Turnbull's plans for national apology to sex abuse victims should take Close the Gap lessons into account

Turnbull's plans for national apology to sex abuse victims should take Close the Gap lessons into account

Sometimes, an apology just isn't enough. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would do well to keep this firmly in the front of his mind, now that he has announced that he will deliver a national apology to child sex abuse victims. He plans to deliver the apology at the end of this year, which will be a year on from the handing down of the report from the royal commission in December.

Next week is the 10-year anniversary of another prime ministerial apology - that of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the stolen generations. That event - one of the first on Mr Rudd's prime ministerial to-do list after winning the 2007 election - was widely considered to be an important turning point in Australia's reconciliation process. At least, it was at the time.

Also in the news this week, another review has been handed down - that of the government's Closing the Gap policy. The review is damning.

Delivered by the Close the Gap Steering Committee, made up of non-government organisations, the report says the government "effectively abandoned" its long-term goals just five years on from the establishment of the policy, in favour of short-term political demands.

"A revolving door of prime ministers, Indigenous affairs ministers and senior bureaucrats have all but halted the steady progress hoped for by First Peoples," the report said.


"After the initial funding commitments made for the Closing the Gap strategy … the strategy was effectively abandoned with the extensive cuts, over $530 million, made to the Indigenous affairs portfolio in the 2014 federal budget."

The report also urged a renewed commitment to the policy, just a decade on from the Rudd apology.

"The Close the Gap Campaign believes no Australian government can preside over widening mortality and life expectancy gaps and yet maintain targets to close these gaps without additional funding," it said.

The report also said the Turnbull government's rejection of the Uluru statement, was "emblematic of the gap between the rhetoric of partnership and the reality" in Indigenous affairs.

So, nothing close to the sense of hope for the future that Mr Rudd's words invoked in Australians - especially First Peoples - back in 2008.

How then to craft another momentous apology, this time to a separate group of wronged Australians? Mr Turnbull plans to appoint a "survivor-focused reference group" to help shape the apology, and, presumably to hold him - or someone - to account in the years that follow.

"As a nation we must mark this occasion in a form that reflects the wishes of survivors and affords them the dignity to which they were entitled as children but which was denied to them by the very people tasked with their care," Mr Turnbull said on Thursday.

In other words, rhetorically he's heading in the right direction. But will he and his successors be able to remain on this track, and close the gap between these words and the ensuing reality? Hopefully these words won't turn out to be empty in 10 years' time.

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