The first draft of history, however inaccurate, has an unfortunate tendency to persist, and one suspects that in years to come, Brendan Nelson’s speech in reply to the Prime Minister’s apology to the Stolen Generations will be known chiefly for how it was jeered and rejected.

Nelson himself may make little further mark in our history. It’s hard to see him enduring a Howard-like vale of political sorrows before ascending into national leadership decades hence. Nonetheless, such an outcome from Wednesday is unfair on him and, as much as it sticks in the craw to say, unfair on the Coalition.

The Leader of the Opposition was probably never going to earn plaudits from the more professionally outraged of Aboriginal activists. And there were elements of his reply that were frankly political, or offered in an attempt to placate the Right, or weren’t entirely appropriate for the occasion.

But unlike Rudd, who preferred high-flown political oratory (enough of “this great nation, Australia”, Prime Minister – I think we know which country we live in), Nelson’s reply suggested he had thought long and hard about the Stolen Generations, and wanted his countrymen to do likewise. Nelson’s speech wasn’t about “moving on”, but about stopping and thinking about what happened. The idea, offered by some Stolen Generation members, that Nelson had somehow ruined the day, suggests they didn’t bother listening to him at all.

The antics of Sophie Mirabella, Wilson Tuckey and other Coalition buffoons are an easy target. Dennis Jensen, in particular, plumbed new depths when he denied there was a stolen generation, described an apology as “meaningless” and quoted a TV poll to justify himself. No wonder John Howard intervened to save his preselection.

But have a look at what more senior conservatives said. This is Nick Minchin, who was boasting only last week of cruelling Malcolm Turnbull’s hopes over the apology:

If there was any failure on our part, it was in relation to recognising the significance of symbolism in helping Indigenous communities to move forward. We were unashamedly focused on practical outcomes but we can now acknowledge that that was at the expense of important symbolic acts… We do accept that the lack of a formal apology from the federal government has been an impediment to better relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The Coalition now recognise that this apology is very important to Indigenous Australians and that the parliament should adopt this motion in the interests of enhancing their hopes, their aspirations and their opportunities.

And this, amazingly, is Eric Abetz, who usually inhabits the reactionary wastelands of the Liberal right:

To all those people who have those doubts, see an inequity or express cynicism, I simply say: I understand those reservations, but nevertheless I plead with you to give this apology a go. Many people have asked for it for many years. Many say it will make a material difference for a group in our society that have been undeniably mistreated, so why not give it a go?

Some time ago, a group of Christian Aboriginal women that I spoke with apologised for their hatred of the white people. Racism in this country has been a two-way street but I think most of the traffic has been on the white side. If these Aboriginal women had found it within themselves to seek forgiveness from the white community why can we not find it within ourselves to also offer an apology for past misdeeds?

Don’t let the colour and movement from either Left or Right obscure the fact that senior Liberals have come a long way. And if we’re serious about reconciliation, that should be recognised.

Peter Fray

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