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An open letter to John Howard

The Honourable John Howard

Dear John,

Like you, I do not feel personally responsible for decisions which resulted in breaking up thousands of Australian families and exacerbating the hurt which Aboriginal Australians have experienced as a result of the actions of those of us whose families came to this country as migrants.

I did not do it and I am not responsible any more than you.

Come to think of it, John, neither was I among those diggers who ran up the beach at Gallipoli and lay the foundation for Australia’s fine tradition of heroism, bravery and what you call mateship. I was not there but that does not stop me swelling up with pride at that pivotal moment in our history.

Nor was I a member of the Australian XI which regained the Ashes from England. I am not Cathy Freeman or Ian Thorpe who won all those medals for (dare I say it) us. I cannot help feeling a little proud again that they are my people and some of their gold has rubbed off on me. I am not Joan Sutherland or Yvonne Kenny or Nellie Melba or Peter Dawson or any of the other greats who have brought accolades to Australia. I am not Tim Flannery or Gustav Nossal or Peter Singer or any of the other great thinkers trained and nurtured by Australia.

Do you get the point, John? I did nothing whatsoever to earn any of the glory or praise which comes to our country because of our cricketers, our athletes, our musicians or our scholars. But that does not stop me from accepting my little share of the reflected glory earned by their achievements. My pride makes me feel very happy and proud to be an Australian.

I think it is important to be consistent, don’t you, John? I think if I can feel some personal joy and pride in what has been achieved by a few outstanding Australians, I can not be surprised that I am overwhelmed with sadness and a measure of guilt because of what our country has done in my name to indigenous people. It comes naturally to me to cheer at a test match or to gather at one of our shrines on Anzac Day, it comes just as naturally to express the sorry-ness I feel when I recall the agonies of the stolen generations.

I know that you are not one of those people with a “black armband” view of history. Neither am I. We used to wear black armbands when someone died and we felt sad. We also wore them when we wanted to stand in sympathy (solidarity) with those people who were closest to the person who had died: we wanted to show that we cared and shared their grief. I am not sorry for all of Australian history and I am very pleased that we who are descended from migrants are now mature enough to have caught some glimpse into the price which other people have been forced to pay for the kind of social and economic development which “we” demanded. My view of history leads me to celebrate many achievements; it also leads me to stand in solidarity with those who have lost. I will try to make sure that we pay for our own mistakes next time.

Most Australians feel like me and we say “sorry”. Are these reasons not enough for you? Let me give you another reason:

I am sure we agree that I was not responsible for decisions taken in a former generation. Can we also agree that I am not very different from the people who did make those decisions? You see, I really do like to believe that I have the answers. After all, I have spent several years in universities and earned my stripes; I have more than 70 years of life experience behind me; I have travelled extensively and learned a lot from the wise people of several cultures, I have read widely and, I think, well. I am the fountain head of wisdom.

Oh, yes, John, I am no slouch. And it is just as well that I do know best, otherwise, I would need to talk to the people concerned. Well really I would need to listen to the people concerned. I would need to try to understand the stakeholders’ analysis of issues and their interpretation of history, I would need to try to hear what their hopes for themselves and their communities really are and then try to pick up the threads of their road map to the future and accept the fact that it may not be the same as the one my theories would like to plot.

What do “they” know? “They” don’t have the education and experience that I have. They are too subjectively involved. You have to take some distance, you have to study the situation objectively, you have to be cool and dispassionate. “They” really do not understand, do they? We can only hope that they will be OK when they learn to think like we think, when they accept our values and talk like us too.

Nor am I the only one who knows best. Government bureaucrats have all their boxes to tick according to the policy or the day, there are funds to be spent this financial year, budgets to be balanced and there are reports to be completed so that the files can bulge and satisfy the Auditor General. The latest insights and eyeball reports from “field” visits give birth to new orthodoxies which spawn new jargon which in turn gives birth to a new post graduate diploma which will produce experts comfortable in the new language, thought forms, and performance indicators and so we continue to produce people who know best.

There is no shortage of expertise, but I find it hard to see the trust that will empower stakeholders to write the agenda and I wonder where I can find the humility that allows “us” to learn from “them”.

