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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

from sorry to reparation « Previous | |Next »
February 13, 2008

First is 'Welcome to Country' with the opening of Parliament. Today it is Sorry. An apology by the federal government to the stolen generations of indigenous Australia.


An official apology was the first recommendation of the Bringing Them Home report. The text apologises for "the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss", and "especially for the removal of . . . children". It refers to "the mistreatment of those who were stolen generations" as "this blemished chapter in our nation's history".

Mick Dodson says in The Age that the apology will provide a foundation of respect on which we can build a proper relationship and work together to make things better. The next step is reparation:

Reparation is a concept that is broader than compensation. It means trying to repair the damage caused by removal, trying to give back at least some of what was taken and lost. It is trying to make up for the hurt. We must understand what people have lost and how those things might be returned. For example, helping people to return to their country, to reunite with family and community and to learn about the culture and heritage that were taken away from them.The healing process for indigenous people must also include rehabilitation. Removal has had an enormous impact on people's mental and physical health, their relationships, their parenting skills and their ability to get by in the world.

He adds that the final component of reparation is compensation. The suggestion of compensation is controversial for some people, yet most of the categories of harm for which people would be claiming compensation already exist under Australian law — such as physical, sexual and emotional abuse, economic loss and pain and suffering. Money cannot bring back the years of lost childhood, but justice demands that stolen children should be treated equally by the law.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:12 AM | | Comments (20)


Dodson's article is good. This paragraph is significant:

Individual Australians are not guilty for what happened to Aboriginal families. I know of no indigenous person who told their story to the inquiry who wanted non-indigenous Australians to feel guilty — they just wanted people to know the truth. They wanted to tell the stories of their lives, to have the truth of their experiences acknowledged. Many people who gave evidence to the inquiry said that the telling was itself healing — knowing that at last they were being officially heard.

That puts paid to the hard line conservative's guilt trip line designed to deny historical truth.

so is the next parargaph:

Governments inherit the laws and practices of previous governments, and so, too, do they inherit responsibility for past actions. We as Australians need to acknowledge the effects that past policies had on indigenous people, the hurt that has been caused to a group of Australians on the basis of their race, and we should rejoice, and take great pride, in today's apology in our Federal Parliament.Ultimately, we have chosen not to turn away from what was done to those children. We have chosen to face it for what it was, and I know that Australians will feel great relief having done so..

This is not about taking a "black armband" view of history. It is not about dwelling on the past for its own sake. This history is not someone else's history. Today's apology is about healing and reconciliation for the benefit of us all.

David Moore, chief of staff to former Liberal Aboriginal affairs minister Mal Brough, says that:

The sorry debate has been hijacked by a misunderstanding of the sources of present dysfunction in Aboriginal Australia. It's been hijacked by those who want to salve their consciences but who can't stomach the hard decisions that have to be taken.

His reason for this? It is that:
Most remote Aboriginal dysfunction has absolutely nothing to do with the Stolen Generations and Ronald Wilson's Bringing Them Home report. Although some of those people have been wounded, it's not the basis of wider dysfunction.It's easy to apologise for what someone else did. And to tut-tut about failures of the past. But the problems a 10-year-old raped child in Aurukun is facing today were not created by the policies of removal in the early 20th century: they were fertilised in failures of the present generation and those who lead us.

He makes sorry and dysfunctional communities an either or, rather than steps on a pathway.

Thousands outside Parliament saw fit to turn their backs on the Leader of the Opposition for what, it appears, was a failure to understand the appropriate reaction to this moment.Calls of "shame", "get off", and "go home" peppered the groans of derision he received. The trigger were Brendan Nelson's words in his speech to Parliament this morning, that "Each generation lives in ignorance of the consequences of its actions"..

What an incredible couple of days.

That line of Dodson's "Many people who gave evidence to the inquiry said that the telling was itself healing — knowing that at last they were being officially heard" says volumes. Now they have been officially heard by the PM. Yay.

The sorry debate wasn't hijacked by misunderstanding at all. There was an attempted hijack by people trying to make the debate a whites only zone for various reasons. Given the spirit of the occasion you'd have to conclude that Moore doesn't understand spirits of occasions.

the media say that there are two camps on these matters, one concerned with symbolic outcomes and the other with the practical. The dichotomy is one in which ‘reconciliation’ politics are pitted against the steps needed for Aboriginal economic development.

