The sorry effort
After his first year as Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam tabled a document in Parliament called Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which outlined what his government had done in its first year. The then Opposition Leader, Billy Snedden, gave an off-the-cuff response that was so weak that his party realised Snedden could never beat Whitlam.
Brendan Nelson's response in the Sorry debate on 13 February 2008 showed that he is truly the successor to Billy Snedden: someone tone deaf to a sense of occasion and who is outclassed by both a superior opponent and a more deft tactician.
Part of the text of the apology moved by Parliament on 13 February 2008 reads:
... this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.
Nelson's speech failed because we cannot be certain that children will be taken from their families for no reason other than their racial background.
He tried to muddy the debate by going on about clear cases of abuse and neglect; but Aboriginal children were taken from Aboriginal families where these factors were absent. It is that for which the Prime Minister apologised, and for which he and we all are deeply sorry.
Brendan Nelson is the leader of the Liberal Party and the successor to John Howard in that role. It was inevitable that some people were going to turn their backs on him, even if he had apologised fully and sincerely. In politics, you do not give your enemies ammunition: the far right of the Liberal Party do nothing more than give the far left justification for their positions; they need the incandescent rage of the stirred-up left as the pole star by which they chart their course. Nelson hasn't just angered the left; he has handed them a substantial and useful weapon with which to beat the Liberal Party.
Yes, Harris and Gleason spoiled the beyond-politics message of the day by turning their backs on Nelson. Their jobs involve crafting messages, and they sent mixed messages when their boss sought to be clear: Rudd should have sacked them. How much worse for Nelson to have not two but five - no, six; I include the boorish "presenteeism" of Chris Pearce - of his own MPs shirtfronting not only Rudd but their own leader and constituents. Claims by Pearce, Mirabella, Tuckey et al that the apology would achieve nothing would be fair if only they had something more to show on Aboriginal policy for their efforts.
Nelson did not apologise fully, he equivocated; he did not apologise sincerely, he was weaselly and disingenuous. He seriously thought than maintaining his own position was more important than redressing that of those much less fortunate, and for that he stands condemned.
In brutally harsh conditions, from the small number of early British settlers our non indigenous ancestors have given us a nation the envy of any in the world. But Aboriginal Australians made involuntary sacrifices, different but no less important, to make possible the economic and social development of our modern Australia.
In that paragraph is a reinforcement of the old Aborigines-as-victim mentality. Liberals such as Howard and Nelson claimed that welfare reinforced that mentality , and that they were trying to repudiate it. Yet, here it is: non-Aborigines made this country, and all Aborigines did was get in the way. Nelson would have you believe that Aborigines have made no active contribution to the nation, and only by being pushed aside could the new nation be born.
Australia is not a 'brutally harsh' country. Where I live is rather pleasant. Poms who've come here are far better off than they would have been had they continued to waste away on that consumptive little island off the coast of France. This is true of those who came two centuries ago as it is of those who came two weeks ago. That prosperity was made possible because Aborigines were, in every sense, disenfranchised.
It was that point in Nelson's speech that people turned their backs to him. At that point it became clear that he came to piss in the well from which reconciliation was to be drawn.
In some cases government policies evolved from the belief that the Aboriginal race would not survive and should be assimilated.
Yes, they sure did. This was a silly assumption from both a moral and practical perspective, and it should have been repudiated. It wasn't. It is easier to forgive those who stumbled around in their own blindness once you undercut the notion that they really had a valid point. The small kindnesses that flickered in the darkness of that policy seem all the brighter once it's clear that such darkness is a thing of the past.
Our generation does not own these actions, nor should it feel guilt for what was done in many, but not all cases, with the best of intentions.
This could apply to any episode of Australian history. I didn't fight valiantly at Gallipoli, but then I didn't assault any Egyptian stall-holders during training beforehand, either. This is straw man stuff, and denies one's own role as both product and agent of history.
The intention being apologised for was to passively exterminate the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. It isn't genocide, because that's an active and violent policy.
Nelson quoted from confidential evidence tendered to the Wilson enquiry, and acknowledged it as such; then apologised for quoting someone without attribution, then repudiated that apology, the weasel).
In the instance Nelson quotes, there is nothing well-meaning about the actions of the police; nothing at all. He has undermined the case he would put.
It is reasonably argued that removal from squalor led to better lives – children fed, housed and educated for an adult world of which they could not have imagined. However, from my life as a family doctor and knowing the impact of my own father’s removal from his unmarried teenaged mother, not knowing who you are is the source of deep, scarring sorrows the real meaning of which can be known only to those who have endured it.
