A Rhetorical Commentary on Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Indeginious People of Australia

Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Indigenous People of Australia is one of the best written political apology speeches of our time. This rhetorical commentary highlights some of these components and explains their use and effect.

The speech was delivered in the Australian Parliament in April 2008…

  • I move:1

1 It is interesting to note here that the ‘I’ is assumed to be Kevin Rudd. However, later on in the speech the speaker changes to a slightly ambiguous ‘we’. The ‘I move’ is a formality for Australian parliament. However, it also has a lot of meaning behind it. These words add legitimacy to what is about to be said, as it is coming from the parliament (this legitimacy through authority can be interpreted as a form of ethos). On the other hand, it is probably what was said before every speech that called for acts of oppression towards the indigenous peoples, giving it a more eerie tone than is probably intended for some listeners.


  • That today2 we3 honour the Indigenous peoples of this land4, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.5


2 ‘That today’ gives a sense of time (Karios). Rudd has defined the time as the present. This is intended to attract the attention of listeners. Karios often implies (as it the case here) that there is going to be sudden action, which seduces a listener into a state of concentration. In this case the karios is preparing the listener for the apology. A less subtle use of this technique can be found in Clinton’s apology speech over the Monica Lewinsky case when he starts: “This afternoon, in this room, from this chair”. As well as time place can be used, as is done in Clinton’s speech (see bibliography).

3 The ‘we’ must be referring to the Australian Parliament, however this is not made explicit. It is worth noting as the ‘we’ later on in the speech sounds like it may be coming from a different party.

4 ‘Of this land’ demonstrates that there is hesitation or question regarding their right to dwell in Australia. Australia’s past acts of genocide demonstrates that this issue was contentious. As such, calling the indigenous peoples ‘of this land’ is very symbolic, as it disassociates from ideas of the past. This also characterises the Indigenous peoples, giving an ethos that justifies their right to live in Australia.

5 The second part of this clause amplifies the symbolism of belonging and imposes an implication of rights. This is an ethos argument acting as the minor premise within an enthymeme. The implied conclusion being that the indigenous peoples of Australia have rights within Australia. The concept of being ‘the oldest’ implies they have the greatest claim to live in Australia, which socially implies that they have ‘rights’ to that land, equal to all other Australians. This poetic language is a use of auxesis. The two alliterative couplets: “continuing cultures” and “human history” are also very poetic in capturing the projected values of the Indigenous peoples. Alliteration is very effective in capturing the audience’s attention and couplets are good for reinforcing a point. This is also an example of antonomasia as Rudd has spoken about the group based on their characteristics. All of these rhetorical techniques are no doubt used to enforce Rudd’s point that these people deserve both praise and apology. This form of rhetorical praise is common amongst epideictic speeches.


  • We reflect6 on their past mistreatment.7


6 The ‘We reflect’ is also used for the start of the next sentence creating a use of anaphora. Anaphora is an effective way of repeating a point to enforce it upon the listeners. In this case, the point being, that Australia is reflecting with the intention of apologising. Either Rudd (or Rudd’s speechwriter) is a clearly devoted advocate of anaphora as Rudd’s farewell speech has 21 consecutive clauses that start with “I am proud” (see bibliography).

7 Mistreatment is also repeated in the next sentence. This repetition of A, B, A, B strongly emphasises that ‘they’ are reflecting upon the mistreatment.


  • We reflect in particular8 on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations9 – this blemished chapter10 in our nation’s history.11


8 ‘in particular’ acts as a variation to the previous sentence, this may perform a similar function to a hyperbaton. Such variations often catch the audience’s attention as they change the flow of a sentence. It achieves the same rhetorical effect as a hyperbaton. This also draws further emphasis to the Stolen Generations, which is designed to appeal to pathos.

