Any doubts that apologising for the stolen generation, nearly forty years after the practice was considered unacceptable and stopped, is more about the political class’s self-image than indigenous people, must surely have been laid to rest by the row over Rudd’s vow to set a date for saying sorry.

Rudd’s decision to apologise on the first day of the new Parliament has drawn flak from both sides. His announcement that there would be no compensation immediately drew unfavourable comparisons to some of the Labor state governments where payouts have been made. Paul Lennon, in a fairly self-serving article in The Australian, revealingly entitled ‘Cash is a mere gesture’, describes how he made the ‘gesture’ in the middle of an election campaign in Tasmania, that fortunately for him turned out to be popular. The cash handed out to those forcibly taken away of just $58,000 would certainly qualify as a gesture, but then as Lennon says:

There can be no way of providing adequate compensation for pain, suffering and dislocation.

Well there can, actually. At least legally anyway, as there is a fairly elaborate system designed to calculate adequate financial compensation for such wrongs. Herron, in the submission made to the Senate for the previous government, calculated compensation would have been over ten times as much if liability had been established. However, despite their gestures, liability is something state governments have been keen to avoid. So has the new federal government, as Jenny Macklin reassured when announcing the government’s plans to apologise:

All of the state governments have issued formal apologies in their parliaments and there haven’t been any legal ramifications as a result of those apologies.

The basis on which Labor governments have avoided liability is to argue that the laws were different then and they weren’t broken in taking children away. This is basically the legal equivalent of the argument used by those on the right who argued that attitudes were different then and it is wrong to condemn by reading history backwards.

While both accept in their own way that the past is the past, the difference is really about now. It was interesting watching Macklin on The 7.30 Report a couple of weeks ago defend the refusal to pay compensation. As she answered criticism by reaffirming the importance of the apology itself, she implied that finally breaking Howard’s embargo on saying sorry should be enough. However, she gave the distinct impression of making an argument that may have had resonance while Howard was around but now had lost its point and was not enough to offset the lack of money.

Having a go at Howard for not saying sorry was turning around what Howard had been doing to Labor before. Labor’s ‘gesture’ of reconciliation was part of a national identity project that it began to almost wholly rely on in the last years of power. Howard’s refusal to say sorry was part of his whole attack on Keating’s agenda that Howard claimed was detached from everyday Australian concerns. However, as the national identity project fell away, it was Howard who ended up sounding like he was playing politics with semantic word games, leaving us with Nelson’s feeble echo of Howard’s tactic yesterday:

You have to ask yourself … whether [the apology] is the most important issue that’s facing Australia when we’ve seen a decline in the share market, home interest rates go up, petrol get more expensive and a basket full of groceries harder to fill.

Nelson’s tactic won’t work because Labor’s game is over and Rudd has no intention of reviving it. He is starting Parliament with an apology not because he wants it to define his government by it but because he wants to get it out of the way and bury it at the start.

Both sides now agree that practical measures are the way to help indigenous people. This sounds very noble until it is remembered that the most important practical measure both sides have agreed on in the last few months was the Northern Territory intervention, a ‘practical’ measure that is based on the same assumption as the one both sides agreed on fifty years ago, namely that indigenous parents are incapable of looking after their children. Maybe when the latest ‘practical’ measure is exposed for the beat-up child abuse panic it is, and they again decide to apologise for it, next time they will be a little more specific about who actually was responsible and not drag us all into it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 29 January 2008.

Filed under The Australian state

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