Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Jun. 13, 1997
5 min read
OPINION | Suddenly we’re the unlucky country

WILSON da SILVA finds himself apologising for Australia.

GENOCIDE is a word one associates with the Holocaust, with ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, or with the inter-tribal slaughter in Rwanda - not with Australia’s past. But when Sir Ronald Wilson used the term in his Human Rights Commission’s report on stolen Aboriginal children, the former High Court judge was consciously positioning Australia before the world. The country was being judged as it would judge others.

He did so again this week when he spoke to foreign correspondents in Sydney. “The policy was described quite clearly and definitely (by a national conference of Aboriginal affairs ministers in 1937) as the way to dispose of ‘the Aboriginal problem’. Take the children and deny them their Aboriginality; their language, their families, their culture, their land - and the disappearance of the group will be rapid.”

For many of the correspondents present, the issue has helped to burst the bubble on Australia. Many came here believing it to be an easy-going, culturally tolerant, “clean and green” place. For those from the Old World, the temptation was to see Australia as a young country free of the baggage of the past. But the last year has changed some perceptions. 

“I think this, together with the way the whole issue of Wik was handled, the Pauline Hanson phenomenon is a surprising shift,” says Esther Blank, a correspondent for Germany’s WDR radio network. “I certainly have the impression of Australia as being a much less tolerant a society than it was some time ago.”

The change has surprised and fascinated Blank’s listeners. “If there is one thing I have learned as a German, it is that you have to face up to your past. I cannot as a German be proud of Beethoven, who was born in my town, but say sorry, I don’t look at the Holocaust, it’s not my past.

“You cannot just disassociate yourself from the bad parts of your history. You are not guilty for what your ancestors have done. But you are responsible to help overcome what is still there. People are still alive who suffered.”

For Japanese journalists, the Government response has been the most interesting. Considering that Japan has been under pressure for years to apologise over atrocities dating back to World War II, they find it fascinating to observe how Australia deals with now shameful deeds that were not halted until 1971.

This is certainly the angle taken by Joëlle Dietrich, president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association and the Sydney-based correspondent for France’s Le Figaro, in her reports. “The same Government that refuses to apologise for past mistakes is still insisting on apologies from the Japanese Government for things that happened even longer ago,” says Dietrich.

One correspondent for an American magazine prefaced her questions to the Aboriginal group Link Up with an apology for crimes of the past.

The Human Rights Commission has been beset by queries from foreign journalists - not just those based in Australia, but from networks and publications overseas. The response from South Africa, which has been conducting its own truth and reconciliation commission, has been intense.

What foreign correspondents write is read by millions overseas. News agencies are churning out stories on Australia daily. A prime ministerial apology that is perceived as half-hearted lands on the desks of newspapers from Bangkok to Boston within an hour of being delivered. By the end of the day, they have an analysis and criticisms from Aboriginal groups.

Such coverage can affect Australians on a personal level. Sitting down to dinner in Hong Kong recently with a group of journalists from the region, we did not even reach the soup before I was asked about Pauline Hanson and Australia’s treatment of Aborigines.

I’ve been quizzed in London pubs, Lisbon cafes and even 150 kilometres inside Sweden’s Arctic circle. Business people report the same experience. Often, there is not much choice. You find yourself apologising for a whole nation.