 9 The direct reference to the Stolen Generations is a strong appeal to pathos. Pathos is always more effective when talking about the mistreatment of children. The pathos is very important in this speech, as apologies gain sincerity if the apologizers comprehend the suffering they have inflicted. It grants more meaning to the apology. As such, for Rudd to prove that he understands why what Australia did was wrong is crucial to the success of his speech. It is also important for those who were sceptical over the apology (those who believed that Australia shouldn’t apologise). It Rudd successfully draws sympathy from the sceptics he is more likely to convince them of his case. Successful pathos could act to justify the need for an apology to such people.

10 The beginning of the second part of this clause is a cliché. However it is presented in a very woeful manner which keeps it effective. It is important to note that it does not read: ‘This is a blemished chapter’ but rather “This blemished chapter”. As such, it is not a statement but rather an acknowledgement of pre-assumed truth.

11 According to Taft, acknowledging the damage caused by a crime or injustice is essential to authenticating an apology, as it is an acknowledgement to what the social norm should be and thus is a reinforcement of values (Taft 2000: 1140). Rudd mentions the damages caused throughout. By demonstrating that one understand why something is wrong, one is exposing one’s own values to criticism or appreciation by the audience (in this case with the intention that they will sympathise).

  • The time has now come12 for the nation to turn a new page13 in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs14 of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.15

12 As was mentioned before, talking of ‘time’ and ‘now’ adds urgency to what is to be said on the implication that actions is to follow. This is another use of karios (cf.2).

13 Rudd expands on the metaphor in (IV) however this time he encourages action by turning ‘a new page’. This is also conveniently ambiguous. It could mean paying millions in reparations or simply be acknowledging the injustices. I imagine he intended to cause ambiguity here; however he could not avoid the subject.

14 The use of ‘righting the wrongs’ is an antithesis. By presenting two opposites it creates a contrast between what has happened and what should be done. Contrast is a major theme in this speech. Rudd talks of moving forward (V) and people who were left behind (VIII). He has to demonstrate that Australia has a reformed set of socio-political values, and antithesis shows that contrast to the past is a good way to achieve this.

15 This clause is dedicated almost entirely to the encouragement of action. He specifies that ‘they’ should move with confidence towards the future. Whilst it is superfluous to mention this, as he certainly wouldn’t want them moving to the past, it is still powerful insomuch as it uses a word that his audience will detect as positive. Such words are often called ‘buzzwords’. Also, it is reinforcing the obvious. As I said earlier, it is important to reiterate the obvious as it shows your values at a core level.


  • We apologise16 for the laws and policies17 of successive Parliaments and governments18 that have inflicted19 profound grief, suffering and loss20 on these our fellow Australians.21

16 ‘We apologise’ is right at the beginning of the sentence thus placing emphasis on it (this is called the recency effect). It excites the audience’s anticipation as to what exactly he shall apologise for (or in this case how he shall deliver the apology). It is also repeated at the beginning of the next sentence creating another use of anaphora (cf.6). This is also the first point in which Rudd acknowledges the moral responsibility for the genocide against the indigenous peoples of Australia (see Zutlevics 2002: 65-6). Interestingly, at no point does he mention the word genocide.

17The semantic couplet of ‘laws and policies’ is the first of many. It is rhetorically known as abundantia. Rhetorically it is effective as it implies that there is no room for interpretation or exemption. In other words, what Rudd could have said is: ‘it does not matter if it was a law or a policy, we are sorry for it without any exception for its definition.’ The semantic couplet eliminates possibility for explanation and demonstrates the unconditional nature of the apology. This is why Rudd has chosen to use so many semantic couplets throughout this speech (especially in section 9).

18 It is at this point that the ‘we’ becomes ambiguous. Is he referring to the current Australian parliament or the Australian people? If he is referring to the Australian people then the ‘we’ must mean the white people of Australia, as he cannot be representing the indigenous peoples in an apology to the indigenous peoples. This is problematic within itself as it promotes the ‘us’ and ‘them’ conundrum, which implies racial division. The problem presented here is that he is apologising (which is good), but by doing so he is also reinforcing the racial divide which (which is bad). If this is the case then it acts against the intentions of his speech.

