What a difference a change of government makes. Now, the party most closely identified with wedge politics is being damn near cleft in twain – and over the apology to the “stolen generations”, of all issues.

This should serve as a reminder that, when last in office, Labor was none too shabby at wedge politics itself. The underrated Michael Lavarch adeptly split the Coalition’s ranks on issues like Tasmania’s homophobic criminal laws. It didn’t help them much come 1996, but it was fine sport to watch.

This time around it doesn’t even look like Rudd and Macklin are trying particularly hard to politicise the apology. They’ve just said “13 February” and “sorry” and watched the Coalition tear itself apart.

It doesn’t help that the Coalition leadership has no idea how to handle this. Like it or not, there are arguments against a formal apology. As John Howard often argued, it could lead to compensation demands – which is exactly what has happened, with demands from some indigenous leaders for a billion dollars in payouts.

Another is that an apology overlooks those individual circumstances where forced removal benefited the “victim”. There is also a need to clearly indicate that the removal of children did not in any way amount to “genocide”, and to claim it was is to insult the memory of groups who have been the victim of mass extermination.

All are arguments that resonate with voters, regardless of whether we latte-sipping elitists approve.

But nothing coherent is coming from the Coalition hold-outs. Nelson first tried to claim that there were more important things for Parliament to be doing than apologising. When he realised that this perhaps looked a bit churlish, he adopted a holding position, demanding to see the wording – a position that he’ll find increasingly difficult to hold to between now and 12 February. There’s only one word that matters, and that’s “sorry”, and we all know that will be in there.

Tony “people skills” Abbott – however improbably, the Opposition’s indigenous affairs spokesman – has offered the Pythonesque line that Rudd and Macklin are “making it up as they go along”. He should know – that’s appears to be the Opposition’s approach, too.

They look like a rabble. They’re also missing the point that sometimes you need to cut your losses. There’s a mood to say “sorry” and get on with repairing what St Kevin of the Clumsy Metaphor called the “bridge of respect”. Even Parliament’s mad uncle, Bill Heffernan, thinks it’s a good idea.

Either the Coalition leadership should rally around a coherent position on why going beyond the previous expression of “deep and sincere regret” made by Parliament under Howard in 1999 is not appropriate, or they should minimise the damage to themselves by backing the apology. They may not really mean it, but at least it’s sensible politics.

CRIKEY

Nelson’s a nay, Turnbull’s a yay. But where does everyone else stand? Crikey has today asked each member of the federal parliamentary Liberal party and each state opposition leader the following question:

Do you support a government apology to the Indigenous community for the Stolen Generation?

We will bring you their responses early next week.

Peter Fray

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