Apologising for the past

A discourse analysis on Australia’s national apology for forced adoption


The purpose of the essay is to analyse the concept of collective apologies in comparison to standard apology formulas. To do this, the text I have chosen is a speech by the Hon PM Julia Gillard ‘National apology for forced adoption’ (21 March 2013). I have chosen this particular speech as it is the latest political collective apology in Australia and has not been analysed to such an extent as previous collective apologies. Such as President Bill Clinton’s (1997) Tuskegee Syphilis experiment apology and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (2008) Stolen Generations apology (Edwards, 2010, p. 61).

The text is a formal apology made by the PM on behalf of herself, the Australian government and its people to those women and families affected by the policies and practices of the time. The text is a political speech, it is rhetorical in nature and falls under the genre of apologia. The text enables the nature of collective apologies to be analysed, which is an important area to analyse, as there has been a growing trend in the use of collective apologises and much of the data and models on apology have been devised from primarily informal settings (Harris, Grainger, Mullany & Louise 2006, p. 720).

To provide the required insight needed to analyse the similarities and differences between the two apology formulas, I have drawn on frameworks from Ohlshtain & Cohen (1983, pp. 18-35) focusing primarily on the purpose of an apology and the formulas for a standard apology when the offender is positively inclined to apologise.

After establishing these components, the strategies used by politicians and other leaders to perform a collective apology will be identified and analysed. Namely, the specific purpose of apologising in this form and the formulas used to make this type of apology qualify as an apology and make it sincere. These strategies will be outlined in the selected text.

Finally, within the discussion the differences and similarities between a standard apology and collective apology will be analysed as well as the linguistic features that distinguish them and the implications and significance of this difference.

Contextual background

Before analysing the concepts and strategies between a standard apology and collective apology strategies used in Julia Gillard’s speech, it is necessary to provide a brief background into the growing trend of collective apologies and the adoption policies and practices that led to a need for an apology. Since the end of the Cold War, the use of collective apologies has become a phenomenon across the world. Political, religious, and community leaders have apologized for injustices inflicted on others years or decades earlier (Edwards, 2010). Leaders in the US (Barkan, 2000) and the United Kingdom have apologized for past injustices committed by their governments to citizens or neighboring countries during times of conflict (Barkan & Karn, 2006; Marrus, 2007). French President, Jacque Chirac, expressed regret for the French role in persecuting Jews during World War II (Fette, 2006) and Pope John Paul II issued a mea-culpa for various crimes committed by the Catholic Church over its history (Edwards, 2010). Similarly, in Australia, within the past six years the Australian government has made three national apologies, including its latest apology to those impacted by forced adoption (National Museum of Australia, n.d).

Statistics show that during the 1920s to 1980s a very high number of babies were put up for adoption in Australia, and until a range of social, legal and economic changes in the late 1970s, unwed (single) women who were pregnant were ‘encouraged’—or forced—to give up their babies for adoption. These mothers had no prior knowledge or awareness during their pregnancies that their sons or daughters would be placed for adoption and the majority were organised through a formal institution and taken by illegal means (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2012, pp. xi- xviii).

…pregnancy out of wedlock meant that these women were seen as “unfit” mothers… “closed adoption”, were seen as the solution… where an adopted child’s original birth certificate was sealed forever and an amended birth certificate issued that established the child’s new identity and relationship with their adoptive family (p.xi).

A government report undertaken by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (2012) into past adoption experiences found an alarming number of women and men who were exposed to and experienced the practices of forced adoptions during the 1920-1980 have continued to suffer (p. xi- xviii).

Research found that action was needed to respond to the ways in which closed adoption had affected these people’s lives. These actions included:

• acknowledgement and recognition of past adoption practices (including the role of apologies and financial resources to address current service and support needs) and

• improved access to and assistance with costs for mental, behavioural and physical health services (p.xviii).

On 21 March 2013, the Hon PM Julia Gillard made a formal apology on behalf of herself, the Australian government and its people to those women and families affected by the policies and practices that led to forced adoptions and the trauma that it caused.

Conceptual Background

Standard Apology
According to Ohlshtain & Cohen (1990), an apology is a speech act that aims to address a situation by providing “support for the hearer who was actually or potentially mal-affected by a violation for which the speaker is at least partially responsible” (p.46). Therefore, the purpose of an apology is to re-establish harmony between two people and by doing so repair the speaker’s image (ethos) characteristically; this is done within a proximate period of the violation. An apologia is defined as a ‘‘speech of self-defence’’ (Ware & Linkugel, 1973, p. 279).

