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Sorry seems to be the hardest word

By Kyran O’Dwyer

There is a book titled ‘Jasper Jones’, by Craig Silvey.

Having found the day to day offerings of our media a tad deficient in either thought or substance, books have become a bit of a refuge. As this book has numerous themes and explores many issues, it came as little surprise that it was on students reading lists and, given its 2018, ‘cheat sheets’ can be purchased for the inevitable essay or test on the content.

With some sadness, but no surprise, it turns out the book is one of those that is controversial for its ‘inappropriate content’ and was subjected to the usual talk of ‘banning’.

The author, Mr Silvey, was required to defend that which should be inalienable, not alienated.

A story is an opportunity to travel beyond the familiar, and to observe and explore the world from other perspectives. This is a vital, timeless practice. It enriches us by inviting us to empathise and understand.

“Rather than close us off, it opens us up, and it makes us better people. But it has to be honest. And often the truth is painful, frightening, confusing, or difficult to process.

“This is why I’d urge you to trust your staff, whose expertise lies in guiding and encouraging students through discussion, passing on the requisite skills to digest and dissect, and offering context and advice, so that the content in stories won’t be too distressing or overwhelming, and neither will the world beyond them.

“Most of all, trust your students. They’re stronger, wiser and more capable than you might presume.”

We seem to spend a lot of time criticising our teachers and students for their laziness and lack of critical thinking, yet constantly restrict their thinking and bind their energies. Obviously, this is not the first time that ‘swear words’ and ‘sex’ have caused the fragile sensitivities of our virtuous elders to be offended, but their constant hysteria in imposing their own shallow, hypocritical values on children is really getting old.

One of the passages in the book, which many of these virtuous elders may have missed because it doesn’t mention sex or contain swear words, is about a word. A single, solitary word. Whilst only one word, it has a myriad of expressions and applications, measured as much by the sincerity of its utterance, as by its casual, disingenuous dispersal. It’s a word that they would likely be unfamiliar with. As are our politicians, who would do well to become more familiar with it.


Sorry can haunt and hurt, a word that pardons itself for being on a page, it’s as clear as it is elusive. A good word used by good people. Every character in every story is buffeted between good and bad, between right and wrong. Its good people who can tell the difference, know when they have crossed the line. It’s a hard and humbling gesture to take the blame and accept fault. You have to be brave to say and mean sorry.

Sorry means you have the pulse of other people’s pain, as well as your own and saying it means you take a share of it. It binds us together. It’s a hole refilled, a debt repaid, the wake of misdeed, the crippling ripple of conscience, sorry is sadness (just as knowing is sadness).

Sorry is not about you. It’s theirs to take or leave.

Sorry is a question that begs forgiveness, because the metronome of a good heart won’t settle until things are set right and true. Sorry doesn’t take things back, it pushes things forward. It bridges the gap. Sorry is a sacrament. It’s an offering. A gift.

Sorry is when good people feel bad. The people who trouble me are the ones who, through a break in circuitry or a hole in their heart, can’t feel it, or say it, or transmit it to the sky.

Maybe sorry isn’t as simple as that. Or as honourable or romantic or grand. Maybe it’s just the refuge of the weak. Maybe it’s just the calming balm of the bad and ruthless. Maybe it’s little or no reward for those in receipt. An empty promise, a gift of a hollow box; self-serving and loveless. Maybe it takes what it needs and gives nothing back.

Stupid, lousy, meaningless.” *

That our children would be subjected to such thinking! Granted, many children won’t get the gist, and many will simply go to the cheat sheet. If only a few drink from that lovely well, our appreciation of ourselves and our environment may be enhanced, even if only a little.

It seems a shame to introduce a dishonourable rodent, John Winston Howard, into such thought or conversation. But he is the very epitome of all of the conflicting thoughts and sentiments in Mr Silvey’s writing about the use or abuse of one, single, solitary word. A word that Howard had neither the courage to say or the heart to mean. For him, such a word could only ever mean a ‘legal liability’.

This miserable weasel, a suburban solicitor, on the 26th August 1999, issued regret, on a without prejudice basis, subject to every possible codicil and caveat available to all miserable rodents.

