Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Australia says Sorry

I saw the 11:30 am replay of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's speech to parliament today, on a big screen at Martin Place. It was a really moving and inspiring speech, and Rudd was absolutely impressive, with his strong, clear voice and sincere tone.

Speaking of sincerity, I'm now glad that John Howard refused to say Sorry during his four terms. The man has been long outed as a cynical politician. If he had made today's speech, he would have cheapened it with his pained expression of fake sincerity. (I can't resist putting the boot into Howard. He inspires loathing.) Kevin Rudd is still fresh and unspoiled. He came across as sincere and committed to making a difference.

I won't dwell on the actual Stolen Generations issue. I think that's covered well enough elsewhere. I just had a couple of observations. There was a point in the prime minister's speech where what was left unsaid weighed more heavily than what was said.

Describing the hurt and brutality in the way children were separated from their mothers, Rudd said, "These stories are crying out to be heard. These stories are crying out for an apology."

He left the logical third sentence unspoken.

These stories are crying out for compensation.

I don't believe reconciliation will be complete until some form of compensation is made to the many thousands of Aboriginal people affected by the government's policy. The Stolen Generations have a cast-iron case for a class-action lawsuit against the Australian government.

My second observation is that in all the backslapping over the Labor government's laudable achievement, it is possible to overlook the many valid points made by opposition leader Brendan Nelson in his speech. I can agree with his statement that in many cases, good was sought to be done, that "removal from squalor led to better lives with children fed, housed and educated".

But I can also readily believe that the establishment of the day was complex and many-faced. Some of those responsible for taking away Aboriginal children from their parents may genuinely have believed that they were giving the children a better life. But there were undoubtedly others of a more "final solution" bent of mind, who apparently wrote about the "Aboriginal problem" and how, with the policy of forced removal, the indigenous races would soon perish and the "half-breeds" would be reabsorbed into white society. A chilling thought.

More than Rudd, it was Nelson who pointed out in detail the problems of contemporary Aboriginal people - "lower life expectancy, alcohol abuse, welfare without responsibilities, corrupt management of resources, nepotism, political buckpassing, lack of home ownership, under-policing and tolerance by authorities of neglect and abuse of children." He called this, evocatively, "existential aimlessness". Nelson also pointed out the endemic sexual abuse of children in Aboriginal societies.

But it was Rudd who set out hard targets:
  1. to halve the gap in literacy, numeracy and employment opportunities for indigenous Australians within a decade
  2. to halve the gap in infant mortality rates between indigenous and non-indigenous children within a decade
  3. to close the 17-year life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people within a generation
  4. to have every indigenous four-year-old in a remote Aboriginal community enrolled in and attending a proper early childhood education centre and engaged in proper pre-literacy and pre-numeracy programs within 5 years
  5. to build new educational opportunities for these children, year by year, following the completion of their pre-school year
It's a mammoth task, but it was reassuring to observe the bipartisan support for this in parliament. The leaders of both the government and the opposition have pledged to work together to achieve these outcomes. I believe these targets will be reached, because I believe, from what I have seen of him, that Kevin Rudd is a good manager and a no-nonsense taskmaster. I just know he will make all of this happen.

Now, all we need is a more humane (although not naive) immigration policy. Then we can hold our heads up as Australians and also get Amnesty International off our backs.

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