Ohlshtain and Cohen, go on to explain that the severity of the violation or the different circumstances relating to the behaviour these can warrant different types of apologies and different intensities of an apology (Ohlshtain & Cohen, 1983, p.19) .
Furthermore, according to Blum-Kulka and Ohlshtain (1984) there are three preconditions that must hold true for the apology act to take place. Firstly, the speaker has committed or is about to commit a violation. Secondly, the violation is perceived by the speaker, hearer or both or alternatively by a third party as a breach of a social norm. Thirdly, the violation is perceived by at least one of the parties involved as offending, harming, or affecting hearer in some way (p. 206).

This essay will analyse the strategy used for a standard apology when the offender is positively inclined to apologise. Here Ohlshtain and Cohen (1983) point out five potential semantic formulas that emerge when offering an apology. They are “expression of apology, acknowledgement of responsibility, explanation, offer of repair and promise of non-reoccurrence” (p.22). Often, these formulas can consist of a number of sub formulas and can range from formal to informal depending on the use of multiple formulas or simply one. In Australia, a crucial factor for performing an apology is that the apology is direct and that a performative verb such as apologise, sorry, excuse or regret is used to express sincerity (p.22). In English, the most common form of apology is made through an expression of regret such as “I’m sorry”. However, as discussed by Blum-Kulka and Ohlshtain, one can perform an apology without an illocutionary force indicating device (IFID) whilst also staying true to the preconditions of an apology act, by referring to one or more semantic formulas. Thus, an individual can also apologise for a violation by firstly taking responsibility for that violation and secondly by showing willingness to offer repairs or promising forbearance (p.206). However, this approach is less commonly used, as failure to use an appropriate IFID can lead to an unsuccessful apology attempt (p.206).

Collective apology

Before analysing the speech itself, it is important to establish the fundamental elements that encompass a collective apology. Firstly, the most fundamental aspect of a collective apology is its purpose. According to Edwards (2010), the main purpose of such an apology is to “to repair relationships between victimizer and victim harmed by past wrongdoing” (p.61). In political collective apologies, the victimizer is often governments or political parties who discriminate or punish minorities through treatment or policies; these minorities are the victims of such treatment. By issuing an apology, leaders are able to change the dominant perception of history by changing how these events would be remembered and differentiate their government from previous ones that allowed such atrocities to be committed (p.63). Collective apology speeches focus on “meditations on past, present, and future relationships” (p.62).

Now that the purpose of a collective apology has been established, the four main strategies that make up this discourse can be analysed. According to Edwards (2010) and Harris et al. (2006), there are four common characteristics. Firstly, collective apologies “are highly mediated events in the public domain, designed with a wider audience in mind” (Augoustinos. Hastie & Wright. 2011, p. 510). These audiences can include the victims, other political leaders as well as national or international audiences (p.510). Secondly, there must be an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Lazare (2004, cited in Edwards, 2010, p. 64) states that an “asserted acknowledgement of wrongdoing is the most important aspect of an apology because if a rhetor is not forthcoming with what was done then the sentiment of the apology seems suspect” (p.65). The most common strategies used to do this are by reckoning with past injustices and or by specifying who the victims were. By identifying the transgressions committed against the injured parties and identifying who they were/are leaders recognise the victim’s humanity, and as Shriver (1995) notes, this ‘‘lays a groundwork for both the construction and repair of any human community’’ (p. 8).

Thirdly, political leaders must accept responsibility and express remorse for the injustices committed. For this to be considered valid by victims, media and public, an explicit IFID must be used, such as ‘sorry’ and/or ‘apolo¬gize’. As many collective apologies issued by leaders of governments are apologizing for events in the past, acceptance of responsibility or blame is pri¬marily institutional rather than personal. However, “apologies that do not acknowledge responsibility tend to be perceived as insincere, undermine their function as apologies, and often generate further controversy and public debate” (Augoustinos et al. 2011, p. 510).

Finally, political leaders will identify and implement corrective action plans to prevent the reoccurrence of past injustices as well as rectify and repair damages these injustices created. Though political collective apologies tend to incorporate corrective action, other collective apologies do not always use an act of reparation, other than the apology itself; rather focusing on the symbolic act of the apology (Augoustinos et al. 2011, p. 510).


Now that we have established the fundamental elements and formulas of a collective apology, we can transfer and analyse them within the selected text. The speech was delivered in the Great Hall in Canberra and was attended by over 800 people affected by forced adoption as well as members of parliament, the media and public (ABC News, 2013), thus, fulfilling the first prerequisite of a collective apology by occurring in a public arena.