On the 27th August 1999, the rodent did an interview

MATT PEACOCK: …you were insisting on deep and sincere regret.

JOHN HOWARD: I have got and the Government has produced and the Parliament endorsed a motion, and I don’t think there’ll be much sort of support in the Australian community for a continued debate about words and about what ought to have been or might not have been or should have been or could have been. You’ve got something that is a collective expression of regret and acknowledgement of historical truth and reality.

MATT PEACOCK: Do you think most Australians, non-Aboriginal Australians would accept the proposition that to quote your motion, ‘the mistreatment of many indigenous Australians over a significant period represents the most blemished chapter of our national history’?

JOHN HOWARD: I think most Australians probably would, yes. And that’s something I’ve said before and it’s something I believe. I think the scale of the Australian achievement and what this country has achieved has been immense but, just as you salute and express pleasure about what you have achieved, you should truthfully recognise mistakes. And I’m sure that that language is historically accurate and I believe most Australians would probably accept it.

MATT PEACOCK: Yet despite that major blemish, there’s no mention of restitution or compensation.

JOHN HOWARD: Well it’s not appropriate in something like this.

MATT PEACOCK: It’s purely symbolic?

JOHN HOWARD: Well it is symbolic, yes, it is. When you say purely symbolic is to discount the value of symbolism.

MATT PEACOCK: Well I mean you can have a pure symbol but the point is it has no…It’s like the preamble, no legal…

JOHN HOWARD: No, it doesn’t have any legal effect, no, and it’s not meant to. It’s meant to be an expression of national sentiment and a deliberative acknowledgement of what occurred but in the context of it being not a legally binding thing. I mean the question of whether rights have been infringed is a matter for the law and the courts, not for the Parliament in something like this.”

It’s hard to reconcile the two writings about the one word, isn’t it?

A ‘symbolic regret’ about a ‘mistake’ sounds like a vague if only notional, concern for having spilt some milk on your hosts’ carpet. It was of little significance that the little rodent didn’t attend the ceremony held on the 13th February 2008.

Mr Rudd’s apology was at least a start.

For our nation, the course of action is clear … and that is to deal now with what has become one of the darkest chapters in our nation’s history.”

“In doing so, we are also wrestling with our own souls.

“As Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the Government of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the Parliament of Australia, I am sorry. And I offer you this apology without qualification.”

“We have had sufficient audacity and faith to advance part way to that future, with arms extended rather than with fists still clenched,” he said.

“Let us allow this day of national reconciliation to become one of those rare moments in which we might just be able to transform the way in which the nation thinks about itself.

“For the nation to bring the first two centuries of our settled history to a close … and embrace with awe these ancient cultures which we are blessed, truly blessed to have among us.”

It hasn’t amounted to much, but at least it was a start. No reparation, restitution or compensation. The voice that we asked our First People to use and share was later extinguished by another lawyer when he declined to hear the ‘Statement from the heart’.

At 13.36 on the 11th September, on ‘The Guardian’s’ live feed blog of parliament, the current imposter PM’s edict was announced.

The government has announced when it will deliver the national apology to survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse: 22 October.

There are only 800 places, with 400 going to organisations that support survivors, and the other 400 open to a ballot. The attorney general’s department released this statement:

The National Apology, to be delivered at Parliament House in Canberra, will acknowledge and apologise for the appalling abuse endured by vulnerable children, by the very people that were supposed to care for them, leaving immeasurable and lasting damage.

The National Apology will pay tribute to victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse, many of whom have so bravely shared their stories through the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, with the aim of ensuring the shameful practices are never repeated in the future.

To encourage attendance from across Australia, a national ballot process will be conducted to allocate seats in the Great Hall of Parliament House and provide travel assistance, where required. Victims, survivors and others personally affected by institutional child sexual abuse are encouraged to register their interest in attending the National Apology through the ballot process.

Approximately 400 places will be available through the ballot and another 400 will be made available directly to organisations that support survivors and others affected by institutional child sexual abuse.

Additional viewing areas at Parliament House will also be open to the community on the day and the event will be televised nationally.

The Prime Minister is writing to all Premiers and Chief Ministers encouraging them to hold their own viewing events to coincide with the National Apology, to allow for the participation of those who cannot be in Canberra.”

