Monday, 18 February 2008
Apology to Australia’S Indigenous Peoples
Debate resumed from 14 February, on motion by Mr Rudd:
That today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.We reflect on their past mistreatment.We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations—this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.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.For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.
Can I first say that I very much wanted to be associated with this motion of apology to Australia’s Indigenous people. I do so because I strongly support that apology. I make that statement because there are some, it is said, who believe it is politic to support it. In my view, the support of this motion should be given if one believes it is right to do so.
In the time that I have been in public life I have had an association with Indigenous affairs, but, in a sense, elected as I was to a metropolitan constituency in Sydney, I had few Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander constituents. But, interestingly, I did, perhaps unwittingly, know a separated child in my years at primary school. I visited the Lutanda home, run by the very delightful people of the Open Brethren, as distinct from the Exclusive Brethren. That home was at Pennant Hills, and the students from that home, which was close to where I lived, went to Pennant Hills Primary School. One of them was a lass by the name of Joy Williams. I learnt later, as I met with her again, that she was a child of Aboriginal forebears who had been placed in care and who in fact launched legal proceedings in New South Wales against the New South Wales government enjoining the Open Brethren. Her case was not successful, in much the same way as the case of Gunner and Cubillo in the Northern Territory was not successful. But obviously Joy Williams felt a great deal of hurt. I have met many others who have been separated—some who live with those events today, others who have made adjustments and have been able to contribute as very fine Australians. Some have been people whom I have appointed to various government advisory positions; others have been people whom I have looked to for advice and counsel and regarded as friends.
When I spoke on this matter in the party room of the Liberal and National coalition I said there are others who have felt great hurt. I do not equate them; it would be inappropriate to do so. But there are people in the Australian community who have been hurt because they have been separated from parents or not been able to know of their parents. And they are not Indigenous people; they are people in the Australian community who have been adopted, may never have known their parents and want to know something of their genealogy. There are young people who have been separated from a parent when there have been family disputes and have never had the opportunity to know one of their parents, particularly if they have been moved abroad or interstate, as has sometimes happened.
I raise these matters because I think most Australians understand that hurt when it is expressed, and those who have experienced it understand it. I ask myself: how can you not understand the hurt that Indigenous people who were removed from their parents would feel, regardless of whether or not the care or assistance or help that was given to them was of the very best, although in many circumstances that may not have been the case? This happened lawfully. The behaviour of those who supervised and undertook taking the young people into care may not have always been appropriate but one would expect that if there were evidence about that it would be brought forward. I say that deliberately because we hear the term ‘stolen’ used in relation to these matters, as if it connotes that what was happening was in fact unlawful. I note that all the recommendations of the Bringing them home report refer to separated children. Regardless of that, people have assured us that there would be no compensation arising from these matters. I suggest the wording of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s report may have been preferable to some of the other language that has been used. Regardless of that, I am certainly not one who is arguing that the passage of this motion should in the ordinary course of events lead to a compensation claim being more successful than it might otherwise be on its facts.
I want to be associated with this motion because I have spent a great deal of time in public life involved in Indigenous affairs. Again I mention that, not because of the numbers of such people in my own constituency—I think at this stage I have in my constituency 150 people who claim Aboriginal heritage—but, rather, because when I first joined the parliament I had the great opportunity to be a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs. I remember serving with some of the great names that the Labor Party would acknowledge within their party who were actively involved in these matters. They were people like the late Gordon Bryant and Les Johnson. On our side of parliament we had William Charles Wentworth. I remember the first inquiries in which I was involved, which took me to northern New South Wales as we on the committee looked at employment opportunities and regional issues and, later, after we were asked to look at alcohol problems in Indigenous communities. I travelled very widely when I later became the Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, visiting most parts of Australia. I had the opportunity to participate in the writing of reports on health circumstances, on the Aboriginal legal services and on the outstation movement.
I mention these matters because I had the opportunity of visiting, for instance, Port Keats, as it was then known—Wadeye, as it is known today. That community is very dysfunctional today but at the time when I first visited it, aided very much by the Catholic Church and the brothers who were there, it appeared to be a very functional community. I was there with the late Professor Stanner, who gave us insights as to what was happening in Port Keats. He said the church believed that it had been able to remove all remnants of Indigenous culture from that community but that in fact, notwithstanding all of the activities of the church in that location, it had not occurred. But we did see fit to deal with places like Port Keats—to sever the relationship, to take out the church and its continuing leadership. If we look at many of these locations today, we see in many cases quite dysfunctional communities. It troubles me greatly when I see that level of dysfunction. Regrettably, it cannot all be related to the issue that we are debating—the separation of Indigenous children from their parents. A lot of the difficulties that we have are ones that have been with us over most of the time that I have been involved in public life. It does not matter whether it has been governments of the present Labor persuasion or coalition governments—shifting that disadvantage that we see has proved extraordinarily difficult. There is a great deal of hurt and anguish, I think, within those communities that plays a part in making the delivery of services and the assistance that we would like to offer less effective than it might otherwise be. I think it is quite clear that many different approaches have been taken, but I want to support this motion of apology today because it is my erstwhile hope that, in the spirit of forgiveness and possibly healing, we see circumstances in which our collective efforts can take root and address the disadvantage that we all very much feel ought not to be there.
I have followed very closely the way in which this apology was brought forward. I think many fail to recognise the involvement of an organisation which a former Leader of the Opposition’s father was very much involved in—Moral Rearmament. Its work around the world has been of particular importance in trying to help resolve difficult issues where they impact upon peoples. I have seen some of their work in places like Zimbabwe, where again they tried to play a role in healing between black and white, and in places like Cambodia, where I was first engaged with them, in relation to the Khmer people and the Khmer Rouge. They have been very much involved here. If you go to Colebrook in the Adelaide Hills—the home that Lowitja O’Donoghue, I believe, may well have been at—you will find it a memorial that was very much a project that Moral Rearmament were seeking to see implemented. Of course their rationale, based upon the great religions, is that there is a place for apology. In the words of the Leader of the Opposition, an apology should be offered; it should not necessarily seek forgiveness but, if forgiveness is a response, there is an opportunity for healing. It is certainly my desire, in the spirit of those whom I have worked with over a long period of time, those who look for a new environment in which our efforts in relation to assisting our Indigenous people might take root, that this apology play a constructive role. It is for that reason I have been an enthusiastic supporter of it, and that is one of the reasons I want to be associated with it in this debate.