Yes, John, I confess to you that I am one of those people who tend to have much more confidence in my opinions, my ideas, my doctrines and my actions than I do in those of the people concerned. In other words, I am not all that different from the people who made the decisions which would sanction children to the taken from their families in the vain hope that the Aboriginal race would die out.

It was not my decision. But it could have been.

I’ve had a lucky escape from responsibility because I was wasn’t there. Do you think that seems like a “fair go”? I have my doubts. Like you, even though I was not personally responsible, I have personally benefitted from those decisions. Our country has been fashioned and grown and matured in “my” image rather than the image of those who were once perceived as a threat to what we dared call civilization (but which really meant the entrenchment of imperial superiority and might). My place among the privileged and powerful has been secured by the actions of our forebears just as firmly as my place among the world’s free has been secured by the valour of our military heroes. Talk about black armbands! Talk about war memorials! Talk about last posts!

Lest we forget!

In the final analysis, John, what you and I feel is not really what counts. Like you, I have the luxury of feeling sorry or not feeling sorry; saying “sorry” or not saying “sorry”. It is my choice. Whether I am one of those who wear a black armband or one of the few who sport the diamond encrusted blue velvet garter, the choice is mine. The stakeholders do not have a choice and have not had a choice. They are hurting. I am not hurting because of those decisions and I am privileged enough to ignore their hurt or I can choose to share some of it with them. People are hurting, John, and our apology is what they need to help them heal and move forward. If our nation does not apologise to them, who will?

There is no one else and that fact alone is reason enough for me to say “sorry” even if I did not identify myself with the people who made a mistake with devastating (albeit probably unintended) consequences to other people and even if I did not acknowledge that my pride in our nation’s glorious moments impels me also to take my share of the blame for its sad mistakes.

If I were writing to anyone else I would probably stop now. But I am not writing to someone else, I am writing to you, John and I have to recognise that you and I trod the same path in the first part of our lives. We lived in the same place, we went to the same schools, we knew the same people, we were taught by the same Sunday School teachers and we were members of the same church, so there are some significant common bases there.

As I recall it, that church and Sunday School did not teach us that we could pick out our “favourite” parables as you said when you waxed theological prior to the last election. Nor did they tell us that the story of “the Good Samaritan” is all about being kind to each other and that the story of “the Talents” is a justification of entrepreneurship. Neither of those is a bad thing but it is a bit far-fetched (even for the super religious) to look to the New Testament for a mandate for them.

What I learned in the church of our youth was not a soft message about being kind to each other or banking goodwill for ourselves. It was a revolutionary message of the breaking down of tribal barriers and people learning to live in respect of each other and coming to “fullness of life” in human community. Both of Luke’s Samaritan stories are stories about human community and both tell of the breaking down of tribal barriers. John’s (later) Samaritan story adds a gender dimension to Luke’s ethnic focus. What our church did teach was that the good news was about compassion and I am sure you learned enough Latin at our High School to know that compassion means “feeling with”, pretty much the same as we have derived “sympathy” from Greek roots. Our church’s teaching of breaking down tribalism was reflected by many of its compassionate mission programs and I guess specifically the ones which offered care to children who were either stolen from their families or rescued by the state depending on the rhetoric of your perspective. Whatever the perspective, we did it.  Parts of the church raised policy questions even then – most of us didn’t, but we did deliver programs of care for the children. The rights and wrongs of what we did can be debated but the facts remain. We tried to be compassionate, to feel with the people who hurt and our good old black armbands extended right down to our outstretched hands.

Compassion always comes with a price tag. It did then and it does now. It seems to me that even if I don’t think saying “sorry” will do any good, I would be less than compassionate if I did not do it and passed up that opportunity of a bargain basement priced step towards reconciliation and a step towards breaking down the barriers which diminish all of us.

John, it is a pity you missed the opportunity to lead the way on our journey towards national reconciliation. Even though it is too late for that now, I hope you will ponder my reasons for saying “sorry” and ask again whether they can be important to you too. I hope you can join us on the journey.

With good wishes.

Very sincerely yours,

Peter Holden
22nd February 2008

Peter Holden is now a retired minister of the Uniting Church who has served pastorates in NSW, New York and Jakarta. In more recent years he has held senior ecumenical positions in Australia and overseas.