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.

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