The scene is set for what promises to be a fairly emotional week in Australian politics. For the first time in over a decade, Federal Labor will take their seats on the government benches in parliament. By the end of tomorrow we will know what the full text of the government’s apology to the stolen generation will look like, and we will have a better idea whether the apology really is set to heal old wounds, or just to re-open them for some. Either way you look at it, history will be made tomorrow, in what may well prove to be one of the Rudd Government’s defining moments. In political terms, not just compassionate terms, the new government’s early credibility on indigenous affairs rests on its ability to deliver a national apology that compels the country to move on. The last thing that the country or the government needs is for tomorrow to kickstart a regressive discussion about whether or not the apology was “good enough” or not. An apology that does not satisfy the majority of the country, and in particular the majority of impacted indigenous Australians, could derail the government’s ambitious reform agenda. Needless to say, the apology is not going to please everyone and some people are going to feel short-changed by the process.
To add to the tumult, the apparent attempted coup in East Timor that has left President Jose Ramos-Horta in a critical condition bodes ill for political stability in the region. We can only hope that Ramos-Horta, who has been an admirable voice for the East Timorese and a popular political figure in Australia, recuperates from the attempt upon his life; he is reportedly in an induced coma and being treated in Royal Darwin Hospital. Details of just how serious his condition is are somewhat sketchy at this stage. Jill Jolliffe’s reports from East Timor in the SMH are well worth a read, and would seem to indicate that there are likely to be some heavy questions asked of the Australian UN forces responsible for security once the immediate concerns created by the crisis are addressed:
He [Ramos-Horta] fell to the ground after being hit by up to three bullets. Men in two cars – one of them the renegade major Alfredo Reinado – fired the shots. Presidential guards, who live at the Ramos-Horta residence, and nearby soldiers from the Timorese Army rushed to the scene and returned fire. But it would be another hour or more before the bleeding President got medical attention.
The Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith have reacted quickly, deploying 340 additional personnel to East Timor. What this latest development does reinforce, however, is just how important stability in the immediate region is to Australia’s foreign policy outlook. Contrary to all the sensationalism propounded by the more hawkish Western administrations and certain corners of the media in relation to the “war on terror”, it would seem that Australia’s foremost national security challenge at the moment relates to the stability of one of our closest neighbours. It is a black and bitter irony that one of the region’s foremost political champions needs to be lying in a critical condition in an Australian hospital before news and events from East Timor get a bit more of the focus the country deserves from the media.
ELSEWHERE: Former (more’s the pity) television current affairs journalist Stan Grant’s contribution is also worth reading.