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13 February 2008

So, what went wrong with Nelson?

There's been a lot of chatter - even in the small amount of time since the Apology - about Brendan Nelson's reply to the Apology.

But what really went so wrong?

For more on the Apology itself - have a look at some of the video links at the bottom of this post:

Apology for being so proud

Nelson's Speech

For a full text of Nelson's entire speech - see Nelson's reply to the Apology, the full text.

Many people have spoken about how they were offended by Brendan Nelson's words; how they didn't believe him... but what really went so wrong? He seemed to say the right things. He said sorry - he agreed to the policy initiatives. What really was so wrong with what Nelson said?

The important thing to remember here is that Nelson never said anything that can be argued with factually. At no point am I trying to dispute the details of what Nelson said. What I am interested in, is the implication of stating certain facts and details at this particular point in time. There are many points at which someone can choose to point out truths about the world - and when and where one chooses to do so has meaning over and above the truth of those statements.

OK! Starting from the top... I'm going to rush through some of this - I can't take too long on each point, or I'll be here all year.

  • Right off the bat - Minister Nelson chooses to refer to "those Aboriginal people forcibly removed from their families through the first seven decades of the 20th century", which stands in stark contrast to Rudd pointing out that some people currently in parliament were in government when the last "stolen" children were taken from their families. Somehow the phrase "first seven decades of the 20th century" seems longer ago than "less than 4 decades ago". While they are the same thing, literally - the use of language, as ever, is important.

  • In the very next sentence he says that we need to "reach from within ourselves to our past" so that we may have a "deep understanding" of it. Again - placing the behaviour of previous governments clearly in the past and, I assume, a deep understanding that is aimed at sympathy towards that past behaviour. I don't deeply understand the past governments laws. On some level, I believe they should have known that removing a child from its parents on the basis of race, was wrong.

  • He asks us to "pause to place ourselves in the shoes of others... to see this issue through their eyes with decency and respect." This has two frustrating implications;
    • 1) it implies that there was nothing objectively wrong with the behaviour of previous Australian governments - that we need to put ourselves in the Aboriginal people's shoes in order to see it as wrong. Personally, I think it's clearly wrong regardless of your point of view... it's not a subjective issue. I'm not sorry because the Aboriginal people feel bad - because of their point of view. I'm sorry because my government did the wrong thing;
    • 2) it implies that we need to keep our mind open to seeing it from the other point of view (the previous government's) as well. It's an ambiguous sentence, and dangerous in its ambiguity... it doesn't say whose point of view we should be open to - and in the light of some of his later comments, I don't necessarily think he's aiming at the Aboriginal's.

  • "This chapter in our nation's history is emblematic of much of the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788." Sorry? Is he saying that things are now much the same as they were when children were removed from their families, purely on the basis of race? If so, then we don't just need to say sorry for our past behaviour, we need to change our current.

  • Brendan Nelson goes on to talk of one of "two cultures", "one ancient, proud" and "The other, no less proud"... so... we're proud too, don't think you've got a monolopoly on pride? Why point it out? Why do we need to compete with the Aboriginal people on pride, today of all days? Nobody disputes we were proud... so why the competition, Brendan?

  • He talks of our (the settlers) "gritty determination to build an Australian nation" as if determination to succeed was an excuse for our government's behaviour.

  • He claims that we were building this nation "for its early settlers and indigenous peoples"... well, I don't know about you, but I don't think that nation building for indigenous people was high on the agenda in a country that didn't consider those indigenous people citizens until 1967.

  • "our non-indigenous ancestors have given us a nation the envy of any in the world". Only by taking it from the indigenous people in the first place, and then treating them badly - which is what we are apologising for... why do we need to rub salt in the wound, now, by pointing out how much we've profited from it?

  • "But Aboriginal Australians made involuntary sacrifices, different but no less important, to make possible the economic and social development of our modern Australia"... see last point.

