What Nelson did wrong

Thursday, 14 February 2008 

If there is an iron law of Australian politics, it is that the fate of the political class and the indigenous issue are intimately intertwined.

Whether it was colonisation, the White Australia Policy or the modernising period of the last forty years (and Howard’s attack on it over the last decade), indigenous affairs has been the fulcrum around which the political class reorganises itself.

Rudd used yesterday’s apology speech to recast the rules of Australian politics again. It was a culmination of a transformation Rudd has undertaken since assuming the party leadership and which Howard inadvertently laid the ground for last year. Yesterday even the media, which had been treating Rudd like a mini-Howard and treating the apology like some left-over from the Keating years, finally started to realise that we are in a new political era.

Just how far the rules have changed was shown by the trouble Nelson had in his reply. Nelson’s first problem was that he ended up trying to defend the record of non-indigenous people. What he could not do was defend what was actually under attack yesterday. Rudd was quite specific:

We, the parliaments of the nation, are ultimately responsible, not those who gave effect to our laws. And the problem lay with the laws themselves. [TPS bold]

For Rudd the ultimate blame was not with the social workers who took the children away or even the administrators who oversaw it and it certainly wasn’t those of the public who supported the policy. According to Rudd, it was the political class itself who made the laws that was ultimately at fault. And not just those of the past. In case MPs did not get the message, as he pointedly looked across the table, he also implicated some in the chamber:

But let us remember the fact that the forced removal of Aboriginal children was happening as late as the early 1970s. The 1970s is not exactly a point in remote antiquity. There are still serving members of this Parliament who were first elected to this place in the early 1970s. It is well within the adult memory span of many of us.

This accusation went to the very heart of the Liberal’s stance on the apology, and especially of their former leader, who was absent for the first time since he entered Parliament in, er, the early 1970s. In the Liberals’ role as the last defender of Australia’s political traditions, it is the political class’s sensitivities the Liberals are really defending when they go on about the good work done by some of those who took children away. It is what Abbott was really objecting to on Lateline when he said he supported the apology but disagreed with ‘some of the wording’ after Tony Jones quoted from the apology:

The laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on the stolen generations

But Rudd went to the heart of the politics on some of his own side as well. Former G-G William Deane summed up the confusion as he described yesterday as a pick up from the Corroboree in 2000, the public events that marked the high point of the reconciliation campaign. According to Deane, after 2000, the reconciliation movement went backwards but came back on track yesterday.

But yesterday is not a reversal of the last decade as though it never happened. Rudd’s apology doesn’t pick up from the reconciliation movement of the 1990s. It is more a consequence of what happened to that campaign after the failure of Keating’s national identity project. It especially owes a lot to Howard’s NT intervention, an act that dealt a blow to the land rights compromise and an act that Rudd continues to support.

Rudd was not about returning to the Keating agenda, he was doing something new. He was not rehabilitating the political class but excoriating it. Only someone who had come to power effectively campaigning against the traditions of the political class could make the speech that was made yesterday. After having put the blame on both political parties and them alone, he then used the apology to over-ride normal political partisanship. One of the biggest cheers came in his speech when he savaged what had up to then been the indigenous debate between the left and the right:

The nation is calling on us, the politicians, to move beyond our infantile bickering, our point-scoring and our mindlessly partisan politics and to elevate this one core area of national responsibility to a rare position beyond the partisan divide.

It was on that basis, that he proposed his ‘war cabinet’, jointly chaired by both parties, to set about closing the gap in living standards.

Jenny Macklin on The 7.30 Report last night spelt out fairly blatantly what this meant politically. The government intends to begin this bi-partisanship with housing, but only as a non-controversial starting point. The aim is to extend this non-partisan approach across other areas. Making indigenous affairs non-political is going to be difficult for the Liberals given all of the agonising ahead of yesterday’s speech resulting in five of their MPs not turning up yesterday. Apparently, Nelson did not know that the war cabinet proposal was coming but given his agreement to the principle of the apology, there was little he could do.

But this swift move to tackle indigenous problems has also undermined the reconciliation’s campaign for compensation. As Macklin said last night, it is a choice between spending money on past wrongs or practical measures to making right the future, especially for children. This is actually the same argument that Howard made to over-ride the reconciliation and land rights lobby to argue for the intervention, an act that Rudd had no trouble following and supporting him on.

In the final months of power, Howard started to realise that the intervention may have undermined a compromise he had long opposed but it was also impossible to return to the past and so a new agenda had to be developed. This was behind the ‘re-think’ he flagged in his Sydney Institute speech last October. However, despite his long opposition to most of the political class’s agenda of the last forty years, he was too bound up with it to set out something new. It required a new leader to come in and break with the past and the political class that had made it.

That this new Prime Minister who delivered an apology, which the reconciliation movement wants, is the same Prime Minister who supported the intervention, which the reconciliation movement does not want, was an uncomfortable fact that nobody wanted to hear yesterday. That Nelson couldn’t bring himself to join in Rudd’s attack on the political class, whose last outspoken supporters sat behind him was bad enough. But to remind everyone of the intervention and the graphic stories that were used to justify it, did not go down well either. Nor did it when he raised the other point of agreement between the two parties, the refusal to pay compensation. It is no wonder there were those who wanted to turn their backs and cover their ears.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 14 February 2008.

Filed under Key posts, The Australian state

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