Brendan Nelson’s reply was a curious affair. Doubtless many people won’t be happy with it – apparently he was booed before he’d even started speaking in some places – but it seemed to come as close as possible to reconciling the (quite irreconcilable) views of reactionaries and progressives in the ranks behind him.

To accommodate the recalcitrants in his party – some of whom didn’t bother showing up – Nelson needed to make the two key points that are so endlessly harped on by opponents of an apology: that many of those who removed Aboriginal children did so with good, or at least mixed, intentions, and that some of those removed were done so for their own protection.

That he managed to do so without gratuitous offence, or striking a clearly wrong note, is a credit to him, although it made for a rather rambling speech. He emphasised the experience of settlement, both for whites and indigenous people, and hardship they endured. He spoke, somewhat preachily, of sacrifice in war, and of old-fashioned values. This seemed an indirect way of emphasising that Australia’s past was a shared experience between black and white, thereby challenging the automatic dichotomy of white power and black victimhood that underpins much of the debate about the Stolen Generations.

He also emphasised, even more than Rudd, that the misery continues for Aboriginal Australians, and that there is a massive task before all politicians in addressing that. There may even be a role for forced removal now, he seemed to be saying – and by implication vindicating the removal of some members in earlier generations.

Nelson also evidently felt compelled to defend the previous Government’s intervention. This was where his reply drifted closest to inappropriate politicisation. But given Rudd made a point of saying that the Federal Parliament had been silent for 11 years – ignoring the previous Government’s expression of regret in 1999 – it was probably even on that score.

But in spite of all that, there’s no doubt Nelson genuinely feels moved by the experience of people removed from their families and anguished about the effects of previous policies. Better than Rudd, he invited Australians to imaginatively enter into the experience of the stolen generation, to understand the profound dislocation and alienation arising from being removed from one’s family, one’s community. This, more than any apology, would seem to be the best possible outcome from this entire process.

And in discussing, at length, Neville Bonner’s life, Nelson was also doing something well overdue – reclaiming the positive aspects of the Liberal Party’s role in Aboriginal history. Courtesy of John Howard and the Liberal Right, Labor has been able to monopolise the moral high ground on indigenous issues for decades. It’s time that was challenged. It’s a pity Nelson has to fight members of his own party to do so.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey