Saying sorry to make them feel good

Saturday, 13 October 2007 

What value does an apology for taking children away from their parents in 1957 have from a political class that supported an initiative in 2007 based on exactly the same assumption – namely that indigenous parents are incapable of looking after their kids? At least they weren’t accusing indigenous parents fifty years ago of allowing their kids to be sexually abused.

The fact that such degradation was assumed without any convincing evidence suggests attitudes to indigenous people have not changed as much as some like to think. The disapproval of the nuns of the mission has merely been replaced by that of the visiting social worker. To read the NT report again that kicked the intervention off and its sniffy social worker disdain of mothers playing cards brings out that the problem is still seen to be the same – the behaviour of aboriginal people.

What has really changed is not the way Australian politicians feel about indigenous people but the way they feel about themselves. This is about a political class that has lost its mission and confidence in themselves and whose greatest policy failure has come back to haunt them. That is why both parties could go blithely through the 1970s and 1980s with little worry about the stolen generation and born-agains like Fraser and Chaney could largely ignore it while in government. It is only in the last fifteen years with both parties losing their political mission that the chest-beating began in earnest. That was why the release of the Bringing Them Home Report of 1997 could be treated as shocking news to politicians who seemed curiously unaware of what had been a major part of government policy from both sides of the fence.

Amongst Australian politicians there are two approaches to deal with this issue. The first is to carry on the policy of the 1970s and 1980s and not accept responsibility. This is based on the view that it would compromise the authority of the political class to be associated with it. This has been Howard’s approach and is what he means by an apology not being a basis to move forward on.

The second approach is to take the hit, apologise, but to minimise the damage on the political class by spreading the blame as wide as possible to say we are all responsible. Well of course we are all not. Not just those who were not of voting age at that time, but not even all of those who were, approved of the policy and do not feel the need to defend the two major parties who did.

They will inevitably end up taking the latter approach. That erosion of confidence continues and indeed it is the lack of confidence of Howard in his own prospects and the hold on his core supporter base that has forced this latest move. But he is too bound up in the political tradition that is trying to rehabilitate itself. What is needed is someone who is so detached from the political class that he has been effectively campaigning against it all year and so put the responsibility on all of us, whether we like it or not.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 13 October 2007.

Filed under The Australian state

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