Pleasing the Party Room


So many armchair activists have been frothing at the mouth about Brendan Nelson’s very sorry speech in Parliament last Wednesday — issuing blank cheque fatwas without even having read the damned thing.

I printed Nelson’s speech off the website of a nasty left-wing rag those damned pacifist Mexicans read when they aren’t secretly watching Channel 9 cop shows. It is around five pages long and says much about the competing ideological strains in the Liberal Party.

Those of you who thought the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams’s speech about sharia law was confusing should spare a thought for Nelson. Unlike Williams, Nelson is actually elected by a rather fractious lot of Liberal MPs, and as Malcolm Turnbull well knows, he isn’t exactly sitting comfortably on his throne.

That explains why Nelson’s speech packs enormous amounts of competing ideological punch. While the Prime Minister’s apology speech was, in his words, "offered without qualification", Nelson’s qualifications at times screamed so loudly that I couldn’t hear the apology.

To understand Nelson’s speech, we should remember that it was crafted in an effort to please his Party room. We should remember that five Liberal MPs boycotted the Parliamentary session. Three were from Western Australia. One was of Cypriot Greek background whose ancestors may have been taken from their families by the Ottomans.

Who knows how many refused to apologise. Yet for the vast majority of Coalition members who did apologise, I’m not aware of a single report of a member of the Stolen Generations refusing to accept and forgive.

There were quite moving moments in Nelson’s speech, moments when it seemed he would bring the house down in a tide of emotion. One such moment was when Nelson spoke of his own father: "Knowing the impact of my own father’s removal from his unmarried teenage mother, [I know that] not knowing who you are is the source of deep, scarring sorrows, the real meaning of which can be known only to those who have endured it."

Nelson’s own background placed him in at least some position to understand the pain of so many Indigenous families. Had his speech just been limited to his own family history, I doubt a single Australian would have turned his or her back on the Opposition leader.

But as soon as a moving moment passed, Nelson immediately reverted to Howard-style rhetoric. "No one should bring a sense of moral superiority to this debate in seeking to diminish the view that good was being sought to be done. This is a complex issue," he said.

Why spoil a highly emotional moment with allegedly conservative mythology?

Nelson’s speech was built on a number of premises, two of which strike me as being particularly reminiscent of the Howard era. Firstly, he expects both sides of the generational theft to understand each other: "Our responsibility … is to understand what happened here, why it happened, the impact it had not only on those who were removed, but also those who did the removing and supported it."

What impact would the removal of children have had on the chap whose task it was? He was, after all, performing a job. He was getting paid. Food was being placed on his family’s table, his kids had a roof over their heads, and it wasn’t as if his job carried any social stigma at the time. And when times were harsh, his family would have been there for him.

The second Howardian premise of Nelson’s speech was that the removal was done, by and large, with good intentions: "Our generation does not own these actions, nor should it feel guilt for what was done in many, but not all cases, with the best of intentions."

Whose good intentions, Dr Nelson? Last week on the 7:30 Report, former Aboriginal Affairs Minister in the Fraser Liberal Government spoke about how our ancestors stole children from their families for ethnic reasons.

"I was actually able to prevent the removal of six children because the mother went and got a lawyer. There was no question of neglect in that case. I said, ‘Why were you doing this?’, and they said, ‘There are too many Aboriginals in East Perth and we’re moving them out.’ Now, I mean, what a disgusting statement."

Moreover, they also tried to cover up their crimes on official records.

"If you deal with these things contemporaneously you may find the official record is complete rubbish. As I found in the case of a drugged Aboriginal who signed a form, immediately demanded her child back, but was totally ignored … I’m afraid I’m a sceptic about official records which are self serving for officialdom and do not reflect the reality of what was happening on the ground."

Nelson’s apology was a speech with a split personality representing a Party hopelessly divided and whose conservative wing is out of touch with both real conservative values and the sentiments of mainstream Australia.

Two of Kevin Rudd’s staffers were caught protesting by turning their backs on Nelson. The PM has asked them to apologise to the Opposition leader in writing. Here’s my suggested wording:

Dear Dr Nelson,
We are sorry. But you should understand it from our perspective. And remember, we had the best of intentions!
Give Malcolm our best wishes.

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.