Sorry business is healing business

This isn’t a dispassionate narrative. I don’t think it’s really possible to be dispassionate about this issue. But I have tried to put some of the more obviously personal stuff in brackets.

I went in to La Trobe today to watch the Apology to the stolen generations delivered – the uni had set it up on all campuses in lecture theatres. The venue I was in was around 3/4 full, and the mood was expectantly euphoric.

That atmosphere was only briefly broken, at the beginning, when the ABC’s coverage began with a recap of the issue to date, and John Howard’s face appeared on the screen. At that point, people in the audience hissed and booed.

In Parliament, past Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were present. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser also turned out, to his credit. John Howard was conspicuous by his absence – we expected it, but it did leave a sour taste in the mouth to think that he couldn’t put aside his pride for this one day.

In fact, a number of Liberal Members were also absent, and they deserve to be named and shamed.

Wilson Tuckey walked out of the chamber after the Lord’s Prayer was recited – apparently he respects Christianity, but not the feelings of indigenous people. He was joined by Don Randall.

Alby Schulz and Sophie Mirabella also didn’t feel they needed to attend. Schulz had said he wouldn’t be there, but Mirabella, it seems, didn’t feel the need to give notice.

Mark Vaile was also not there for Rudd’s speech – although he apparently did turn up just in time to join the vote. He had to leave the chamber unexpectedly – at least, that’s what he said when he hurriedly phoned Sky News a few minutes ago to explain his actions.

Personally, I didn’t spot Tony Abbott anywhere on the front bench. After his disgusting performance on Lateline last night, I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t dare show his face. And, as a friend said, his daughter did have a big party last night.

Every other seat was filled.

In the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery, members of the stolen generations and their descendants were seated on the floor with the MPs. The upper galleries were packed with Australians of all races. In the Great Hall, hundreds gathered to watch the screens. Parliament House lawns, with the Tent Embassy, were crowded, and all over Australia, people gathered in public places to hear a few long-overdue words.

The Apology was the first order of business. From there, he told the story of Nanna Fejo (sp?), who was taken from her family by ‘the welfare men. At this point, the tears were coming fast, both in the chamber and all around me.

Rudd did not, at any point, directly sledge Howard’s government by name, but he made it very clear where he felt the bulk of the blame lay in terms of the long inaction on this issue, even as he acknowledged that responsibility lay with ‘successive governments’ of all kinds. He asserted sternly that the stolen generations were not ‘little more than an interesting sociological phenomenon’ for academics and historians. The present terrible situation was the result of ‘deliberate, calculated policies of the State‘ (my emphasis).

He did what so many people have failed to do. He explained, clearly and simply, why we should be saying sorry. He told a horrifying story, and the dry recitation of statistics that followed it only made it worse, somehow. He quoted from a report made by the Northern Territory’s ‘Protector of Natives’ (and isn’t that just an appalling title?) made in the 1920s, which confidently predicted the complete extinction of the Aboriginal race, and applauded the ‘forced extraction of children’ (Rudd’s words) that was helping hasten the process of eradicating Aboriginal culture. Rudd looked directly at Nelson at the point where he laid heavy emphasis on the word ‘facts’ – not just stories, not political rhetoric, but facts.

(Mick Dodson, interviewed later, pointed out that indigenous people call funerals, ‘Sorry Business’. He also pointed out that it was also ‘healing business’, but the healing business couldn’t begin until the sorry business was properly done. Now do you get it, Mr Howard?)

On the question of intergenerational responsibility, he noted that ‘some’ had used it as an excuse to avoid apologies – oh, we didn’t do anything wrong, why should we apologise? He then drove the point home – some Members of Parliament who were elected during the time when children were being literally ripped from their mother’s arms were still serving in this very chamber at this time. ‘We, the Parliaments of this nation, are ultimately responsible’.

(And think about it – we say ‘oh, sorry’, when we accidentally bump into someone and they spill their coffee. In fact, we say ‘sorry’ when our kids do it, or the people we’re with at the time. We know we didn’t mean to do it, but we acknowledge that what happened was wrong and had bad consequences. We do this all the time. Why did it take so long for our leaders to do what comes so easily?)

In what may have been a poke at the Howard government’s citizenship test, he spoke about Australian ‘core values’ – well, about one in particular. The concept of the ‘fair go’ – and he challenged anyone listening to him to argue that indigenous people had received a fair go. Then, echoing famous election strategies of the past, he reiterated ‘It’s time … it’s time …'”, and added his own version of the Apology.

‘As Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the Parliament of Australia, I am sorry. And I offer you this apology without qualification.’

Turning to the representatives of the stolen generations, he said, ‘Nothing I can say today can take away the pain’, but he hoped that saying sorry would help ease it a little. To non-indigenous Australia, he challenged them (taking a leaf out of John Grisham’s book) – imagine if what had happened to the indigenous people of Australia, happened to you. Imagine if it had happened to us.

(Just stop and think about that for a moment.)

Acknowledging that symbolism was nothing without substance – in a nod to 1 Corinthians 13, that without action the Apology was just a ‘clanging gong’ – Rudd moved on to concrete promises. In a decade, he promised to halve the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia in literacy, numeracy, the ‘obscenity’ of infant mortality, life expectancy and employment prospects. In five years, he promised that every indigenous four-year-old child would be attending early childhood education.

At this point, he rocked the Opposition back on its heels. Looking directly at Nelson, Bishop and the Liberal front bench, Rudd argued that Parliamentarians needed to ‘move beyond our infantile bickering’ on the subject of indigenous affairs. To that end, he proposed a Joint Policy Commission, led by himself and Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson, which would implement his government’s policies, including constitutional recognition, and challenged Nelson to commit to that initiative today.

