just seven, with no parents or even known guardian when she was found at a missionary-run ration camp in the bush, and sent to a home and school in Darwin. For what should I say sorry to Molly, portrayed in Rabbit Proof Fence as a girl stolen to ‘breed out the colour’? Molly in fact was taken into care with the agreement of her tribal chief after warnings that she was in danger of sexual abuse and had been ostracised as a half-caste by her tribe. For what should I say sorry to Archie Roach, famous for his song Took the Children Away? Roach, in fact, said yesterday he was removed when he was three because ‘word got around’ he was neglected — his parents weren’t there, and his sister was trying to care for him. For what should I say sorry to all the ‘stolen children’ like these – activist Robert Riley, whose mother dumped him at a home; author Mudrooroo Narogin, who turned out to be neither stolen nor Aboriginal; claimant Joy Williams, whose mother gave away her illegitimate girl; bureaucrat Charlie Perkins, whose mother asked a boarding school to help her gifted boy; and ‘stolen generations’ leader Annette Peardon, whose mother was jailed for three months for neglecting her children.

Saying sorry may not be a bad thing if some genuine harm or damage had taken place. But saying sorry seems rather silly if in fact a fair amount of good was undertaken by our forebears in the interests of protecting vulnerable Aboriginal children.

Certainly not every case of a child being taken away was done for the best of motives. And surely plenty of mistakes were made. But if the Federal Government wants a blanket apology for past actions, then it should be made crystal clear just what evil actions in fact took place.

Misplaced guilt feelings, political correctness, and national self-loathing are not sufficient grounds to engage in such an apology. It seems the jury is still out in terms of the actual evidence. In which case, why even go down the road of having a national apology?,21985,23177816-25717,00.html,21985,23130015-25717,00.html

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24 Responses to On Saying Sorry

  • The plain and simple fact of the matter is that even if the ‘stolen generation’ were factual, most Australians today were not complicit in the removal and thus are not obliged to apologise. As Bill Vallicella points out on slavery in the US which is equally applicable to the obligation of an apology

    “Only those who are victims of a crime are entitled to reparations for the crime, and only those who are the perpetrators of a crime or the immediate accessories to the perpetration of a crime are obliged to pay reparations for it. ”

    Damien Spillane

  • Bill,

    You say “how much guilt and/or apology is needed on my part when dealing with something my forebears have done years ago, or generations ago?”

    Yet you happily accept the Christian mythology that the sin of Adam and Eve is visited upon all subsequent generations.

    Steve Angelino, WA

  • Thanks Steve

    There is not unanimity among believers about the so-called doctrine of original sin. But several things seem clear. We are all sinners and all have rejected God and clung to self and sin. If we would have been in Adam’s place, we would have done the same thing he did.

    Moreover, Scripture makes it quite plain that we are all responsible for our own actions, and we will reap the just deserts thereof. Consider Ezekiel 18:20 for example: “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.”

    There is only one exception to this, made by God himself. Knowing that we cannot save ourselves, he sent his son to take the penalty we deserve. Thus Jesus died for our sins so that we might be restored to a right relationship with the father. God alone is able to decide who a suitable substitute might be to make atonement for our sins. And that substitute was his only son.

    In one sense, the only thing you really need concern yourself with Steve is if you have availed yourself of that gracious provision, or if you will continue to think you are the centre of the universe with no sin to deal with.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill, I appreciate your contribution to this discussion, as well as you highlighting Andrew Bolt’s column. I tend to lean the same way, and certainly don’t personally feel that I should be apologising. However, I’m interested to know if you can shed some light on the “Bringing Them Home” report of 1997 and how it should be understood. I personally think that the report is fairly light on with the facts about what the official Government policy was, but it virtually takes for granted (perhaps as a result of the submissions made to the enquiry) that forced removal was official policy. Given that the Government is a legal entity in it’s own right, then perhaps it could be argued that a reprobate Government should now apologise for something “it” did in the past (even though different individuals are now the elected representatives within that Government)… but that’s a pretty tenous argument in my view!
    Philip Brookes

  • One often forgotten fact is that many Australians, post war immigrants, can legitimately claim to have not been involved.

    I have friends who were taken a way repeatedly for medical care and education. They were never prevented from coming home. Many in the stolen generation are realy badly traumatised not because they were taken away but because they had nowhere to come home to.

    We often forget that most schools in the 18th and 19th century were boarding schools. How many white kids went kicking and screaming from the freedom of the country to the harshness of the boarding school? How many ran off back home? How many have sued later over the crimes of a few evil teachers, priests and Bully’s? ‘Tom Brown’ was not aboriginal but his school days are famous.

    I also know of people who fought abuse and racism as far back as the first fleet. Not all need to apologise.

