The Rudd government’s handling of the sorry saga over an apology and payment of compensation to members of the Stolen Generation represents both a step forward and a step backward.
And as any fifth grader will tell you, that adds up to not much progress at all.
The step forward is that a national apology will be delivered. Granted, for Indigenous Australians extracting the word ‘sorry’ must feel like drawing blood from a stone. But a belated apology is better than no apology at all.
The step backward is that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his Indigenous affairs minister, Jenny Macklin have decided that no compensation will be forthcoming. That is deeply disappointing.
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Of course, the practice of removal was primarily committed by state governments, so it is not the federal government’s responsibility to compensate ALL Aboriginal people for the Stolen Generations outrage, even though some leadership from federal Labor on the issue would have been welcome.
But it is most certainly the federal government’s responsibility in relation to the Northern Territory, which was under Commonwealth control until the late 1970s.
Sadly, politics got in the way of progress again.
Rudd simply did not want his Prime Ministership defined by an early act of ‘generosity’ towards ‘the blacks’. While it may well have been the ‘right thing to do’, politics is about pragmatism and populism, not principle and leadership.
Unfortunately, Aboriginal people tend not to be all that pragmatic when it comes to their basic human rights. They have this crazy notion (and I can’t for the life of me think where they got it) that their rights should be respected, no matter what.
And a basic human right the world over is that if you are harmed, you’re entitled to an apology, an assurance it will not occur again, and compensation.
Those rules, however, don’t apply in Australia. At least not all the time.
The rules apply when we are the ones wronged – see Australian Wheat Board and James Hardie, to name just two. But the cheque book always seems to go missing when it turns out we’re the ones doing the wronging.
There is, of course, one notable exception.
In late 2006, the Tasmanian government announced plans to offer compensation to Aboriginal people wrongly removed from their families. The offer was greeted with national acclaim. It was not only the brightest light on the Indigenous affairs horizon in 2006-2007, it was, by a country mile the brightest light shone by any government anywhere in the country in more than a decade.
And the total bill for this act of bridge building? $5 million.
Given the very small price to pay, Australia’s ongoing resistance really begs a closer examination of how serious we are about moving forward with Indigenous people.
Rudd’s plan of action on this issue is straight out of the John Howard playbook on ‘Dealing with The Natives’ – whatever you do, do less than the bare minimum. But surely Rudd must realize by now that this approach simply delays the inevitable, and guarantees you a bad write-up in the history books.
The truth is that just as mankind developed opposable thumbs and crawled out of the caves, Australia will – kicking, screaming or otherwise – eventually be dragged into the human rights community.
We will progress. We will evolve.
Indigenous Australians will one day be compensated for stolen land, stolen wages and stolen children. We will one day have to pay out the ‘Great Australian Trifecta’.
The multi-million dollar question is which Prime Minister has the vision, the compassion and the leadership to take the first step.
On early form, it seems Rudd is not our man. But there remains some hope that his baulk at the starting gate was an aberration, rather than an indication of things to come.
For just a few days after the November election, The Age reported: “An emotional Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd has this morning paid heartfelt tributes to asbestosis campaigner Bernie Banton, who today lost his battle with cancer.”
There are thousands of ‘Bernie Bantons’ all over Indigenous Australia who are losing their battle with the affects of the removal policies of the past. Let’s hope that our national leader can find something in himself that stirs a similar emotion.