(The audience at LTU erupted into laughter and applause at this point.)

He wound up with the exhortation to all Australians to ’embrace with awe these great and ancient cultures’.

The standing ovation in the chamber was echoed in the Great Hall, the Lawns and at LTU. I can only imagine it was the same elsewhere. Then – as if the government hadn’t shown its respect adequately enough – the entire Labor side of the House turned around and solemnly applauded the representatives of the stolen generations in the chamber.

Brendan Nelson started out on such a good note. He stood ‘strongly in support’ of the Apology, and recognised the indigenous people of the Canberra area. He said that what had been done to the stolen generations must be acknowledged ‘with shame’. He even said ‘we say sorry’, which must have caused a few ulcers to gripe back in the Liberal Party room – and wherever John Howard is now.

Then he kinda went off the rails.

First, he celebrated the First Fleet’s ‘gritty determination’ to build a new nation for themselves, the indigenous people and ‘people to come’. It was that kind of spirit that made Australia a great country.

Then, he acknowledged that indigenous people had made ‘involuntary sacrifices’ to help Australia become the great economic and social nation it is today.

Though ‘disputed in motive and detail’, Nelson seemed to reluctantly agree that taking children from their families had been a bad thing. ‘We need to understand what happened, and why it happened’ – and he urged us to consider the pain of ‘not only those who were removed, but those who did the removing and those who supported it’. Hammering the ‘good intentions’ message that has characterised the manoeuvring of the Opposition in recent days, he lamented the ‘unintended consequences’ of the assimilation policy.

(At this point, three-quarters of the crowd in Federation Square turned their backs on the big screens, chanting ‘Get him off’, and did not turn back until he had finished. The motion was mirrored in the Great Hall in Canberra – where people cried out ‘Shame!’, and on the Parliament House lawns. In Perth, the outcry from the audience was so angry that the broadcast feed was cut altogether. In the theatre at LTU, Nelson was booed and hissed loudly, with angry comments coming from several quarters. Personally, I felt sick – Nelson was talking to his base, not to the people. After the first few sentences, virtually nothing he said had any meaning for me at all.)

‘There will be no compensation fund, nor should there be.’ No amount of dollars would ease the pain of those who were hurt by this ‘painful but necessary policy’.

(More outrage from the audiences. At this point, I was thinking it was lucky Nelson was protected by security in the Parliament, as even in the gallery, there were people muttering angrily. A quick shot of Bob Hawke’s face showed him pass quickly from incredulous anger to disgusted cynicism.)

Then – and this was perhaps the single most ridiculous part of his speech – Nelson invoked the Australian war dead, indigenous and non-indigenous lying side by side in foreign soil. Don’t forget what they went through.

(Did he think it was Anzac Day? Had he forgotten that indigenous soldiers were, for a long time, denied access to RSLs and parades? Had he forgotten that veterans’ groups had turned their backs on their fellow soldiers?)

Not to be outdone on the ‘practical politics’ issue, Nelson decided to have a crack at the ‘immediate’ problems facing indigenous people – causing their ‘existential aimlessness’. (What?) After a quick nod to the problems of infant mortality, life expectancy and social inequality, he zeroed in on the Little Children are Sacred report.

Where Rudd told a story of a woman stolen as a child by white authorities, deprived of her mother, her culture and her religion (being randomly assigned ‘Methodist’ when she was separated from her brother, who suddenly became a ‘Catholic’), Nelson gave us sickening tales of sexual abuse perpetrated by indigenous people on each other. He told us about children raped and murdered, young girls gang-raped, and a baby who was raped ‘while her mother sat drinking’. He championed the Northern Territory ‘intervention’ and sternly challenged Rudd to report “regularly” on its progress – then, almost as an afterthought, said he’d support the Joint Policy Commission.

(What Nelson didn’t mention was the shattering of cultures that had directly contributed to the situations he cited – a shattering which was the immediate and ongoing result of the policies of assimilation and removal. He didn’t talk about the systematic destruction of self-respect, the psycho-social shocks visited again and again on the first people of the country, or the complete failure of his own government to address the problem when it first knew about it. One woman in the LTU audience cried out loudly, ‘Shame on you!’)

Finally, Nelson gave us a thumbnail biography of Neville Bonner, Australia’s first indigenous Member of Parliament – and didn’t fail to mention that he’d been in the Liberal Party.

He also got a standing ovation from the floor – but not from the gallery, and very few people watching gave more than a few token claps.

The vote, needless to say, was unanimous, and greeted by applause, tears, and shouts.

After the vote, Rudd, Jenny Macklin (Minister for Indigenous Affairs) and Nelson left the floor and walked to the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery, where they individually paid their respects to every member of the stolen generations’ delegation. The delegation gave Rudd a coolamon (a baby-carrier, made of bark) to symbolise the birth of a new, reconciled nation (and like any kid, it’s got a lot of learning to do now). The coolamon was presented to the Speaker by Rudd and Nelson, who accepted it on behalf of the Parliament.

(There’ll be reams and reams written on what happened today, I’m sure. For some, it didn’t go far enough. For others, too far. There are mutters of fear about compensation claims and suspicious murmurings about empty gestures. There’s a very long road ahead. From this writer’s point of view, however, it was a day in which I can say I was proud to be an Australian, and proud of my elected representatives – well, most of them, anyway. It’s something I haven’t been able to say for a long time.)

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One Response to Sorry business is healing business

  1. […] our system of government’, currently failed to recognise indigenous Australians. Although the Apology to the Stolen Generations was a critical step in healing the relationship between the first peoples and those who came to […]

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