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Apology and the Limits of National Deliberation on Race: The Australian Case

Smits, Kathy
June 4, 2015

Source: (2004) Paper presented at “New Frontiers in Restorative Justice: Advancing Theory and Practice”, Centre for Justice and Peace Development, Massey University at Albany, New Zealand, 2-5 December.

This paper examines the impact of demands for official apology for historical injustices on the process of national public deliberation on race relations. In the case of Australia, the federal government during the 1990s promoted a self-sustaining and multilevel process of public debate and discussion over relations between the mainstream community and indigenous (Aboriginal and Pacific Islander) Australians. The debate was structured according to contemporary deliberative democratic theory: discussion was to take place in a range of public spheres, from the local to the national, was to be inclusive, reciprocal, and rationally oriented towards addressing and resolving particular issues. With the publication of the federal report into the “stolen generations,” however, demands for apology came increasingly to dominate public debate – particularly as local governments and groups in civil society apologized to indigenous Australians, while the federal government continued to refuse to do so. The government insisted that the reconciliation debate should focus practical current issues of social and economic inequality. As a result of this refusal, the question of recognition came to eclipse other issues in the reconciliation debate. This paper argues that apology as a form of political speech confers recognition on minority groups of their identity as full members of the community – without which, rational deliberation about contemporary issues in race relations cannot proceed. Abstract courtesy of the Centre for Justice and Peace Development, Massey University,


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