13 March 2013

Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations was a meaningful step for some Indigenous Australians, but action is still needed to progress reconciliation, a University of Queensland researcher has found.

Dr Catherine Philpot from UQ’s School of Psychology has conducted research exploring Indigenous peoples’ attitudes and responses to the apology.

In collaboration with a team of researchers from UQ and Deakin University, Dr Philpot used her Postdoctoral Research Fellowship to examine the psychological impact the then-Prime Minister's 2008 apology had on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people forcibly removed from their families under previous governments.

“The research was based on interviews with Aboriginal Australians from urban, regional and remote locations across Australia about their attitudes toward the apology and forgiveness,” Dr Philpot said.

“Previous studies of the apology focused on non-Indigenous Australians’ perceptions and discourses, but none had examined the meaning of the apology for those Indigenous Australians who were the intended recipients and beneficiaries,” she said.

“Our research fills an important gap in the literature on intergroup apologies and will provide insight into the impacts of group apologies upon victim groups throughout the world.”

Dr Philpot said a dominant theme was that, for the apology to be truly meaningful, there needed to be action commensurate with its emotion.

“Some thought the apology should have been extended to all Indigenous Australians and not just the Stolen Generations, whereas others described an appreciation for the event itself, but expressed sadness or anger about the actions that had necessitated an apology and for the many injustices that remain to be redressed,” she said.

Dr Philpot said findings from the qualitative research demonstrated positive, negative and mixed views toward the apology and forgiveness held by Indigenous Australians, but it was important to note that the study did not represent the views of all Indigenous Australians.

“There are many different Aboriginal language and cultural groups, and individuals within them hold a range of opinions,” she said.

One of the strongest themes to emerge from the research was that participants appreciated the apology.

“I just remember that it [the apology] was good. It touched my _aya_u [innermost being] and made me feel good because it was the first time someone in government says that they feel sorry for us and for all that has happened to us.” – Remote participant.

“It means that we weren’t lying about our own history, or what we went through. It wasn’t a lie, we didn’t dream it, and it wasn’t a nightmare.” - Rural participant.

Dr Philpot noted that those participants who thought Indigenous Australians had already forgiven did not spontaneously list the apology as a key contributor to forgiveness.

“People that forgave did so for deeply personal reasons,” she said.

Participants' comments suggest the apology was an important step on the journey to reconciliation, but action was essential.

“If apologies are accompanied by action that addresses the victim group’s concerns for justice, they can promote both forgiveness and reconciliation among a broader section of people,” she said.

Media Enquiries: Dr Catherine Philpot (M) 0413 317 530, email: c.philpot@uq.edu.au, or Kristen Bastian (UQ Communications): (T) 3346 9279, email: k.bastian@uq.edu.au