    It will be interesting to see what the bill will be afterwards. An apology is held in many legal circles as an admission of liability. John Howard pointed that out years ago. Rudd will face a large number of law suits. Potentially both personal suits against him and against the government purse.
    We tend to forget that there was a evolutionary belief behind some racist actions, the idea that the aboriginal was somehow less evolved.

    Wesley Bruce

  • Philip, the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report has been adequately refuted, and even acknowledged by Robert Manne (currently one of the most strident supporters of the stolen generations mythology) as flawed and inaccurate.

    Search online – especially among Andrew Bolt’s material for more on this.

    Andrew has successfully debated Robert Manne and has extensively researched the whole sorry mess.

    John Angelico

  • Historian Keith Windschuttle had a good article in the opinion pages of The Australian recently. Don’t let facts spoil the day

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  • Hello Bill
    I finfd this whole subject rather intriguing.
    Here in Brisbane a poll was taken, it asked people did they consider an apology was necessary.
    I believe that 60% of people responded in the negative.
    Isn’t it unusual that Mr Rudd placed so much emphasis on polls leading to the election yet completely ignores them when they disagee with his party policies.
    To be honest, I thought that there were more pressing issues in the way of education, health and finance facing Australia today than so much emphasis placed on minor issues.
    Jim Sturla

  • Thanks Phillip

    John and Ewan have already helped in reply to your comment. Can I also suggest the 2004 volume by Keith Windschuttle, Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Vol. 1. The second volume will be out later this year.

    Also very significant indeed to this whole debate is the important article in today’s Australian by Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson. He provides a very measured and balanced assessment of the issue.

    Says Pearson, “My worry is this apology will sanction a view of history that cements a detrimental psychology of victimhood, rather than a stronger one of defiance, survival and agency.”

    His lengthy piece can be found here:,25197,23196221-28737,00.html

    Bill Muehlenberg

  • I was a welfare officer with the SA Department of Aboriginal Affairs in the 1960s. There were children who were placed in the care of the department because of neglect and abuse, particularly when women were left alone caring for their children. These children came under the protection of the State and were fosterd out until more permanent arrangements could be made for them. They were saved not stolen and all the legal formalities had to be taken as they were for white children placed in the care of the State. I was placed in charge of a ‘farm school’ and most of the children there were of primary school age. They had simply been dumped by their parent(s). These were town/city children and had no ‘triblal’ background. But the State of SA took them in and looked after them until their parents could be able to look after them properly or they could be fostered out. I also worked with Aboriginal people at Uluru in central Australia and then there was no alcohol and the tribal groups were able to manage the social aspects of their people. This has now changed and tribal social control in northern Australia has declined and a review of what law is needed to protect particularly the women and children who are being seriously abused.The need is urgent. Saying ‘sorry’ will not change this situation and no longer is it tenable for the courts to rely on tribal law.
    Peter Rice

  • Thanks Peter
    Your first hand accounts are very important to this whole debate.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill, thank God for you and Andrew Bolt. I couldn’t imagine where we’d be without you. Although, do we have any real evidence that Andrew Bolt even exists?
    Adam Dean, VIC

  • Thanks Adam
    When I once had lunch with him he seemed pretty real to me.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks again, Bill.

    It’s worthy to note that the ‘apology’ will now include not just the ‘stolen generations’ but the whole white settlement.

    It is ambiguous in that the statement also states the desire (note virtue) of equal “life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity”. These are benefits of white settlement (western culture) and, if these benefits are considered virtuous, shouldn’t the indiginous people also say a formal “Thank you” to be consistent?

    Is the apparent virtue of an apology even part of indiginous culture?

    It seems the ‘noble savage’ idea lives on.

    Jeremy Peet

  • Wesley Bruce raises good points, especially his last sentence. In this context, see also A sorry day—with an unlikely twist: The draft of the national apology by Australia’s Prime Minister had some surprising but revealing truths about the links between Charles Darwin and racism, but that has been removed.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • What would Jesus do, Bill?

    Steve Angelino, WA

  • Thanks Steve

    I know what he wouldn’t do. He would not treat people as whole classes or races or groups, as the twentieth century tyrants did, and as the secular left is so wont to do. Jesus always treats people as individuals, and given that we are all sinners in need of forgiveness, he would not encourage me to apologise for your sin, or vice versa. He would expect each of us to come clean with our own guilt, to take personal responsibility for our own wrongdoing, and not politicise such situations.

    And if Jesus did want a public apology from the government, I think it would be much more in line with what Noel Pearson said yesterday in the Australian or what David Moore said there today:,25197,23203981-7583,00.html

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Indeed, David Moore makes a great deal more sense than all the ‘stolen generation’ propagandists put together.

    Another thing Jesus wouldn’t do is give deference to animistic aboriginal culture in the way that our politicians, media, elites, and even churchians do these days.