Naturally, this assumes he will still be the PM at that time. Unlike the apology to our First People, this apology does have a redress scheme, even if it’s woefully inadequate.

Like our First People’s treatment subsequent to the apology so graciously afforded them by a magnanimous parliament, nothing will be done to address the ongoing abuse of children in this country.

Not in Victoria
Abused children continuing to be disregarded by major institutions, a Victorian report finds

Not in South Australia
Australia facing an ‘epidemic of child abuse and neglect’, according to experts

Not amongst our First People’s children
Indigenous children don’t need to be fixed – they need rights and opportunities

Not on Nauru
Suicidal 12-year-old refugee on Nauru will die if not removed, doctors say

So what if our abuses get us referred to the very council that we worked so hard to get a seat on?

Just like our abuse of our First People, our abuse of children will be acknowledged with some weasel words from a weasel parliament and they will retire to some parliamentary drinking hole (at our expense) to congratulate themselves, with their collective conscience suitably assuaged.

A Royal Commission is about to be launched into our abuse of elders and one is yet to be conceived about our abuse of women. Let alone the abuses of workers. Undoubtedly, we will have more apologies, more ‘sorry’s’ will be cast about. Nothing will change.

As long as there is no legitimate, dedicated, well-resourced, independent complaints and monitoring body, we will merely be issuing vacant apologies. A ‘sorry’, with fingers crossed, issued by a parliament that most hold in contempt, its occupants considered with nothing but loathing.

We do have an Australian Human Rights Commission.

It is such a pity that we Australian’s don’t have human rights, or that we see them as different human rights depending on the victim.

So, what can we do? Ms Lee recently wrote an article ‘We have forgotten what is important let alone how to fight for it’.

“Fifty years later, we are so used to all the things they warned about that we have given up the fight.

It is possible that a visionary leader could get the weight of the people behind them to remind us of what is important, but would the corporate world ever allow it?”

The suggestion being that we should wait for a visionary leader and then seek corporate approval to protest. Assuming we are still mindful of what is important, beyond a new car or a bigger house. That is not intended as a criticism of Ms Lee, nor a dismissal of the notion.

If you can bear with me, here’s a thought.

The Pope recently visited Ireland and it was expected he would issue an apology for the numerous transgressions of the church and its various agents. A campaign was launched, ‘Say Nope to the Pope’.

This is not an anti-religion thing, it’s not about disrespect for people’s beliefs or their right to practise any particular belief. It’s about people like myself who were raised as Catholics, who were practising Catholics, who suddenly went: ‘Hang on a second, these are terrible wrongs we’re hearing about.’ And we waited and we waited, and the church did nothing,” she said.

“There are no channels of protest within the church. The church is not interested in feedback. It’s not an organisation where you can fill in a questionnaire on its service. They do things their way and they’re really not interested in what you think about it.”

The idea was simple enough. People from across Ireland applied for tickets to the papal mass, giving the illusion of attendance and, by default, either agreement with, or acceptance of, the Pope’s apology. Then they didn’t go. The estimates of the crowd varied significantly.

Dr Patrick Plunkett, the medical director of the site’s field hospital, said on Sunday that he believed 130,000 people had attended the Mass. Some 500,000 people were expected in the Phoenix Park Mass but the actual turnout on the day was significantly smaller. The Vatican had estimated the attendance at 300,000.”

That may seem a significant crowd. Consider, though, that in 1979, the previous papal crowd was estimated at 1.5 million people.

It was only a few years later I found out about Pope John Paul II’s historic mass there on the 29th of September 1979, which was attended by one in three Irish people, making it the largest gathering of Irish people in history. As we prepare for an undertaking of a similar scale on the 25th of August (and the largest gathering of Irish people in my lifetime), it feels like an appropriate time to reflect on the scale of that event in 1979 and how this compares to the upcoming visit.”

An apology was hi-jacked, which gave far greater import to and urgency of the demand for ongoing accountability of those committing the wrongs by those wronged and the many impacted by the wrongs.

