CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
What remains to be done after saying sorry?
, March 1, 2008
Saying sorry will not alleviate the blight of alcohol abuse and the sexual exploitation of children in indigenous enclaves.February 13, 2008 will go down in Australian history as "Sorry Day" - the occasion when the Federal Parliament apologised to the so-called "Stolen Generations". Reports afterward described the bipartisan gesture as one of the most important symbolic occasions since Federation.
This may turn out to be media hyperbole; but the day certainly captured the attention of the nation, recording surprisingly high television ratings, and lifted the stature of new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
According to the latest Newspoll, 69 per cent of voters said they supported the apology, with just 26 per cent not supporting it. By contrast the question of compensation to those hurt by being removed from their families, the result was almost a complete reversal, with 64 per cent opposed and 30 per cent in favour.Afterglow of goodwill
However, the real question is not the immediate afterglow of goodwill and good feelings for the politicians involved, but whether the symbolism will be followed through with determined action to improve the health, living conditions and opportunities for indigenous Australians. Saying sorry to the stolen generations will be among the easiest things Kevin Rudd will do as Prime Minister; doing something about it will be much harder.
The term "Stolen Generation" is said to have been invented in the 1980s by Professor Peter Read, an historian who claimed there were as many as 100,000 Aboriginal children taken from their families, and raised in homes or adopted by white families.
It has since been claimed that Read's numbers are greatly exaggerated, and the term "Stolen Generation/s" is in itself controversial.
Some argue that the taking of Aboriginal children was for their own safety, and that many children's lives were saved as a result. Yet the official practice of removal left many indigenous children afterwards in a no-man's land between white and black communities.
This dislocation and subsequent confusion about their identities and lack of knowledge of their original families have caused enormous grief and pain which for years was never officially acknowledged.
According to former High Court judge Sir Roland Wilson, whose 1997 report Bringing Them Home
first recommended an apology: "The aim [of the policies of the time] was to strip the children of their Aboriginality, and accustom them to live in a white Australia. The tragedy was compounded when the children, as they grew up, encountered the racism which shaped the policy, and found themselves rejected by the very society for which they were being prepared."
Saying sorry caused a great deal of angst within Coalition ranks because Liberal and National MPs, for more than a decade, had stood solidly behind John Howard in opposing making an apology.
All state and territory governments had already apologised. Many local governments, police forces, government agencies, non-government organisations and church groups had also apologised.
But in 1999 John Howard offered only a "statement of regret" for past practices, which simply had the effect of turning a real apology into a totemic political issue. Mr Howard had a blind spot on indigenous issues - something to which he even admitted in the dying days of his prime ministership.
The Northern Territory intervention - or something equivalent - should have happened in the first rather than the 11th year of his period in office.
In hindsight, it might have been better for everyone, particularly for the Coalition, if Mr Howard had acceded to Wilson's recommendation and made a full and generous apology. It would have been a symbolic gesture, much smaller than the one witnessed on February 13. The longer it was delayed the more it was magnified.
A handful of Coalition MPs could not bring themselves to join the bipartisan gesture and boycotted the ceremony, while many more Coalition MPs agreed to attend solely out of solidarity with new leader Dr Brendan Nelson. As a consequence Dr Nelson's speech was convoluted and in parts excruciating as he tried to appease everyone.Aboriginal enclaves
Sorry Day coincided with another action by the Rudd Government - a decision to reverse the previous Howard Government's dismantlement of the permit system in the Northern Territory last year.
The permit system is designed to keep remote Aboriginal communities as enclaves separate from white populations as a means of supposedly preserving their culture and way of life.
In fact, the permit system has had the effect of hiding these communities away, locking them out of the mainstream and into lives of terrible squalor, desperation and alcohol abuse, which have created the breeding grounds for sexual exploitation of children.
These communities are almost entirely propped up with government money and are in fact among the last busted Marxist mini-nations in the world.
Saying sorry might have been important; but the health and welfare of Australia's indigenous communities, particularly in remote parts of the country, remain a terrible blight on the nation.
This blight will not be fixed by an apology.