It follows therefore that if you undercut people's sense of self, anything you might be given, however grudgingly and niggardly, will never make up for that. It wasn't well-meaning to offer trinkets and baubles to patch over a profound wrong.
Let no one forget that they sent their sons to war, shaping our identity and place in the world. One hundred thousand in two wars alone gave their lives in our name and our uniform, lying forever in distant lands; silent witnesses to the future they have given us.
What does this mean? Fighting racial superiority in Japan and Germany gave that generation an excuse to practice it here?
Aboriginal and non Aboriginal Australians lie alongside one another.
Aha, so Aborigines did make a contribution to this country! I knew it!
Neglectful indifference to all they achieved while seeing their actions in the separations only, through the values of our comfortable, modern Australia, will be to diminish ourselves.
It is perfectly possible to reject the idea of assimilating out Aboriginality in all its forms without "indifference to all they achieved".
Speaking of indifference:
Alcohol, welfare without responsibilities, isolation from the economic mainstream, corrupt management of resources, nepotism, political buck-passing between governments with divided responsibilities, lack of home ownership, under-policing and tolerance by authorities of neglect and abuse of children that violates all we stand for, all combine to still see too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living lives of existential aimlessness.
Firstly, these elements are present in non-Aboriginal Australia. Second, Nelson should have had the guts to link this collapse of civilisation as a partial victory of the very concerted attempt to undercut Aboriginal society, for which the apology was tendered.
Annual indigenous specific spending by the Commonwealth has increased by 38 per cent in real terms to $3.5 billion
This is arse-covering by someone who spent part of the past decade in Cabinet, and does nothing for those who spent the past decade waiting for some benefit to manifest itself from this extraordinary amount.
Sexual abuse of Aboriginal children was found in every one of the 45 Northern Territory communities surveyed for the Little Children are Sacred report. It was the straw breaking the camel’s back, driving the Howard Government’s decision to intervene with a suite of dramatically radical welfare, health and policing initiatives.
No it wasn't, it was the excuse. The report was released years beforehand, and the intervention did not address - and in many cases went against - the issues raised in that report.
... the case of a four year old girl drowned while being raped by a teenager who had been sniffing petrol.
What did that have to do with the Stolen Generations? This was lurid and prurient in this context, serving not to apologise but to vindicate the henchmen of this great wrong: see what happens when you let Aborigines to their own devices?
It is a straw man to claim that no removal of any Aboriginal child from a toxic moral and physical environment is ever justified. Of course it is justified for all children to be spared such grave danger. Being Aboriginal in itself, however, is no danger to anyone; and those who believed (and still believe) otherwise were (and are) wrong.
It is not the Liberal Party's responsibility to make excuses for white supremacism. The bashings of Chinese goldminers in the mid-nineteenth century, the dictation test and the White Australia Policy, the appalling colonialism in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands; none of these warrant any bullshit about people meaning well. They were mistakes, the motivation behind them is abandoned, and thus we can reap both non-material and material benefit from that.
The Liberal Party should have repudiated the idea that Aboriginal identity should be systematically bred out of people, not engaged in the very sort of hand-wringing equivocations of which they frequently accuse 'lefties'.
I challenge anyone who thinks Aboriginal people get a good deal to come to any of these communities and tell me you wish you’d been born there.
At last, a dollop of humanity: but there is no reason why Aborigines should have to live as I do. This isn't moral relativism, nor is it an opening for child molestors. Aborigines live their lives, I mine. Most Australians respect this, Nelson and the Liberals should too.
[Neville Bonner] lasted two days [at school] before the non Aboriginal parents forced his exclusion.
What was well-meaning or compassionate about that? It was pig-ignorant and benighted, a prime example of the sort of policy for which the apology was tendered. Nelson missed this.
It was smart for Nelson to invoke Neville Bonner, wrong of him to do so as a token whose spirit and policies were missing from the speech. Would Bonner's life really have been richer or better had his wise old grandmother been substituted for some white woman?
We honour those in our past who have suffered and all who have made sacrifices for us by the way we live our lives and shape our nation. Today we recommit to do so - as one people.
This demonstrates that Nelson has missed the whole point of what was being apologised for: je ne regrette rien. One people, an assimilated people?
When Abbott describes Nelson's speech as "magnificent", he is patronising his leader. He meant well, poor Brendan. He did his best. But his best isn't good enough. Just as Stevie Wright missed his date with Fleur, Brendan Nelson has missed his date with destiny, and it is a shame that no mailman has dared to point out to him why.
We will now see the Rudd Government turn its attention to WorkChoices, free of any responsibility to follow up the apology - if not with direct compensation, then the indirect compensation that might even out the inequalities - that a sincere and focused opposition might have enforced.