The 22nd October is the Monday on which this excuse for a government will offer an apology to 800 representatives of the wronged. That apology is not mine to offer or withdraw. The wrongs it acknowledges cannot and should not be belittled or ignored. Whether the 800 choose to attend or abstain from, the parliamentary ceremony is entirely their choice and I for one offer no judgement whatsoever on their choice. As Mr Silvey noted, “It’s theirs to take or leave.”

What would happen though, if that day was used by the rest of us to demand change? Not some mealy-mouthed, disingenuous apology for crimes they barely acknowledge, but real change. Without waiting for parliamentary or corporate approval, or some visionary leader. If enough people were to simply go on strike and gather outside parliaments and town halls across Australia, do you think these clowns might get the message?

If you can bear with my rantings a little longer, I can try and explain how disparate groups like workers, and women, and our First People, and our children, and our elderly, and our unemployed, and our disabled, and all of the other disparate groups that are simply not heard by these fools can offer one unified demand, to be satisfied by one meaningful act as the only acceptable apology.

The demand?


The whole damned lot of you, effective immediately. Services, or what you consider services, no longer required. Call an election at the first available opportunity. Not to be left at the whim of a delusional fool.

It is well documented that we don’t trust our politicians, and to call an immediate election simply means that whatever we get next time around will likely become more of the same. In this age of social media and immediate communications, it can’t be too hard to require all nominees attend debates in each and every electorate, at which an assurance should be sought in the event they are elected.

To immediately convene an independent panel of experts (politicians and their staffers specifically excluded) to redraft the Electoral Act based on a Direct Democracy model.

This effectively doesn’t remove the need for or validity of political parties, but it sure will make them look over their shoulders.

This gives all of us and all of our disparate groups a real voice, subject to the reason and logic of each other, not the whim of a politician or the directive of a corporation. Subject to the usual protections of required numbers to compel a referendum, everything is on the table. Treaty. The Constitution. The states. The environment. Education. Health. Social safety nets. Asylum seekers. Immigration. Inequality. Privatisation. Defence. Everything.

The first step though, is to let them know we haven’t forgotten what is important and we do know how to fight for it.

The next step of organising would likely resemble herding cats, given the suggestion. It would be difficult, but by no means impossible.

But first things first. Has anybody else had enough of this crap?

* The passage from Mr Silvey’s book is compiled from notes I made at the time. Whilst I’m reasonably sure of its accuracy, I cannot guarantee it is verbatim. My apologies.


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  1. diannaart

    “Sorry” is not the final word, it is the beginning. It means opening up communication, not hiding from it behind weasel words such as “black armband history” or doing F/A because of a change of government.

    True apologies are not for the faint of heart.

    Apologies which are left to die from neglect or cowardice means starting all over again, if we are ever going to move forward.

  2. ChristopherJ

    Thanks Kyran. I remember working in Canberra when Rudd said his bit. He’s good at faking sincerity is our Kevin. And yet, give him his due, he did what the rat and others wouldn’t and he was ultimately shafted by Rupert once he’d shown he was going to steer away from the true north of neoliberalism.

    Sorry is a complex word (regret less so) and the rat avoided saying it like its very utterance was going to swamp the courts with thousands of litigants from the past and present.

    As for a mass protest seeking that our honorables resign? Nah, we are not angry enough yet, getting there, but we still see our social and economic problems as a part of who we are – devided, distrusting of difference – certainly not united in the common foe of our corporate masters.

    Would take another mil or so of unemployed, another hundred thou more homeless… A million homes foreclosed and then rented back to the dispossessed? That’s the sort of anger we need, surely?

    Nah, still isn’t going to do it. Our masters are expert at explaining how the poor and destitute had it coming to them.

    Didn’t have a go did they?

    Seriously, there are kids in every town sleeping rough, going without food, being abused. When we are debating whether our safety nets are adequate, how about we start looking at how a parent(s) on NewStart, Disabilility (take your pick) are able to adequately feed, clothe, house and keep safe their children.

    Tack in the situation where by cigarettes have gone from $7 a pack to $25 a pack in 10 years…. Do you think those parents have cut back to five fags a day so that their kids can have nice food on the table? But we need to keep raising the tax until the smokers stop. Isn’t this the policy purpose? The tax is so large now, when I did smoke my tobacco tax exceeded my income tax. We complain about our hospitals and health services. Yet, if you look at the numbers, the tax paid by the average smoker exceeds their costs to the health system by a factor close to 10.

