Yesterday, a few long needed words were said in the Australian parliament (full text here
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
The structure of Rudd's apology to one culture reflects old customs from another:
the curse is done,
the witness borne,
and the past laid down.
It was a cathartic moment for many, a moment spoiled somewhat by the opposition leader's rambling, defensive, and seemingly sullen response.
Looking at the full text of Nelson's speech
, I think his sin was in structure rather than intent. It lacked a point and rambled. Lacking focus, his listeners were quickly distracted and annoyed by perceived slights in what he did say. (Ironically, it was Nelson who had to endure the slow clapping that Andrew Bolt, the increasingly shrill culture warrior of the Herald-Sun, demanded should be directed at Rudd)
I think the problem the Liberal party has always had in confronting the stolen generations is that it has never been able to separate the burden of admission from the burden of blame. The stance has been that to say sorry is to admit that something which happened long before many of the parliamentary leaders were born is somehow their fault. Yes, there is also the matter of being liable for compensation if you admit guilt, and yes, there have been individual claims that have been successfully pursued in various states (notably Tasmania and South Australia) .
But this is a product of adversarial thinking and fear of reprisal. When dealing with old hurts people, as a rule, are more interested in closure than vengeance. Australian Aborigines are not a vindictive people.
Still, if Nelson feels that an apology needs to be for something more personal, then he could have referred to these things:
- sorrow that the people who enacted the forcible removal of children from their parents could not apologise in person.
- sorrow that his party had acted out of fear of reprisal and a tidal wave of compensation claims.
- sorrow that the day of reconciliation was so long in coming.
Said three times, then the curse is done and the burden laid down.
The future will happen as it will but, with fewer burdens, it has more scope to happen well.