"Each generation lives in ignorance of the consequences of its actions," Brendan Nelson said in his speech to Parliament this morning.
In this one sentence, the Opposition Leader summed up the denialism that has characterised the last decade of politics. A sentence that would not have raised an eyebrow if it had been uttered by our former PM a year ago, suddenly seemed like a great party killer.
According to newmatilda.com‘s Sorry Day correspondent, Jennifer Mills, it was this comment that prompted the 5000-strong crowd gathered outside Parliament House in Canberra to begin turning their backs on the screen where the speeches were being simulcast and calling out "shame!" and "go home!"
The comment stuck in my mind too – it made me proud to be part of a generation of Australians who today formally acknowledged the consequences of their actions on future generations.
With today’s apology to the Stolen Generations, Kevin Rudd’s Government has put an end to the denial. There will be no more skirting the issue. No more "black armband" view of history. Just acknowledgement of the truth, and a deeply symbolic gesture to unite the country towards a better future.
In a moving speech to Parliament this morning, Rudd called on the major parties to move beyond infantile bickering and to raise at least this one issue above the partisan divide.
He proposed a kind of ‘war cabinet’ on Indigenous affairs – a joint policy commission headed by the PM and the leader of the Opposition. First priorities would be housing and a constitutional acknowledgement of Indigenous Australians.
"Symbolism is important, but unless the symbolism is accompanied by action," said Rudd, employing a typically odd metaphor, "it is nothing but a gong clanging".
Yes, today’s apology was symbolic, and is just the very tip of what needs to be done to "close the gap" between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. But symbolism is an important uniting force. And today is a proud day in the history of this country.
I’ll confess I’m normally one of those cynical types who groans when anyone from the Lord Mayor to the local school principal opens a speech with "First I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this country…"
I don’t know why the practice gets to me. It’s certainly not because I don’t think the traditional owners of this country should be acknowledged. In fact it’s probably the opposite; and a token, throwaway line at the beginning of a speech doesn’t go anywhere near cutting it in my mind.
But yesterday’s acknowledgement and welcome to country at the opening of the Australian Parliament had me close to tears. There seemed to be a sense of cautious trust in the air as the PM thanked Ngambri elder Matilda House-Williams for the ceremony.
The emotion could have been because I had just interviewed Kutcha Edwards, an Aboriginal singer and songwriter who was taken from his parents at 18 months and grew up in a children’s home with his five older siblings. Kutcha had told me about the experience of meeting his mother at the age of six, and later going to live with her as a teenager: "It was strange. I understood who she was, she understood who I was, but there was not a familiarity like she had with my younger brothers and sisters, who’d lived with her all their lives," he said. "She knew what time they start nodding off to bed, and what they liked to eat and what didn’t like to eat. It wasn’t like that for me."
No matter how much love you have for each other, you never make up for those stolen years, he told me.
Kutcha has this way of making you see the full emotional complexity of things you thought you already understood. Yet he uses very few words, and in fact they don’t translate well to the page.
"You must be pretty pissed off," I asked rhetorically, as the full ramifications of that lost time hit me.
"Let me rip you out of your mother and father’s arms – or your children out of yours. Are you a mother yourself?" he asked.
"Do you have any nieces or nephews?"
"You do. Well you would understand that they’re very close to you. I have a son and I’d turn the world upside down if he was ripped off me – and he’s 19."
Last night a friend forwarded me a copy of another Prime Minister’s pledge to change the lives of Indigenous Australians.
It’s sobering to think that it was 15 years ago that Paul Keating stood in a park in Redfern and acknowledged that: "We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases and the alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion."
"The past lives on in inequality, racism and injustice in the prejudice and ignorance of non-Aboriginal Australians, and in the demoralisation and desperation, the fractured identity, of so many Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders," Keating said in 1992, as he pledged to turn the goals of reconciliation into reality.
Here we are again, a decade and a half later, recognising that we it was "we who did the dispossessing". There were plenty of people who shed a tear that day in Redfern, too. Let’s hope this time we mean it.
We cannot imagine that we will fail again.
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