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National Aboriginal Reconciliation Council: editor of 'Quadrant' magazine discusses the convention and the Government's lack of an apology for past policy which resulted in the 'stolen generation' of Aboriginal people

MONICA ATTARD: Well, have these legal niceties about what constitutes a legally culpable apology anything to do with the demands of the Reconciliation Convention in Melbourne this week? It was clear within the first hours of that convention that Canberra was unprepared for the emotions the convention would unleash and unable to respond in terms that the convention demanded. So where does that leave us? To reflect on what the last five days have been all about, we're joined this evening by Robert Manne, a political analyst and the editor of Quadrant magazine. Robert Manne is speaking here with Jim Gale.

JIM GALE: Robert Manne, with the conservative state governments and also the ALP New South Wales Government apologising already, the Federal Government's pretty much found itself isolated and knotted all over the place, twisted all over the place. Why do you think it's got itself in this position?

ROBERT MANNE: Well, I'm really very puzzled. I mean, the discussion we've just heard didn't raise the really central question which is whether an apology is due, and I find that I simply can't understand the thinking of a Cabinet and a government, when faced with a report of the kind that Sir Ronald Wilson and others have brought down, who don't think the main thing to say to the citizens is either that we apologise on behalf of the people for what shocked me to my roots as I read the report, things that I had only partly known about. I don't understand how they can't say that that's the thing they have to talk about. The whole question of the legality of it seems to me to be quite secondary to the human question of whether or not, as the Government representing the Australian people, having read what's in the report Sir Ronald Wilson has given to us, they think that an apology is due. I mean, I feel as a citizen that it is due and I'd like to hear argument as to why it's not.

JIM GALE: Do you think that the legality, that legal fear, is what's really driving the concerns or lack of response in this particular Federal Government?

ROBERT MANNE: I really don't know. I mean, I don't understand why it is that it's so difficult for Mr Howard and other members of the Cabinet to speak directly about the question at hand, and the question is: what should they do now that they know, in great detail, what previous Australian governments, state governments and later on, to some extent, federal governments, were involved in? Maybe they're worried about the Hanson factor, maybe they were worried about the legal ramifications, maybe they, as it were, have lost the moral sense of what's at stake here and can't see the central issue. I don't know. I mean, I felt very puzzled about the silence last year over the Hanson question and I think that one has to really wonder about the kinds of simple moral instincts of the present government.

JIM GALE: It's been an extraordinary week, hasn't it? I mean, the Reconciliation Convention almost from its opening moments seemed to take on a symbolic presence, if you like, that that would appear to have caught Canberra off-guard. Is that the way you read things?

ROBERT MANNE: Well, it seems to me that it probably was a kind of event in which Canberra didn't know how to respond because it's so unusual and because it has a gravity and a solemnity and an interest which parliamentary proceedings rarely do. I mean, I think when we look back at this year, it will be seen as one of the really important events of this year and perhaps longer than that.

It stuck me as interesting that, you know, we talk about reconciliation, but it's a situation in which it can't seriously be argued that the Aborigines are the group that have been wronged and that they've been wronged by others, by the non-indigenous population over the long term, and yet I thought that, let's say Pat Dodson's performance - and I wasn't there, but I just saw the reports of it on television - was of incredible grace and of dignity and of hope. And given that it's the wronged party in this and that it's not as if a war has been fought in which both sides can think the other wronged them, it would seem to me incumbent upon the Government, which is our government, to respond to that with an equal grace, which I find, in everything that's happened since, has been lacking, and I think an opportunity for something really important in the kind of spiritual life of the country has been lost. It may be retrieved, but I doubt it because I think the moment to rise to the occasion was Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday of this week.

JIM GALE: Well, John Howard looked like he was on the defensive that first morning, on Monday at the convention when he gave his speech. He looked, a lot of the time, as though he felt he'd been bushwhacked and he certainly ... I mean, the Government has had the experience, I suppose, of being bushwhacked for the last five days over this. I mean, in terms of the Government's will and ability to carry anything forward, I mean, has reconciliation, at least as far as the Government is concerned, been pushed forward or back by this whole process?

ROBERT MANNE: Well, I certainly don't think it's been pushed forward and I think that the 'stolen generation' question is a terribly simple one in the end. I mean, it's simpler than Wik and it's simpler than native title, and I think that the fact that the Government was unable simply to respond to it in a way that I think ... you know, it turns out that two-thirds of Australians, according to the polls, think an apology is due, and the fact that the Government didn't respond like that by instinct means that I think a chance has been lost. And I think the kind of discussion which we will now get into, which is partly legalistic and partly parliamentary point-scoring, is a disgrace actually. I think that all of that is so obviously not what's at stake here and that the ... you know, what could have been a very great moment in the country's history is unlikely to be retrieved.

JIM GALE: Robert Manne, thanks very much.

MONICA ATTARD: And Jim Gale was speaking there to Robert Manne, the editor of Quadrant magazine.