Monday, February 25

Australians begin to understand

A symbolic gesture perhaps, but when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said sorry it did begin a healing process. And the first sign of that healing is a sharp rise in the number of Australians who now believe the apology was the right thing to do.

As reported in an earlier post, a Galaxy poll commissioned by the online activist group GetUp! just a fortnight before the apology showed that only 55 per cent of Australians supported an apology.

Only days after its delivery, another Galaxy poll showed the percentage of Australians approving had jumped to 68 per cent. What a great result!

Later, The Australian's Newspoll (the one which showed a leap in the public's rating of Kevin Rudd as preferred prime minister, along with Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson's slump) agreed with the second Galaxy figure.

The rise in public support for the apology may have come partly from a "getting on the bandwagon" effect.

But most of all, I believe, it came from the opportunity all Australians had to listen to the stories of ordinary Aboriginal people.

As they moved through the crowds in Canberra's parliamentary precinct, television and newspaper crews invited many people to tell their stories. Most of those who agreed were emotional -- some were in tears -- but they told their stories without rancour. Some of those stories were heart-breaking. Only a Quadrant "intellectual" would remain unmoved.

It was a time of true reconciliation. Not between politicians and Aboriginal leaders, self-appointed or otherwise, but between ordinary decent Australians. The only reconciliation that counts.

However, the fight has yet to be won. Two big battles remain. First, should our nation pay compensation, and if so, how should it be done?

Despite their growing support for the apology, a majority of Australians do not support automatic compensation for the stolen generations. Too vigorous a campaign for compensation (or reparation, to use the Bringing Them Home report's word) may set back the broad reconciliation movement.

From the anti-apology side, we're hearing a lot of claptrap about compensation -- including Quadrant editor Keith Windschuttle's ridiculous claim (examined a little further down in this blog) that the Trevorrow case in South Australia had set a compensation figure of $500,000 for every member of the Stolen Generations.

Many on the Aboriginal side also claim that the apology, the acknowledgement of the wrongs of the past, has created a right to compensation. And that's firing up redneck Australians who foresee Aboriginals rushing at a bucket of money (as if a whitefella wouldn't do that).

But I am convinced -- and I could quote The Australian's legal affairs editor, Chris Merritt, in support -- that our nation's apology did not open any further legal rights to compensation.

Nearly all Stolen Generations removals were carried out by State governments under State laws. There appears to be a general move among those governments to set up funds to pay compensation to Aboriginal people who can show they were harmed by the separation from their families and by their subsequent treatment in institutions or foster homes.

At the Federal government level, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has promised a big increase in spending to close the disgraceful gap between white and Aboriginal Australians in health, education and mortality.

Perhaps this is the most worthwhile compensation our nation could pay, healing the damage of not just the Stolen Generations removals but also of several hundred years of colonial and national policies.

Of course, compensation may be seen as a moral rather than a legal issue. But that could become a minefield, too.

After all, the Opposition's shadow minister for indigenous affairs, Tony Abbott, wrote that we should not say sorry because it would lead to claims for compensation. I find it hard to believe the Mad Monk's words could represent Catholic moral teaching, but he did, after all, spend some time in a seminary.

However, the mixture of State-based compensation funds and Federal "closing the gap" spending should meet both legal and reasonable moral standards.

The other big battle to win is establishing the truth of our past, and how our nation-building often excluded and damaged the original Australians.

Other nations which have undergone a reconciliation process have also seen the need to marry an acknowledgement of truth to the healing process -- such as in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation inquiries. I'll come back to this idea, but first I need to take a walk in the garden.

Saturday, February 16

John Who?

There I was at my No 1 Ladies Book Club, and I happened to mention our recently departed Prime Minister, John Howard. "John Who?", one of our number responded.

Very witty, I thought. But a bit later, I thought: By George, I think she's got it! Never again need I name the fellow who gave tolerant and progressive Australians so many dispiriting years.

So from now on, it's John Who?

Which leads to a delightful thought. When the opposing factions in the Liberal Party rump despair of their vacillating Oppostion Leader as he tries to be all things to all men and allows Kevin Rudd to play him like a hypnotised chook, he'll become Doctor Who.