Madam Deputy Speaker Burke, I congratulate you on your election to your important office. I feel proud and privileged to participate in this debate on behalf of the people of Wills, who are overwhelmingly compassionate and have a strong sense of a fair go for all. I apologise to the Indigenous peoples of this land, particularly the Wurundjeri people, for the wrongs which have been done to them. In particular, I say sorry for the mistreatment of the stolen generations. Last Wednesday, 13 February, the day of the parliamentary apology, I went down to the stage set up between the old and new parliament houses. I met up with my parents, Allan and Dorothy, long-time supporters of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal causes. We listened to musicians such as Troy Cassar-Daley who were playing there. I do not think I have ever heard Troy sound better. The atmosphere was quite electric. To stand amongst these people, many of whom have suffered so much just because they were born black, was quite overwhelming. People had tears in their eyes—tears of pain, tears of joy. There is so much unavoidable pain in the world, but to see all this avoidable pain was another matter altogether. For all their lives, Aboriginal people have carried the stigma, the unbearable weight, of being black or half-caste and, therefore, considered inferior by far too many of the rest of us. People talk about symbolic measures and people talk about practical measures, but the thing which has to change is this: being Aboriginal must become a source of pride, not a source of shame. We must learn to see Aboriginal people as our equals and stop thinking of them as lesser people, as second-class citizens, as drunks. It would, in fact, be a fine thing if we learnt to envy Aboriginal people, to envy their long history, to envy the way they learnt to live with this landscape for over 60,000 years, deriving a living from it without destroying it.
Back in June 1997, over 10 years ago, I spoke to the House about Bringing them home, the report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, known at the time as the ‘Stolen children report’. I wanted to bring home to people why there was a need for an apology from this parliament and for people to understand that, although we cannot erase these past wrongs, it is necessary for us to understand them as a precondition for going forward together. I brought to the House the story of William, and I will quote from it again. William said:
… I was about six years old … [when] our mother passed away. My family tried to get the Welfare to keep us here … trying to keep us together … My uncle wanted to keep me and he tried every way possible, apparently, to keep me. He was going to try and adopt me but they wouldn’t allow it. They sent us away.
… … …
When St Francis [orphanage] closed up, they sent us out to different places. My second eldest brother and I went to a Mrs R. And my only recollections of that lady was when we first went there. We were greeted at the door. The welfare officer took us into this house and I can remember going into this room, and I’d never seen a room like it. It was big, and here me and my brother were going to share it. We put our bags down on the floor. We thought, ‘This is wonderful’. As soon as the welfare officer left, Mrs R took us outside that room and put us in a two bed caravan out the back.
I was sleeping in the caravan. I was only a little boy then. In the middle of the night somebody come to the caravan and raped me. That person raped me and raped me. I could feel the pain going through me. I cried and cried and they stuffed my head in the pillow. And I had nobody to talk to. It wasn’t the only night it happened.
... it seemed like night after night. It seemed like nobody cared. I don’t know how long it went on for, but night after night I’d see the bogeyman. I never saw the person, I don’t know who that person was.
… … …
They shifted us again and that was into town again. And then they put us in with this bloke ... They’ve got records of what he did to me. That man abused me. He made us do dirty things that we never wanted to do. Where was the counselling? Where was the help I needed? They knew about it. The guy went to court. He went to court but they did nothing for me, nothing. ... I remember the child psychologist saying, ‘He’s an Aboriginal kid, he’ll never improve.
Let me repeat that:
‘He’s an Aboriginal kid, he’ll never improve.
I’ve had my secret all my life. I tried to tell but I couldn’t. I can’t even talk to my own brothers. I can’t even talk to my sister. I fear people. I fear ’em ... It’s rarely I’ve got friends.
I wish I was blacker. I wish I had language. I wish I had my culture. I wish my family would accept me as I am. We can’t get together as a family. It’s never worked. We fight, we carry on. I’ve always wanted a family.
That comes from a man removed from Alice Springs to Adelaide in the 1950s. It is because of that and so many other accounts in the report that we as a parliament needed and now need to pass this motion to say to people around Australia that we are sorry. That is a precondition to moving forward. But going forward is about more than acknowledging the stolen generations, important as that is. I am scarcely alone in noting, as I have often done, that we should thank our lucky stars that we get to live in Australia. But there is a hole in the Australian heart. We are incomplete. The reason we are incomplete is that the opportunity and prosperity which we enjoy as a nation do not include Aboriginal Australia. Let me quote two men from the 1830s who give a pretty plain picture at the time of what happened upon European settlement. First, I quote the writer Robert Lyon, who arrived as an English settler in 1829 and who said to his countrymen:
You are the aggressors. The law of nations will bear them out in repelling force by force. They did not go to the British Isles to make war upon you; but you came from the British Isles to make war upon them. You are the invaders of their country—you destroy the natural productions of the soil on which they live—you devour their fish and their game—and you drive them from the abodes of their ancestors.
He went on:
What shall we say to the barbarous practice of firing upon them whenever they are seen.
… … …
They may stand to be slaughtered but they must not throw a spear in their own defence or attempt to bring their enemies to a sense of justice by the only means in their power—that of returning like for like. If they do—if they dare to be guilty of an act which in other nations would be eulogised as the noblest of a patriots’ deeds—they are outlawed; a reward is set upon the heads; and they are ordered to be shot as if they were so many mad dogs! Thus, in a barbarous manner, you practice what in them you condemn, the law of retaliation.
Then in 1838, there was the Reverend John Saunders, who at a sermon in Sydney referred to:
... the sin in which the whole colony has been engaged and for which, therefore, the whole colony is answerable—our injustice to the Aborigines. I do not select individual delinquents, but impeach the nation; for whether in ignorance or with a guilty knowledge, we certainly have been culpable in our neglect and oppression of this despised and degraded tribe of our fellow men.
After that initial period of attack and dispossession came a long period of neglect and cover-up. In 1968 Professor William Stanner gave a Boyer lecture devoted to what he called ‘the great Australian silence’ about Aboriginal people, noting how they scarcely rated a mention from historians and other writers about Australia. He said:
... inattention on such a scale cannot possibly be explained by absentmindedness. It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale. We have been able for so long to disremember the Aborigines that we are now hard put to keep them in mind even when we most want to do so.
And the first Aboriginal senator, Neville Bonner, made a similar point in his speech to the Senate, saying:
All within me that is Aboriginal yearns to be heard as the voice of the indigenous people of Australia. For far too long we have been crying out and far too few have heard us.
