An Australian activist
Dr. Diane Bretherton found
that a government apology for
past injustice only works when
it’s backed up by action.
Diane Bretherton, PhD, attended her first peace march, a protest against nuclear weapons, with her aunt in 1950,
at age 7. By 1993, she helped launch the International Conflict
Resolution Centre at the University of Melbourne, a position
that melded her long-standing commitment to peace activism
and nonviolence and her background in psychology.
For 25 years, Bretherton has explored the tension between
nonindigenous Australians and Australian Aborigines. Recently,
she and her colleagues have investigated how an apology from
the government might affect those perspectives. The researchers
interviewed a small sample of Aborigines to get their
perspectives about what form an apology should take, whom
it should come from and what difference it would make. In the
2006 study, published in Peace and Conflict, they report that
forgiveness and reconciliation would only be possible following
Bretherton retired in 2004, but she’s still working on
Aboriginal issues. In 2008, the Australian government formally
apologized for laws and policies that “inflicted profound grief,
JULY/AUGUST 2012 • MONITOR ON PSYCHOLOGY
suffering and loss,” including those that allowed Aboriginal
children to be taken from their families up until the 1970s.
After the apology, she and her colleagues launched a project to
examine what effect the apology had on Aboriginal people. The
response, she says, has been mixed.
“As the apology was to the Stolen Generation, it is limited
and does not include all Aborigines,” Bretherton says. Many
Aborigines she has spoken with emphasize the importance of
deeds and actions. Although the government apologized, little
has changed at the policy level.
Today, the relationship between the two cultures remains
strained and unequal. According to a government report, for
example, Aborigines make up just 2. 5 percent of the total
population, but 25 percent of the Australian prison population,
and Aboriginal youths are 28 times more likely to be detained
by police than other kids.
Bretherton hopes that her work might lead to “a more
dignified relationship and partnership” with Aboriginal people.
“We miss out on a huge amount by not reconciling,” she says. n