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.

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