He said, ‘Less than 200 years ago the white man came. I say now in all sincerity that my people were shot, poisoned, hanged and broken in spirit until they became refugees in their own land. Then began to appear the emotional scars, the psychological wounds from which, by and large, we have still not recovered.’ The Aborigines today find themselves drifting between two worlds, accepting some of the white man’s virtues but, alas, also many of his vices. Neville Bonner was, no doubt, thinking about alcohol. He did not live to see the ravages of internet pornography and child sex abuse. But this period marked the end of the great silence and an awakening—passage of the 1967 referendum counting Aboriginals as people, Senator Bonner’s election and the handing back of land to the Gurindji people in the Northern Territory by the Whitlam government. Pope John Paul II said in Alice Springs in 1986:
Christian people of good will are saddened to realize—many of them only recently—for how long a time Aboriginal people were transported from their homelands into small areas or reserves where families were broken up, tribes split apart, children orphaned and people forced to live like exiles in a foreign country.
He also said:
To call for the acknowledgment of the land rights of people who have never surrendered those rights is not discrimination.
The high-water mark of this modern awakening was Paul Keating’s 1992 speech at Redfern Park. He said in that speech:
... the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians.
It begins, I think, with the act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the disasters. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion.
... We failed to ask—how would I feel if this were done to me?
As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us. But Paul Keating said it was not about feeling guilty. He said:
Down the years, there has been no shortage of guilt, but it has not produced the responses we need. Guilt is not a very constructive emotion.
I think what we need to do is open our hearts a bit.
All of us.
Perhaps when we recognise what we have in common we will see the things which must be done—the practical things.
He said we needed:
... to bring the dispossessed out of the shadows, to recognise that they are part of us, and that we cannot give indigenous Australians up without giving up many of our own most deeply held values, much of our own identity—and our own humanity.
It was a sensational, positive, optimistic speech and inspired much hope, but in the 15 years since it was given those hopes have not been realised. I know there are competing views as to whose fault this is and I do not want to make a politically partisan speech, but it needs to be said that measures of Aboriginal disadvantage, life expectancy, education, health, homelessness, alcoholism—all the indicators which make it clear that life for Aboriginals is a world away from life for the rest of us—show no sign of abating.
The Labor government was elected having made commitments to, firstly, eliminate the 17-year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation; secondly, at least halve the rate of Indigenous infant mortality among babies within a decade; thirdly, at least halve the mortality rate amongst Indigenous children under five within a decade; and, finally, at least halve the difference in the rate of Indigenous students at years 3, 5 and 7 who fail to meet reading, writing and numeracy benchmarks within 10 years. These are worthy goals. To achieve them will require an effort from the whole nation. In particular, we need to go back to and we need to recapture the spirit of Paul Keating’s speech at Redfern—to ‘open our hearts a bit’.
I want to congratulate GetUp! on its email campaign concerning this issue. Some people say this is all only symbolism, but I believe it is very powerful symbolism. It is saying to Aboriginal people: you do matter. It does matter that people thought it was okay to take Aboriginal or half-caste children from their parents simply because they were Aboriginal, because that is what happened. And it does matter that their life expectancy is so much lower than that of the rest of us. Aboriginal people do matter. Let us resolve in this place that never again will Aboriginal people be denied the dignity and the respect to which they are entitled as our fellow human beings.
The motion before the House seeks to offer closure to those Aboriginal Australians who grieve at being separated from their parents in early childhood. This is the third apology on these issues and follows another, more comprehensive, resolution of this parliament made nine years ago, which included an expression of ‘deep and sincere regret that Indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations and for the hurt and trauma that many Indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices’. Australia is a prosperous country with opportunity for all. It is a stain on our integrity as a nation that our Indigenous people do not share fully in all the good things other Australians enjoy. It is simply unacceptable to me and all decent Australians that the life expectancy of an Aborigine is 17 years less than that of other Australians. Their health, education, economic, employment and social outcomes are all so much worse than the rest of us expect and take for granted. Aborigines are far more likely to be in jail or in detention and they are more likely to be victims of violence. Aborigines are more likely to be killed in car accidents, and too often they die from avoidable or curable illnesses. So few gain a trade qualification or university degree and even fewer reach the pinnacle of their profession. Many Indigenous communities are locked into a lifestyle that offers no opportunities, no productive jobs and no hope. It is distressing to visit communities where alcohol abuse, violence, filth and hopelessness are a way of life. I am sorry that as a nation we have not done better. With all the effort, all the funding, why couldn’t we have achieved more? If Aboriginal communities were in leafy suburbs or central business districts, would all this be tolerated? Too many communities are locked away by a permit system which hides the reality of what is happening.
Over the past decade the former coalition government allocated more money, devoted more cabinet time and was more innovative than any of its predecessors, but I am sorry and I apologise to the Aboriginal people that we did not achieve more. Our efforts were sometimes frustrated, including by state governments which frequently chose a different course, generally with even poorer results. I am sorry that in government we wasted too much time on initiatives which did little to improve the lot of Indigenous Australians—ideas that may have been politically correct but were of little worth in practice. So much effort was dedicated to delivering European-style land title for Aboriginal land, because we were assured that land rights would create better outcomes by rebuilding the soul of Indigenous people through a spiritual association with the land. Despite millions of hectares of land being transferred, most of which is no longer productive, it is hard to notice any improvement in the spiritual, mental or physical health or economic welfare of any Aborigine. We wasted too much time on the notion of separate development, a nation within a nation, and ATSIC, with all its corruption and mismanagement. We should have acted sooner to stop the ‘welfare without responsibility’ mentality and we were far too late to intervene where we could to stop the violence, the hopelessness and the wasted lives. Had we acted sooner, fewer children would have been raped and abused, and more women and children would have been safe and healthy. Some criticised us for intervening as dramatically as we did, but I say sorry that we did not act years earlier, and I appeal to the new government not to proceed with its planned rollback of this life-saving intervention.
It is not that there has been an absence of goodwill or lack of determination to provide better opportunities for Indigenous Australians. Whilst I may not agree with some of the policies or actions of those opposite or the Labor states, I do not doubt their sincerity and their desire to make a positive difference. I hope that they do not doubt ours. So often over the years, what was thought to be right at that time had perverse effects. Social justice demanded equal pay for Aboriginal workers but, as a result, Aborigines lost their productive jobs and the support and shelter provided by their employers. The churches were asked to leave the mission stations, but with them left the strength of character and the leadership which sustained a stable community. Welfare benefits flowed to all, but without the skills to manage money much of it bought alcohol and pain. People were made aware of their rights to land and justice but not their responsibilities as custodians and citizens. There has been an almost complete breakdown of traditional tribal elder authority, not replaced by any new regime of discipline. These policies destroyed lives, just like those hurt when taken away from their families, and I say sorry.