Secondly, throughout the speech Gillard acknowledges the wrongdoing committed by the government and the Australian people. She goes into detail of the “shameful practices” that denied mothers of their “fundamental rights and responsibilities to love and care for their children”, detailing methods of “coercion and brutality of practices that were unethical, dishonest and …illegal”. By disclosing the full extent of the injustices inflicted, Gillard is fully reckoning and acknowledging past injustices as well as the “loss and grief” felt, by doing this, the sentiment behind her apology comes across as sincere.

Furthermore, she specifically acknowledges those affected by the transgressions: “we recognise the hurt these actions caused to brothers and sisters, grandparents, partners and extended family”. She pays particular attention to the mothers, children and fathers and individually apologises to each of these groups. “To you, the mothers who were betrayed, we apologise…to each of you who were adopted or removed, we apologise… to you the fathers, who were excluded…we acknowledge your loss and grief”. This act, of acknowledging all those affected shows to the victims that Gillard comprehends how far reaching the transgressions were.
The terms, “we acknowledge”, and “we recognise”, are used six times within the speech, an anaphora technique used to emphasise a point. Here it is used to emphasise Gillard’s true understanding and sincerity (Tuman, 2008, cited in Edwards, 2010, p 68).

Thirdly, the first sentence of the speech admits responsibility and remorse and uses an explicit IFID needed for the apology to be accepted by victims and public alike. “Today, this Parliament, on behalf of the Australian people, takes responsibility and apologises for the policies and practices that forced the separation of mothers from their babies, which created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering”. Here, Gillard accepts responsibility on behalf of herself and her parliament and expresses remorse for all Australians. This statement clearly indicates the collective nature of the apology and is further reiterated with the use of anaphora in the collective term “we”, used 23 times. Within, this relatively short speech an explicit IFIDs “sorry” and “apologise” are used 11 times and the epistrophe technique, using “we say sorry” at the end of a sentence, is used five times (Zimmer, 2011), to highlight Gillard’s contrition and gives the audience time to reflect on what is being said.

Fourthly, Gillard offers solutions to rectify and repair damage these injustices created by stating:
To redress the shameful mistakes of the past, we are committed to ensuring that all those affected get the help they need, including access to specialist counselling services and support, the ability to find the truth in freely available records and assistance in reconnecting with lost family. As well as pledging action, that will prevent the reoccurrence of injustices committed, Gillard pledges “as a nation, to do all in our power to make sure these practices are never repeated”.

Finally, and most importantly, the purpose of this speech was to highlight the injustices inflicted upon women during a time when women’s rights were almost non-existent and speaking out was considered taboo, to acknowledge the loss and grief inflicted as well as express sympathy and regret. By confessing and discussing the atrocities committed, both parties can begin to meditate on past, present, and future relationships and hope to facilitate healing and repair and rebuild relationships that were lost and tarnished. As demonstrated above, the selected text meets all five criteria of a collective apology as outlined by Edwards (2010). Furthermore, the text distinctly follows a different pattern to that of a standard apology, as will be discussed in more detail below.


As a continuation of the analysis, the differences and similarities between these two apologizing strategies will be examined. Firstly, the linguistic features, purpose and intent of these two apologies differ greatly. This was illustrated in the collective apology given by Gillard. A standard apology is a speech act that aims to address a situation between two people with the direct purpose of re-establish harmony, the intent of the speaker is to repair his/her own image (Ohlshtain & Cohen, 1990, p. 46). Collective apologies however, are not part of a speech set (Edwards, 2010, p 71), and they are not addressed to a single individual, but rather a group or community. No violation needs to have been committed by the speaker, thus ultimately scrapping the preconditions set out by Blum-Kulka and Ohlshtain (1984). The purpose of a collective apology is to repair relationships between victimizer and victim harmed by past wrongdoing(Edwards, 2010, p.61). Gillard’s purpose and intent was not improving her own image but repair relationships and differentiate her government from previous ones, in order to change history.

Furthermore, a standard apology can differ in intensity from formal to informal but is characteristically informal in nature. Due to the seriousness of the injustices being apologized for in collective apologies; in this case forced adoption, collective apologies are always formal in nature. Furthermore, a standard apology is expressed within a proximate period of time unlike collective apologies that can be offered for violation years or decades after, for example Gillard expressed remorse for transgressions committed decades earlier.

