Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Apology - now for the next steps


The following post has caused me more personal angst than anything else I have written.

After putting it up first, I took it down. Then I republished it with a postscript. Then at 3am this morning (Thursday 14 February) I got up, took it off-line, and then went back to bed. Now I am putting it back up again, this time with this preamble.

Noel Pearson's op-ed piece in the Australian captured many of the things, the conflicts, that I feel. If you look at these posts from Ken Parish and Jacques Chester on Club Troppo, these are centre left views that I can engage with.

Neil Whitfield wrote:

I feel pity for those reported talk-back radio hosts and callers yesterday, and contempt for the one reported on ABC Local Radio this morning who said the day was a “betrayal of all white Australians”. Actually that is beneath contempt, and if you want to use the word, evil. Others who saw it as “political correctness gone mad” are themselves more than a little mad, in my view. We are moving beyond all that, and not before time.

Forget the carpers. They have nothing to offer. Focus instead on anyone who sincerely wants to move the whole business forward.

I certainly want to move things forward. The difficulty I have with Neil's position can be seen if you look at the story itself. There are, apparently, a very large number of Australians who oppose or at least have reservations about Parliament's actions.

These Australians cannot all be dismissed as racists zenophobes, although some are. Many, like me, see themselves as victims of the earlier culture war, that which began in the seventies and eighties and left them bereft of their past. As I pondered in a past post, Australia's culture wars appear to have been a uniquely Australian phenomenon.

As something of a public intellectual if only in the blogging world, I can at least use my brain, my pen and interaction with those who disagree with me in what I have called civilised discourse to work my own way through issues. That has eased the pain I felt. Others are not so lucky.

I have written a fair bit about demographic change in Australia. I find the topic fascinating, but I also write with serious intent.

No one should assume that the concensus, the common things that bind us together, will continue. If you look at the pattern of change, you will see growing divergence between areas along every dimension - ethnicity, religious views, attitudes to social issues and Australia as a country. If we are to move forward without serious social dislocation, then we have to bring the population with us on key issues.

This is where I see the real potential importance of what Mr Rudd has just done, and so far I think that he has done it well. The Aboriginal issue can unify, while addressing real indigenous problems.

But if he fails, if a significant proportion of the population - and 116,000 people in an on-line poll felt that what Mr Rudd said was historically inaccurate - concludes that this is just another example of the trashing of their past, then we may see a right wing party of a scale never before seen in this country's history. If that were to happen, it could tear the fabric of Australia apart.

I do not think that this will happen. I have always believed in the common sense of the Australian people. But I do believe that it is a risk.

In the meantime, the best way of handling all this is to move forward to solve problems and redress past wrongs.

The Post

I could not take pleasure in the apology, not matter how hard I tried. It was a bit like a dose of epsom salts, something one had to go through for the benefit of the body but without pleasure.

I supported the apology because I concluded that there had been systemic discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity and that this was something that the Government, the Parliament, must apologise for. But as I listened to some of the coverage in the last few days I writhed, getting very angry at the distortion of history.

My wife says that I should enjoy the day, the redressing of a historic wrong. I find that I cannot. How do I enjoy something that mixes the right with gross distortions?

Now that we have been through the necessary purge, I have a very simple view. I want results that both address indigenous deprivation and ensure effective integration between Australia's long past and the present, but an integration achieved without historical distortion.

I have expressed views on this before. I will do so again.

Central to those views is a position that recognises the diversity of the Australian experience, indigenous and non-indigenous. Central, also, is my view that resolution of the past depends upon redressing current problems.


I took this post off-line because it sounded so negative, raining on a parade that is important - and a time of joy - to so many people and which I also consider to be important. Neil's joy at the event is well captured in his post.

I have decided to let the post stand because it does reflect how I feel. To any Aboriginal Australians who read this post I apologise, and ask you to look at the last three paragraphs of the post.

I also say this.

I will continue as best I can to pursue the truth, no matter how unpalatable to me or others. I will continue as best I can to make the Aboriginal story more accessible, recognising that I inevitably write from a non-Aboriginal perspective. I will continue as best I can to argue for new approaches to the development of our indigenous peoples.

I think that I can say these things because I have demonstrated them in my writing.

In all this, I will not accept what I perceive, rightly or wrongly, to be trashing of elements of the Australian past. I will not accept the mind-sets of recent years that have, again as I see it, failed the Aboriginal peoples.

If we are to have new beginnings, we require new ways of thinking. I will do what I can to pursue this.


Lexcen said...

Jim, what was in the speech that you considered a "distortion of history"?

Anonymous said...


A few posts ago I queried you about the authenticity of the terms 'stolen' and 'generation'. While neither word sits easily, I now feel obliged to record my personal acceptance of this co-joined terminology for our past dealings with indigenous Australians.

I think the speech-writers for both Kevin Rudd and Brendan Nelson should be congratulated for producing a flow of words more than acceptable to their masters and their masters' interests.

I found the one uplifting, and the other not so - but that is just me.

I agree completely with your last sentence; I also agree with your good wife.


Jim Belshaw said...

Lexcen, I have not been through the detail of the speaches. I suspect that I would agree with David's comment. My complaint lies with the surrounding coverage.

David, like you I accept the co-joined terminology as a descriptor. I also think that my good wife was correct. Yet it is like a horrible itch.

Last night I got into a fight, emotional not physical.I reacted to some TV coverage on the issue, my reaction triggered a counter reaction.

I find that I can handle the issue in an objective way, but there are so many emotional overlays added into coverage and interpretation that I find myself struggling.

At one level this is my personal problem. At a second level, I think that it is a broader problem for the whole country.

Anonymous said...

But do note the paragraph which follows the two you quote, Jim, which is why I still welcome your research activities.

Jim Belshaw said...

I did notice thos paras, Neil, and I should have mentioned them. In a funny way, you are my hair shirt and I yours. The point is that each forces the other to consider alternative positions.

Part of the reason why I had so many problems with this post is that I thought that you were entitled to the joy you took.

I may not agree with you on all points,but you have always argued a consistent and intellectually honest line.

I really should have wished you happy sorry day. If Mr Rudd and the rest of us can pull this one off, and I will do my bit, then I do believe that the day will be a major point in Australian history.