Leading article: The courage to right a historic wrong

Wednesday 13 February 2008 01:00
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Politicians who match their words to their deeds are hardly ten a penny these days. And, even when they do appear on our horizon, their words and deeds are all too often designed to court cheap popularity. So it is heartening to find a recently-elected leader who is so quickly and determinedly putting his campaign pledges into practice, even those that may not have appealed to every voter. Step forward Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister of Australia.

In the few weeks since he led the Labor Party into office on a landslide, Mr Rudd has brought a liberating breath of fresh air into Australian politics. Before the end of his first day in office, he had reversed Australia's policy on climate change by ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. He has also announced the permanent closure of the notorious detention centre on Nauru Island, which is scheduled to take place next month. Both moves illustrate the world of difference between his policies and those of the defeated Prime Minister, John Howard.

But it is Mr Rudd's determination to institute a serious process of reconciliation with Australia's Aboriginal population that could well become the hallmark of his prime ministership. The opening of Parliament yesterday showed that he was starting as he intended to go on. In place of the stiffly formal ceremonies inherited from the old world, Australian MPs watched an Aboriginal elder hand a symbolic message stick to the new Prime Minister. Music was provided by didgeridoo.

This new-style, all-Australian opening of Parliament was followed this morning by a solemn ceremony without precedent in Australia. Mr Rudd delivered an official apology to Aborigines, in the name of the Australian government and Parliament, for the cruel assimilation policy over more than a century, and other wrongs.

The apology acknowledged the "profound grief, suffering and loss" inflicted on the Aboriginal population by policies that included removing young children from their parents so that they were brought up outside their own milieu. And it did not shy away, as so many so-called apologies tend to do, from using the hardest word. The parliamentary motion concluded: "For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry."

It was not the first attempt by an Australian government to broach national reconciliation. The last Labor administration opened an inquiry into the forcible removal of Aboriginal children but Mr Howard failed to act on its harrowing findings. Mr Rudd is righting that additional wrong and trying to make up for lost time.

If he succeeds – and the crowds flocking to Canberra to be a part of the occasion suggested he had caught the national mood – he will have helped to make Australia a more harmonious, more contented and generally better place.

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