IT WAS A hard human who didn’t have a lump in the throat or a tear welling when PM Kevin Rudd did what John Howard refused to do throughout his tragically long and divisive dictatorship.
My lump grew and my tears welled as gallery and politicians rose to applaud a memorable milestone in the history of our nation: our leader had just displayed great courage in lancing a boil that had been sapping the nation’s moral fibre since the 1997 Dodson-Wilson inquiry applied the official seal to what most thinking Australians sensed anyway.
Yet, within minutes, the fragility of the rush of fresh, clean air Rudd had ushered into our society was under attack, polluted by an opposition leader failing to appreciate the sensitivity of the moment; by a not unreasonable but unfortunate indigenous reaction to the oppositon leader’s mean-spirited words; and by the undisciplined behaviour of two of the PM’s close staff (they no longer deserve to be on his payroll).
And later that day, the air staled further. A man — who last year, with nary a suggestion of sorry, led a roughshod, quite clearly politically motivated, “intervention” in the Northern Territory — addressed a dinner hosted by, of all uglies, Quadrant magazine, a publication now edited by a historian who seems to think the only Aboriginal violent deaths after England’s occupation of the continent were those that can be officially documented.
The auguries for a bipartisan Labor-Coalition campaign to eradicate ill health, poor education, child abuse, unemployment and the plethora of other ailments that afflict indigenous communities were looking sadly ominous.
Why, I wondered, did I — if only for a fleeting moment — shrug off my eternal pessimism as I stood and watched a palpably optimistic new leader sincerely saying sorry, again, and again and again . . . ?
Why did I not remind myself that this sorry was for just one of the many acts of criminal inhumanity Australians, of multiple exotic origins, have perpetrated on the erstwhile guardians of this continent; people who treated it with great gentleness and understanding for possibly more than 60,000 years, little knowing what horrors awaited the land that owned them at the hands of its invaders?
Why should I find myself hoping that this time we might even come near to getting it right?
Why when our recent past is littered with near endless examples of our failure to even recognise, let alone try to understand, the cultural minefields that we have ignorantly blundered into, mostly on grounds of national security, though sometimes with a sense of compassion and humanity?
Just think of where in the past half century alone we have intervened, sometimes with good intent, more often with fear in our minds: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Malaysia, PNG, Solomon Islands, Nauru, East Timor . . . And, in every case, we have not been armed with even a semblance of an appreciation of the nature of the cultures of the people into whose lives we were intruding.
And why was I momentarily thrilled by the antics of this grand parliamentary circus when I knew that, one day – but probably not in my lifetime — one of our national leaders will be forced to express deep regret, not just for stealing a generation but for stealing the sovereignty, by conquest and expropriation, of a multitude of diverse, largely defenceless, societies across what, to this day, remains our ill-gotten island home?
Maybe it was that I sensed at least one small step in the right direction is better than none.
To Kevin Rudd and his reluctant partner on indigenous policy, I say, please, in the months ahead, give me cause to find flawed the grounds for my seemingly ineradicable pessimism.
The PM’s sorry is not enough, and certainly not enough sorrow has yet been expressed to come even near to apologising enough for the enormity of our crimes against the multitude of indigenous cultures we have torn asunder over the past two centuries.