Nelson’s Apology

The reaction to Nelson’s speech

The most interesting and puzzling thing about the Apology Day events was undoubtedly Brendan Nelson’s speech. Having agreed to support the motion after a process of uninspiring vacillation, he might have been expected either to say something short and bland, or to surpass all expectations with a display of statesmanly eloquence that Malcolm Turnbull would have envied. Instead, he managed to antagonise the audience thoroughly.

He began very promisingly. Indeed, he was more engaging, and seemed even sincerer, than Rudd, as he recounted some stories of separation, and shared his personal response to them. The reflections on Neville Bonner were apt: a symbol of Aboriginal achievement, and proof of his own party’s history of inclusiveness.

But he went off the rails in the second half, appearing to score political points and justify the Howard record. This was partly fair, granted that Rudd had already breached the bipartisan spirit by harping on the ‘stubborn refusal’ of the previous government (which he ddn’t refer to directly) to put things right, and taking an undignified swipe at culture warriors. I don’t know whether Nelson had seen the text of Rudd’s whole speech — apart from the motion itself, that is — but those comments could have been interpreted as a response to that goading. However, even taking this into account, he soured the occasion by going too far.

First, he decided to make the point that it’s hazardous to judge actions carried out in the past by the standards of today, and that many of the policies, and the people who carried them out, were well meaning. This sounded as though he was placing qualifications on the apology; and it was inappropriate given the wording of Rudd’s motion, which explicitly stressed the unqualified nature of the apology. However, in the general atmosphere of forgiveness and reconciliation, and considering that most fair minded people would concede it to be true, the qualification probably didn’t offend too many people.

But then he found it necessary to explicitly raise the question of compensation. Perhaps this was an honest thing to do: clearly this will continue to be a divisive issue; and it’s arguable that dodging it today — allowing phony sentimentality to triumph over hard-headed understanding — would have paved the way to bitterness in the future. But if that’s the case, it should have been the Prime Minister’s problem, not the Opposition Leader’s. Furthermore, he should have known that the line he took — that there are kinds of pain that just can’t be healed by monetary compensation — is about the most glib and provocative in the repertoire.

Finally, there was his defense of the Northern Territory intervention. This was completely unnecessary, since Rudd had not singled out any Howard policies in particular, nor Coalition policies in general, for criticism; but rather made the reasonable point that most government policies have failed miserably. When the PM was generously inviting him to take part in a fresh start, Nelson sounded as if he was churlishly replying: OK, as long as you embrace the outgoing government’s philosophy. He then made things even worse, by cataloging abuses committed in indigenous communities, and sounding very much as if he were demanding that Aborigines accept some of the blame for their overall plight.

Nelson is a decent person, and I suppose, on balance, that he deserves credit for talking his colleagues around and making the Apology a bipartisan gesture, within such a short interval following the departure of his pathetically stubborn predecessor. And who knows how much he had to compromise on the contents of the speech in order to achieve this. But the performance left an unpleasant taste in many a mouth, and it will appear as a debit in History’s ledger.

Elsewhere: Brian Bahnisch thinks much the same; Apathetic Sarah puts it a little more strongly.

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Alex
Alex
14 years ago

I’m in two minds about Nelson’s speech. It was inappropriate in that it deviated from the chief purpose of the today which was to recognise the victim’s of the ‘stolen generation’, which diluted the meaning of the occasion. On the other hand, it was appropriate because it diluted the meaning of the occasion.

Good students of history will know that the world is not black and white, and that with every good or bad outcome, there are dozens/hundreds/thousands of individual judgements that led to that outcome. Nelson was a voice to that complexity today, and for good or bad, it has offended a substantial amount of people.

The immediate reaction to Nelson’s speech that was broadcast on the radio, was a reaction that responded negativley to the ‘tone’ of the speech. There was no criticism of the accuracy of his words. Only the way he deviated from the topic.

