MUNGO MACALLUM. An apology to the victims of sexual abuse

Jun 19, 2018

Malcolm Turnbull has always regarded John Howard as some sort of political mentor.  But Howard refused to apologise to the stolen generation

It was Howard who encouraged and promoted him, and Howard who talked him out of giving up when Tony Abbott beat him by one vote for the party leadership he regard as his birthright. 

Howard persuaded him that he could and would return, so when Turnbull did, he thought Howard’s judgment was all but infallible. But not quite; even then the protégé had a couple of reservations, and last week he made it clear that on at least one issue he would be his own man. 

Turnbull has announced that he will make a national apology; he will say sorry to the numerous victims, alive and dead, of child sexual abuse as revealed by the royal commission inaugurated by Julia Gillard. 

In the circumstances this can hardly be called controversial; the crimes, deceptions, conspiracies and cover ups that have been painstakingly and painfully listed in the commission’s report are truly horrendous. An apology is the least that is required, and to his credit Turnbull has also been vigorous in pursuing more concrete remedies, including compensation. 

And he appears to be willing to break the secrecy of the confessional, which, coming from a Catholic convert, is a seriously big deal. So there could be some solid substance to his apology. Certainly he is being determinedly positive about it. But a few years ago the government of which he was a part was adamant: there would be no apology to the stolen generations, in spite of an equally damning report from an equally credible inquiry – Bringing Them Home, the report on  the stolen generations. 

There was a lot of sophistry about just how stolen the generations were, and whether some (but by no means all) of the stealers were well-intentioned at the time. This was hardly relevant to the stolen and their descendants: they had no doubt that their rights had been violated, their families and in some case their very lives destroyed as a result of the policies of the government. 

A minimum of decency meant they  were due proper acknowledgement and contrition, not some weasel words about a regrettable blemish a from the past, now time to move on. But in any case, Howard was not prepared to argue about it. He was not personally responsible, so there was nothing for him to be sorry about. No apology, not now and not ever. 

And this intransigence effectively destroyed any possibility of a consensus over indigenous recognition, let alone a proper reconciliation process. A treaty, of course, was utterly out of the question. Even some of Howard’s conservative colleagues thought his unbending stance was not only cruel, but also bad politics: it would involve eating a shit sandwich, but it would at least get the issue of stolen children out of the way. 

As it was, like Howard’s stubborn refusal to sign the Kyoto agreement on climate change, the veto on an apology was a long running distraction at a time when the rise and rise of Kevin Rudd needed all the concentration he could muster. Even Tony Abbott – another protégé and already shaping as a fierce rival to Turnbull – advised his leader that it would be better to give way – it would do him no harm to be generous for a change. 

But Howard stood on what he called his principles, and in the end it was up to Rudd to deliver the long-belated speech. Howard had lost his seat by then, so had an excuse for not attending. But several others from the extreme right of the Liberal Party also boycotted the event. The appalling Sophie Mirabella stated that the stolen generations were a myth – presumably the weighty report she received some years early went straight to the shredder. 

At which point we have to ask: will the party room rump seek to embarrass the current prime minster on the same basis on sexual abuse? They can certainly take the Howard line: presumably none of them have been involved in child sexual abuse, so why should they have to be dragged to a public apology? 

It might be a little rash to describe the Royal Commission as a myth, but there are those who have said it was exaggerated, over the top, the evidence was unreliable , there was a suspicion (by the doubters) that false memories were accepted, and of course it was basically a giant conspiracy to discredit the churches, most particularly the Catholics. There will be an opportunity for a well-publicised walk out – it was Turnbull’s idea, and if he wants to wallow in it, let him. 

Howard, obviously, will again not be present anyway, but one of the most prominent who ostentatiously snubbed Rudd may well be tempted to lead the resistance: no prizes for guessing, step forward Peter Dutton. 

The sociopathic Home Affairs enforcer doesn’t apologise for anything, not ever. He has presided over a string of atrocities in his portfolio –- several  innocent deaths, much madness, untold suffering for his numerous victims. His insistence that asylum seekers are “illegal arrivals” is quite simply a lie – the foundation lie of the vast structure of misery he and his sinister eminence grise, the department’s secretary Mike Pezzullo have diligently erected. 

Dutton’s regime is guilty of deceit, deliberate cruelty and the breaking of several international laws and conventions – not to mention trashing Australia’s reputation for standards of fairness and decency. By any rights he should be apologising for what amounts to crimes against humanity. But it obviously does not bother him – as he tells us, those who dissent are dead to him.  

His total lack of empathy means that all his emotions – including his loyalty – must be questioned. As a cabinet minister, Dutton cannot easily desert Turnbull as he is making the apology on the floor of the house, but he could – if he wished – gather support for those who can and will,, the reactionary backbenchers who probably think that apologies are for wimps anyway. 

There is no suggestion that this is happening – yet. But there are more than four months before October 22, the day on Children’s Week Turnbull has selected for his big moment, and as we have seen so regularly, there is an awful lot of mischief to be made before then.

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