By mentioning the “successive Parliaments and governments” Rudd is distancing the current government from that of the past (specifically in policy). This is one of the reasons I argue that antithesis is important throughout this speech (cf.14). Distancing oneself from the past is a technique that current governments often use when apologising for the actions of past governments (Blatz, Schumann &Ross 2009:232). The reason that governments do this is because it separates and distances them from the position of responsibility, meaning that they don’t actively have to sort the problem (through such means as paying reparations). Before this speech was delivered there were issues raised by the Council of Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR) regarding responsibility (Merlan 2005:845-6). This makes Rudd’s lack of acknowledgement of responsibility even more intriguing. A good article to read regarding the relationship between past and present governments and moral responsibility would be Zutlevics’ (Zutlevics 2002:63-75). Blatz, Schumann & Ross also say that acceptance of responsibility is important to include in an apology (Blatz, Schumann & Ross 2009: 221). If we accept what Blatz, Schumann & Ross say then this apology is lacking one of the six crucial features to be effective; in fact, the rhetoric is being used to avoid one of the main points.

19 The use of ‘inflicted’ is very powerful, as it holds a tone of condemnation towards these actions, condemnation also acts towards distancing oneself from an action. If the speech expresses any form of condemnation towards the past genocides it further enhances its own position; that it is genuinely sorry for what has happened. 20 ‘Grief, suffering and loss’ is a tricolon which adds emphasis to the pathos which as I have already explained, is important to express if his apology it to sound sincere. This is also abundantia as every word is a variations of the other two. 21 The ending of this clause ‘Our fellow Australians’ implies unity and acceptance. These themes are much more prominent towards the end of the speech (XIII-XVIII).


  • We apologise especially22 for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children23 from their families, their communities and their country.24

22 The ‘especially’ is significant as it is a variation to the previous sentence giving the apology more direction and focus. It also implies that Rudd knows what to apologise for, which as I have said, increases the effectiveness of the apology.

23 Here again, pathos is created by referring to the children. However this pathos is to show that he understands just how serious the offences caused were. Demonstrating an understanding of how serious an injustice is is more effective than just acknowledging that there was an injustice. This conforms to the fourth point in Blatz, Schumann & Ross’ list of what an apology should include: “acknowledgement of harm/victim suffering” (Blatz, Schumann & Ross 2009: 221).

24 The use of the tricolon at the end of the clause causes the speech to escalate into a climax. The climax is achieved as it starts with family then progresses to the larger category which is the communities, then again to the larger category that is the country. Country is the only non-plural on the list. This is significant as it emphasises the idea of belonging to one united Australia, (‘countries’ would have implied division, which goes against what the speech is trying to achieve). What Rudd is doing is emphasising an identity. This sentence also presents alliterative couplets such as ‘from’ and ‘families’ as well as ‘communities’, and ‘country’ (cf.5).


  • For the pain, suffering and hurt25 of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families26 left behind27, we say sorry.28

25 ‘Pain, suffering and hurt’ is a use of abundantia in the form of a tricolon. As this is at the beginning of the sentence it emphasises the primary effect principle; so the emphasis is that for ‘X,Y & Z’. This is complimented by the “we say sorry” at the end which has the recency effect (being at the end). The combination of the two creates a Homeric disposition. This is a direct expression of remorse which is number one in Blatz, Schumann & Ross’ list (Blatz, Schumann & Ross 2009: 221).

26 This is followed almost immediately by another tricolon, the list again expands outwards from those who suffered the most, to those who not suffered as badly, to those who suffered the least of the three. This shows that his apology is designed to encompass everyone who was affected, irrespective of how serious or minor. This emphasises the universal all-encompassing nature of the apology. However, it also emphasises the magnitude of the injustice.

27 The use of the word ‘behind’ has a very strong mirror to the ‘moving forwards’ in (V). The implication of being in a certain place (as in ‘forward, ‘backwards’ or ‘the present location’) draws attention to the idea of making progress and looking to the future which is one of the key themes of the speech.