Frankly, good on Nelson for telling us what he really thinks. He could have gone along with Rudd, as Turnbull would have done, and read from a carefully crafted but decidedley un-personal speech. Instead he’s chosen to leave the final judgement to posterity, in the hope that ultimately history will judge his words as a more accurate description of the harsh reality that faces the indigenous issue.

Brendan Halfweeg
14 years ago

What we need is more well meaning policies to undo the injustice caused by the well meaning policies of the past.

I’d actually support blanket compensation and private freehold title over crown land granted to all Australians of Aboriginal heritage so long as it was the last ever government intervention specifically targetted at any Australian simply because of their ethnicity.

NPOV
NPOV
14 years ago

Brendan, there wasn’t a lot “well-meaning” about the policies of the past – they were quite consciously intended to encourage the dying out of the Aboriginal people.

After kicking someone down for years, how fair is it really to just apologise, throw them money and leave them there?

Phil
Phil
14 years ago

Reconciliation…what is that ? A bit like racisism…only one way !

The Doctor
The Doctor
14 years ago

The problem with Nelson’s address on the floor of the House, was that it repeated the excuses Howard used to not apologise, and the material on the NT Intervention was unnecessary. It therefore seemed insincere.
He made a speech at the Member’s Hall morning tea that was much better, either because he had heard of the crowd reaction or it reflected his real feelings rather than the party line that he put to the House.

jack strocchi
jack strocchi
14 years ago

Did Nelson say anything false? No, just inconvienient truths.

But we cant have anything as inconvienient as truth raining on our parade.

That might mean turning the apology into a realistic appreciation of our much more contemporary failures. SOme actual and existing culprits might be held accountable.

Oh no, we cant have that!

You know, people like Geoff Clarke, a serial rapist who somehow wound up as leader of ATSIC, peak indigenous administratie body. And all his legion of political cronies.

Instead we get these other brilliant policy geniuses, such as HC Coombs moonlighting from the Resere Bank, who attempted to create a state-subsidised Noble Savage system of welfare reservations in remote communities. Just the thing for getting pre-modern remote tribesman on the path to modern urban citizenship.

And what of these other intellectual giants who can produce about a billion words on Aboriginal disadantage. Without uttering the two phrases that have most policy releance for people with remote indigenous socio-biological profile: low IQ and high anomie. Darwin, Durkheim, Weber, Murray – what do these fascist idiots know about people anyway

Some unkind souls might call that professional malpractice. Howeer we all know that it is much more important to stay true to the cultural theory texts that we buried our noses in during our undergraduate days than acknowledge that out grandmothers knew more about social science than we do. .

In stead we must demonise a few superannuated patrol officers, aging missionaries and long dead officials. WHat kind of genocidal racists are these people anyway?

very often they were guilty of the heinous crime of taking part-Aboriginal children out of creek beds away from drunken mothers and violent fathers. And eery one knows that there is no difference, absolutely no difference at all, from this policy and dosing them with Zyklon-B.

So far as whites were concerned an apology without compensation or acknowledgement of direct guilt was simply another exercise in the politics of self-indulgent moral posturing.

But that is not surprising coming from the generation that popularised the slogan: if it feels good, do it!

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

Jack, I can’t be bothered responding to this jumble of mangled logic, strawmen and cliches. Read the three stories in my previous post, then come back and tell my why the people involved shouldn’t have had an apology; or why the apology they got needed to be coupled with a tirade about some abuses for which they bear no responsibility.

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[…] reaction of Aboriginal work colleagues, Club Troppo has a couple of posts, The apology online and Nelson’s apology, Road to Surfdom posts the entire wording of the apology and some audio clips, and on the […]

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
14 years ago

All those freaks who had a meltdown over Nelon’s reply make one ashamed to be Australian. This was an Apology from the current parliament, not the monarch, the president, or “the people.” On matters of fact, historical accuracy, Rudd’s speech was clearly disingenuous compared to Nelson’s. Nelson’s reply had a huge constituency behind it and fact.

Those who do not think truth, facts, and debate are valuable for the Australian parliament and broader body politic should just piss off to Saudi Arabia.

