Australia ready for leadership on "sorry"

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Psychology research conducted at the University of Adelaide shows that strong leadership on reconciliation issues can make a difference to public opinion.

On the eve of the national apology by Federal Parliament to the Stolen Generations, researchers in the University's School of Psychology say the Australian public is now more likely to acknowledge and accept the national apology because of leadership shown on the issue by the current Federal Government.

Professor Martha Augoustinos and Associate Professor Amanda LeCouteur began studying the public debate into a possible apology to indigenous people, following the 1997 release of a report into the Stolen Generations by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

"The report generated previously unheard of public debate in Australia and raised awareness of the maltreatment of indigenous people," Professor Augoustinos says.

"Over the past decade, most Australians would in some way have been exposed to or been engaged in the debate about whether a national apology should be offered to the Stolen Generations.

"Although the public debate has been polarised over the years, it's fair to say that Australians have generally been ambivalent about an apology, which is why the leadership on the issue has been so important."

Professor Augoustinos and Dr LeCouteur have published a number of papers on the issue, including a chapter in the book Collective guilt: International perspectives (2004) by Cambridge Press. They found that the debate had seen a number of recurring arguments, including:

  • No to an apology - present generations of non-indigenous Australians shouldn't be blamed or held accountable;
  • No - guilt is an inappropriate emotion, and saying "sorry" is an admission of guilt;
  • No - the act of saying "sorry" is too divisive for the community;
  • No - it's all in the past, and we can't change what has happened;

  • Yes to an apology - an apology is an acknowledgement of past ills, without accepting responsibility;
  • Yes - it's socially appropriate; an act of "civility" to apologise;
  • Yes - an apology is a symbolic pre-requisite for reconciliation.

"The comments made publicly at the time by the Howard Government gave a sense of official legitimacy to those who felt unsure about an apology, or who were against it for a variety of reasons," Professor Augoustinos says.

"The public mood has shifted since the initial debate, and the leadership currently being shown by the Rudd Government will have a further influence on that. There is now a groundswell of positive mood towards an apology," she says.


Contact Details

Professor Martha Augoustinos
School of Psychology
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 4627
Mobile: 0418 893 156

Dr Amanda LeCouteur
Associate Professor
School of Psychology
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 5557
Mobile: 0412 561 058

Mr David Ellis
Deputy Director, Media and Corporate Relations
External Relations
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 5414
Mobile: +61 (0)421 612 762