The Whole Sorry Business


Coalition MPs are now talking about removing (forcibly, if possible) the phrase "Stolen Generations" from next week’s apology. Liberal MP Ian MacFarlane told the ABC that the term was "offensive to some church groups." Others, including Brendan Nelson, have suggested the term "separated generations" would be more appropriate.

The longer their backpedals continue, the more this process is devalued (a cynic might suggest that this is Nelson’s intention, if he wasn’t so obviously floundering). At the risk of adding to its devaluation with further analysis, it’s been interesting to watch the way the turf wars are playing out, with the Liberals attempting to hold some very shaky moral ground on Indigenous politics.

The last words of Mal Brough as he conceded defeat and lost his seat were to plead with the incoming Government to keep the Intervention rolling. He was so convinced of his moral ground that not even a vengeful electorate could take it from him. He could not seem to let go of the idea that he was the only person who had ever tried to do the right thing for Aboriginal children.

It is still this notion that people were "trying to do the right thing" that holds many back from agreeing to the apology. That what happened in the past happened in the context of the past does not absolve anyone. Moral relativism is employed inconsistently on both sides of politics – useful to some when looking at generational accountability, useful to others when looking at military interventions overseas. It’s not just Australia’s issue, it’s an inconvenient gap in Western ethics that I don’t see anyone closing soon.

It is unlikely that next week’s statement will come close to parliamentary consensus. It may be that such powerful symbolic moments are weakened by attempts to please everybody. That we may sometimes need the approach of Paul Keating – who said (and I paraphrase) that in politics, if you piss everyone off, you’re probably on the right track – is a difficult notion to bear. But it looks to me like the ALP is erring on the side of consultation. Saying such things sticks in my grassroots-democratic throat. But I feel I can say it because I want to believe that enough of a consensus has already been reached.

On one level, we’re all sick of the whole "sorry" business and just want to move on. And that’s just it. Sorry is not an end to anything but denial; its moral force is that it enables us to begin to do the real work – perhaps even the right thing. It does not equate to forgiveness, reconciliation, or reparations.

By consulting with Nelson the ALP has taken an interesting risk, one which in other circumstances might have paid off by making them look bipartisan and inclusive. But passing the ball to the Liberals at the moment is like throwing it into a brawl. To push the footy metaphor, sometimes it’s better to keep possession instead of playing the game.

Is it a sign of the Opposition’s own moral relativism that they are suddenly such huge fans of democratic consultation? This grasping process seems to me to signify that the cracks in the Liberal party run a lot deeper than simple leadership issues.

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