I acknowledge the valiant efforts of those who have worked so hard and given up their lives to truly help our original inhabitants. Many have forsaken and do forsake the comforts of life to live and work in difficult, dirty and dangerous circumstances because they want to help and to use their skills and resources to benefit the most disadvantaged of Australians. Some of these people may be criticised by the academic elite today, but many did make a real difference in their time: Pastor Carl Strehlow and the missionaries, who brought not just Christianity but also health care and education; John Flynn; Daisy Bates; Fred Hollows; and hundreds of others. Even today, much excellent work is being done, often away from the public gaze, by people who see injustice and want to see it reversed, who see how Aboriginal people can contribute constructively to our society and want to make it happen: men like Dick Estens and the people of Moree, who worked to break down the barriers to socially include the Indigenous community; mines like Argyle and Century Zinc, which are training Aborigines and employing them as valued members of their workforces; men like Noel Pearson, who are crying out for welfare and other reforms to teach responsibility as the key to more self-reliant generations; a man I know working with a group of young boys who were brain damaged at birth because of the alcoholism of their mothers; and the doctors, nurses, teachers, police and welfare officers who work in these communities, sometimes in danger, to build a better future. We need to acknowledge their efforts and recognise the work that they have done.
Today we say sorry to those wrongfully taken from their families and for our failings of the past, and that is important. But the most important emphasis in last week’s motion and the speeches of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition was the need to look forward. The expression of sorrow has been made before—and with conviction, though with much less show and spectacle. It will mean nothing if it is not accompanied by a deep and sincere commitment by all Australians, both black and white, to do very much better in the future. We must move to end the violence and the degradation, the premature deaths and the social inequity. Aboriginal children, even today, are six times more likely to be taken from their families, and in many communities almost no children live with both their natural mother and father. We on this side of the House pledge ourselves to support policies and initiatives which will make a difference. We will continue to support decisive actions to restore law and order to Aboriginal communities. The communities must remain open to encourage enterprise, industry and pride in citizenship, not locked away by a permit system and policies of exclusion. We will authorise the funds necessary to continue to build houses, hospitals and schools community sporting facilities and to supply the doctors, nurses, teachers, police, carers and business managers to create strong and stable communities. We call on the states to also recognise their failings and to make the Aboriginal communities under their control places that are safe and decent for this generation of children.
We will continue to remind the government that this motion, for all its symbolism, is not a sufficient response in itself and will be empty if it is not a catalyst for a renewed commitment to practical measures to address the profound social disadvantage which continues to be experienced by many Indigenous Australians. I was disappointed that the government spurned the opposition’s offer to work together on an agreed text for this motion. No state Labor government considered it necessary to include the emotive words ‘stolen generation’ in their apologies, but this government insisted. We support the motion, but it should have been so much better. In the end the media were given copies of the motion before the parliament and the opposition. Then the orchestrated partisanship, including by members of the Prime Minister’s staff, took much of the warmth from the day. Labor created division where there should have been unity.
Governments and non-Aboriginal Australians cannot correct Aboriginal disadvantage on their own. An expression of sorrow and regret will not give closure to the past if it is not embraced and accepted. The government can build houses, hospitals and schools, but Indigenous Australians will need to care for them and to use them well for their families. The government can provide land and opportunities for production and business, but the people must grasp them. Governments will provide welfare for those genuinely in need, but the recipients must recognise their obligations to their community and use the money to keep their families safe and healthy. Ultimately, Aboriginals will create their own destinies like all other Australians. They must share a positive willingness to embrace reform and build a better lifestyle for themselves and their children.
To be a turning point, this motion must be about the future—the future we want for our country—more than about the failings of the past. It must bring Australians together in reconciliation so that we can live in peace and confidence together. We are truly sorry when we demonstrate our actions collectively to build a better future for Aboriginal Australians and indeed everyone in our country.
I want to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that we are meeting on today, the Ngunawal people, and say what a great pleasure it was to have the first formal welcome to country before the opening of this parliament. I also want to acknowledge that the land that my electorate covers is the land of the Gadigal people, who are part of the Eora nation. I want to pay particular tribute today to Auntie Joyce Ingram, Auntie Sylvia Scott and Uncle Max Eulo. They are the people who most often do welcome to country in the seat that I represent. Auntie Sylvia has recently retired from doing welcome to country, although she has done it for many years.
On 11 November 1998 during my first speech I said sorry. I thought it was an important thing to say then, as I thought it was an important thing to say last week. I said sorry for the policies of many governments over many years that removed Aboriginal kids from their homes and their country, not because of abuse and neglect but because of the colour of their skin. Families and communities across the nation were destroyed. Many have never had a chance to rebuild. There are many people who have begun the long journey home, but perhaps they will never find the parents, families and communities that they were taken from.
‘Sorry’ is a word we commonly use to express empathy and to acknowledge past wrongs. It has a particularly important meaning for many Indigenous Australians in the context of the stolen generations. When we say sorry, the common response is: ‘Thanks.’ I was so thrilled to see on the day of the apology so many people wearing T-shirts in the gallery that just said, ‘Thanks.’ That simple interaction of sorry and thanks that is so common in ordinary interactions between human beings has been so difficult for us at the national level over the past 11 years. I hope that interaction of sorry and thanks can really begin the healing process that has to happen in this country.
Former Prime Minster Paul Keating, who initiated the inquiry into the stolen generations, stated in his famous speech in Redfern why saying sorry was so important. He said:
The message should be that there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include indigenous Australians. There is everything to gain.
The support for the apology in my electorate was extraordinary. We had literally hundreds of emails and phone calls to the office expressing support for the apology, thanking the Prime Minister for taking this historic step and saying that people joined with him in this journey. Thousands of people gathered in Martin Place in my electorate, outside the New South Wales parliament and inside the New South Wales parliament, watching on the big screens. Glebe Public School had a smoking ceremony and a welcome to country before watching the delivery of the apology in their school hall. St Brendan’s School in Annandale flew the Indigenous flag while watching the broadcast. Rozelle Public School watched the apology and heard from a man who had been taken from his family as a child. Darlington Public School held a special assembly where children gathered together to form the word ‘sorry’. Alexandria Park Community School organised a community breakfast followed by a special screening of the apology. Students from years 5 and 6 at Mount Carmel School walked to Redfern Community Centre with banners and posters, and I believe they got a very good response from passing traffic beeping their horns! Members of the stolen generation and their descendants gathered at the Redfern Community Centre with local community supporters. Classes at the Sydney Secondary College at Blackwattle spent the morning talking about the historic significance of the apology and the issues of history behind it. There was a great deal of acknowledgement of this important event across my electorate.
