Sorry Day

Brendan Nelson said “Sorry.” John Howard’s successor as head of the Coalition, in Opposition, apologized to the members of the Stolen Generation today in Parliament. Just think about it.

It was amazing to be able to watch Rudd and Nelson speak a short while ago. My hat’s off to the Sydney Morning Herald for making it possible for me. I missed the actual apology from Rudd while my internet connection got buffered up, and the video froze up for minutes at a time, but still, it was nothing short of astonishing to be sitting at home and watching history being made halfway around the world.

Perhaps, come May 26, the 10th anniversary of National Sorry Day, the commemoration of the release of Bringing Them Home, might be marked one last time. Henceforth, Sorry Day could be celebrated, and celebrated on February 13, as the fulfillment in part of the agenda of that report.

I don’t know much about how Parliamentary proceedings proceed; this is only the second time I’ve watched a sitting on video, so I wasn’t prepared for the long speeches from Rudd and Nelson, and I haven’t reviewed either of them, so I’m writing at the moment from memory. But I’m delighted that Rudd chose to open Parliament this way. In doing so, he has committed himself to making good on the symbolism of the apology, and to following through on his pledge to make a practical (as well as a symbolic) difference.

In this respect, I was very glad to hear him propose a limited, concrete goal of improving housing conditions. Not just because housing lies at the heart of so many of the problems that the Intervention purports to address: health and hygiene, overcrowding and its attendant violence. The commitment to housing is an implicit commitment to the existence, to the future of the remote communities themselves. If you believe, as I do, that Howard’s real agenda was their destruction, the depopulation of the land leading to ade facto rollback of land rights, then this commitment to making remote communities livable can only be an occasion for real rejoicing.

As if the fact of the apology itself weren’t enough to rejoice about.

I could have done without Nelson’s grandstanding invocation of dysfunction, alcohol, violence, and abuse. I doubt a person watching or listening to the proceedings today didn’t have the terrible troubles of Indigenous Australia in mind as both Rudd and Nelson rose to speak. It was cheap, unkind, and unnecessary. Worse was his suggestion that there might still be reasons to remove children from their families. That was stupid and heartless. Far better had Nelson just stuck to the points he could legitimately make about the accomplishments of settler Australians, had he mollified his supporters by denying personal or generational guilt. It might have made me believe that the Opposition is truly willing to transcend partisanship and put their hands to the work that Rudd proposes.

The crowd in Federation Square in Melbourne turned its back on Nelson as he delivered his reply today, and while I understand the symbolism, I’m not sure I agree with the sentiment. Rudd was right when he said that these are issues that must be beyond partisanship. Brendan Nelson said “Sorry.” He acknowledged the traditional owners of the land on which Parliament sits, and he apologized. Just think about how unlikely this was six months ago. 

Hallelujah. 

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