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The APS apology

Background to the Australian Psychological Society’s Apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

APS Reconciliation Action Plan

In the days following the apology, the APS was asked many questions about how this apology came about and what steps were taken to make it happen.

The section below provides an overview of the larger reconciliation context for the Australian Psychological Society (APS) and the specific events and steps leading up to the apology.

The Australian Psychological Society (APS) is the peak body representing over 22,000 psychologists across the diverse discipline and profession of psychology.

The APS has had a longstanding commitment to working in culturally responsive and safe ways with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and colleagues . In 1973, the Working Party on Aboriginal Issues was established and APS members were involved in research via the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. It is only since the 1990s that progress was slowly made in translating the APS commitment into actual steps toward changing psychology in Australia.
Key steps and events, both within the APS and nationwide, that contributed to setting the stage for the apology included:

  • Establishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Interest Group of the APS 1992
  • The first Welcome to Country and keynote address by an Aboriginal activist, Rob Riley, at the 1995 APS Conference
  • In 1997, the APS was a signatory to the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) Statement of Apology to the Stolen Generation (ACOSS, 1997).
  • The special edition of the Australian Psychologist on Indigenous psychology in 2000 (AP)
  • The work of the lead body on reconciliation, Reconciliation Australia, since 2001, paved the way to increasing awareness for the need to apologise to the country’s first peoples (https://www.reconciliation.org.au/). 
  • Establishment of the Bendi Lango bursary to support postgraduate psychology students in 2006 (bursary)
  • The National Apology by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (National apology) on behalf of the Australian people on 13 February 2008
  • The first ever meeting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychologists and establishment of the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association (AIPA) in 2008. 
  • Aboriginal psychologists and AIPA have been instrumental in encouraging the APS in becoming involved in more formal ways of working toward reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, ultimately leading to the development of the APS Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) in 2012.

APS Reconciliation Plan (RAP)

As stated in the APS vision for its RAP, “The APS is committed to Reconciliation: building respect, relationships and understanding between Indigenous and other Australians to close the gap in mental health and wellbeing outcomes”.

The outcomes of the first APS RAP, covering the period of 2012 to 2014, and addressing priority actions on respectful relationships, cultural competence, education and employment, and governance, are summarised in the final RAP report.

As part of the APS RAP, in 2016 all APS staff members and the APS Board participated in cultural awareness and responsiveness workshops. The workshops were delivered by AIPA members and accredited cultural competence trainers, with a welcome to country and when possible a “yarn” by local Wurundjeri elder Auntie Di Kerr. The challenging content and thoughtful way in which the training was delivered had a big impact on the board and staff members who were not familiar with the historical and current socio-economic context of the gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous peoples’ wellbeing.

The Australian Indigenous Psychology Education Project (AIPEP) – 2013 to 2016, grew out of the APS RAP actions related to psychology education. AIPEP developed resources to embed Indigenous knowledges in the psychology curriculum to ensure a culturally responsive psychology workforce and to recruit, retain and graduate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychologists.

Indigenous Psychology Advisory Group (IPAG)

The Indigenous Psychology Advisory Group (IPAG) to the APS Board was established in 2015 as a successor to the RAP working group. IPAG is responsible for raising key issues and making recommendations about their implementation to assure continuing progress toward reconciliation. The notion of an apology was referred to IPAG by the APS Board and discussed in the inaugural IPAG meeting in November 2015.

How did the apology evolve and who contributed?

In 2011, Professor Tim Carey had invited Professor of Psychiatry Alan Rosen AM (University of Wollongong; University of Sydney; University of Newcastle) to Alice Springs to provide a seminar and a workshop. The topic of the seminar was the idea of a mental health apology. The idea was discussed at length during Professor Rosen’s stay in Alice Springs and in ongoing communications and contacts. Alan Rosen continued to work on the idea and developed an apology and a supporting paper (2013).

In October 2014, Alan Rosen emailed Tim Carey, Pat Dudgeon, significant psychiatrists in the area such as Helen Milroy, Ernest Hunter, Rob Parker, and Aboriginal mental health professional, Michael Wright and sought feedback on the latest draft of the paper. Tim Carey offered to take this draft to the APS Board for comment. This was followed by further email correspondence between Alan, Tim Carey, Pat Dudgeon and the APS Executive Director and Executive Management regarding whether AIPA and the APS would endorse the apology.

Alan and Tim spent some time sending versions backwards and forwards as we tried to make the language less psychiatric and more generic. The apology was discussed at an APS Board meeting in October 2015. The Board gave in principle support and decided to refer the apology to the Indigenous Psychology Advisory Group to the APS Board (IPAG) to be discussed and developed. IPAG discussed the apology at its first meeting in November 2015. At the next IPAG meeting, in August 2016, the group decided to develop an apology specific to psychology, rather than endorse Alan Rosen’s apology, in order to acknowledge that the work of psychologists goes well beyond the mental health context.

Thus the final version of the Apology was a collaborative effort. A small IPAG working group led by Tim Carey (Tanja Hirvonen and Peter Smith representing Aboriginal psychologists and AIPA, Louise Roufeil and Sabine Hammond representing APS Executive Management) refined Tim Carey’s initial draft, then asked for feedback from IPAG members. This refinement happened over a very short time frame. After more editing, also with the aim to keep the apology succinct and to one page, the apology was submitted to the APS Board and was endorsed at the Board meeting held on 11 September 2016.

What has been the APS members’ and others reaction to the apology?

The apology was announced at the 2016 APS Congress, following the keynote speech by Australia’s first Indigenous psychologist, Professor Pat Dudgeon, and the launch of the AIPEP outcome papers.

The reading of the apology by Professor Carey was a profoundly emotional moment. There was a standing ovation by over 1500 delegates after the apology had been read.

A media release by the APS on the apology generated extensive coverage in the mainstream media (newspapers, television, and social media) both in Australia and overseas, including the United Kingdom, United States, and other countries in Europe, Africa, China and South America.
There were positive reactions from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, including the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA), and the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association (AIPA).

Media coverage was uniformly positive and supportive of the apology.

The APS National Office also received many unsolicited responses (emails and phone calls) by APS members and members of the public following the apology, overwhelmingly in favour.

The APS and IPAG members are pleased by this response and wish to thank APS members, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations, other members of the public, and colleagues and organisations within Australia and abroad for their support and encouragement.

Where to next – steps following the apology?

Making the apology was a significant symbolic milestone in the APS’ active engagement and participation in a changed and inclusive emerging Australian identity and nationhood. We are aware that we will not be judged by the actual apology but how it will change our work as psychologists going forward.

Maintaining momentum following the apology and making steps to change our work practices and how we engage as psychologists with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, assuring that our awareness translates into attitudes and actions that are characterised by cultural responsiveness, will remain a challenge. With the guidance of IPAG, the APS is revising and renewing its Reconciliation Action Plan and continues to identify ways to ensure that our apology will translate into positive outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

Apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People from the Australian Psychological Society

In 2016 the APS made a formal apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, acknowledging psychology’s role in contributing to the erosion of culture and to their mistreatment.

Read the apology in full


Heywood, J. (in press). 50 years of the APS. Melbourne, Victoria: Bounce Books

Sanson, A., & Dudgeon, P. (2000). Guest editorial: Psychology, Indigenous issues and reconciliation. Australian Psychologist, 35 (2), 79-81.

Rosen A. (2012). Australian mental health professions apologise to Aboriginal and Islander peoples, Unpublished manuscript.