Of course, as many members have said, this does not make up for action—it was never intended to. This is a way of acknowledging historical issues that need to be acknowledged and dealt with, but they are not dealt with simply by making an apology. There is a great deal of work to be done with the Indigenous community to right some of the wrongs that they have suffered. We know that the life expectancy of an Indigenous child born today in Australia is 17 years less than that of a non-Indigenous child born today in Australia. It is simply impossible to accept those sorts of figures. We know that problems like diabetes, kidney disease and eye diseases including trachoma are much more common in many Indigenous communities than they are in the non-Indigenous community. We know that Indigenous women are much more likely to suffer domestic violence than non-Indigenous women. Of course these are all issues that we have to address. The apology is not a replacement for these things, but nobody has ever claimed that it is.
All of these are things that we have to acknowledge in order to deal with them, but there is so much good work being done as well, and I think that we make the mistake sometimes of forgetting to acknowledge the progress that has been made and the work that fabulous people and organisations are doing in their communities. Last year I had the opportunity to do a little bit of research on the teaching of Indigenous languages in New South Wales public schools, for example. I wrote about it in the Sydney Morning Herald, saying:
Linguists believe there were about 70 Aboriginal languages spoken in NSW when the First Fleet arrived in 1788. Many of those are almost lost, especially as older Aboriginal people, who learnt the languages as children, die. In 2002 the Australian Bureau of Statistics found there were fewer than 3000 people who spoke an indigenous language in NSW. Last year that figure had dropped to 800.
So even in recent memory the loss of languages has been very speedy. Yet in many New South Wales public schools Indigenous and non-Indigenous children are learning Indigenous languages. The desire to prevent the loss of language is great for its own sake. It is terrific to expand the body of human knowledge rather than to see it shrinking. It has been so great for school attendance and the pride of those Aboriginal kids to learn their own language, in many cases, or another Aboriginal language, in other cases, and for non-Indigenous kids to develop some understanding and knowledge of Indigenous culture in their local area.
There are so many great things happening in my electorate. There is a hospitality training college called Yaama Dhiyaan. They teach Aboriginal kids who want a career in hospitality all of the basics. It is run by Auntie Beryl Van-Oploo, who has a career in catering as long as your arm and is a fantastic caterer. She has a terrific young Aboriginal chef working with her, Matthew Cribb, who I can tell you personally makes the best damper that you will ever try and fantastic jam made from all sorts of things including some of the bush tucker berries that you can get.
They have another training college that is co-located called Yaama Dhinawan, which is a training college that does pre-apprenticeship courses for Aboriginal kids who want to go into the building industry. This is also a critical area for me because we know that skills shortages in the building industry are contributing to the high cost of building these days. I have been to graduation ceremonies for these young people. What these organisations are doing is terrific; it is terrific what these people are doing who are taking on these courses. Some of them are the first in their family to be doing post secondary school education.
The same is true of the Tribal Warrior Association, which is an organisation that teaches maritime skills to Indigenous young people up and down the east coast of New South Wales. They travel up and down in their boat, the Tribal Warrior, doing the work they need to do to get their basic skills up. The last graduation ceremony had 35 people graduating and, most importantly, getting very good jobs—again, right up and down the east coast of Australia, from Sydney Ferries to tourism operators in Cairns, who all use the skills the Aboriginal kids get through the Tribal Warrior Association.
Over very many years, a fabulous organisation called the Redfern Aboriginal Corporation has also been involved in local job creation. They have provided many jobs and excellent services through their business ventures in catering, furniture removal, employment placement, screen printing, garbage removal and lawn mowing. We have the Redfern Aboriginal Housing Company, a not-for-profit charity, which has been involved not just in developing the Block but also in owning over 100 parcels of land. They have very extensive land and housing interests now.
St Saviours Church in Redfern last year was behind the organisation of the Coloured Digger ceremony on Anzac Day that, for the first time in many cases, acknowledged the contribution that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, in particular, have made over many years through our armed services. These are Indigenous Australians who fought and served with non-Indigenous Australians and in many cases lost their lives. Those who returned to Australia were not allowed in the front door of the local pub or inside the local RSL club in some cases.
The St Saviours Church ceremony was for some people the first time that they had their service to this country properly acknowledged. It was an incredibly moving ceremony that was followed up by the RSL, who organised a terrific commemoration, this time at the War Memorial in Hyde Park in Sydney, with very high-ranking Indigenous officers there. Indigenous schoolkids came along to learn a little bit more about their fathers and grandfathers who fought and, as I say, in many cases died for Australia.
The previous speaker mentioned Dick Estens and his involvement in regional New South Wales and employment creation. Of course, Dick and his organisation were also active in my electorate. We have the Aboriginal Medical Centre, Elouera Gym, Aboriginal Legal Service, Murawina Childcare Centre, Koori Radio, Mudgin-Gal Women’s Service, REDwatch, the Settlement, which has provided after-school care in particular, and Wyanga Aboriginal Aged Care. There are so many great organisations which are doing terrific work to close some of those shocking gaps—the 17-year life expectancy gap and the gap in educational outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.
I conclude today by saying that what happened here last week—the apology to the stolen generations for the policies of past governments, for taking children away from their families when they should not have been taken away—was an important and historic event. While the response from my electorate and from my constituents has been vastly positive and while it is vital to acknowledge the history behind the apology and why we had to make it, it is also vital that we focus on and support the terrific contributions being made by people in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to ending disadvantage on their own behalf, for themselves, the organisations and individuals who have taken up the challenge and are following the words of Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody ‘From little things, big things grow’ and the people who are doing small things that will change the lives of so many Indigenous Australians.
I too would like to begin my contribution to this debate by acknowledging the traditional owners of this country, the Ngunawal, and other traditional owners in this area and also the traditional owners of my electorate of Murray, who continue to be a very proud and important part of our local society. On Wednesday last week, I stood in the House of Representatives in this great parliament and joined in honouring the Indigenous peoples of Australia. We recognised them as the oldest continuing culture in human history. We apologised for the laws and policies of successive governments that inflicted grief, suffering and loss on our fellow Australians, in particular those who were the victims of the policies aimed at forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their families, communities and country in order that the children might lose their Aboriginal identity and be assimilated into white society. We recognised and apologised for the pain, suffering and hurt of the stolen generations and of their descendants and the families left behind. We said sorry. We respectfully requested that this policy be received in the spirit in which it was offered as part of the healing of individuals and the nation.
The policies that created Australia’s stolen generations echoed those of similar times in Canada, New Zealand and the USA. Children of mixed descent were permanently removed from the influence of their mothers, their kin and their culture—those children were of mixed descent, with Indigenous mothers. The children of mixed descent were then institutionalised, adopted or fostered out so that they might assimilate into the white society, having lost their traditional culture. These policies were widely debated and implemented across Australia from the late 19th century through to the late 1960s. They were contemporaneous with our own white Australia immigration policy and were based on the same notions of racial superiority. It is important to understand the different beliefs and values of those times. Only then can we understand what happened and why and the impacts on our Indigenous Australian community. I want to quote from an article in the Illustrated Sydney News and New South Wales Agriculturalist and Grazier, printed in May 1880. The writer says:
The Aborigines of Australia are a doomed race, found occupying one of the lowest stages of savage life when the shores of NSW became familiar with the presence of white men.
Unfortunately many Australians have only a scant knowledge of Australian history and previous values and beliefs. This is something which the John Howard government tried to remedy. Consequently, some in the community have objected to the apology given by the government on the basis that these policies were, they believe, only rescuing orphaned or neglected Indigenous children. In fact, two sets of policies coexisted in the different states, the Commonwealth and the territories, both of which affected Aboriginal children. One set of policies continues today and is designed to intervene in families where there are neglected or vulnerable children. These policies are and were not race based. Any at-risk children in need of special protection were and continue to be targeted by these policies. These were welfare policies and continue to be welfare policies today. The other set of policies, which coexisted and affected the same communities, can generally be referred to as our miscegenation or assimilation policies. These policies were race based. In the apology, the generations affected were called ‘the stolen children’. The stolen children were those who were the victims of these assimilation or miscegenation policies of Australia. The intent of the miscegenation policies—all listed in the Bringing them home report—was the forced assimilation of Aboriginal children of mixed descent through their physical removal from their mother and separation from their mother’s kin and culture. It was hoped that these paler skinned children would then come to take what was called their ‘rightful’ place in the Australian economy and society of the future.
So how did these race based policies evolve in a country now so colourblind, tolerant and free as our great Australian nation? The Charles Darwin theory of the survival of the fittest, framed in the late 1800s, coincided with and informed the observations and experiences of the white settlers, in particular in Tasmania and Victoria. The settlers attributed the huge decline in the Indigenous populations, which was in fact due to disease, malnutrition and frontier violence, to the consequences of immutable scientific laws. William Armit, writing in the 1880s in the journal the Queenslander, said:
Nothing that we can do will alter the inscrutable laws and withal immutable laws which direct our progress on the globe. By these laws the native races of Australia were doomed on the advent of the white man and the only possible thing left for us to do is to assist in carrying them out with as little cruelty as possible.
While settlers observed the demise of the clans, they also observed and began to be concerned about the increasing numbers of Aboriginal children of mixed descent who were being born into the surviving clans. In 1899, Police Inspector Paul Foelsche in South Australia reported to the South Australian government:
... something may be done for the half-caste children by compelling mission stations that have concessions from the government, under certain conditions, to take in such half-castes and civilise them. They would then, when grown up make excellent servants, and thus be raised above the ordinary condition of an aboriginal.
In the South Australian Progress Report of the Royal Commission on the Aborigines in 1913, Mr EC Stirling, a contemporary expert, gives his considered opinion about the best remedy ‘to solve the problem of existence of the half-castes’. The chairman said:
Is there anything else you would like to bring to our notice?
Mr Stirling answered:
I would like to refer to the half-caste children. My opinion is that the more of those half-caste children you can get away from the parents and place under the care of the state the better. I think you should take them at an early age. Supposing they were taken charge of by the State Children’s Department it would be easier to deal with them if they were taken when they have the attractiveness of infancy. There is always something attractive in the infants of all races, whatever their colour. You would get people to take those children young who might be disinclined to take them when they were older. I think that is the best way to save the half-caste children—take them away from their surroundings. When they are caught young they are far less inclined to revert to their old state. There is a strong tendency among the half-castes when they are grown to go back to the ways of the natives. They are far less likely to do that after they have had a long contact with civilisation.
The Hon. J Jelly:
What would be a suitable age to remove them?
I think when they are about 2 or 3 years of age.
You would not recommend that they be taken away when they are absolute infants?
No, because then you would have the burden of them that all children are at such a young age. When they are a couple of years of age they do not require so much attention and they are young enough to be attractive.
Then there is the question:
Do you think that their experience of two years with the black mother would seriously interfere with them?
No. There would not be time for them to establish habits and customs. I am quite aware that you are depriving the mothers of their children, and the mothers are very fond of their children; but I think it must be the rising generation who have to be considered. They are people who are going to live on.
That was the thinking and the value system of the day. In 1913 Professor Baldwin Spencer MA, CMG prepared the preliminary report Aboriginals of the Northern Territory: Bulletin No. 7 for the Department of External Affairs. Professor Baldwin Spencer wrote:
The children must be withdrawn from the native camps at an early age. This will undoubtedly be a difficult matter to accomplish and will involve some amount of hardship, so far as the parents are concerned, but if once the children are allowed to reach a certain age and have become accustomed to camp life, with its degrading environment and endless roaming about the bush, it is almost impossible to try to reclaim them. On the other hand, if they are at once brought at an early age into a station and become accustomed, as they soon do to station life—provided this be made attractive—then they will gradually lose the longing for a normal nomad life and will, in fact, become incapable of securing their living in the bush.
And so police, missionaries, public servants and government agencies were charged through government legislation, regulations and ordinances with the task of taking young Aboriginal children of mixed race from their mothers ideally at about two or three years of age. They were taken to a range of institutions, adopted or fostered out to white families; mothers were denied access to their children—if they could find them in the different locations. Aboriginal language speaking was banned, as was any contact with the parents or families. It was reported that the mothers who tried to hold the hands of their children through the wire at Alice Springs were driven away.
I want to read from a 1940 book called The Great Australian Loneliness. It was written by Ernestine Hills, a very much favoured author of the time. The book was reprinted many, many times. She writes about the actual living, breathing experience of this policy on human beings as it affected Indigenous Australians. She writes:
It was in the Gulf of Carpentaria that I was approached by a beach-comber with a poignant little problem of his own. He was the father of four children. Their mother was a black woman.
According to Government decree, these children were now to be taken from him, and placed in an institution in Central Australia for their up-bringing and education. The protector had sent a policeman on a pack-horse. Must he let these children go, or could he claim the rights of father-hood?