28 As the “we are sorry” is repeated at the end of the successive sentences it is a use of epistrophe. The “we are sorry” is powerful as it breaks the semantic fields expressed earlier (creating a similar effect to hyperbaton) but also affecting the rhythm. The breaking of rhythm places emphasis on the repeated “we are sorry”.


  • To the29 mothers and the fathers30, the brothers and the sisters31, for the32 breaking up of families and communities33, we say sorry.34

29 This clause starts with an apostrophe as the applied addressee has changed. By addressing someone directly it adds sincerity to what is being said, as it makes it more personal and easier for the audience to relate to. This is a demonstration that he understands the injustice caused, which is something that strengthens the sincerity and effectiveness of an apology (Krieken 2004: 143).

30 The reference to ‘mothers and fathers’ is an example of antithesis with abundantia. Whilst they are opposites, they are also referring to the same thing: it would be similar to chanting ‘to the parents and the parents’.

31 Rudd then again uses antithesis and abundantia but can be interpreted as: ‘to the siblings and the siblings’.

32 It is interesting to note that he now uses ‘for the’. Rudd has gone from:  ‘From the’ at the beginning of (VIII) to: ‘to the’ at the beginning of (IV) to: ‘for the’ again. This presents an A, B, B, A giving it the structure of a chiasmus.

33 This is the third time abundantia is used making it a tricolon of abundantia. Note that he does not use antithesis the third time.

34 The ‘we say sorry’ at the end of the clause stands out in particular as it is the only part of the sentence not in a couplet making this a hyperbaton. It is also part of the epistrophe (cf.28).

  • And for the indignity and degradation35 thus inflicted on a proud people36 and a proud culture37, we say sorry

35 ‘Indignity and degradation’ is yet another use of abundantia. The strong repetition of abundantia emphasises the unconditional nature of the apology (cf.16).

36 Rudd then goes on to use alliteration with ‘proud people’ and also ethos for the ‘proud people’. It is also a form of antonomasia as he is referring to them by a characteristic.

37 This is again ethos and antonomasia. The intense use of rhetoric techniques makes the beginning of the clause run really smoothly which strongly contrasts the quite abrupt ‘we are sorry’ at the end creating a rhythmical antithesis, which draws lots of focus and attention to the end. This also enhances the recency effect.

  • We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request38 that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered39 as part of the healing of the nation40.

38 ‘Respectfully request’ is alliteration. It is also an acknowledgement or hesitation of peoples’ refusal to accept this apology.

39 Often apologies are unpopular with a large majority (Blatz, Schumann & Ross 2009: 223). This may be a way of preventing or minimising a political backlash. This section of the speech clearly expresses a concern that the apology may not be accepted; possibly leaving some people feeling vulnerable. Blatz, Schumann & Ross explain why it is socially problematic to imply that a majority of your country is guilty of genocide (Blatz, Schumann & Ross 2009: 222). Taft interestingly mentions that often an apology can be interpreted as a sign of weakness by other cultures; especially if it is cross culture apologues (such as Rudd’s) (Taft 2000: 1142). Other scholars also write on these cultural differences, see: (Oliner 2005:14) and (Wagatsuma & Rosett 1986:462). Whether Rudd had this in mind when asking that the apology “be received in the spirit in which it is offered” would require further study into the indigenous population’s view towards apologies. Whilst this is beyond the academic restrictions of this commentary it is an interesting point to consider and may be relevant in the way it affects the rhetoric used throughout the apology.

40 When Rudd talks of the ‘healing of a nation’ he is demonstrating the intended nature of the apology (ethos). Whilst the apology is intended to be humble, it may appear slightly disingenuous at this point as Rudd is placing the burden of acceptance upon the indigenous peoples. This potentially undermines the value of the apology, as it distracts from the sincerity of the apology by drawing it into the political sphere.


  • For the future we take heart41; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent42 can now be written.43

41 This is again playing at ethos by presenting this positive, hopeful exterior.

42 By using their geographical identity there can be no cultural implications which may be inappropriate considering Australia’s past history with genocide. This is also characterisation of Australia as ‘great’ (achieving a similar effect as antonomasia). The communal implication brought about by the use of ‘our’ is significant as it implies unity, which common theme throughout the speech.