    I know I’m on a disjointed rant, but this is all relevant. I go to my local pub several times a week. Like many, the pub makes most of its $ from gamblers and our local indigenous like the pokies (well so do a lot of other people). If the parent(s) can’t leave their kids at home, they will be seen in groups under the shade trees (in full view of the pub’s managers and staff). Sometimes there is an adult there, but more often just an older sibling.

    If the parent(s) win, they might go over to Dominoes, but I often see those same kids lining up at the supermarket checkout with a 75 c bottle of black and gold pop, perhaps some chips or chocolate if they are lucky.

    Get a national day of protest up Kyran and I’ll turn up to support the fact that our MPs and Senators no longer work in the best interests of people. They work for themselves and the corporations that support them.

    Remember this. If voting made a difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.

  3. Kyran

    All too true, diannaart, “True apologies are not for the faint of heart”. By acknowledging a fault or a problem, only a genuine apology will include at least an attempt to address if not eradicate the transgression. Today’s news, like yesterday’s, will comprise of endless discussion about the neglect, but little about removing its cause. Cowardice will, once again, be evident in the inaction.

    Your thoughts are interesting, ChristopherJ and cut to the crux of the matter. Historically, we have a tendency to wait until we are angry before we seek change. Like most things done in anger, the benefits, if any, are short lived and the ultimate cause of the angst is often overlooked.
    If you look at things in isolation, which is the favoured weapon of those who seek to maintain the status quo, there is little to cause undue concern. We talk about the environment, health, education, wages and workers conditions, the cost of homes and the ravages of homelessness, taxation, even today’s ‘torment du jour’ – the independence of the national broadcaster – as if they were independent silo’s, rather than an interconnected web.
    We become infatuated with new terms like the ‘gig economy’ or ‘disruptive technologies’, quickly looking to blame a changing landscape for our inability, certainly at a ‘leadership’ level, to use these changes to our collective advantage.
    Back in the 70’s, there were these new things called computers which had not yet made their way into everyday life. The internetty thingy was merely someone’s dream. The likes of Toffler and De Bono were spruiking how these could change forever the way societies operate.
    They were ignored. The likes of ‘Dominoes’ are held up as an example of modern business in a gig economy, ignoring that their staff are underpaid, their tax is minimized. Uber and the endless stream of food delivery services do nothing but abuse their own workers and engage in sham contracting, yet they are not only tolerated, they are encouraged.
    As for the use of taxation to discourage various addictions, the WHO did studies some decades ago that demonstrated far more efficient methods of reducing if not eliminating the harms of these addictions. The cost/benefit of treating them as health issues was much more favourable than our current system, as it is with gambling. It is a similar argument with treating drug addictions as a criminal problem, rather than a medical problem.
    I suspect we are in furious agreement about much that is wrong. Where we probably diverge is that to wait for anger to become the catalyst for that change is, in my opinion, counterproductive. We merely end up replacing one failed model with another. By all accounts, Labor is a shoe in for the next election whenever it may be called. Labor have been acquiescent, if not vocal, in their support of many policies that are little more than a bandaid on an amputation. Whilst they show at least some capacity to listen or think about a problem, much of what they propose is dealing with real problems as political issues.
    Robert Manne recently wrote a piece about foregoing the moral high ground to address the situation of our refugee’s. I may have this entirely wrong but, to me, it seems that he is saying this is a manufactured political problem, so its cure must be a political solution.
    This government, and I suspect the next, go out of their way to manufacture a problem then go out of their way to offer a shambolic apology. Yet they studiously ignore the increasing number of pachyderms in ever crowded rooms.
    Your final summary is spot on the money, which is why I have far more faith in those around me than those allegedly in charge.
    “…. our MPs and Senators no longer work in the best interests of people. They work for themselves and the corporations that support them.
    Remember this. If voting made a difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.”
    Isn’t it time to stop waiting for their permission?
    As always, I remain grateful to AIMN for the opportunity to have a say.
    Thank you. Take care

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