‘They’re well fed and happy enough,’ he said. ‘They have no clothes, but they don’t want them out here. This is their country. They don’t want to leave it, and I know they won’t be happy. I don’t suppose either I or their mother will see them again.
‘They tell me you write for the papers, so you ought to know. Can I keep them with me? We’ve always been together, whatever else we’ve been, and the old woman will break her heart.’
Sadly enough, the answer was no. The father of a half-caste has no paternal rights in North Australia, and as for the half-castes themselves, they must learn to live white.
Is there a throw-back to the Australian black?
Dr. Cecil Cook, anthropologist, biologist, bacteriologist, Chief Medical Officer and Chief Protector of Aborigines in North Australia, after ten years’ closest observance and research among the half-castes, quadroons and octoroons of the North, says no.
‘The Mendelian theory does not apply,’ Dr. Cook told me. ‘There is no atavistic tendency as in the case of the Asiatic and, the negro. Generally by the fifth and invariably by the sixth generation, all native characteristics of the Australian are eradicated. The problem of these half-castes can quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race, and the swift submergence of its progeny in the white.’
… … …
‘The Australian is the most easily assimilated race on earth,’ said Dr. Cook. ‘A blending with the Asiatic, though tending to increased intelligence and virility, is not desirable. The quickest way out is to breed him white.’
This is the race based policy of miscegenation which we acknowledged and apologised for last Wednesday when the Prime Minister addressed the nation and the Australian stolen children generations. I cannot imagine how profound and how deep the trauma, sadness and psychological and developmental damage must have been to many individuals who were subject to that policy—the parents, the mothers, the children, the sisters and brothers, the kin.
The surviving direct victims of these policies, the mothers and their children and grandchildren, want the nation to acknowledge their history and their hurt. Of course we must. We must acknowledge their loss, and I am so pleased to have been amongst those in the House on Wednesday who said we were sorry. Let us hope our bipartisan apology, sincerely expressed, helps with the healing. And, by acknowledging our past, may it also help to ensure our great society continues to evolve towards having an even more fair and tolerant future for all.
Today I join with the Prime Minister, the government and members of the Australian parliament in apologising to the Aboriginal people of this country for the pain and suffering caused by previous administrations, past practices and laws of successive governments in removing Aboriginal children from their families. Apart from the unjust feeling on reflection of what occurred, I would like to approach this from the perspective of being a parent. If my children were removed for reasons I did not understand, I think it would be pretty easy to put in perspective the torment, anger and hurt that I would carry with me until the end of my days. Simply: that is what occurred. People did not understand. As a matter of fact, there were not any great reasons. Nevertheless, their children, their kin, were forcibly removed at a stage when they could do nothing about it. It was the law. The word ‘stolen’ does not indicate a criminal or illegal act; this was a highly legal and sanctioned position. That is why it is appropriate that we do apologise to the stolen generations.
The apology to the stolen generations is the first necessary step to move forward to a new stage of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations. It is very much the next genuine step in terms of reconciliation. The apology is made on behalf of the government and the Australian parliament—it is made on behalf of all Australians, as a consequence. The apology signifies the beginning of this new relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It will act, in my opinion, as a bridge to build respect and will be a powerful healing symbol. It is an opportunity to formally recognise past injustices and an opportunity to commit to changes for the future. Quite frankly, it is a chance to move forward.
I know that the apology to the stolen generations will bring special meaning to the people involved and their families. To use a modern colloquialism: I hope it allows a measure of closure for the people and their families. The intention to have a new relationship with Indigenous Australia was exemplified through the national welcome to country this week when we opened the parliament. The national welcome to country from the Ngunawal people was the first that has occurred in this place. I trust that it was not missed by many. This was not only a genuine invitation from Ngunawal people to be at this place but also, from our perspective, the first national ceremony for this parliament.
For members of the parliament, the Prime Minister’s speech last Wednesday was very much an emotional occasion, as it was a reasonably emotional occasion for all Australians who abhor injustice and believe in a fair go. However, the emotional impact of the Prime Minister’s speech was unmistakable when you looked into the faces of the many Indigenous Australians who were in attendance that day. I assure you that it was not just members of parliament with tears in their eyes and serious lumps in their throats. We took the opportunity to meet with many people after the Prime Minister’s speech. To simply see their faces and to hear what they had to say I think was very significant.
The overwhelming comment that was made to me by people I met was ‘Thank you’. They were actually thanking us simply for making that apology. They were thanking us not for the past injustices but for acknowledging that those injustices had taken place, and we were mature enough as a nation to admit to the wrongdoings that had occurred and to apologise. The impact on the stolen generations themselves, especially those who attended here in this chamber, as well as their families and their communities, was nothing other than enormous. It was genuinely a historic occasion, one which was well overdue and, speaking for myself—and I am sure it is a view echoed by most—an occasion that will stay with me forever.
It must be said that Labor made it very clear that not only would we apologise to the stolen generations, should we win government, but we would make it the first order of business. To that extent, we have honoured that commitment—the commitment that we made in public but also the commitment we made to the Indigenous people of this nation. This commitment was not about furthering any political agenda but, rather, it was about doing what has long been considered to be the right and decent thing to do. The opposition, on the other hand, opted to support the decision to say sorry last week—and I respect the words that were spoken by the Leader of the Opposition—but it would seem to me from some of the speeches that have been made, particularly in this chamber, that a number of members of the opposition are still hedging their bets. While, as I say, the words of the Leader of the Opposition in supporting the Prime Minister were appreciated, I note that members such as the member for Tangney not only hedged their bets but went on to oppose the general concept of any apology to the stolen generations. To those of us who might have been a little aggrieved by his speech, let me remind them that this was the same Liberal member of parliament who asserted that the actions of mankind had little, if anything, to do with climate change. So at least those who feel aggrieved can be consoled by the fact that he is obviously a little removed from mainstream thinking on a range of subjects.
In terms of where we are in the reconciliation process, particularly for the Indigenous Australians in my electorate, it is clear that the time for denial has come to an end and it is time to advance a proper relationship with Indigenous Australia. During the course of the last couple of weeks, in the lead-up to the opening of parliament and particularly the well-publicised event in which the Prime Minister made an apology to the stolen generations, I took the opportunity—as, no doubt, most members of parliament did—to sit down with various members of my local Indigenous community regarding what the apology meant to them. For instance, I spoke to Jack Johnson, Nancy Davis and Rae Stewart from the Gandangara Local Aboriginal Land Council, which is based in Liverpool, in the heart of my electorate; Glenda Chalker and Cliff Foley, of the Dharawal people; and Auntie Norma Shelley, who always stays in contact with me. The apology meant a range of things to these people, but one of the things that they consistently said was thank you—thank you for realising the indifference there was towards Indigenous Australia in the past, and thank you for realising and acknowledging the injustices that occurred and the hurt and suffering that have been borne by their families. It was not a thankyou based on the fact that it was about time, although clearly that was the case. They put to me that it was a genuine thankyou for us acknowledging those wrongs of the past, and for the maturity of an Australian nation, with a view to putting forward a new compact for Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations.