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

I don’t know whether my reaction qualifies as meltdown, John, but, if so, I hope you’ve checked with the Saudi authorities that they want us, because there are a lot of us!

A decade or so ago the Swiss Government apologised for not giving asylum to Jewish refugees. If one of the parliamentarians speaking to the motion had decided to go on about illegal Jewish settlements in occupied Palestine, his comments would undoubtedly have been true and factual, and they certainly would have started debate. But would they have been ‘valuable’ in that context?

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
14 years ago

James Farrell

Unfortnately, you show an example of the pitfalls of attempting analogical rationality. Oh and of course, Godwin’s Law. The fact that the Holocaust and Israel even entered your mind in the context of Australia and the Apology shows exactly what is driving a lot of the pro-apology racist Left.

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

The Holocaust entered my mind when I tried to think of other cases of official apologies. But you’re right, it really just shows I’m a racist. I’ll have plenty of time to reflect on this and other character defects — my fatal weakness for ‘analogical rationality’ for example — during my Saudi exile.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
14 years ago

John,

James has been counselled about the weakness of his analogical rationality.

As a result he has undertaken to mend his ways. I’d like to take this opportunity on behalf of the entire Troppo team to apologise for this lapse on his part and to express our fervent hope that it will not happen again.

To you, we say ‘sorry’.

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
14 years ago

Nicholas Gruen

Very droll, sweetie, very droll! Touche! :)

jen
jen
14 years ago

You need the three Nic for it to be a proper apology.
1.To you we are sorry,
2.to all who have been touched by analogical rationality we say sorry
3.and to all those contemplating a needless departure to Saudi Arabia, we are sorry.
Kevis’s apology resonated with groups of three. Damn poetic I thought. Very tricky thinking of three of everything, at least as tricky as rhyming couplets – and maybe even trickier!

Ken Parish
Admin
14 years ago

John Greenfield

James and Nicholas have been very polite and restrained in their responses to to you. My approach is a bit more blunt. Effectively labelling James as someone who makes you “ashamed to be Australian” and telling him he should “piss off to Saudi Arabia” is ad hominem and unpleasant in the extreme. We encourage robust debate at Troppo from diverse political perspectives, but do not permit ad hominem sledging.

Commenters with views every bit as right wing as yours (e.g. Joe Cambria) manage to operate within these rules and get their viewpoints across very effectively. Hopefully you can achieve a similar measure of basic civility. If not I will simply put you on the banned list and delete all comments you post thereafter.

The reasons for this policy should be obvious to regular readers of blogs. Commenters who habitually engage in unpleasant ad hominem abuse make the conversation unpleasant for everyone, and tend to deter others from joining in or even reading. I note that Pavlov’s Cat for one commented here recently that she had ceased reading Larvatus Prodeo because of the unpleasant atmosphere you had created there. Having observed your behaviour over the last week or two I can see what she means. You are only welcome here if you cut out the ad hominem crap.

I might say that the Troppo banned list is (and always has been) very short, and currently includes only Graeme Bird and a pseudonymous troll who went by the name of “Philly” but has more recently attempted to post comments under a couple of other pseudonyms. Both are banned precisely because their comments are almost always nasty and personally abusive of other participants in the conversation

SimonC
SimonC
14 years ago

Having thought about it for the last couple of days, I find myself in disagreement with the post. Nelson’s reply was not a speech at a Sorry day celebration, or at a dinner for Reconciliation, or given for the press club. This was a Motion to be read into our Nation’s Parliament.

As such, flowery words are not enough. This motion needed robust debate, and specific reference to both the context (historical, and present), and the limitations (ie compensation) of the motion. Complaining that Nelson’s reply just didn’t sound very nice misses this point somewhat. It’s worth noting that Howards ‘Motion of Reconciliation’ received some very robust debate, and was ultimately not supported by the ALP.

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[…] Sarah didn’t find anything at all to praise in Dr Nelson’s speech, while James Farrell is marginally more generous to Brendan. Given that both condemned Nelson for discussing the NT […]