This week, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull united to deliver moving apologies to the so-called "Forgotten Australians": the hundreds of thousands of people abused in state care, often after being torn from their parents and sent to Australia against their will.
The ceremony recalled a previous moment, when Rudd, soon after winning election, apologised to the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children.
But there was one big difference between the two occasions: when it came to the Forgotten Australians, there was no-one objecting.
That is, the apology to the Stolen Generation was, right to the end, intensely controversial, with, throughout the Howard years, the Right making the issue a major point of mobilisation.
Opponents of an apology disputed the numbers of Aboriginal children who had been removed. They queried the individual stories told by members of the Stolen Generation, suggesting that oral testimony was unreliable, partial and inaccurate. They fretted that an apology might open the floodgates to compensation claims. They defended the actions of authorities on the basis that many of the children were actually taken from harmful or dangerous situations and that, even if they weren’t, those carrying out the removals thought they were acting for the best.
Tony Abbott, the former indigenous affairs spokesman put it like this: "Yes, some kids were stolen and this is shameful but many were helped and some were rescued."
Most of all, John Howard asserted that an apology could not be countenanced because one generation was not to blame for the actions of another.
"I have always supported reconciliation," he said, "but not of the apologetic, shame-laden, guilt-ridden type. There are millions of Australians who will never entertain an apology because they don’t believe there is anything to apologise for. They are sorry for past mistreatment but that is different from assuming responsibility for it. We shouldn’t be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions."
All of those arguments could have been repeated almost verbatim about the Forgotten Australians.
Over the last week, the newspapers have carried heart-rending stories about the unfortunate kids, separated from their parents and carried off to harsh institutions against their will.
For instance, 63-year-old Ray Carlile told one paper about how he’d been lowered face-down into a well at the Riverview Training Farm for Boys after the staff there accused him of stealing.
"Can you imagine the terror in my heart that night?" he said. "I remember screaming and I thought somebody else was screaming as well but I realised it was my echo in the well. I wet myself. Then my hands touched the cold water at the bottom of the well and I thought, ‘My God, they’re going to drown me in here’."
His is a horrific story. But when similar accounts of abuse emerged out of the Bringing Them Home report into the Stolen Generation, there was no shortage of ideologues prepared to question their reliability. Fortunately for Carlile he was not subjected to that. No journalist was cruel enough to carp over the details of his story, to hint that it might have been embroidered or, indeed, falsified.
Furthermore, no-one suggested that the Salvation Army officers who brutalised Carlile, the people who hit him and held him down a well, were actually doing him a favour. Yet, according to the Courier Mail, he was sent to the boys home after his father had beaten him unconscious and burned him with cigarettes. In the case of the Stolen Generation, such details would have emboldened the hard Right pundits to claim that here was a boy not "stolen" but "rescued" — or that, at the very least, the officials of the home were acting according to the standards of the time and thus should not be condemned.
Carlile was, thankfully, spared that.
Most of all, we heard no arguments about how today’s Australians could shrug off responsibility for the actions of the past. That was always a deeply silly claim — Howard never hesitated to discuss his pride in, say, the Anzacs, even though he didn’t storm the Dardanelles himself — but in the debate over the Stolen Generation, the point was voiced over and over again, not simply by conservative politicians but also by the media.
Last week, however, there was an almost universal acceptance that people like Ray Carlile had been through a terrible ordeal and that an official apology, which might bring them some comfort, was both appropriate and necessary.
So wherein lies the difference?
Obviously, part of it involves race. Simply, the Forgotten Australians were white. Those of them who came from overseas were British. Most Australians could identify with their stories, could imagine similar things happening to them.
The Stolen Generation, on the other hand, was black. The tales were terrible but did not resonate with white Australia in the same fashion: partly because of overt racism but also because many Aboriginal people — precisely because of that racism — live in conditions inconceivable to whites. Just this week, Amnesty International condemned the conditions under which many Indigenous Australians still lived. Its Secretary-General Irene Khan explained: "In the heart of the First World, I saw scenes more reminiscent of the Third World — of countries torn by war, dominated by repressive regimes or racked by corruption."
The very extremity of the suffering facing Aborigines creates a barrier to empathy since most whites simply cannot imagine themselves in the situations depicted in Bringing them Home.
Furthermore, the case of the Forgotten Australians did not have the same political implications as that of the Stolen Generation. The removal and abuse of white kids — even half a million of them — was an anomaly and could be rectified without throwing up fundamental questions about the nature of the Australian state. Even the question of compensation claims — which as the ABC reports, may now be pending — didn’t, in the end, pose any major difficulties.
The removal and abuse of black kids, on the other hand, necessarily raised issues about settlement and dispossession, questions that go to the heart of the Australian story. Why do Indigenous Australians live in such misery and what does that have to do with the foundation of the Australian state? That’s why the apology became such a battleground, because there were those on the Right who simply did not want to acknowledge the underlying injustice of colonisation and its ongoing consequences.
But there’s another point to be made about the apology to the Forgotten Australians, and it’s a much more uplifting one. The ceremony conducted by way of reparation for their suffering received bipartisan political support and the universal backing of the Australian media. That’s at least in part a consequence of the apology to the Stolen Generation. Because that gesture was made — and was broadly backed by Australians — it was far easier for a similar response to Ray Carlile and his peers.
The opponents of an apology argued that it would set whites and blacks against each other. In fact, it did exactly the opposite. Justice, by its nature, is inclusive, not exclusive. The recognition of a wrong done to Indigenous people set a precedent that made the recognition of a wrong done to whites easier rather than harder.
That’s why we all have an interest in the struggle for Aboriginal rights, no matter how traumatic an honest assessment of the past might seem. A government that can neglect Indigenous Australia will find it easier to do the same to others. So, too, the reverse: with every step towards justice for Aborigines making justice more real and immediate for everyone.
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