    And Jesus wouldn’t be going along with this myth that Australian aborigines have lived on this continent for between 40,000 and 60,000 years making them the oldest living people group in the world as both Rudd and Nelson claimed today.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  • It is interesting that if you declare something long enough and loud enough some people will eventually believe it. I watched with interest the “lemming” like mentality on this issue as the facts were conveniently ignored.

    I am always suspicious when those who dare to question popular mythology are dismissed so readily. Thanks to Bill and Andrew and all those who refuse to be silenced.

    Peter Coventry

  • Sadly enough as I read all the comments, I keep getting the feeling, most people think the events of stolen generation” never really happened. Don’t forget the emotional price that the people have paid. Stop focusing on what liabilities we are up for and focus on fixing the problems. Its scary that in this day and age and with all the intellects that we have we can still question if the events have happened instead of learning from it and making sure it never gets repeated. Are we turning out to be like the neo-nazis claiming the Holocaust never actually happened?
    Barbara Oxford

  • Thanks Barbara

    But while there is overwhelming historical evidence for the Holocaust, the evidence is mixed, ambiguous and inconclusive for the so-called stolen generations. And while the Holocaust was purely evil, this cannot be said about the removal of Aboriginal children. Some of them may have been stolen, but many of them were in fact rescued, as Aboriginal leaders like Pearson readily acknowledge.

    Thus your comparison with the Holocaust is not all that helpful here, it seems to me.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I signed the sorry book back around 1996. I love the Lord Jesus and was saved from the hippie scene in 1974. I’m sorry for the many massacres that the whites committed on the blacks, and for the much lesser numbers of whites that were killed by blacks. From the very early days of the colony, when a black would commit an offence (which it was to our forebears, but may not always necessarily have been an “offence” if you were black and having your homeland and tribal livelihood taken from you, bit by bit, by force) the response was often to kill 20 blacks for the white that was killed. In some massacres, 300 were killed for the “offence” of hitting back when whipped by a stockman on a horse-this happened around 1931.
    I have had virtually nothing to do with aboriginal people, but when I was in church one sunday morning here in Canberra, with an aboriginal man leading the meeting, the Lord was laying on me how much pain and anguish we (the white forebears) had heaped on the aboriginals. The tears just rolled down my cheeks for over 30 minutes. At the end of the meeting, I went straight to the man who’d been leading the meeting, and said how sorry I was for what had happened – he straightway came back with “we all just have to forgive and move on brother”. Of course he’s right.
    I think that in the “stolen generations” debate, that much, much more good was done than harm in rescuing so many kids.
    As to “what my forebears did I can’t answer for” – I was not there when our Aussie sons bathed themselves in glory by what they did at Gallipoli, but I draw great pride from it. I thank God for the wonderful Christian Aussies that have come before me, from Ritchard Johnson to John Flynn. I was not there when they did what they did, but I thank God for them, they inspire me and I am proud to be called an Aussie because (in part) of them. Doesn’t it have to work the other way, when our forebears did things that we regret, if we can do something about it? Can we do something about it? Yes, I believe sorry is a start. I thank God that the “noble savage living in total harmony with Nature” myth is exploded. I sure don’t want to go down that loony lefty road of utopian beliefs, but I don’t want to go down the right-wing and generally Christian (at the moment) road, which says “let the blacks just get over it and work for a living like we have to”. If Australia had been over-run by the Japanese in WW2, would we be the proud sport-and-travel loving people on the international stage that we are today? Would we not be a downcast, broken people, second-class citizens in our own country, given to all the substance-abuse etc that are part of that situation? I wonder how I would have handled the situation of taking-over another country which was inhabited with native people in 1788, with all the mindsets of that time, without all the enormous benefits of hindsight. If you are born Aboriginal in Australia, you start out with an enormous handicap in life. Who’s fault is this? Hugely too big to cover here. Can we (the white victors) do something about this – yes I believe we can. When the Lord God almighty asks me, Ian, what did you do with the talents, time and opportunities that I gave you, I want to be able to answer Him honestly.
    Ian Brearley

  • I have some questions for you Bill:

    How many Aboriginal people who were taken from their families to be placed in institutional ‘care’ (I will refrain from using the term stolen generations since you are so obviously uncomfortable with it) do you know, and how many of their stories have you heard? Do they agree with what you have outlined in your opinion piece?

    Have you read the Bringing Them Home Report?

    Who made Andrew Bolt the authority on Aboriginal policy and history, and when? And why?

    Rosie Downing

  • Thanks Rosie

    Of course all these questions can be turned on you.

    However, yes I have contacts with Aboriginals, many of whom see this mainly as a case of a rescued generation, not a stolen generation. And yes I have seen the report (and I suspect that most people have not read every word of the 700 page volume). And Bolt, like others, relies on various authorities and experts, as do you and I. Authorities such as Noel Pearson, eg., are as much a part of the mix as the ones you are likely lean on.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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