Apt and just apology

It was not, as was claimed by some, an apology for the stolen generations
THE Queensland National Party's leader-in-waiting, Lawrence Springborg, was critical of the deed of apology offered to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people last week by Chief Magistrate Di Fingleton.
Springborg said that issues such as apologies ``should be left to the politicians''. His views were supported, and expanded upon, by his leader, Rob Borbidge.
The words Fingleton said were: ``The Magistrates of Queensland apologise and express their sincere sorrow and regret for the injustices of the past suffered by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia and particularly the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Queensland.
``We commit ourselves to the Australian Declaration Towards Reconciliation. We promise to embrace to the best of our ability the cultural and spiritual values and sensitivities of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to ensure that they, together with every other person interacting with the Magistrates' Court of Queensland, will receive equal justice according to law.''
It was not, as was claimed by some, an apology for the stolen generations. And neither was it an inappropriate use of the court or a breach of the Westminster doctrine of the separation of powers.
The statement was nothing more and nothing less than the simple words it contained -- an apology for wrongs done by the justice system in the past, and a commitment to try harder in the future -- all contained in a commitment to reconciliation with the descendants of the traditional owners of this country.
Criticism was levelled by Chief Justice Paul de Jersey, who issued a statement which said in part: ``This is a separation of powers issue. It fell to the State Parliament or Executive to make any apology and that was done some time ago. It forms no part of the separate and distinct role of the courts of law. I can understand people becoming emotionally involved in this issue. I have views on it myself. But it is no part of the role of the courts to venture publicly into contentious policy areas.''
Justice de Jersey deserves to be heard. In the short time he has held his senior position on the bench, he has demonstrated a willingness to publicly defend the justice system and to define and correct its weaknesses.
I had the opportunity to observe him (and Fingleton) interacting with Aboriginal people on remote Cape York communities recently, and the dignified way in which he handled the issues and spoke with the local people was commendable.
I also noted that he and his wife joined with the tens of thousands of fellow Queenslanders on the reconciliation march over the William Jolly bridge two months ago.
He has a soul. His opinions deserve the respect they have been afforded. But on the wider issue of Fingleton's statement, he is wrong, as he is on the role of the courts venturing into ``contentious policy areas''.
A decade ago, Queensland was embroiled in the public disgrace revealed for all to see by another eminent jurist, Tony Fitzgerald, QC. The corruption had seeped into all sectors of public life -- the police, the politicians, the justice system, lawyers and business operators.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that many, many people knew just how endemic the corruption had become -- and how it had crippled all that was fair and just about public administration in Queensland.
As much as non-seeing journalists failed in their watchdog role for the citizens of Queensland, so too did the legal profession, and the judiciary. They were the people who dealt, usually for handsome financial return, with the miscreants who were involved up to their necks -- defending them against criminal charges, promoting their often specious writs claiming defamation against media and those who would oppose; justifying through legal calisthenics the disgraceful actions of so many National Party ministers of the Joh era.
And through it all, with few notable exceptions, the judiciary and the magistracy held its collective tongue. So many people who held these esteemed positions did nothing when faced with the most obvious and odious examples of corruption -- corruption that involved not just snouts in the trough or breaches of social justice but incidents as serious as murder and involvement with organised crime.
Tony Fitzgerald demonstrated what a cesspit society becomes when such a cowardly attitude is adopted by people vested with the authority and power to act without fear or favor.
I spent the first 10 years of my working life in the Magistrates' Court as well as the senior courts.
Fingleton's apology is long overdue, and most necessary, because dreadful injustices have been done to indigenous Australians (and white Australians) by some representatives of this level of the legal process, often perhaps through ignorance.
It is through actions like those adopted by Chief Magistrate Fingleton that the past can be corrected in the eyes of those who were the victims, and they are many.
If society does not have people of her stature who are prepared to speak out in a proper and appropriate manner when wrongs -- including history -- have to be corrected, we would be a truly sorry bunch.
Congratulations Ms Fingleton and the Queensland magistracy.