Settler state apologies and the elusiveness of forgiveness: The purification ritual that does not purify

Thomas Bentley* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
9 Downloads (Pure)


Focusing on Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations, this article asks: can colonial-settler states obtain forgiveness through political apologies? The article first defends Jacques Derrida’s observation that political apologies resemble the Christian practice of confession. In doing so, it subsequently draws on Michel Foucault’s (1979) detailed treatise on confession in order to assess the potential for absolution. For Foucault, the process of engaging in exhaustive truth-telling of sin before a demarcated authority provides a route to such atonement. By contrast, any potential unburdening of sin is lost when there is either no adequate authority to coax the confession or if the confession is less than full. The problem for the settler state is that it is predisposed to re-evoking the imaginary of the settler nation and Westphalian sovereignty in the very process of apologising. Consequently, there is no scope to submit before a higher sovereign body and any truth-telling is necessarily partial. As such, the central argument is that forgiveness for the settler state must remain elusive. The political opportunities arising from this for Indigenous peoples are discussed in the final section.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)381-403
Number of pages23
JournalContemporary Political Theory
Early online date22 Oct 2019
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2020


  • confession
  • political apology
  • forgiveness
  • Australia
  • settler colonialism
  • Stolen Generations


Dive into the research topics of 'Settler state apologies and the elusiveness of forgiveness: The purification ritual that does not purify'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this