Division within the federal Liberal Party over a national apology for the Stolen Generation is one of the most prominent issues in the lead-up to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s speech to parliament on 13 February.

With the Liberal Party still unable to find a unified position, Crikey emailed all federal Liberal parliamentarians individually on Friday to ask:

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

If the response is anything to go by, it appears there are reservations in making one’s personal stance known, which might help explain the difficulty in finding a unified position. By publication time today, Crikey had received only three responses, one of which was from Shadow Minister for Climate Change, Greg Hunt, who writes: “I will discuss the matter with my colleagues in the Party Room.”

Shadow Minister Christopher Pyne wrote:

I support achieving practical positive outcomes for indigenous people. Labor is more focussed on the symbolic. They promised to say “sorry” to indigenous people before the election so it is no surprise that this has come up now. Once we see the text of the motion, assuming it is something that we can support without reservation, then I will have no trouble in supporting it – but at the moment we are being asked to commit to something the words of which we are yet to see!

Member of Moore Mal Washer replied:

I support apologising to the Aboriginal people to assist in their healing process. I do not agree on individual compensation payments. If the Labor Government decides to put forward any money it must be used for Education, Health and real job opportunities.

Meanwhile, speaking on Radio National’s Breakfast program this morning, ex-Howard government minister and shadow Indigenous affairs spokesman Tony Abbott distanced himself from his former boss’s position and started limbering up for a backflip:

We’re sorry for the misguided policies of the past and we’re particularly sorry to the extent that past policies treated Indigenous people differently simply on account of their Aboriginality.

But his state counterparts are not suffering the same collective pangs of indecision. All have arrived at firm positions on the issue, with many having already made formal apologies in parliament, some more than a decade ago. The South Australian parliament issued an apology on 28 May, 1997 by then Liberal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Dean Brown:

I move that the South Australian Parliament expresses its deep and sincere regret at the forced separation of some Aboriginal children from their families and homes which occurred prior to 1964, apologises to these Aboriginal people for these past actions and reaffirms its support for reconciliation between all Australians.

Leader of the Tasmanian Liberals Will Hodgman said he would support an “appropriately worded apology”, while Victorian Liberal opposition leader Ted Baillieu told Crikey:

A decade ago the Victorian Parliament unanimously passed a motion apologising to Indigenous people for the removal of children from their families. An apology was important in the path towards reconciliation. It was the just and decent thing to do. The lack of a national apology has been a source of continuing division. It is time that this division ends.

Queensland takes a harder line. Coalition leader Lawrence Springborg says Kevin Rudd’s plan to apologise is “sinister politics” while Mark McCardle, leader of the Queensland Liberals, told Crikey:

I don’t believe that we should be making a statement in relation to the actions which were taken many years ago over which we had no control and no responsibility. I cannot support a statement which says we are sorry for that reason.

Of course, arriving at a singular position of support or otherwise will be easier for the Libs when they have a draft statement to consider. But given the internal divisions being caused by holding onto his proposed statement, Mr Rudd might keep his words to himself for a while longer.

Peter Fray

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