How’s this for a resurgence of public debate?

While the debate between Howard and Rudd was going on, Bob Brown and the Greens were holding their own ‘People’s Forum‘ in another room in Parliament House, and had asked for questions from the general public on their blog not long ago, some of which would potentially be asked tonight.

I asked a simple question about whether or not the Greens would push for endangered indigenous languages in Australia to be urgently documented in an effort to prevent any further loss – a pretty vacuous question, especially to ask of the Greens, I admit. But lo and behold, it was summarised (for the sake of time) and asked at the forum, and the whole thing was recorded straight away and uploaded to YouTube!

So witness (halfway through), the most concise answer a politician has ever given.


The Great Debate between Herr Howard and The Ruddster was tonight, and I do believe, unless I’m hallucinating, that I heard Mr Howard say he was sorry – and yes, it was in relation to Australia’s history with respect to Aborigines. Except, and this is the clincher, it was an apology that, rather than an apology for.

You can see the section on reconciliation extracted from the entire debate on the ABC website here, and don’t worry, you don’t have to sift through too much to find Howard’s pseud-apology, it’s right at the beginning. In his own words:

Well, I’m sorry, that people were mistreated in the past. Of course I’m sorry. But that’s different from this generation accepting responsibility for the deeds of an earlier generation.

Look, the idea of asking a present generation to apologise for the deeds of an earlier generation is offensive to millions of Australians, and I will never embrace that.

Hear that? He "will never embrace that".

A few years ago I wrote a lengthy semantics essay on the subject of the apology, which earned me a high distinction¹ from the very astute Michael Walsh, and this is an excellent case-study. Howard apologised that a state of affairs has transpired, though he specifically rules out taking any responsibility for it. This is contrasted with apologising for a state of affairs for which the speaker is responsible in some way.

If you want me to go into detail, here is the breakdown of the speech act ‘to be sorry’ into semantically simple sub-events (where x represents a state of affairs). And, sorry for the simplistic language like ‘feel bad for’, but this is how semantic events are traditionally analysed:

    I know that x has occurred
    [I think that I caused x]
    I think that x was bad for you
    I assume you feel bad because of x
    [I assume you feel bad towards me for causing x]
    I say: I feel bad because of that (edict)
    I say this because I want you to know this
    I assume you want to know this

Those two lines within square brackets represent the crucial semantic difference between an apology that (where they’re absent) and an apology for. Remember the Pope’s famous apology that some people were offended by his incredibly racist remarks? He did not imply that he caused the state of affairs (the offending remark), nor did he concede that others felt bad towards him for his having caused such a state of affairs. In effect, he skillfully and tactfully avoided responsibility.

Of course I’m not suggesting John Howard is responsible, either directly or indirectly, for any of the atrocities committed with respect to aborigines in this country before about 1975. He couldn’t have been – he was just a Canterbury Boys’ High School student appearing on radio quiz shows.

Either way, specifically saying ‘sorry’ is a step much farther than he’s so far been prepared to take. His only concessions have been to move a Motion of Reconciliation, which expresses:

…deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices.

For perspective, all state and territory governments at the time issued there own apology and all of them, except for the federal ‘expression of regret’, included some inflection on the sequence ‘apologise for’. All 9 official statements are published on the Wikipedia page about the Bringing The Home report, which sparked the reconciliation debate back in mid 1999.

What’s my point in this post? Should Howard personally accept responsibility? I don’t think so, no. Should he, as the current leader of the government, issue a statement on behalf of all Australians which assumes collective responsibility for shameful acts of colonisation, systematic abuse and even genocide, resulting in there being a seriously disadvantaged group of people who stand to lose there culture if we don’t act, within a country that prides itself on its so-called economic excellence?

I personally think the answer to that one, hard as it may be for others to accept, is ‘yes’.


¹Sorry – it was one of the few HDs I got during my entire tertiary education.

I don’t want to be presumptuous about the up-coming election or anything, but since it seems quite probable that the government won’t be re-elected, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on the good old days when John Howard wasn’t Prime Minister.

So here’s an extract of his very entertaining appearance on Jack Davey’s radio quiz show on 2GB in 1955, except it’s considerably shorter than a version I heard on ABC radio a couple of years ago. If anyone knows where a copy of the original is, don’t keep it a secret. It goes for about 10 minutes and is hilarious.

Here’s the extract I found:

I especially like his answer than you’d find a mezzanine floor ‘on the floor of a house in a- a middle-eastern country’.

As funny as it is, hearing this is kind of eery. It’s like watching Star Wars: The Phantom Menace with a young, innocent Anakin Skywalker, who you know is inevitably going to become Darth Vadar in time for the story to catch up to the original Star Wars films… of thirty years earlier, and summarily bugger up the galaxy.

You – well, not me, since I was never hugely into Star Wars, but this was too fine an analogy to pass up – you kind of want to yell to the young Skywalker Don’t turn to the dark side, Anakin!

Don’t go into politics, Little Johnny!

The PM is in trouble. This, we all well know as it’s been covered exhaustively on just about every media outlet for days, but hearing it over and over again makes it no less wonderful.

The country is awash with political commentary right now, so I’m not going to flood the market with any more. However, I will add some linguistic commentary into the mix.

It is common knowledge that for the many years that Howard has been steadily growing older and more stubborn, he has been telling anyone who asks that he will stay in the job as long as he can. Specifically, he says:

    I will stay as long as my party wants me to and it’s in the party’s best interests that I do.

On reading that, you might make the assumption that he will stay only if two necessary conditions are met: that 1. his party wants him to stay and 2. that his staying is in their bests interests. In other words, it normally gets parsed (by me at least) as:

    (I will stay as long as [(my party wants me to) and (it’s in the party’s best interests that I do)])

Logically speaking then, if either condition isn’t met, if his party do not want want him to stay or his staying is not in their best interests, he should resign as leader of the Liberal party.

However, the intonation doesn’t quite agree with this. I’ve even found the very quote, or at least one instantiation thereof – remember he’s said it that many times – and I’ve extracted the important bit, using WordPress’s nifty mp3 embedding tool (failing that you can download the mp3 from here, it’s only 30KB!):

Notice the intonation? He didn’t say he’d stay as long as it is in the party’s best interests, he said that his staying is in the party’s best interests. He (possibly) intended it to parse as:

    [I will stay as long as my party wants me to] and [it’s in the party’s best interests that I do]

At the moment it is certainly not in his party’s interest that he stays; he’s a liability. But he won’t go of course, because, under this interpretation at least, he never said he would. He only said he’d go if the party want him to. The fact that his staying is in the best interests of the party is asserted.

It’s just like interests rates. “We will keep interest rates lower” they said. The moment they went up, Howard turns around and said “when I said lower, I meant lower than they would have been had Labor been elected instead” which is of course, absolutely untestable.