Issue Date: March 7, 2008
By PENNY EDMAN
With the first item of business in the first post-election session of Parliament, Australias new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd completed an item of old business left undone for more than a decade. Rudd apologized to the Stolen Generations.
The Stolen Generations are Australian Aboriginal people who were removed from their families by government edict from the late 19th century to the end of the 1970s. An estimated 10 percent to 30 percent of Aboriginal children -- perhaps as many as 100,000 -- became wards of the state with the aim of civilizing them with European culture.
Fulfilling a campaign promise, Rudd delivered what his predecessor, John Howard, had refused: a bipartisan, unequivocal apology.
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.
Hundreds of indigenous people were in Parliament House galleries Feb. 13 to hear the apology. Thousands watched it live on giant video screens outside. Australian television, radio and streaming video on the Internet carried the apology live to the nation. Indigenous leaders and members of the Stolen Generations welcomed and accepted the apology.
Mick Dodson, co-chairman of Reconciliation Australia, an independent, nongovernmental body working for the welfare of indigenous Australians, told The Age newspaper: I am inspired by this apology as an act of true reconciliation toward indigenous Australia. It allows us to move forward with honesty, an acceptance of shame about parts of our history and with courage, pride, maturity and hope.
The Catholic churchs most prominent public voice for Aboriginal justice, Jesuit Fr. Frank Brennan, a lawyer and academic, said of the apology: It was a graced day in our nations history. Our elected representatives on both sides have served us well. A heartfelt apology has been given and received. We are all the better for it.
The apology was a long time coming. A national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families was commissioned in 1995. The commissions report, Bringing Them Home, was issued in 1997. It revealed for the first time the extent of the program, with grim details of how children were forcibly removed from their homes, without warning and often at night, as a result of deliberate, calculated government policies.
State and church institutions as well as white foster homes were deemed better environments in which the children should be raised. At its extreme, officialdom sought to totally assimilate Aboriginals into the white culture of the time.
Bringing Them Home and subsequent reports spelled out the consequences of these policies for the Aboriginal people: Indifferent health, poor education, alcoholism, sexual and physical abuse and a life expectancy 17 years below that of non-Aboriginal Australia.
Among its 54 recommendations, Bringing Them Home urged all levels of government to acknowledge officially their responsibility. State and territory governments complied years ago. Other groups also extended apologies, including the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in 1998. The Catholic bishops reaffirmed their commitment to reconciliation following the national apology.
Leading up to the apology, Rudd consulted widely with Aboriginal communities and listened to the stories of members of the Stolen Generations.
Speaking in Parliament Feb. 12, Rudd said that the stories cry out for an apology. Instead, from the nations parliament there has been a stony and stubborn and deafening silence. Some advised Parliament to leave this question to historians and academics, he said, as if the Stolen Generations are little more than an interesting sociological phenomenon. But the Stolen Generations are not intellectual curiosities. They are human beings [and] as of today, the time for denial, the time for delay, has at last come to an end.
The bipartisan approach adopted by the Rudd government, however, clearly separated the apology from compensation, which some members of Parliament support. Instead of compensation, Rudd spoke of new and collaborative initiatives.
He proposed that he and the leader of the opposition jointly chair a policy commission addressed to Aboriginal needs. The commissions initial efforts would be in housing. Rudd also set targets to reduce the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians on life expectancy, educational achievement and employment opportunities.
The tasks ahead will not be easy, he said, but they are achievable. The nation is calling on us, the politicians, to move beyond our infantile bickering, our point-scoring and our mindlessly partisan politics and elevate this one core area of national responsibility to a rare position beyond the partisan divide. At least from this day forward, we should give it a go.
Still, within 24 hours of Rudds apology, a claim seeking some US$800 million in compensation was filed against the government of the state of Victoria.
Penny Edman is a freelance journalist who lives in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.
National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2008
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