  • And now a long bit:

    "We cannot from the comfort of the 21st century begin to imagine what they overcame - indigenous and non-indigenous - to give us what we have and make us who we are.

    We do know though that language, disease, ignorance, good intentions, basic human prejudices, and a cultural and technological chasm combined to deliver a harshness exceeded only by the land over which each sought to prevail."

    All of this is true... but what does it say? When the non-indigenous people of Australia made sacrifices, they did so as a result of their own decisions or because of bad luck. When the stolen generations were taken from their families they weren't the victims of bad luck or the repercussions of their own decisions - they were victims of laws enacted and enforced by our own government. If the harsh Australian conditions could say sorry to the first settlers, maybe they should - but they can't. We can.

    Quite frankly, Minister Nelson, how dare you compare the losses, hardship and difficulties of the non-indigenous Australians with those of the Aboriginal people. We are responsible for their problems, they are not responsible for ours, or even their own. That's the point. That's why we're saying "sorry"; and the fact that you tried to link the two only makes it clear how little you understand.

  • "and churches heeded their Christian doctrine to reach out to people whom they saw in desperate need". Wrong actions done in the name of Christianity are still wrong.

  • Nelson continues in this vain for while, now - outlining the difficulties that indigenous people faced at the hands of the first non-indigenous Australians, while still excusing the behaviour as "of its time".

  • "Our responsibility, every one of us, is to understand what happened here, why it happened, the impact it had not only on those who were removed, but also those who did the removing and supported it". Thank you Minister Nelson, I am sure that there is a time and place for considering the psychological damage done to those who realise they did the wrong thing, after the event, but to bring it up now is simply to diminish the power of the moment as a heart-felt apology. The apology was from the government to the indigenous people of Australia - if we also need an Apology to the people who carried out the governments instructions, we can have one - but lets not confuse the matter now. Not today.

  • "Our generation does not own these actions, nor should it feel guilt for what was done" - that's as close to saying "I'm sorry if you feel bad" as he could have gotten, and is as close as he could have come to not apologising at all.

    Besides which, again, "our generation" is not apologising - our government is.

  • He continues, shortly after, " many, but not all cases, with the best of intentions". If good intentions were a reason for not feeling guilty I, personally, could have saved a lot of guilt in my life.

  • "each generation lives in ignorance of the long term consequences of its decisions and actions." But we have to try! We have to make an attempt to know how what we do today will effect the future. And when we get it wrong, we say "sorry". Just like we did today. Without reservation or excuses. This is simply a cop-out; an excuse for not being careful about the reprecussions of our actions.

  • "Even when motivated by inherent humanity and decency to reach out to the dispossessed in extreme adversity, our actions can have unintended outcomes. As such, many decent Australians are hurt by accusations of theft in relation to their good intentions." But they were stolen. The children belonged to someone else and they were taken without their guardian's permission. They were stolen by people who were told to do so by the Australian government - and the Australian government is apologising for telling them to do it. Decent and humane people do the wrong thing, sometimes. It doesn't mean they didn't do it, shouldn't be accused of doing it, and shouldn't be sorry.

  • Brendan Nelson then quotes two stories of children being taken from their families and follows it up with this: "It is reasonably argued that removal from squalor led to better lives - children fed, housed and educated for an adult world of which they could not have imagined." Or in other words, Aboriginal children lived in squalor and it was good for them that were removed from it... why didn't you just not support the Apology?... no really - why didn't you?

  • As if that wasn't bad enough - having basically stated that it was better for indigenous kids to be taken from their "squalor" he tops it off with this: "from my life as a family doctor and knowing the impact of my own father's removal from his unmarried teenage mother, not knowing who you are is the source of deep, scarring sorrows, the real meaning of which can be known only to those who have endured it." [my emphasis]... or in other words, it happened to white people too, you know - it was really bad for them as well. We may have saved you guys from squalor, but I understand it was difficult because my dad went through the same thing. Yes, I realise, that's not what he said... but again, why bring up this stuff now? Black children saved from squalor and Mr Nelson's pain... why are we bringing these things up? We're supposed to be apologising because we realised our government did the wrong thing... not making more excuses and telling our own woes.