Meanwhile, isn't it interesting how history repeats itself? And why do our conservative leaders so love dressing up in medieval finery to go poncing around the Old Dart?

First up in the buckle shoes and funny hat was Sir Robert Menzies, who took the title of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, a post created around the 12th century to make sure the Dover ports paid their taxes to the English monarch. I think he's the guy who said of Liz, "I did but see her passing by, yet I'll love her till I die."

His beloved Queen Liz rewarded him with the Lord Warden's post from 1966 till 1978, fitting him in between Sir Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother. She'd also put him into the Most Noble Order of the Thistle (which caused some merriment with the plebs Down Under).

Now, if newspaper reports are to be believed (a big ask), Queen Elizabeth of Australia, in her other role as monarch of England, is about to appoint John Who? to the Order of the Garter -- a collection of knights established around 1348 to provide companionship to the monarch.

Ermine robes, buckle shoes, pomp and ceremony, adulation of our beloved ruler, long to reign over us. Johnnie Who? will be so chuffed. And as for Janette!

But Queen Elizabeth owes him. With brilliant strategy, John Who? managed to thwart the desire of 70 per cent of Australians to make their nation a republic.

He split the republican vote when we debated whether our President would be elected by parliament or by a popular national vote. Like most Australians, I supported the idea that Australia should stand as a proud, independent nation, while still still acknowledging our British heritage.

But I also believed our President should be appointed by a parliamentary vote, not by a national election, because it would not disrupt constitutional arrangements which were working so well. And that's where we lost.

With the Mad Monk as his mouthpiece, John Who? showed his mastery of wedge politics. Tony Abbott said the position of President would be far too important to be decided by politicians. We should vote no to a republic so we didn't have the Prez elected by politicians.

Abbott lost me at that point. Either he's stupid, and I don't think he is, or he's so contemptuous of his fellow Australians he counted on their not knowing that under the existing, continuing arrangement, one person -- the Prime Minister, possibly but not necessarily in consultation with a few cronies -- chooses the Governor-General.

It would become a major constitutional crisis if the British monarch rejected the Australian Prime Minister's nomination.

This was shown in a confrontation in 1930 when Labor Prime Minister James Scullin nominated the progressive Australian politician and jurist Sir Isaac Isaacs as G-G. In London, the reaction was predictable. Gad! A good fellow and quite loyal, but he is a Jew, after all. Unthinkable.

Scullin had to go to London to put the case to King George V, and he won. Sir Isaac became Australia's ninth Governor-General, one who helped strengthen national unity into the difficult Depression years.

So today our proud secular nation has a head of state who can only be a member of the Church of England communion, under the Act of Settlement enacted on the opposite side of the world in 1701.

Thanks, Johnnie Who?

Thursday, February 14

There! Was it so hard to say sorry?

It all went so well. A moving speech by new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The Apology. Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson's endorsement, marred somewhat by an ill-timed attempt to mix in another side of the story. The acceptance by Aboriginal leaders.

But most moving were the responses of the Aboriginal people who crowded Canberra's parliamentary precinct, or who gathered in front of big screens around the nation. Some wept, some hugged, some seemed to have trouble accepting that our nation had finally said sorry.

The media did a splendid job. So many people were allowed to tell, in their own words, of the pain they had suffered with the separation from their mothers and their wider families, it must have helped white Australia understand a little better.

We need that better understanding. Just a week before the Apology, the left-leaning online activist group GetUp! reported the results of a Galaxy poll it had commissioned.

Only 55 per cent of Australians supported the Apology. Some 36 per cent did not. In Western Australia, and presumably in the north of Queensland, the numbers were the other way round.

We can sneer about rednecks. We can jeer at the "group-think" of the Quadrant mob, as I often do. We can talk about the Deep West, or the Deep North of Queensland.

We can march down streets, waving identically printed placards and chanting "Wadda we want?" till the cows come home, but we won't lift that figure much above 55 per cent unless we engage in rational, polite conversation with the people who hold other opinions.

We're unlikely to gain much ground with the 36 per cent who opposed an apology, but thoughtful discussion with the the 9 per cent in the middle, the people who hadn't made up their minds, should be fruitful.

