Unless you were a little angel when you were a child, all of us have memories of being told to apologise at some point to someone. Sometimes, saying 'sorry’ just wasn’t enough. I recall looking a schoolmate straight in the eye, internalising how he felt to the point where I had tears in my own eyes. This is called empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
As children, empathy is taught, encouraged, even enforced. But as adults, it can have a tendency to fall by the wayside.
In politics, policy and legislation, a lack of empathy in our leaders can have devastating impacts. It’s clear from daily rhetoric that the prevalent political culture is hardly conducive to fostering empathy.
But days like today – National Day of Healing (formerly National Sorry Day) – can serve as reminders that empathy is at the heart of all of our great steps towards reconciliation.
"But days like today – National Day of Healing (formerly National Sorry Day) – can serve as reminders that empathy is at the heart of all of our great steps towards reconciliation"
In 1998, the Howard Government declared May 26 – the anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report, published in 1997 by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission – to be National Sorry Day. In 2005, it was renamed the ‘National Day of Healing’, with Senator Aden Ridgeway saying on behalf of the National Sorry Day Committee that "the Day will focus on the healing needed throughout Australian society if we are to achieve reconciliation."
Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice commissioner Tom Calma agreed that this day should be about looking towards reconciliation.
“Reconciliation concerns both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – we are bound to each other’s fate. In order to achieve reconciliation we must heal together – reconciliation is everyone’s responsibility,” he said in 2005.
"In order to achieve reconciliation we must heal together - reconciliation is everyone’s responsibility,” he said in 2005"
Indeed, it was a momentous occasion and a big step forward.
And at the heart of saying the word ‘sorry’ was the acknowledgment – the empathy – for the mistreatment of Australia’s Aboriginal peoples.
The 1967 Referendum showed the world that the great population of Australia could empathise with Aboriginal people when an overwhelming majority voted "Yes" to recognising Aboriginal Australians in the Constitution. This was an act of solidarity shown towards Indigenous Australians that was never experienced before. The event would mark a significant milestone for the nation, enabling discussion and debates that would eventually lead us to various reconciliation achievements for years to come.
But perhaps there has been no greater act by a national leader – more profoundly passionate and honest –than Prime Minister Paul Keating’s 1992 Redfern Address. Paul Keating’s speech on Aboriginal reconciliation did not shy away from the issues faced by Indigenous Australians – their homelands being taken and children removed from families. His speech is considered by many to be one of the best speeches ever given by an Australian. And at its core, was empathy. That is where it derives its potency.
In 2008, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made the Apology to the Stolen Generations. If ‘sorry’ is a symbol of empathy, then this act was up there with Paul Keating’s Redfern speech.
"For many Indigenous Australians, saying ‘sorry’ can lack meaning, as Indigenous people were never compensated for crimes against them"
Sorry Day means many different things too different people. For many Indigenous Australians, saying ‘sorry’ can lack meaning, as Indigenous people were never compensated for crimes against them.
This is absolutely valid. After all, actions speak louder than words.
But it’s worth recognising that the starting point of ‘sorry’ is empathy. And without empathy reconciliation will remain remote.