Finally, the results between the two differ greatly. The results of the apology given by Gillard brought awareness and recognition to the treatment inflicted on single mothers to the public. It allowed victims to reflect on what had happened to them and facilitate healing, it also opened up gateways for victims to receive treatment and reconnect with lost family members. The results of a standard apology are simply to re-establish harmony and social norm between two people.

Though there are many differences between the two apologizing strategies, there are also similarities. Four of the five potential semantic formulas offered by Ohlshtain and Cohen in a standard apology being an expression of apology, acknowledgement of responsibility, offer of repair and promise of non-reoccurrence (1983, p.22) can be identified within a collective apology. In both strategies, the need to use an explicit IFID is high, however, as demonstrated in the text, a collective apology must meet all the criteria in order to be accepted as an apology, whereas, standard apologies only needs to meet one or two.


The purpose of the essay was to analyse the concept of collective apologies in comparison to standard apology formulas, using the speech ‘National apology for forced adoption’ delivered by Julia Gillard. By outlining the formulas for each apology and then identifying collective apology strategies used in the selected text, we are able to see clear differences. As demonstrated above, the selected text meets all the criteria of a collective apology as outlined by Edwards (2010) and does not meet certain core elements of a standard apology.

Good governance recognises the need for accountability and that apologising is sometimes needed to maintaining social norm and harmony, however, often at a much larger scale. Therefore, the criteria for a collective apology meet the needs of leaders who not only want to re-establish social norm and harmony but repair relationships between victims and victimizer.
Therefore, this raises questions as to the categorising of a collective apology. If it does not meet the needs of apologia, and significantly differs in purpose, intent and results then should a separate genre be created for this phenomenon. More research is needed into this particular field in order to keep up with the changes in society’s expectations and behaviour of our leaders.

Reference List

ABC News. (2013) Gillard delivers apology to victims of forced adoption. Retrieved 2 April, 2013 from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-03-21/gillard-delivers-apology-to-victims-of-forced-adoption/4585972

Augoustinos, M. Hastie, B. & Wright, M. (2011). Apologizing for historical injustice: Emotion, truth and identity in political discourse. Discourse & Society, 22(5), 105-142.

Australian Institute of Family Studies. (2012, August). Past adoption experiences: National Research Study on the Service Response to Past Adoption Practices. (Research Report No. 21). Canberra, Australia: Author.

Barkan, E. (2000). The guilt of nations: Restitution and negotiating historical injustice. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Barkan, E. & Karn, A. (2006). Group apology as an ethical imperative. In E. Barkan & A. Karn(Eds.),Taking wrongs seriously: Apologies and reconciliation. (pp. 3–30). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Blum-Kulka, S. & Olshtain, E. (1984). Requests and Apologies: A Cross-Cultural Study of Speech Act Realization Patterns (CCSARP) 1. Applied Linguistics, 5 (3), 196-213.

Cohen, A. D. & Olshtain, E. (1983). Apology: A speech act set. In N. Wolfson & E. Judd (Eds.), Sociolinguistics and language acquisition (pp. 18-35). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Cohen, A. D. & Olshtain, E. (1990). The learning of complex speech act behaviours. TESL Canada Journal, 7(2), 45-65.

Edwards, Jason A. (2010) Apologizing for the Past for a Better Future: Collective Apologies in the United States, Australia, and Canada. Southern Communication Journal, 75(1), 57 — 75

Fette, J. (2006). The apology moment: Vichy memories in 1990s France. In E. Barkan & A. Karn (Eds.).Taking wrongs seriously: Apologies and reconciliation (pp. 259–286). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Harris, Sandra. Grainger, Karen and Mullany, Louise. (2006) The pragmatics of political apologies. Discourse & Society, 17(6), 715-737.

Lazare, A. (2004). On apology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marrus, M. R. (2007). Official apologies and the quest for historical justice. The Journal of Human Rights, 7, 75–105.

National Museum of Australia. (n.d) National Apology and unfinished business. Retrieved April 23, 2013, from http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/inside_life_in_childrens_homes_and_institutions/apology

Shriver, D. (1995). An ethnic for enemies: Forgiveness in politics. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 1-10.

Tuman, J. (2008).Political communication in American campaigns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Ware, B. L., & Linkugel, W. A. (1973). They spoke in defense of themselves: On the genericcriticism of apologia. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 59, 273–283.

Zimmer, J. (2011). Rhetorical Devices: Anaphora. World Press.com. Retrieved 6 May, 2013 from http://mannerofspeaking.org/2011/06/05/rhetorical-devices-epistrophe/

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