To that end, GetUp! has launched one of its campaigns. Called Mythbusters, it provides a fact sheet to counter the major arguments against saying "sorry", in the hope that members will use them when they write to newspapers or call talkback radio (good luck with Alan Jones!).

GetUp! offers the factsheet on this web page, which also gives links to the full Bringing Them Home report about the Stolen Generations, and also to the Galaxy poll and to Reconciliation Australia factsheets.

Facts can be in short supply, or badly misused, in debate about the Stolen Generations. Some of the nastiest examples of this came last weekend when the Weekend Australian ran this feature by Keith Windschuttle, the new editor of Quadrant. So here's my own abbreviated factsheet.

"If the Rudd Government apologises to the Stolen Generations," Windschuttle began, "it should not stop at mere words. It should pay a substantial sum in compensation. This was the central recommendation of the Human Rights Commission's Bringing Them Home report in 1997."

Fact: The Rudd Government is not blindly implementing the recommendations of the inquiry, although it would have given weight to its findings. It has ruled out paying across-the-board compensation, and will instead spend the money on a focused program to close the appalling gap between the health, education and mortality rates of white and Aboriginal Australians.

"The charge that justified this, the report said, was genocide."

Fact: The report did say the policies amounted to genocide, but Windschuttle must know that one of the report's authors, Sir Ronald Wilson, recanted and regretted the use of the term. It was in all the papers after the Bulletin splashed it on its cover. [Since this original post, I've revisited the Bringing Them Home report about the issue of compensation, and have added further comment in a footnote below. -- Ian Skinner]

"The Bruce Trevorrow case in South Australia provided a benchmark for what that sum [to be paid to "virtually every person in Australia who claimed to be an Aborigine"] should be, a minimum of $500,000."

Fact: Trevorrow won this case under existing law because he convinced the court his removal was illegal, and that he'd suffered a lifetime of mental problems and alcoholism because of it. Few of those removed from their families could satisfy both criteria. Most removals took place under lawful authority. Even if the Rudd government changes its mind and sets up a compensation scheme, it would not be at this scale.

"Those who are serious about an apology should back it with a lump sum payment of $500,000 to each [Aboriginal] family, a total of $50 billion."

Fact: See above.

It's a pity Windschuttle wrote such tripe. Some of the other points he made, evidence he quoted, deserve to be put into the debate. In the past, he has played a valuable, if unwelcome, role in exposing the sloppiness of some historians on the other side of the culture wars. Forcing them to re-check their sources and revise their stories was no bad thing.

Windschuttle will publish the second volume of his Fabrication of Aboriginal History some time this year, and it's sure to damage some other historians' accounts. He'll find some major errors, and probably many you'd call nit-picking.

You and I, people of commonsense, may ask whether exposing these errors justifies a claim that all such accounts are false.

The Quadrant mob will have no such quibbles. I expect Miranda Devine to take no more than a fortnight to pronounce again that Windschuttle had refuted the "black armband" view of our history (as she did with volume one, in a Sydney Morning Herald comment on December 12, 2002). Dear old Frank Devine probably will hail Vol 2 with even more unseemly haste.

Footnote added February 17: A rereading of Chapter 13 of Bringing Them Home makes it clear the Human Rights Commission made out its case for reparation [its word] on wider grounds than its genocide claim.

These grounds, separately analysed for Australia's colonial era and for more recent times, broadly cover failures to meet proper legal standards in parliamentary acts authorising the removals, failure to provide for judicial review of removals, the states' failures in duty of care when they became the children's guardians, and breaches of international human rights in both racial discrimination terms and in what many Australians were to see as a rather too technical definition of genocide.

The following link will take you to Chapter 13 of the report.

Tuesday, February 12

On the eve of the Apology

A few years ago, after a ceremony which first saw the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags fly alongside our other flags outside the Gosford City Council building, I joined the group of Aboriginal and white people and listened to stories of the Stolen Generations.

One told of her mother's life, scrubbing floors in the convent school in a big town in the west of NSW to pay for her children's education. As a girl, the speaker had wondered at the lack of a wider family, and after some determined inquiries discovered her mum had been removed from the Taree region on the mid-north coast

One man introduced himself as coming from Bree [Brewarrina, in the northwest of NSW], then broke down, sobbing. Others rushed to comfort him.

