On my way to work late this morning, I took note of how many Aboriginal and Torres Straight flags there were flying prominently around Sydney Harbour. They flew above the bridge, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and notably, above Kirribilli House. I don’t know if they’ve been there any longer than just today – the day of the formal Parliamentary Apology to the stolen generations – or if they’d been there for a while, but certainly, and fittingly, today is the first time I’d noticed.
The apology itself was of course only one part of this morning’s proceedings, and a short part too. And since the text of Kevin Rudd’s first parliamentary act as Prime Minister had already been made public, the more interesting part of the session occurred after the reading of the motion. Both Rudd and opposition leader Brendan Nelson delivered very deliberated, considered speeches, each of which took more than twenty minutes, while the motion, at 361 words, was finished in under three.
Kevin Rudd, in his post-apology speech, reiterated the reasons that an apology is so necessary for the reparation process after the Bringing Them Home report and for reconciliation in general. His speech overall was solemn, dignified, yet implicitly scathing towards the inaction of the previous government.
These stories cry out to be heard, they cry out for an apology. Instead from the nation’s Parliament there has been a stony and stubborn and deafening silence for more than a decade.
A view that somehow we the Parliament should suspend our most basic instincts of what is right and what is wrong. A view that instead we should look for any pretext to push this great wrong to one side.
In addressing the historical context, Rudd unashamedly lambasted policy-makers of the early twentieth century, rather than offering defences, or historical rationalisations.
One of the most notorious examples of this approach was from the Northern Territory protector of natives, who stated, and I quote, “Generally by the fifth and invariably by the sixth generation all native characteristics of the Australian Aborigine are eradicated. The problem of our half castes”, to quote the protector, “will quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race and the swift submergence of their progeny in the white.” End quote.
These are uncomfortable things to be brought out into the light. They are not pleasant. They are profoundly disturbing. But we must acknowledge these facts, if we are to deal once and for all with the argument that the policy of generic, forced separation was somehow well-motivated, justified by its historical context, and as a result, unworthy of any apology today.
The conclusion of Rudd’s speech was met with lengthy applause and a standing ovation. Nelson’s speech in reply, also caused people to stand, but not for the same reasons.
He started out well, soliciting applause after acknowledging the Ngunawal people, the traditional owners of the land upon which Canberra was built. But after that, he slowly but surely lost the support of the crowd.
Our responsibility, every one of us, is to understand what happened here. Our generation does not own these actions. Nor should it feel guilt for what was done, in many cases, with the best intentions.
But in saying we are sorry, and deeply so, we remind ourselves that each generation lives in ignorance of the long-term consequences of its decisions and its actions. Even when motivated by inherent humanity and decency to reach out to the dispossessed in adversity, our actions can have unintended consequences. As such many decent Australians are hurt by accusations of theft in relation to their good intentions.
It was around about this point that large groups of people watching the apology from right around the country began to stand up and turn their backs at Dr Nelson, in a symbol of disrespect that hasn’t been seen at such a high level of office since 1997, when John Howard angered a gathered crowd of Indigenous people by sternly refusing to apologise.
Shortly after the conclusion of Nelson’s speech, the entire parliament stood in apparent unanimity to vote in favour of the motion, though with the exceptions of Don Randall and Wilson Tuckey, who was publicly very skeptical about the point of such an apology, even moments before it was read.
“So the Prime Minister reads a speech, apparently some people stand up and sit down and then a miracle happens over night, there’ll be no petrol sniffing … and girls can sleep safely in the family bed at night,” [Wilson Tuckey] said.
When asked by Sky News if he supported the apology, a technical error occurred, with Mr Tuckey telling the camera he was unable to hear the question.
That’s our Wilson.
This apology has only been one step in a long and arduous process of reconciliation, but it’s a very important step symbolically. In the (paraphrased) words of Mick Dodson, we have to willingly go through all this sorry business before we can start the healing. Without an apology, we risk being viewed as insincere in our commitment to restitution for our predecessors’ actions, although until last year, this would have been precisely the case, generally speaking.
In all the talk just prior to, and following the apology, many people are crying about how the sky will surely fall in, with the inevitable flood of compensation cases that will necessary follow.
I personally think compensation should be given, I don’t think many people can successfully argue to the contrary, but I am sympathetic to the decision that Rudd made, not to include any compensation in the apology directly. An apology and compensation were two of the key recommendations of Mick Dodson and Sir Ronald Wilson’s report Bringing Them Home, but they are not one and the same. Compensation should become available at some point down the track, preferably soon, and claimants should not be made to undergo intrusive and traumatic, lengthy legal proceedings in order to secure it. But I think it’s wise to leave compensation as an issue quite independent of an apology.
We took an important step forward this morning, and I think I can earnestly say that for the first time in a long time, I’m very proud to call myself Australian. Contrast this with numerous times over the past 7 years or so, probably since Tampa, that invoked a fleeting feeling of nationalistic shame.
I might even celebrate Australia Day like a normal person one day in the future.