Libs light a candle for Keating

Friday, 1 February 2008 

The Liberals have been getting into an intriguing mess over the government’s plan to make an apology for the Stolen Generation.

And what a mess it is. Find two senior Liberals and you have two different positions. Not only does Turnbull disagree with Nelson, but the indigenous affairs spokesman, Abbott, who is sceptical on what an apology will achieve, doesn’t even agree with his junior in the same portfolio who declared that Parliament must apologise.

Perhaps with the possible exception of Wilson Tuckey, the differing positions are unlikely to be about their attitude to indigenous people or the rights and wrongs of the Stolen Generation. It is about how they think the political class should relate to it.

Like so much of what Nelson does, his stance is a pale echo of Howard’s. Howard considered an apology an affront to the political class he grew up in and discredited a past he wanted to use. It also gave Howard a means of uniting the Liberals by attacking Keating’s national agenda.

However, Nelson carrying on the tactic has created a mess because Labor is no longer pushing that national identity agenda. In fact, this blog underestimated how much Rudd is distancing himself from that agenda. He has announced that the apology will not be made on behalf of the nation but be confined just to the government on behalf of past ones. In essence this is antithetical to the reconciliation in Keating’s agenda, which with its mass rallies, was supposed to the basis of a new political identity for the new republic.

Rudd’s apology has the opposite purpose. He aims to depoliticise it by apologising on behalf of the government but not include us in it. It will then be “time to move on”, as he says, to get on to what he calls practical measures. Rather than make it a centrepiece of his political agenda, Rudd’s aim is to bury the issue even if it means disowning the practices of the past governments of both parties. There is no-one better to do this job than someone who has spent the past year campaigning against the political class to win power.

Now Rudd has effectively abandoned Keating’s agenda, it has meant that in reviving Howard’s tactic, Nelson has inadvertently created something to be used against some in his own party. When Barnaby Joyce said the apology was “an empty rhetorical statement for the chattering classes in the inner suburbs” did he mean the voters of Wentworth who solidly returned their pro-Republican pro-reconciliation Member? Or maybe he meant Toorak residents who returned the Member for Higgins with similar views? In fact if there is anywhere where the Keating agenda is more alive it is in those blue ribbon Liberal seats that backed the republic in 1999 and stood so solidly behind the party last November.

Nelson thinks by pandering to the right he will consolidate his leadership but he has done the opposite. By reviving a row in his own party over an issue that has now moved on, Nelson has made a tactical mistake and it is no wonder he is starting to back down. He would have done better to follow the lead from the real voice of the right, his deputy Julie Bishop, who from the start has defied her leader by taking an open-ended stance on the issue. In doing so she confirms once again why she constitutes a much greater potential threat to Nelson’s leadership than Turnbull.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 1 February 2008.

Filed under State of the parties

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