43 This clause extends the metaphor of “blemished chapter in our nation’s history” presented at (V). It also hints towards the concept of future progress that is important later in the speech (XIV) – (XVIII).

  • We today44 take this first step by acknowledging45 the past and laying claim to a future46 that embraces all Australians.47

44 This is the third time that Rudd has an acknowledgement of karios and setting. This adds an element of reality to the speech and the apology (cf.2).

45 It is interesting the acknowledgement is seen as a progressive step. Staub talks about how acknowledging pain and suffering helps the victim and makes an apology more effective (Staub 2000:  336). Interestingly the Oxford Classical Dictionary defines an apology as a “regretful acknowledgement”.

46 Rudd creates antithesis is by talking of both ‘past’ and ‘future’. Through the past he has laid claim to the future. This is also the first on many times he will speak of ‘the future’ (cf.14).

47 As well as the future here he begins to speak about unity, “all Australians” emphasises the unity that Rudd is aiming for. Being at the end of the sentence gives it recency effect, thus placing emphasis on the value of unity.


  • A future where48 this Parliament49 resolves that the injustices of the past50 must never, never51 happen again.52

48 “A future” is repeated at the beginning of the next five successive clauses creating an exaggerated use of anaphora.

49 It is interesting to note that he now says “this Parliament” rather than ‘we’. He did state earlier that he was speaking on behalf of the Parliament. It may be possible that the promise for progress from a Parliament is more meaningful as it has more power than an individual or group. If this is the case then this is a use of ethos.

50 When Rudd talks of the “injustices of the past” he sends a strong political message that these injustices are no longer part of the future or present. This defines the ethos of the present government and works towards distancing it from previous governments (cf.18). This emphasis is possibly the result of the lack of progress and the inequality still in place.

51 ‘Never, never’ is a form of repetition known as anadiplosis. Anadiplosis is particularly effective if the speaker slows down in between r directly after the repetition.

52 This clause offers a promise for the future, which Blatz, Schumann & Ross list as the fifth element that any effective apology needs (Blatz, Schumann & Ross 2009: 221).


  • A future where we53 harness54 the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous55, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.56

53 Here Rudd goes back to talking of ‘we’ from earlier on in the texts, probably no longer referring to the parliament (although this is ambiguous).

54 ‘A future where we harness’ is similar to ‘A future where we embrace’ in (XVI). ‘Embrace’ and ‘harness are both verbs, and can be interpreted as a call for action. Although at no point does he say that is what should happen, he just said that he has ‘taken the first step’ towards achieving this (XIII).

55 He also uses antithesis between the ‘Indigenous and non-Indigenous’ to emphasise the unity he is striving for.

56 This sentence ends with a tricolon and an isocolon. This basically lists social rights and values that he feels need to be equal amongst all citizens. By doing so he is emphasising the ideal that he wants to work towards.


  • A future where we embrace57 the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

57 ‘Embrace’ is a very positive word which when combined with ‘possibility’ is also a call for change.


  • A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.58


58 The repetition of ‘mutual’ is both anaphora as well as a tricolon. ‘Respect’, ‘resolve’ and ‘responsibility’ are also a tricolon but also alliteration and epistrophe. The sentence also presents an isocolon. Because the clauses are each so short it adds emphasis to their meaning. I can imagine this makes it especially effective when being spoken.


  • A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal59 partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country,6061

59 ‘Equal’ is repeated three times in this sentence making this a tricolon. The heavy use of tricolon used throughout the final sentences in the speech really emphasise the moral and social aspects that Rudd is trying to emphasise.

60 He continues again from his earlier analogy. By referring to Australia as ‘this great country’ he is using antonomasia. The characterisation of Australia played a large role in the speech, as if he can present the correct ethos, he can make the apology more sincere.

61 Just in case anyone was confused as to what country he was talking of he makes it clear. For an audience this will be a moment of elevation and climax. It has the recency effect and will arise a compilation of emotions from the audience.



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