Against stupidity, the Gods themselves contend in vain.

After ten long years the federal Liberals are still dithering over whether to be part of a formal apology to the stolen generation of indigenous Australians. They have learned nothing; but apparently they have forgotten just about everything.

The Bringing Them Home report, with its recommendation for a national apology, appeared early in 1997. Long before the end of that year every state and territory Liberal leader, whether in government or opposition, had either moved or endorsed an apology.

The sky did not fall in; the various governments were not bankrupted through claims for compensation. But of course John Howard remained recalcitrant: he wouldn’t apologise for something that happened in the past, he didn’t do it, the people who did were well intentioned and in any case standards were different way back then.

“Way back then” actually included the 1950s, when Honest John was already scrabbling up the greasy totem poll as president of the New South Wales Young Liberals, and most of the removals were well-intentioned only in the most strictly eugenic sense: as Auber Neville, the Western Australian Protector of Aboriginals, made clear, the aim of the kidnappers was to grab the half-castes and breed them with whites; in a few generations the Aboriginal strain would be absorbed in the stronger Caucasian stock, and of course the remaining full bloods were already in the process of dying out. A highly satisfactory final solution.

Moreover, it got rid of the evidence of activities which even by the standards of the times were unquestionably crimes. The debate about the stolen generation has tended to gloss over one uncomfortable question: just where did all the half-castes come from in the first place? Some may have been the products of consensual, if brief, relationships; but the vast majority were the result of the institutionalised r-pe of black women by white men.

Surely not even Nick Minchin, Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop – the most prominent of the dissenters – would wish to claim that the practice which gave rise to the removal of the children was in any way excusable, let alone well-intentioned. The party which is now so concerned about s-xual abuse in indigenous communities should at least consider this aspect of the stolen generation.

But it should also forget the nit-picking and show some generosity of spirit. Of course the national apology will not bring about overnight reconciliation, or wipe out the horrors of 220 years. But it is by far the best place to start. As we mathematicians might put it, it is necessary but not sufficient.

Because Howard chose to act like a cold and ruthless lawyer seeking maximum political advantage instead of like a national leader back in 1997, the whole question of an apology has dragged on for more than a decade, picking up an enormous amount of irrelevant political baggage in the process. And even now Brendan Nelson is muttering about the fine print: could it be taken to imply intergenerational guilt?

On 13 February the House of Representatives will carry a motion which says sorry; this is not in dispute. As things stand, the opposition is yet to decide whether to be dragged kicking and screaming to the party or to stay away altogether. This is not only appalling and graceless; it is terrible politics.

This is not a time for playing factional games, it is a time for leadership. Nelson should just say yes.

And Nelson has said yes, rather surprisingly, to Kevin Rudd’s plan for a talk fest of 100 of Australia’s best and brightest to contemplate their (and presumably our) future.

Summits in Australia have a mixed history: Bob Hawke’s economic summit of 1983 was a triumph in that it locked an unsuspecting business community into the accord hammered out between the government and the unions, thus allowing Hawke to set the economic parameters for most of his term. The tax summit that followed was notable for the break between Hawke and Paul Keating over consumption tax, hardly a public relations coup.

Rudd’s version is probably too general to do much damage – or much good; but if the delegates are carefully chosen it will suggest a helpful air of inclusiveness, a government listening and in touch as it outlines its vision. It will cost quite a lot, but because the participants will probably include most of the more influential political commentators, this need not be a problem. And weather permitting, a good time will be had by all.

One person not present will be P P McGuinness, the subject of eulogies varying from the fulsome to the virulent.

I knew Paddy for longer than any of the eulogists; we were at Sydney University together, in the days when his self-conscious perversity could be regarded as an amusing eccentricity rather than the pompous and arrogant bigotry it became in later years.

As a self styled anarchist Paddy was at the front of any demonstration going, and being both easily-recognisable and truculent was usually one of the first into the aptly named Paddy Wagon. On one such occasion I was deputed by the Students Representative Council to go down to the Watch House and bail out my fellow students, which I duly did, in the process releasing Padraic Pearse McGuinness back into the world to pursue his chosen career.

I have spent much of the subsequent 46 years wondering whether I should apologise for having done so.