As any student of the history of Christianity knows, conscience, guilt, atonement and forgiveness can be double-edged emotional swords. The person who gives also receives. Bestowing an apology on another can cause us a perverse kind of pleasure: the pleasure of feeling better about ourselves as apologisers.Can Kevin Rudd make a tough decison, one that might make him unpopular? I doubt it. Can the problems of indigenous Australia be solved without tough decisions? Most definitely not.
Perhaps that's why so many of the people whose hearts were raised to the skies in sorrow managed at the same time to be so mean-spirited towards the hapless but basically well-intentioned Brendan Nelson. They were distancing themselves from the other Australians out there, those less virtuous than themselves.
So seductive was the call of the moment that otherwise hard-nosed journalists (such as The 7.30 Report's Kerry O'Brien) seemed determined to adopt an aura not unlike that of Mother Teresa.
Now it's true that many commentators, as well as the PM himself, have striven almost ostentatiously to avoid any impression of losing hold of their faculties.
So we've heard a great deal about the apology being the easy part, and how the hard part of the job is yet to begin. And Kevin Rudd has announced some decidedly bold benchmarks for attacking indigenous mortality rates, school attendance figures and housing availability.
And yet these gestures, I confess, serve only to stoke my anxiety. To be blunt, I worry whether a PM who seems increasingly to be cast as the deliverer of Aboriginal Australia will muster the strength of character to be hated (vociferously hated, perhaps) by many Australians - white and black alike - for making the kinds of unpopular decisions that are surely required.
Benchmarks are hardly a novelty in Aboriginal policy. Similarly stern aims to close the gap between the two nations have been invoked by every PM since Robert Menzies.
Yet too often they have become ritual words, uttered without any tangible effect. No bread has turned into flesh; no wine has become blood. Indeed, so far as can be told from the publicly available figures, on some key indicators the gap has probably widened.
To be frank, while I would dearly love to believe in them, I have no idea right now how the PM intends to turn his benchmarks into working reality.
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