Me? I'm standing behind the speakers, praying those cameras from NBN3 are pointed elsewhere as I touch a handkerchief to my eyes.

Damn, I thought. Now I'll never make Quadrant editor. I seem to recall that when the Quadrant board ousted Robert Manne as editor because of his sympathy to Aboriginal people, incoming editor Paddy McGuinness promised there would be no more mawkish sentimentality.

But I'm a journalist, and I've got a responsibility to check these stories before I recount them. Could I be witnessing some form of mass hysteria?

After all, it doesn't take much thought to recall other ideas in which many Australians suspended their normal commonsense. The notion, now seen to be laughable, that Joh was a decent man who'd make a fine prime minister. The belief that anyone who'd used a typewriter had been crippled for life. That aeroplanes would fall from the sky as computer clocks failed to recognise the new century. That share prices would rise for ever, without pause.

So I did check what I could, and I believe the stories were true. With the woman who discovered her extended family around Taree, I was able to offer extra information about some of her relatives from John Ramsland's history of Aboriginal-European relationships in the Manning Valley, Custodians of the Soil (published by the Greater Taree City Council, 2001).

Yet there are problems in assessing the nature and the impact of the policy of removing light-coloured children from Aboriginal mothers. I can turn to oral histories in where Aboriginals agree they were removed from dreadful situations. I hesitate to do so because it sets off that chorus from over Quadrant way: "Saved generations . . . saved generations . . ."

Should we also distinquish between those children snatched from the arms of their mothers and those whose mothers handed them over believing it would give them a better future. Did white Australia betray the trust of mothers who handed over their children?

Why did governments remove the light-skinned children? Was it to remove them from squalid living conditions -- in which case, why not do something about the appalling shanties in which the dark children remained? Or was it to reclaim them as white people, and breed out their aboriginality?

Here's another reason, related by Ted Fields: "Many white men had children with Aboriginal women and some of these children were taken from their Aboriginal mothers and placed into white institutions from 1883 until 1969. Sometimes the fathers did not want the children close to their homes . . . "

George Fernando remembers his mother saying that sometimes the respectable white men didn't want little black children saying, "There is my daddy", when their white wives returned to the farm.

These stories are taken from oral histories recorded by Cilka Zagar, a long-term teacher at St Joseph's in Walgett, and published in Goodbye Riverbank (Magabala Books, 2000). In the same book, Lucy Murphy says: "White people have always been nice to me and I am grateful to them for saving my life."

How good, or how bad, were institutions like Cootamundra Girls Home or Kinchela Boys Home at Kempsey? Most former residents have bad memories, but Ms Murphy said she found a protective and nurturing environment.

As with so many issues on which Australians disagree, the truth is somewhere in the middle. However, my reading, my discussions with Aboriginal people and what I believe to be my understanding of the history of European-Aboriginal relationships convince me our nation owes a heartfelt apology to Aboriginal people.

I'd like the apology to cover all the damage inflicted on Aboriginal people (while acknowledging that often, but not always, this damage was done without evil or genocidal intent), but if it's to be just for the Stolen Generations, it will still be worthwhile.

We should learn the text of the apology after 5pm today (Tuesday, February 12) and it's to be delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson tomorrow.

This may be a good place to pause. I had planned to offer thoughts on a scornful, and to my mind cheap and nasty, article in the Weekend Australian by the new Quadrant editor, Keith Windschuttle. I probably will soon, but I'd like to check some information first. Please come back.

Sunday, February 10

One more book club . . . with a difference

I've just joined another book club. Not that I'm unhappy with the one I already enjoy. Just the opposite, in fact, and I hope to continue looking forward to that first Tuesday morning every month when a dozen women and yours truly meet to discuss a selected book, then enjoy more lively discussion over coffee and a light lunch.

You could say I'm the token bloke, and wonder how I managed it. Simple really. My wife Merry had been a member for years, and when I retired she took me along and introduced me to the others.

I feel honoured by my inclusion, and it's led to my reading a far wider range of authors and topics than I would have found for myself. Margaret Atwood and Janette Turner Hospital, for example, and we've listed their new books for discussion later this year.

