The politics of saying sorry

There are widespread media reports suggesting that Senator Nick Minchin swung a number of votes from Western Australia to secure (by a slight margin) Brendan Nelson as opposition leader.  It appears Malcolm Turnbull had the numbers but lost them when Senator Minchin was dismayed at his comments in support of saying ‘sorry’ to the stolen generations.  Turnbull’s statements distancing his position from Workchoices was another reason stated, and perhaps supported the swing of numbers from WA. 

In relation to saying sorry, speculation in the media is supported by Nelson’s comments on 7:30 report:

KERRY O’BRIEN: And on Aboriginal issues, are you prepared like Malcolm Turnbull was, to say sorry, to join with Mr Rudd in saying sorry to the stolen generations?

BRENDAN NELSON: Look Kerry, we are very proud of what our forebears did at Gallipoli and other campaigns. That doesn’t mean that we own them. Similarly, we feel a sense of shame in some ways of what was done in the past, where with good intentions, but not always with good outcomes, Aboriginal people were removed from what were often appalling conditions.

We, in my view, we have no responsibility to apologise or take ownership for what was done by earlier generations.

KERRY O’BRIEN: So you would repudiate any attempt to say sorry to the stolen generations?

BRENDAN NELSON: Kerry, again that’s a matter that needs to be discussed in some detail with my colleagues, but I think it’s not a simple issue, and it’s a very sensitive one. It’s a very complex one. Symbolism is extraordinarily important. But I think we need to remember, and I think most people know that I have the greatest sympathy and respect for Aboriginal people. I have a portrait of Neville Bonner in my office on the wall opposite me, twice the size of a standard door, the first Aboriginal Australian in the Federal Parliament, but I believe that our generation cannot take personal or generational responsibility for the actions of earlier ones which in most, but not all cases, were done with the best of intentions.

Nelson is arguing that the stolen generations was done with good intentions and that was to remove children from circumstances of ‘appalling conditions’.  

This is contrary to Robert Manne’s analysis set out in In Denial: the Stolen Generations and the Right.  Broadly, the analysis is that the stolen generation issue is a blend of policies motivated by an object of social engineering and an object of welfarism for the child (the object touted by Nelson).  Manne finds that the second object is more prominent in the later years of such policies.

More over the fold.

For that entire period there were seperate legislation for the rights of the child.  Mainstream legislation deemend non-Aboriginal parents as the assumed guardians of non-Aboriginal children (and there are arguments that this was applied unfairly), and there was seperate legislation that deemed the State as the assumed guardians of Aboriginal children, particularly part-Aboriginal.  This fact alone did not suffice the stated historical object, but the statements of legislators and others throughout that entire period support Manne’s analysis.     

Dr Nelson’s position is not motivated by an assessment of the merits of the case, nor does it consider in an inclusive way the interests of those directly affected by such policies.  It is a continuation of the abhorrent politics explained by Manne in another essay, located here.

I wonder how Neville Bonner would have felt if he were here today? 


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