Sorry Day has been on the calendar since 26 May 1998's first anniversary of the tabling in Federal Parliament of the Bringing them Home report. The report documented the forced removal of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families for much of the 20th century. The children who were removed have come to be known as the Stolen Generations.
There are a number of commemorative days that focus attention on the needs and rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, such as National Close the Gap Day in March and Mabo Day on 3 June. Paradoxically Sorry Day is not one of them.
It is instead a day for non-indigenous Australians to dwell on themselves and their failures. To think about such important issues as how we can improve Indigenous health in this country is always a good thing. But actually it defeats the purpose of Sorry Day, which, if we are non-indigenous Australians, is all about us.
As an exercise in secular soul-searching, former Prime Minister Paul Keating's 1992 Redfern Speech does exactly what Sorry Day encourages all non-indigenous Australians to do. Its most memorable lines are not about Indigenous Australians at all, but the Europeans who stole their land, their children and their dignity.
We committed the murders.
We took the children from their mothers.
We practised discrimination and exclusion.
It was our ignorance and our prejudice.
And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.
Keating says 'the plight of Aboriginal Australians affects us all'. By 'affects', he means that it penetrates not only our minds, but our hearts as well. So our action to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians is not based in ideology or something we think we should do to pay our dues. It's much deeper, something we want to do for the fulfilment of our own lives as well as those of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.
Importantly Keating implores non-indigenous Australians to acknowledge their guilt and then to quickly move on and 'see the things which must be done — the practical things'. Guilt on its own, he says 'is not a very constructive emotion' because 'what we need to do is open our hearts a bit'.
It is significant that Sorry Day comes at the beginning of Reconciliation Week, not the end. Timing and sequence are important. Those familiar with the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius will know that the First Week's dwelling on sinfulness is only a means to the end of making the person on retreat ready to be of service to others.
It's similar for National Reconciliation Week — Sorry Day is getting us ready to take whole-hearted constructive action that will help close the gap between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.