Australia had a moment yesterday, a moment when politics overcame a decade of ideological intransigence to say “sorry”, a simple word that has had a profound impact on Australia’s Indigenous community and beyond.
It also had a noticeable effect on the nation’s media. Last night’s evening news had blanket coverage of the day’s events, and if this morning’s newspapers are any guide, the Canberra press gallery was disarmed by what it witnessed inside the chamber yesterday.
“Never, perhaps, has a deeper silence descended upon a prime ministerial speech in the House of Representatives,” observes Tony Wright in today’s Age. “In the crowded galleries above the gathered representatives, a handkerchief fluttered here, a hand moved to brush away a tear there. An old woman laid a comforting arm around the shoulders of — who knows, her daughter? Eyes were drawn to each of these small stirrings because all else was still, as if the whole place was holding its breath.”
He’s not the only one who saw something exceptional. Here’s what the papers both here and abroad are reporting what Kevin Rudd called a “new beginning for Australia”.
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Editorial, The Australian: One of the ironies of yesterday’s gesture is that it apologises for the unintended consequences of the paternalistic policies of state and territory governments that were in place until the early 1970s. One can only wonder whether future governments will one day apologise for the unintended consequences of the rights-based policies that characterised government policy for the next 30 years, which have been arguably more disastrous entrenching in many communities welfare dependency, substance abuse, violence, marginalisation and hopelessness.
Dennis Shanahan, The Australian: Kevin Rudd has had a triumph. As a new Prime Minister, he has tapped a vein of enthusiasm and excitement over the apology to the Stolen Generations that keeps faith with the Labor heartland, draws a clear and emotive line across the Howard era and maintains political momentum. Rudd is in charge of the Government, is driving the emotional national agenda and is drawing in, including and even promoting the Opposition as he attempts to take full control of national politics.
Editorial, Sydney Morning Herald: When the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, finished speaking yesterday, the applause from the floor of the House of Representatives and from the galleries packed with members of the stolen generations was spontaneous and prolonged. It was the same outside the House, too, where others had watched a telecast, and in cities where crowds had gathered to watch the speech on giant screens. It was a nationwide emotional release — a collective sigh of relief that this long-awaited moment had finally come. For members of the stolen generations it will have a particular personal significance, but for other onlookers the apology may have a broader meaning: it appears to be a gesture of atonement for the full disastrous history of indigenous relations since 1788.
Michelle Grattan, The Age: Rudd relished yesterday’s achievement — apology extended, a unanimous vote — but above all he sees saying “sorry” as a bridge to improving indigenous conditions. His model, an attempt to “transcend the partisan divide”, is an innovation in public administration in Australia. It shows Rudd’s lateral thinking, and minister Jenny Macklin’s view that bipartisanship is vital for progress. Given Nelson’s consensus style and his interest in the area from his AMA days, it could just work.
Editorial, Courier Mail: The circumstances that have allowed the average life expectancy of Aborigines living in remote communities to be some 17 years less than those of white Australians should have been front and centre of public policy making long before this. But if Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s words yesterday are to be believed, those circumstances, shameful as they are, most certainly have the full attention of our lawmakers. It will take more than an elegant turn of phrase to change them, much more.
Neil Mitchell, Herald Sun: Well, that’s it. We’ve had our new dawn. If you believe Kevin Rudd, the sun rose with him in Parliament at 9am yesterday. And the sun dimmed only slightly when he sat down about 35 minutes later. So, how is this country different today? It is no less divided. Minutes after Kevin’s burst of sunshine, bitterness erupted. Crowds around the country turned their backs and booed Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson for reinforcing the point that had to be reinforced: there should be no compensation for Aboriginal “victims”.
Di Thomas, Border Mail: Member for Indi Sophie Mirabella has hit out at the Federal Government’s national apology to the stolen generations, defending her decision to stay away from the event at Parliament House yesterday. Labelling Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology as “hastily put together” and “divisive”, Mrs Mirabella responded to media inquiries late yesterday, saying she could not support Mr Rudd’s motion and chose not to attend. Mrs Mirabella questioned the existence of the stolen generations, saying an Aboriginal-led taskforce in Victoria had been unable to identify one truly “stolen” child.
The Independent: For years, Australians have agonised over the fate of about 100,000 Aborigine children who were taken from their families because the government believed that their race had no future and they would be better off being brought up in white society. Yesterday, as Australia’s Parliament returned from its summer break, its formal opening was turned into a ceremony designed to draw a line under one of the nastiest episodes in Australian history and usher in a new era of “mutual respect”.
International Herald Tribune: Rudd’s speech marked a tectonic shift not just in Australian politics, but also potentially in the country’s troubled race relations. The prime minister said the apology could serve as a bridge … Kirstie Parker, the managing editor of the influential Aboriginal paper the Koori Mail, who was in Parliament to listen to the speech, said it carried more power than just an apology … But, significantly, there was no mention anywhere in the speech of compensation for those affected by the policy of forced assimilation, a key demand of many of the victims. Rudd has ruled out setting up a government fund to compensate victims.
The Editorial Board, New York Times: We hope that Australia uses the apology as an opportunity to move forward. That means implementing the kindergarten commitment and going beyond that to further reduce income and other disparities between Aborigines and other Australians. Mr. Rudd’s proposal for a “war cabinet” on indigenous policy — and the decision by opposition leader Brendan Nelson of the Liberal Party to co-chair the group — is a welcome bipartisan start.
The Hindu: John Howard was the only living former prime minister of Australia who did not attend Wednesday’s Parliament where Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered a historic apology to the Aboriginal people. Howard boycotted the historic apology and preferred to stick to his routine morning walk, according to The Australian.