Peter Goldsworthy, whose Three Dog Night brought on a lively discussion when I confessed admiration for the character whose actions would draw condemnation from all right thinking moralists. Susan Mitchell's revealing biography, Margaret Whitlam, for another.

One's image of a book club is of a rather prim group of ladies. Perhaps that can be true, but for me at least, this group enhances my respect for the strength, sincerity and range of opinions to be found in a group of mature and articulate women.

But even I was startled at our last meeting when one of our number (I won't name her, but will say she's a leading light in the theatre) arrived a little late, and with superb diction and a voice trained to project across a 500-seat auditorium, declaimed her lines from a local production of The Vagina Monologues.

Never say women's book clubs are dull.

I joined my new book club as a favour to a friend. It's early days, but I'm already finding it fun, and I think it will remain so.

Long ago, I wrote of Suzanne Fleming's becoming the business development manager of an international online e-book publisher, Globusz. Now she's taken what could best be called a Globusz franchise in Australia and is operating it as Globusz Oz.

This allows her to further develop her ideas. Unlike most e-book publishers, Globusz and Globus Oz allow anyone to read online or download their books without charge. The e-publisher plans to earn its revenue by charging authors a modest fee to prepare their books for online publication.

In return, Globusz Oz will encourage readers to submit evaluations of the e-books they read or download, and as part of that plan it's inviting people to join an online book club to discuss titles they select as a group.

For new authors dreaming of book tours and a handsome income, it's time for a reality check. Most mainsteam publishers have a "slush pile" -- the corner where they toss unsolicited manuscripts, unread.

Suzanne's business model will allow unknown authors to be published in cheaply produced e-books without being ripped off by vanity publishers.

For those who need hard-copy print versions to give or sell to family or friends, it will be possible to arrange limited, low-cost runs by print-on-demand services such as

The authors will receive feedback from readers, including some contributing via book discussion groups, with considered advice and perhaps offers of mentoring.

For some authors, the best of the crop perhaps, Suzanne's model may lead to introductions to mainstream publishers -- and fame and fortune. For others, it may give no more than the pleasure which comes from developing creative writing skills.

In our new book club, we chat by posting entries to a blog, and we're already off to a start which points to many more enjoyable conversions. You're welcome to come in and read our chat, and add your comments, but you'll need to join the club and receive a password to post new items.

To see how Suzanne's ideas develop, click on to GlobuszOz.

In my long-ago item about e-publishing , I was sceptical about its acceptance by general readers, many of whom probably still call the grandkids over to adjust their VCRs. I did see great promise with readers having special interests, or tech-savvy groups like university students who'd appreciate carrying one handheld device instead of a knapsack full of books.

Now I think the time has arrived for e-books (or is almost here for those of my generation who are not early adopters of new technology).

Faster broadband connections, more powerful computers and better monitors make it much easier to download and read e-books.

Also, geek magazines and websites are now describing a new generation of handheld e-book readers which feel like printed books and have screens which display text and images with the clarity of a printed page. On top of that they offer computer functionality for search, highlighting, bookmarking, copying and printing out.

Just as the iPod allowed people to enjoy music anywhere, these e-readers will allow people to pack a whole shelf of books into a device they can take to bed, read in the train, consult during a lecture, where and when they desire.

The main risk for our new group of readers is that some of the books will be dogs. Against that will the prospect of discovering and encouraging exciting new writers. Let's see how we go.

Friday, February 8

In the water at last

Photo shows sailing dinghy
Finally, it's happened. The boat is on the water. Boats must be the most elegant of man's creations, and this did not disappoint. Despite its classic lines and old-fashioned, tan-coloured standing lug mainsail and little mizzen, its construction used fairly modern technology.

It's 14ft 8in, and really light for its size and style. I built it in the shed at a leisurely pace over more years than I care to admit, using a stock design from Murray Isles in Hobart. Didn't file my receipts so I can't say what it cost.

Planks were cut from lightweight plywood sheets and glued together with West System epoxy resin, then sheathed with Dynel fabric and more epoxy resin, in a standard clinker plywood construction. It's easier than it looks, but I did have to leave the job for weeks and sometimes months at a time because of allergic reactions to the resin hardener.

Isn't she pretty?

Although the breezes were too light to really try it out on the launch day, it does sail sweetly, and just about everything worked as it should.