Would not the two camps be also divided by historical issues?

And the supposed division between rights-based agenda that are pro-Aboriginal and responsibility-based agenda that is anti-aboriginal.

Some like Miranda Devine in the SMH are still trying to keep the culture wars going:

Rudd's speech yesterday was embedded with the partisan sentiment that fuels culture wars.There was the sly dig at John Howard in a "stony and stubborn and deafening silence for more than a decade". There was the homage to Gough Whitlam in his four repetitions of "It's time" and there were echoes of Paul Keating's Redfern speech.

How does she square this interpretation with the Rudd Government and Opposition agreeing to form a "war cabinet" for indigenous policy.

Or with several Coalition MPs conspicuously absent including Sophie Mirabella, Alby Schultz and Don Randall. Or the West Australian backbencher Wilson Tuckey departed immediately after the opening prayer to join those who had not bothered to show up. Or the Victorian Liberal MP Chris Pearce who attended the event but refused to stand at the end of the speeches. Beforehand, he was outside the chamber deriding the ceremony as a "pantomime".

From what I could see Nelson was addressing his own backbench rather than the nation. But he got the Coalition to support the apology despite the resistance by people like Abbott and Minchin who continue to defend Howard's legacy. Abbott was on the radio this morning, saying that the thousands in all capitals who turned their backs yesterday on Brendan Nelson amounted to little more than an activist renta-crowd. How would he know?

Or the Australian Liberal Students Foundation who condemned Liberal MPs who supported the Apology motion and praised those who boycotted it. Or the callers to Sydney radio stations 2GB and 2UE l describing the morning's events as "political correctness gone mad" and asking why it was an apology for "them and not us".

Or Alan Jones, who expressed the Keith Windschuttle view of history:

"Yes, there was a piece of nonsense and obnoxious policy in Western Australia in 1936. But over 99 per cent of them were untouched by this political stupidity… Many of the children who were taken were welfare cases … they were malnourished and mistreated."

This One Nation conservatism denies that the policy of taking away mainly half-caste children from their parents was based on race. It is race which distinguishes the practice from considerations of child welfare, and it is the apology that ends the denial of past injustice.

What these conservatives miss is the way that official apologies lend moral weight to demands for social, political and economic reforms.

Devine missed the political narrative completely. After the speeches by Rudd and Nelson, there was a triumphal walk around the floor of Parliament House during an unprecedented “parliamentary pause” with Macklin and Nelson to greet the distinquished visitors---the Stolen Generations' representatives, who along with past prime ministers and their wives,(no Howard) were given the honour of being on the floor of parliament.

Devine ignores this act of political theatre or Rudd’s strategy of inclusion, co-operation and non-confrontation with the Opposition. She doesn't even see the wood. Or doesn't want to. Or doesn't understand the need for the nation to face up to historical truth.

the ALP's position is that Indigenous Australians have this choice. They can either seek compensation for the wrongs of the past or see that money invested in the future.

I noticed that in his speech Brendon Nelson said that we can’t judge the policy makers who facilitated the stealing of Indigenous kids from their families and communities, who thought that the nation would be a better place without the Aboriginal population, and who believed they were doing the right thing.

So did Stalin think that he was doing the right thing. That didn't prevent the conservatives from condemning Stalin's Gulag.

It's like a civil war. Middle Australia resents the way that inner city professionals, progressives and social liberals trying to impose their "values" upon them and they deeply resented it.

Is it liberal elite vs "heartland values" as the conservative represent it? Or is the conflict broader than this kind of representation?

It's been a busy day. I missed the live broadcast and now I've missed the immediate fallout. Damn.

From where I'm standing historical issues are being used as ammunition in a progressive/conservative (although that's oversimplifying things) brawl over political territory. The culture wars apparently live on. It seems there's either a wilful misunderstanding of the difference between the symbolic and the practical, or some people are genuinely emotionally vacant.

That can't easily be distinguished from different interpretations of history where, for example, some insist that if it isn't documented in official records it never happened, while others give oral histories credence. Still, the history wars are definitely being mined for partisan applications.

"the supposed division between rights-based agenda that are pro-Aboriginal and responsibility-based agenda that is anti-aboriginal." There is a middle ground somewhere that I think deserves consideration. Marcia Langton's piece in the new Griffith Review is worth reading.

