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Monday, July 11, 2005


Left: Archbishop Desmond Tutu

This topic has been stirring in mind over many years - ever since Bill Clinton made a public apology for his actions with Monica Lewinsky. Much hatred surrounded Bill Clinton and there was no doubt the Republican Party was out to get him in a big, big way and were not going to let go. But, it occurred to me, if a public figure apologises sincerely on an issue that has affected the public life of a nation then how can that figure be told he or she is forgiven. How can forgiveness be demonstrated, how can dialogue be entered into.

This is the case with Bill Farmer on his resignation from the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMIA). There are a lot of us in this nation who have been highly critical of Bill Farmer and his department. His department has been heavy handed, inhumane and unjust. This has been demonstrated beyond argument. Bill Farmer as a bureaucrat, not able to take media grabs as a Minister does, took the one opportunity he had - an appearance before a Parliamentary Committee - to apologise. He is now leaving his position and his deputy takes the leadership. We don't know yet how good he will be at his job and how well he will bring change to a department sorely in need of it. Then there is the Department of Immigration itself. Bill Farmer is one person. Clearly, there were many, many others only too willing to take a hardline, inhumane stance in implementing the policies and rules and regulations of DIMIA. Can a whole Department say sorry? Can a whole Department be forgiven? If so, what is the process? Corporate collectives such as businesses, bureaucracies, clubs and so on can take on identities and characteristics of their own just as individuals do. Because of this, my view is that responsibilities and actions demanded of the individual can, for the most part, be expected of them. So for these corporate collectives, there should be opportunities for them to apologise, take part in dialogue, and be part of a forgiveness process with those who are stakeholders.

South Africa has led the way with defining new approaches and processes with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The premise is simple - vengeful bloodletting would hinder national progress into a new era. This so often happens in national life as well. Roadblocks to a new country, a new vision.

This is the case in Australia with the ups and downs of reconciliation with the First Peoples of this land and the Prime Minister's reluctance to say sorry. What is the measure of a nation who is willing to excoriate figures and collectives in public life but has no room for a process of dialogue, forgiveness, and reconciliation?

I have no process to suggest. I just want those who read this to consider and if there is sufficient agreement perhaps the nation can begin to discuss how we bring to our public life a discourse of apology, dialogue, forgiveness and reconciliation.