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.