Sorry business: NSW councils split on Aboriginal apology

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Sorry business: NSW councils split on Aboriginal apology

Like all levels of government, local councils in NSW are under pressure to make a public apology to Aboriginal people of the "stolen generation". Some have been quick to comply, happy to make this small but visible contribution to reconciliation. Others, however, have been less enthusiastic, as CHRIS THOMPSON reports.

The Canadian government has made a formal apology to Canada's indigenous peoples. The French Catholic Church recently apologised for its collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. Tony Blair has apologised for the Irish famine and Nelson Mandela has apologised for ANC war crimes. The queen even came close to apologising for British massacres in India.

And in Australia, despite the federal government's failure, many have answered the call for a public apology contained in the recommendations of the Royal Commission into the Separation of Aboriginal Children from their Families. The level of community concern on the issue is witnessed by the fact that the commission's report has now become a best seller.

In rural NSW, however, local councils like that of Bega Shire are still resisting pressure from the state's Local Government Association (LGA) to endorse a "statement of regret" initiated more than six months ago. Other councils, including large city administrations like Parramatta, have passed the motion only narrowly after heated and bitter debate.

As with John Howard's sorry effort at the National Convention for Reconciliation last May, these grudging, backhanded attempts at apology are doing more to inflame Aboriginal anger than to appease it.

'Racist fools'

The LGA, a professional association for mayors and councillors, drafted an apology at its state executive meeting last June. It called on members to unreservedly apologise for the "appalling treatment of the Aboriginal people" and "the devastating government policies relating to assimilation and family break-up", and added a call for an equally unreserved apology by the prime minister.

A similar motion, put forward by the community, was heard by Bega Council in August, along with details of how Aboriginal children in the area were still being forcibly removed from their families and culture into the 1970s.

The response was not good. Attempts to have local Aboriginal elder Margaret Dixon address council were blocked.

As the apology motion was defeated eight to three, a storm of protest erupted in the public gallery. According to the Bega and District News, many in the crowd wept and cries of "shame" followed the councillors as they left the chambers.

Later that night "shame" and "racist fools" appeared in metre-high letters, spray-painted across the front of the council's offices. Since then, the issue has refused to go away, moving Bega's mayor, Tim Collins, to lash out at local press coverage, calling one editorial in the local paper "threatening".

At Parramatta, the motion was passed by just one vote, with Lord Mayor John Books among those voting against. While one councillor told the meeting it was time to "bow our heads in shame", Books and others voiced their opposition.

One councillor, Lorraine Wearne, called the apology "ill conceived and rushed". Another, Tony Issa, told the Parramatta Advertiser he thought the motion implied that the people of Parramatta "were responsible for something we haven't done".

Saying that colonial history was "a fact of life", Issa said he believed "An apology will destroy our relationship with them [Aborigines]" and "will prove to them we have done the wrong thing by them".

Despite this response, Parramatta's mayor and councillors have since been happy to accept praise for the initiative in the local press.

Perceived mistreatment

Elsewhere, a number of councils have refused to hear the motion or have allowed it to fail for want of a seconder. Tim Collins in Bega has been quick to point the finger at neighbouring Eurobodalla and Shoalhaven Councils in this regard.

Kempsey Shire's young citizen of the year, local Aboriginal Richard Hoskins, slammed that council's failure to support the apology, saying they should "be ashamed and embarrassed".

"The efforts of establishing what could have been a most significant and indeed historical move to achieve reconciliation ... have been wasted because of the ignorant and racist attitudes of certain councillors", Hoskins told the Macleay Argus of July 4.

Hoskins argued that if the council could not represent the whole community, including its Aboriginal members, it ought to be removed. He accused several members of the council of deliberately sabotaging the vote, citing the disappearance of papers meant to be tabled at the meeting.

At Nymboida Shire in NSW's north, the vote came soon after a divisive debate on a local land claim which had, according to Councillor Brenda Constable, "removed a man's land rights". The motion was carried, but only after two councillors had walked out in protest, one, Dennis O'Keeffe, saying, "We're damned if we do and damned if we don't".

Other councils, such as Cessnock, have passed versions of the apology that are so backhanded as to be considered an insult by Aborigines. Cessnock's motion merely "acknowledged mistakes or errors" by past governments and offered its support to the Aboriginal community in its efforts "to come to terms with any perceived mistreatment".

'Good faith'

The lack of support for the LGA's motion among rural councils follows misgivings aired when the idea was first proposed. The push for the apology came from the high profile president of the LGA, Peter Woods, Labor mayor of Concord.

Raising the motion in June, Woods had the immediate support of most of the 24 delegates to the LGA's executive, half of whom come from Sydney and half from large regional centres.

What Woods could not secure was the support of Bill Botts, president of the LGA's partner organisation, the Shires Association. Botts argued that his members, from the smallest and most rural councils, would be very hard to convince on the issue.

Botts has since stuck to his position that the matter should be left to each council to decide, but when asked he has always been quick to stress that if an apology is made, it should be accepted by Aborigines "in good faith and not seen as a starting point to seek compensation".

When Tim Collins publicly rejected the motion in the Bega press, he stressed that his council was "not a member of the LGA", a sign of the growing divide between the two branches of what is still, for the time being, listed in the phone book as the Local Government and Shires Association.

Now under pressure from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Bega Council voted recently to hear an Aboriginal speaker on reconciliation, but ignored renewed calls for an apology. The calls were made by more than 200 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people attending a reconciliation ceremony outside the council offices in late September.

To date, the only councils to have returned motions to the LGA are Wollongong, Warringah, Waverley, South Sydney, Hurstville and Parramatta. With his copy of the Parramatta motion, Books attached the words: "I am most concerned at the legal liability which council and the association might be exposed to by the endorsement of such a wide-ranging resolution".