So Long as They Mean It


Thousands gathered in Canberra to celebrate this morning’s historic apology to the Stolen Generations, and Parliament hosted several standing ovations. But thousands outside also saw fit to turn their backs on the Leader of the Opposition for what, it appears, was a failure to understand the appropriate reaction to this moment.

Thunder rang out across Canberra yesterday as the Indigenous Convergence wound down. Queueing for food at the Tent Embassy, Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists resorted to using their own protest banners as shelters. The rain pelted down, but the thunder turned out to be cannon fire from somewhere. This town can be a mystifying place: the area is dominated by the inhuman architecture of Federal buildings, yet hundreds are camped on the doorstep of Parliament. Various Indigenous representatives have been camped here for 36 years, making various demands, most of which remain unsatisfied.

In that dinner queue yesterday, I spoke with a woman who was stolen from Western NSW as a child. She was cautiously optimistic about the apology, but not convinced. "So long as he means it," she said, and excused herself to challenge some queue-jumpers. Her struggle for justice has everyday demands.

Up the hill in Parliament, the new mob were being sworn in. For the first time, they were being welcomed to country, by Ngambri elder Matilda House-Williams. The welcome happened quietly in the big building under the hill, and as a young woman sings about survival, the sense of hope at the Embassy is palpable.

There is a long queue to get a seat in Parliament this morning, but outside two large screens are raised either side of a stage, and by a quarter to nine, the lawn is standing room only. The crowd outside is a mixture of Indigenous groups, concerned citizens and bureaucrats from the surrounding institutions. Flags are distributed and spontaneous introductions made. The goodwill brigade are out in force.

Before the apology, as the band sets up, the roadies play The Pigram Brothers’ ‘Liar Cry’ over the PA. It’s a song about false emotion, and there’s a tension in the air – the tension of any hastily organised public spectacle, and the tension of possible failure.

So long as they mean it.

A need for authentic feeling seems to pervade people’s reactions to the apology. Empathy is required here as proof that we are equals. It is not just about emotion, however. Feeling is a test of Rudd’s commitment to action.

Last night I sat down with several senior men from the APY lands who are here to express their anger at the Federal Government’s Intervention in the Northern Territory. I ask them their feelings about the apology. "Wiru," says elder Mike Williams, "It will be good." Max Kenny, from Indulkana community in South Australia, is a little more cautious. "If he’s honest," he says. "If he’s honest and keeps his word."

In gentle Pitjanjatjara the group articulate their hopes that the intervention will be rolled back. They want the Howard-appointed administrator at Umuwa, a man they refer to as "that Canadian," removed. They want CDEP restored and the permit system returned. They want decisions made locally, by communities, not centralised to "government arse-scratchers." They want to be heard, not just by politicians, but by the young people in their own communities. To be respected.

Sorry Day supporters turn their backs on Brendan Nelson

It is that language in the apology, the language of respect, consultation and community-specific decision-making, that resonates with me as I watch Rudd on the big screen. But I am also reminded of the problems faced in remote communities and the promises that have already been made. The language of "mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility" might mean a new era of working together. Or it might be a reiteration of the politics of "mutual obligation" that have threatened Aboriginal communities’ autonomy. Rudd’s rhetoric, though more restrained, less sentimental than it might have been, still disguises the potential for the same old story to be rewritten on this "new page".

"Give him a month, two months," Kenny says. "We’ll see what happens down the track."

As Parliament begins, emotion in the crowd is restrained but real, and on the screen as the speech unfolds it seems real too. Rudd sometimes sounds like he is still campaigning, and some of his phrases – "the audacity of faith," for example – reveal close attention to Barack Obama’s style. But for the most part his speech raises cheers which swell as he continues. A restrained dignity surfaces beneath his diplomatic-nerd persona, and for 20 minutes he gives the moment the attention it deserves.

As he says sorry, some raise a hand to the shoulder of a family member. Some shake their heads in relief, as if offered benediction. Many raise cameras over the crowd to take a personal record of this national shift.

Brendan Nelson gets another reaction entirely. Calls of "shame", "get off", and "go home" pepper the groans of derision he receives. About halfway through the speech, when he claims that people in previous generations didn’t know what they were doing, some women near me turn their backs on him. Within minutes, almost the entire crowd has turned their back on the two big screens at the front. It is a gesture we remember. A gesture we have learned. And it tempers the feelings of hope, of faith, with a little rage. While some mutter that he shouldn’t have been allowed to speak, I am almost grateful to Nelson for injecting this layer of reality into the fuzziness.

Promises of equality might, as Rudd claims, be possible. But the promise of constitutional recognition of the rights of Indigenous people, a promise which almost disappeared in today’s speech, may be a lot harder to achieve than he hopes.

Back at the tent embassy, the rage continues. A woman speaks about genocide, a word that would never have been used in that big house under the hill today. Four white private school boys stand in the crowd, their body language defensive, listening.

It is the listening that matters now, as we finally take the first step to reconciliation, with our past and with each other.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.