The range of responses to yesterday’s Australia-wide outburst of emotion over the new government’s apology to indigenous Australia
The most striking thing about the apology ceremonies was the extraordinary outburst of emotion throughout the day by tens of thousands of indigenous people watching the events at public venues from Hobart to Darwin, Broome, Cairns, Sydney, Perth and all places in between, and an equally emotional response from possibly hundreds of thousands of non-indigenous Australians.
The overwhelming response from indigenous people, including the 1000 or so militants assembled on the lawns in Canberra, was excitement and pride, together with a very favourable and emotional response to Rudd’s speech. That response was often coupled with the proposition, correctly advanced, that much more is needed to right the wrongs done to indigenous Australians.
The manifest reality is that in this area Rudd and the members of the new government are the heroes and heroines of the hour, particularly to indigenous people. Anyone on the left who fails to notice this is politically blind.
The Tory politicians are in an extraordinarily bad way in the face of the impact of the apology and Rudd’s speech. Those tired old warhorses of reaction, Gerard Henderson and Wilson Tuckey, were vituperative and made heavy weather of television interviews. The conservatives are taking a hiding on this question. The Murdoch media are twisting and turning, and trying a bit of demagogy of their own, essentially denying that any crimes took place, and running as a second-string argument the implied threat that if crimes did take place the compensation must be massive.
There are attempts to wheel out the right’s pet conservative indigenous figures to take off some of the heat, but some of the conservative indigenous leaders are backing away from parts of their previous positions.
Meanwhile, on the left, there are some oddly discordant notes. The utterly predictable World Socialist Web Site says the whole apology is a fraud because it’s perpetrated by the Labor Party, which is no different to the conservatives. This appears to be an outfit that doesn’t watch television and wouldn’t know a representative of indigenous Australia if it fell over one.
John Pilger, who cultivates a role as a kind of oracle on high, assisted by his rather commanding physical presence and his mellifluous voice, is a bit out of touch with mass politics in Australia, partly because he’s not here much and partly because he’s no dialectician and tends to treat the labour movement as if it were an undifferentiated reactionary mass. Real familiarity with the labour movement and the contradictory ebbs and flows of mass politics clearly shows that the labour movement is no such thing.
Brother Pilger rather likes sound bites, but the one he provided on this occasion, that the apology was mainly for white Australia, not indigenous Australia, is a gross misunderstanding of these developments.
All the coverage of today’s events demonstrates the opposite: that the demand for an apology, advanced by indigenous militants for many years, was very much in the first instance for indigenous Australia and that the sympathetic response of progressive non-indigenous Australians, while enormous and powerful, was very much a response to the demand from indigenous Australia. The political victory of the apology was very much the victory of an indigenous campaign prosecuted over many years.
On this question, brother Pilger’s otherwise usually useful journalistic and political activity is no guide at all to the struggle and the ebbs and flows of events.
There has been almost no coverage of the day’s events on the Green Left Weekly discussion site except for a post by Rebel Hobbit, a bold young Boyleite originally from Newcastle, who is actually quite a pleasant bloke. He challenges me in a more or less civilised way, which is a nice change, loyally advancing the Boyleite view of Laborism.
At the risk of sounding a big pompous, I’d suggest to this bloke that he needs to give himself a crash course in dialectical and dynamic mass politics, which is the area in which the Boyleite approach is so persistently inadequate.
For a start, he says the Rudd government is committed to continuing the Howard government’s intervention in Northern Territory indigenous communities. It’s certainly true that the government talks about continuing the intervention, but it’s also true that, in the contradictory way that working class politics sometimes proceeds, the new government has suspended the abolition of the CDEP employment scheme pending a reorganisation. The young Boyleite is clearly so carried away by the DSP leadership’s schema about Labor always betraying that he doesn’t realise what’s really happening.
The new government has also restored the permit system to give indigenous communities the right to control indigenous land. Many other aspects of the intervention are also in the melting pot.
It’s also clear that the majority of indigenous communities and leaders are struggling for further progressive changes despite the fact that some of them pay lip service to the intervention.
Important in this process are the indigenous leaders and members of the NT Labor government. There’s clearly a battle between left and right going on in the indigenous community about directions in indigenous affairs from this point.
As urban Australians, the young bloke from Newcastle and myself are neither of us experts on the details of the problems in remote indigenous communities.
For my part, I study these matters as closely as I can, from a broadly socialist point of view, but in complex and contradictory matters such as the problems of drugs, alcohol and child abuse, I tend to go to people on the left of the indigenous mass movement for information, rather than rushing in with some cracked, formalistic thesis, driven as it is in the case of the Boyleites, by the desire to expose Laborism in all things.
That is, in my world, the effective way to practice the dialectical aspect of Marxism.
The fact that the well-intentioned young Boyleite can belt out the schema that the new Labor government is still carrying out Howard’s policy, without noticing the new government’s U-turn on the permit system and CDEP underlines how useless Boyleite schemas are in any rapidly changing situation in the labour movement or, in this case, the indigenous movement.
I’m not ashamed to say that I found Rudd’s speech incredibly moving, as did pretty well the whole of progressive Australia, particularly indigenous people. This is independent of the fact that on a number of other questions, such as privatisation, some aspects of industrial relations, and other matters, I’m sharply opposed to Rudd.
There’s no doubt that there’s an element of political calculation involved in Rudd’s speech, and Rudd is emerging as a consumate political operator, but I haven’t the slightest doubt that he was utterly sincere in the speech he made today.
As a battle-scarred old militant in the labour movement I will, in my own modest way at rank and file level, be doing battle with Rudd on a number of vital questions, along with thousands of others. I’m not unmindful of the fact that today’s events strengthened Rudd’s hand a bit, as a kind of Bonapartist leader. Militants will have to combat that circumstance in whatever ways are available to us.
But today’s events underline dramatically the general point that battles with Rudd, which are inevitable, will have to be conducted in a careful and civilised way. Any socialists who don’t understand that are a danger to themselves and the whole left of the labour movement.
Even in the rather privileged, streamlined atmosphere of Parliament House, the magnitude of the emotion generated by today’s events was shown in the fact that several of Rudd’s senior aides were caught up in the emotion and along with other Labor and Green parliamentary staffers joined in the slow clap during opposition leader Brendan Nelson’s unpleasant and reactionary speech.
Rudd later unloaded these staffers and made them apologise to Nelson, but I’d wager that’s about as far as the matter will go in the current political climate, and they’ll remain as valued members of Rudd’s staff. That small incident underlines the general point that it’s quite unsound to treat even the sometimes opportunistic staffers who surround Labor and Green politicians as an undifferentiated reactionary mass, as do political dopes like the DSP majority leadership and the World Socialist Web Site.