For half an hour on 13 February, I was filled with a sense of pride in my Government such as I have never felt in my adult life.

And then Brendan Nelson opened his mouth. My optimism dissipated and I got – and I am – so angry and incredulous that someone with the modicum of intelligence necessary to enter politics could miss the point so completely. Our Opposition Leader got up and showed Australia and the world that he had no idea what the word “sorry” means.

So in the spirit of walking together, I’d like to offer Dr Nelson some pointers so that the next time he needs to make an apology, he doesn’t end up making a complete and shameful twit of himself. Again.

  1. DON”T QUALIFY IT. If you need to explain the reasons why you’re not sorry, then it’s fairly obvious to the recipient of the apology that you’re not being genuine. In this case, it was made abundantly clear that the reason you were saying sorry was for reasons of political expediency rather than any true understanding of what the apology was about. If you’re going to be a hypocrite, best to stick to political tradition and at least attempt to do it discreetly.

  2. Don’t make it about yourself when you have no frame of reference for a comparison. The fact that your father was forcibly adopted because he was born out of wedlock is unfortunate and I’m sure something many Australians didn’t know. In this case however, it was like telling a double amputee that you know how they feel – you had a cut on your toe once. Not entirely in the same ballpark and actually, fairly insulting.
  3. In the same vein, get your facts straight. When you brought up the question of compensation, I cringed. And then you said, “What price can be put on a life lost?” Ummm…hundreds of thousands of dollars Brendan, according to some Australian legal precedent. Compensation cases that provide monetary restitution for damages caused by deliberate or accidental action or inaction are not that uncommon. Just because a lot of people are affected, doesn’t mean that the same rules don’t apply.
  4. A sense of moral and racial superiority is not the same as good intentions. To say that we can’t judge the policy makers who facilitated the stealing of Indigenous kids from their families and communities, who thought that the nation would be a better place without the Aboriginal population, “and believed they were doing the right thing”, is a fairly thick point on a wedge that leads us squarely to being able to excuse every deplorable act across global history done in the name of God, King or country. Hitler said he thought that he was doing the right thing too, Dr Nelson. It doesn’t make it any less abhorrent, inexcusable and worthy of restitution.
  5. The way to meaningful restitution is generally not through repeating the acts that you’re apologising for. When you reeled off the disturbing facts and figures about the state of many remote communities, it was done in the same breath as trying to justify the actions of the white “protectors”. The implication was that then, as today, communities were unable to cope without intervention. Oh Brendan. Indigenous Australians are not to be pitied by the likes of you, for one. Two, the situation of being caught between two worlds – the agonised sense of being accepted nowhere – that has been felt by sections of the Indigenous community is a direct result of the assimilationist interventions such as resulted in the Stolen Generations. While I will certainly agree that your party, and Governments before it, offered a shameful lack of support for services in remote Australia, going into a situation that you don’t understand and telling people how to live is only going to end in (more) tears.
  6. Understand to whom you are apologising. Unlike Mr Rudd, who acknowledged diversity in the Indigenous community and the need to recognise this diversity in policy and praxis, you seem to have a fetishised idea of Aboriginality. It may surprise you to know that not all Indigenous Australians live in remote Australia. No, really. And living in a city or urban area does not preclude living with traditions and culture as a part of everyday life. Neither does it protect Indigenous families from living with discrimination and the neglect of Governments that have systematically refused to listen or act in partnership with the people that they espouse a wish to help. Sending in the AFP can’t solve everything Dr Nelson.

I applaud Mr Rudd’s suggestion of a bipartisan policy commission to ‘close the gap’ on services for Indigenous Australia. I only hope that the Leader of the Opposition opens his eyes so as to contribute intelligently to the future path of our country.

I hope that he, and those who think like him, can realise the true nature of what has happened in Indigenous relations in this country over the past 200 or more years. That they can recognise the disastrous consequences of the (in)actions of past Governments – including that which he was a part of — and that the way forward is to recognise and heal from, not repeat, the shameful mistakes of our shared history.

Stephanie Lusby has worked with Stolen Generations Victoria and is currently co-director of Jubilee Australia.

Peter Fray

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