Note she was originally dismissive of the apology, but changed her mind when she saw the impact. Langton has been a big Noel Pearson supporter, so I'd argue the change in her views is significant and merits respect. She has argued that regardless of the reasons (eg, repercusssions of the stolen generation), the fact remains that Aboriginal parents are neglecting their responsibilities to themselves and their children. Should we argue that parents have the right to visit their own misery on their children if they're Aboriginal? Can we reasonably argue that Aborigines bear sole responsibility for their own history?

It will be interesting to see where this debate (brawl) goes. I suspect that we have elected a PM capable of steering a course between the two which will stay on the record long after the ravings of Miranda Devine and Alan Jones have met their use by date.

Do you suspect that the conservative representation of heartland values has lost it on this issue? I haven't seen any polling but still have the impression the apology cuts across the supposed elite/middle divide and lands in favour of the apology. Have you seen anything?

They've lost.The dam wall has broken. There's no going back. The conservative representation of the heartland values is no longer seen as mainstream.

No I haven't seen any polling. Nobody is really interested in listening to those who are opposed to the apology and deny the racial dimension in the stolen generation. Who is listening to Abbott? The debate has moved on to reparation.

A Current Affair ran a very negative aboriginal story last night about drunken aborigines in Fitzroy crossing riding around in taxis back and forward to the pub to pick up their grog. This is a town that is testing the no full strength beer rule. It isn't making any difference by the way the story was presented and the publican seemed to back that up. The reporter kept emphasizing that this is your money being spent on grog Australia. Kerryane Kennelly talk a similar line with her day time audience by interviewing 2 aboriginals and Andrew Bolt and asked them what they did with the Billion dollars last year. There is a lot of negative stuff out there Gary. It depends what media you are watching.

Les is right. If you want to keep your breakfast down I wouldn't advise visiting Bolt's blog. On the other hand Bolt's disciples are probably not representative of the population.

At the public intellectual, political, culture wars level, the conservatives do seem to have lost. Gerard Henderson came as close to exploding as I've ever seen him on Lateline the other night.

Bolt's disciples are definitely not representative of the population.They are representative of a harsh strand within Australian conservatism---that which is a resentful minority culture. The public mood of the nation has changed---a window or door has been opened and there is smell of fresh air rushing into a once dank and dark room.

This redneck culture attacks the apology as a stunt, or a meaningless gesture----I do scan Bolt---and it ignores the way the ALP agreed to the Northern Territory intervention of Howard and Brough, is continuing this intervention with minor amendments and to work with Noel Pearson in Cape York Peninsula. It would oppose bipartisanship on Indigenous affairs.

The redneck culture----is there a better name?--- currently have little to say other than use words in political partisan attacks. Partisan attack is the game played by the rightwing conservatives hanging around the Liberal Party. Nelson's compromises and convolutions will never please them.

A Current Affair is one of the voices of this conservatism, just like Bolt and Alan Jones in the media, and most of the West Australian Liberals, including Dennis Jensen.These---and this would include Queensland Liberal MPs---are deeply opposed to the reconciliation process, deeply hostile to aborigines living in remote communities, continue to rage about the do gooders and Howard haters and to deny the racist history associated with the stolen generation.

Honestly, the Liberal Party, is reflexively standing against liberal positions. There's is a reflexive reaction going and this crowd has increasingly little to do with liberalism. These conservatives are looking mean, nasty as they deny both the brutality and discrimination practiced by Australian governments towards Indigenous people, and the suffering the racist practices caused amongst Indigenous people.

I disagree that there has been a large mood shift on this issue. Perhaps in the media you watch there has.
The redneck media which is larger and reaches more people than say your chosen sky news does. I include TV and talk back radio in this.
This media reaches out to its listeners and constructs the story based on what the listener believes rather than what is true. Then they sell them French fries. The news of the day is simply the guy standing out front of the strip club with hat and cane yelling YOWSER YOWSER YOWSER.

Re your Abbott comment.
I really cant stand the guy but he has made it clear that he intends to slot into the fear role that Howard played so well. I think he will do well at it and most recently I think he has sailed across Turnbulls bow and taken his wind.
I disagree that all those everything haters have suddenly become fluffy bunny lovers.