  • "No one should bring a sense of moral superiority to this debate in seeking to diminish the view that good was being sought to be done." Again, this is true - but so what? We can all accept the fact the people thought they were doing the right thing - we get it. We all agree. What we don't seem to agree on here, Mr. Nelson, is the fact that wrong was done, and we should apologise for that wrong, without reservation. I'm starting to sound a bit repetitive - but its hard to avoid... Nelson keeps repeating the same excuses.

  • Now here, Nelson goes on to quote another victim of the period who says "I don't want people to say sorry. I just want them to understand the hurt, what happened when we were initially separated, and just understand the society, what they've done." That's fine Brendan, I'm glad you managed to find one victim who didn't particularly want people to say "sorry". But it doesn't sound to me like saying sorry is going to upset this woman either... and I promise you there are a lot of directly effected people who do want us to apologise. Again, surely using this quote at this moment in time can have no implication other than "we shouldn't be apologising". A little hypocritical, maybe? I will apologise, but I don't think we should be.

  • After a quick reference to the fact that no amount of money could completely compensate for damages (and therefore, apparently we shouldn't give anything, or even try)... Nelson goes on to "Separation was then, and remains today, a painful but necessary part of public policy in the protection of children." Now I've heard this argument from other people, before. I'll say the same thing to Brendan Nelson I say to others. Yes, we sometimes take children away from parents today, for their own protection. But 40 years ago we were still removing children based purely on race. No white children were taken away under the same instructions - only "half-cast" and indigenous children. To compare today's policies of child protection to the previous governments' policies is, as ever, to completely miss the point - and to fail to understand what the Apology is actually for.
From here on in Nelson repeats the same mistakes, over and over again - and I really don't need to document all of them separately.

He mentions the generations that went to war, as if to say that, because they once did a grand and noble thing, they shouldn't ever have to apologise for anything ever again.

He refers to "neglectful indifference" and implies that those people who live in "comfortable, modern Australia" are "seeing their actions in the separations only"... as if to say, we wouldn't be sorry if we saw their actions from their pint of view.

He spends a long time combining a list of terrible things that still happen to Aboriginal people as a result of past atrocities, with a list of policy failures that his own party oversaw over the last 11 years - as if to say that because things are still really bad for Aboriginal Australians that we shouldn't bother apologising for the period when things were even worse.

But then he seems to defend our current position by quoting how much money we spend on the issue. Again, all true facts - but why bring it up now? Are you saying we shouldn't be sorry because we spend so much money on it?

He mentions "political buck-passing" and then has a go at state governments because they "resist the extension of a Northern Territory-style intervention."

  • "I challenge anyone who thinks Aboriginal people get a good deal to come to any of these communities and tell me you wish you'd been born there." I know he's probably not doing it intentionally - but, in context, at this point in the speech, after everything else he's said, he sounds like he's saying "we should still be saving these children by taking them away from the squalor"?

And finally - to top it all off - his closing words:

"We honour those in our past who have suffered and all who have made sacrifices for us by the way we live our lives and shape our nation."

Considering the content of the rest of his speech "those in our past who have suffered and all who have made sacrifices" includes non-indigenous Australians who "sent their sons to war" and all those "early British settlers" who started this great country - not just indigenous Australians. So even in final summary Bredan Nelson made yet one more attempt to apologise without actually apologising.

No fault can be found with Brendan Nelson's facts or figures, but his sentiments, in context, at this moment in time are offensive to the reconciliation process in general and to those Aboriginal Australians who came today to hear an apology.

The only thing I can say in its defense is that it is honest. I believe it clearly and honestly reveals the true nature of the Coalition's attitude towards reconciliation and indigenous affairs - one of dismissive indifference to its importance and relevance.

Brendan Nelson, I digitally turn my back on your speech and hope that you come to realise what an oportunity you missed here today.

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