Monday, March 29, 2010

OPINION: Why Conservatives should have been the first to apologise to indigenous Australians ...

(This article was first published on ABC Unleashed on 31 January 2008 to coincide with the Prime Minister's token apology to the Stolen Generation.)

Australian conservatives love talking about the importance of family values and of strengthening families. They also love talking about why migrants should be force-fed a good dose of cultural integration, even if it means having them memorise a dodgy citizenship booklet.

But for some reason, when it comes to the cultures and families of Indigenous Aussies, the rules applying to families and integration are turned on their head. Confused? Read on.

Budget dinners and Indigenous telephones...

On budget night two years ago, I found myself sitting in the Great Hall of Parliament House chatting away with some woman from a Liberal Party branch. After being lectured by her for 10 minutes on why "those nasty Mozzlems" didn't belong in Australia, I thought I might change the topic. So I switched to Indigenous affairs. The conversation went something like this:

SHE: Oh, them Abbos! What they need is a good dose of Western Christian civilisation.

ME: Well, madam, do you consider yourself a conservative?

SHE: Of course!

ME: And do you support the status quo?

SHE: Well, yes I do.

ME: Now on the one hand, we have around 200 years of European cultural status quo on this continent. We also have 40,000 years of Indigenous cultural status quo.

SHE: Yes, and ...

ME: Well, surely a genuine conservative would show more reverence and respect to a 40,000-year-old cultural status quo, wouldn't they?

SHE: Why? Did you know that the Aborigines didn't have telephones?

ME: Neither did Arthur Phillip, for that matter.

SHE: Huh! You must be one of them. You certainly look like it!

It's a bit rich for white-skinned Anglo-Aussies to lecture newer migrants on integration. What efforts did English, Irish, Scottish and other convicts and settlers make to integrate with Indigenous cultures?

Dr Nelson puts his heart in it...

One of my most memorable tasks as a member of the NSW Liberal Party State Council was to sit on the pre-selection panel for Dr Brendan Nelson. I've written about that experience here. After entering Parliament, Dr Nelson regularly bombarded us with all kinds of newsletters, reports and speeches.

Nelson had his own distinctive slogan and logo on all stationery - letterheads, envelopes etc. With the stars of the Southern Cross in the background, the words "Bradfield: Put your heart in it!" screamed out at you each time you received something from the good doctor.

Back in those days, Nelson was relying on the good graces of the relatively more left wing "Group" faction of the party which had secured him the preselection. The Group were always taunted by us for wanting to look more like the ALP than the ALP, supporting allegedly trendy causes such as the Republic and Aboriginal land rights.

One report Dr Nelson sent out was a summary of the 689-page Bringing Them Home report produced by the Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission as part of its "National Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families". Accompanying the summary was a letter from Dr Nelson urging all delegates to read the report. I can't recall whether Nelson mentioned a national apology back then, but it was clear from Nelson's covering letter that he regarded the treatment of Indigenous families as a source of profound national shame.

Dr Nelson takes his heart out of it...

That was then. Nelson is now Opposition Leader, heavily reliant on the votes of more conservative Liberal MPs. His home state is dominated by a small cabal of far-Right apparatchiks. His back bench includes a young MP who, as president of the NSW Young Libs and staffer for Liberal MLC David Clarke, engaged in a war of attrition against anyone (including a former NSW Opposition Leader) deemed insufficiently right wing.

Now Nelson has to beat his chest and prove his conservative credentials by standing up for good clean wholesome family values. Even if it means showing gross insensitivity toward Indigenous Australians whose families were forcibly ripped apart.

Nelson claims an apology to victims of the stolen generation will reinforce a "victim mentality". In fact, the opposite is more likely the case. The fact that no apology has yet been made ensures this issue remains even more of a festering sore among Indigenous Aussies. An apology may well go a long way to healing that sore and taking reconciliation forward.

Nelson asks whether the apology is "the most important issue that's facing Australia when we've seen a decline in the share market, home interest rates go up, petrol get more expensive and a basket full of groceries harder to fill". Yet how much influence does the government really have over these matters? Or is Nelson going to lead the next Federal Opposition with the campaign slogan "Keeping interest rates at record lows"?

John Howard had little control over interest rates, yet he still apologised to voters each time interest rates rose. Neither Brendan Nelson nor Kevin Rudd nor me nor most readers had anything to do with stealing Indigenous kids from their parents. Methinks being stolen from your family is worse than having troubles with your mortgage.

Brendan doesn't seem to understand this. Malcolm certainly does. Which probably explains why most punters and pundits take for granted that the future belongs to Malcolm.

A lesson on Christian values...

I asked an Aboriginal mate of mine named John about whether an apology would be nice. John was one of thousands of Aboriginal Aussies whose family was forcibly broken up in an attempt to "Christianise" them. It must have worked on John as he approached the issue in a very Christian manner.

"It isn't about whether you should say sorry even though you had nothing to do with it. What you should really be asking is this: If this happened to you, if you were stolen from your family, would you want to receive an apology? And more importantly, would the apology help in taking us all beyond the original injustice?"

I guess it's an extension of Christ's saying that we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Certainly I had that drummed into me during 10 years at St Andrews.

If we really are a Christian nation (as some conservatives claim), surely we should be taking some advice from the man (or rather, Son of Man) himself in how we deal with each other. Conservatives should be tripping over each other to make a collective apology not just to the Stolen Generation but to all Indigenous Aussies for all they have suffered thanks to our presence here.


Dr Nelson, follow your own advice and put your heart in it!

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