In less than a week, the federal Australian Government will catch up to the eight states and territories, and only a decade behind them.

The Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Parliament on May 26, 1997. Within two days, Western Australia and South Australia, both Coalition-governed states at the time, had issued unreserved apologies¹. By the end of the year, only Queensland and the Northern Territory had yet to apologise. Queensland issued their apology in 1999, a little under a year after Peter Beattie was elected, and the NT issued theirs only six weeks after Clare Martin was elected in 2001.

On Wednesday, February 13, Kevin Rudd will add the federal Parliament to the list of parliaments who have apologised. Rudd has been light on the details and the wording of the apology so far, only giving the occasional clue about the rough scope of the apology. Yesterday for instance, he revealed that it “will be on behalf of the Parliament, not the Government, and will make reference to not only the members of the Stolen Generations but to their families and descendants.”

The opposition, under Dr Brendan Nelson, has given its in-principle support, but wants to see the exact wording before it goes to parliament, adding that “It’s essential that the Australian people have the opportunity to understand what is going to be said by their Parliament on their behalf.” (Update: the opposition are most concerned over the term Stolen Generation apparently. Perhaps they’d prefer to use Gerard Henderson’s newest euphemism, Separated Generation?)

As an aside, this entire issue must be a bit of a test for Brendan Nelson, who won the leadership of the opposition over Malcolm Turnbull largely because the latter announced his support for an apology. Just how Nelson will balance the pressure from his über-conservative party-room backers with the vast weight of popular opinion in favour of an apology, will either see him in strife, or will herald much needed reform for the Liberal party.

I think it’s entirely reasonable that the opposition should see the text of something they are expected to vote for or against before they are required to do so. That’s democracy. It’s just a shame that this opposition, when they were the government, all but refused this crucial aspect of parliamentary debate with respect to the legislation covering the intervention into Northern Territory communities.

On the other hand though, the Coalition had 11 years in which to shape the apology however they liked. Instead, the best they could muster was an insipid statement that:

acknowledges that the mistreatment of many indigenous Australians over a significant period represents the most blemished chapter in our national history,

and

reaffirms the central importance of practical measures leading to practical results that address the profound economic and social disadvantage which continues to be experienced by many indigenous Australians.

Some might contend that the 1999 expression of ‘deep and sincere regret’ – which was occasionally more of an economic rationalist manifesto – was better than nothing, and they’d be right. But what irritates me about the whole affair was the government’s behaviour when Kim Beazely moved to amend the Prime Ministers motion so that the focal paragraph:

[The Parliament] expresses its deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices,

would be replaced with:

[The parliament] unreservedly apologises to indigenous Australians for the injustice they have suffered, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to suffer as a consequence of this injustice [and] calls for the establishment of appropriate processes to provide justice and restitution to members of the stolen generation through consultation, conciliation and negotiation rather than requiring indigenous Australians to engage in adversarial litigation in which they are forced to relive the pain and trauma of their past suffering.

The motion was opposed and the Prime Minister’s politically impotent statement was passed without dissent.

I look forward to seeing the full text of the apology that will go to parliament next week and will certainly offer up an analysis, provided I’m not too busy engaging in just one instance of the plethora of practical reconciliatory efforts that go largely unnoticed.

~

¹Apologies from all state governments, as well as the federal Government’s infamous expression of deep and sincere regret, are available from the HREOC website.