I also took the opportunity to speak with a number of agencies and individuals who work tirelessly with the Indigenous community in my electorate. One of those was Sister Kerry McDermott. She is a Catholic nun from the Wollongong diocese who not only works with but lives amongst the Aboriginal community in and about Minto. I know from listening to her comments and those of the people she has introduced me to that the government now saying sorry, however long it has taken, is something that is genuinely appreciated throughout the community. They are hoping for something better to come in the future.
One woman I spoke with—and I have been asked to suppress her surname, so I will use only her first name, Jenny—is an elder in Minto. She was with Sister Kerry and actually broke down when asked what the apology meant to her. She took some time to speak, sighed deeply with tears falling gently down her face and said, ‘I think it is absolutely great that the government is going to apologise, for every Aboriginal family has been affected and it is so emotional for us all.’ Jenny was only four years old when she and her sister Rita, who was two years old, were both taken away from their family. They were both innocently playing with their cousins near their home in Bourke when they were removed and driven away. Their cousins were warned not to say anything because otherwise the welfare men would come back and take them too. This was 45 years ago. They were taken from their mother, their family and their community. Their mother thought they had been murdered. I understand from my discussion with her that their mother searched for their bodies on a daily basis. She was clearly in pain and cried every day, as would any parent if, without knowing why, their kids suddenly disappeared. The cousins watched all of this, by the way. They saw the pain in the eyes of the old lady and the rest of the family. They saw what the family was going through but said nothing. They were just too afraid. After all, they were kids too.
Late last year, after a family tragedy, for the first time the cousins spoke out about what they had experienced. They begged Jenny and her sister Rita for forgiveness. Jenny was honest enough to say, ‘There is so much pain still in our hearts and anger too that we were taken from our family.’ Jenny welcomes the apology and told me how important it was for her and her mother. She said her mother had been waiting for this day. Jenny said: ‘My poor old mother has carried so much pain and anguish and sorrow. It is still with her and the hurt will never heal, but the apology and sorrow expressed by the government is a start.’ Despite what happened to Jenny, she still has hope. The most striking thing I observed while Jenny graphically told her story was that she did not even have to use words. Her expression, her sad eyes, told the story of a lifetime of sorrow. She said that there is hope.
Another prominent Aboriginal woman in my area is Auntie Christina Craig. She is from Macquarie Fields. Unfortunately, she is in Liverpool Hospital at the moment, and I send my regards to her. She is in a very serious condition with kidney failure. Christina said to us, ‘I am so very happy and just wanted to live long enough for an apology to be made.’
Like many here, we have all heard heartfelt stories from Indigenous Australians and no doubt there will be many more to come. Comments like these from Indigenous members of our communities show how important the apology is and how important it is to move to do something so that Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians work and live better together. It is time that we make the commitment to move forward and to look at those issues that we need to address, particularly life expectancy, mortality rates and education, so that Indigenous children have the appropriate opportunity to participate along with every other child in this country at the same level.
I would be hypocritical if I were a person who said that, in the last parliament, he had supported an apology to Australia’s Indigenous people. I do not believe in the concept of intergenerational guilt. I do believe that we ought to judge the actions of those people who took children away from their Indigenous families by the values of those times and not by the values of today. Most of those people were well intentioned and it is a little bit unfortunate when we impose today’s standards on yesterday’s actions.
I have to also say that I do applaud the fact that the government has, as an election promise, as a first item of business brought this apology before the parliament. For a long time I was undecided on the position that I would take on this apology, but I believe very strongly that governments ought to deliver on their promises and I was pleased to see the Prime Minister and the government deliver so promptly on this particular promise. That was one of the reasons that I supported the motion through the House—because I believe that elected governments ought to deliver on what, prior to an election, they say they will do for the Australian people.
When one looks at the actions that were taken so many years ago, one has to ask oneself whether the Australian parliament is the appropriate vehicle for an apology, given the fact that most of the laws that were used to remove Indigenous children from their families would have been laws from other levels of government, more particularly the colonial governments before statehood was achieved at Federation. No-one is proud of the fact that Indigenous children were removed from their families and I think all of us sincerely regret that such things occurred.
When you look even at today, however, you do have situations where children are removed, regardless of race, from their families where their families are not perceived to be providing a suitable environment in which to bring up those children. In fact, many of those children are actually removed for their own benefit and their own welfare. I would think that all levels of government and members of parliament, regardless of political party, would continue to support a situation where children on occasion are removed from their parents in circumstances where such an action is in the interests of the child. I do, however, recognise the difference between what happens today and what happened to those people who have been designated as the ‘stolen generation’.
I will not be detaining the House for long but I want to say that I personally get offended when the well-intentioned motives of many of those churches and those people who looked after Indigenous children removed from their families are impugned. Those people, although their actions would not be acceptable today, were in many cases acting in what they perceived to be the interests of the children and, in many respects, the people who fostered and looked after those children in fact did so making substantial financial sacrifices to enable them to give children an upbringing. There have also been circumstances where Indigenous children have been brought up by foster families, have been given a good education and, in some cases, have become Indigenous leaders and role models for Indigenous Australians. I think some of them even recognise the fact that their removal, while certainly regrettable, did give them an education and opportunities in life which would not otherwise have been achievable.
We can also become too involved in tokenism. While, as a nation, we certainly regret the past treatment of Indigenous people, it is more important to look forward—and the practical reconciliation policies of the former government are what this government should be embracing. In fact, quite a long time ago, when I was Chairman of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs, I sought a reference from then Minister Wooldridge into areas of Indigenous health. Personally, I believe it is an absolute scandal that, on average, Indigenous men live for 17 years less than non-Indigenous men. I think the current extent of infant mortality among Indigenous children is outrageous. What we ought to be seeking is a situation where health outcomes for Indigenous people, including Indigenous children, are the same as for those in the general community. I think it is appalling that we have so few Indigenous people in tertiary institutions. What we really want is to give Indigenous people a leg-up so that they are able to take their place, along with their fellow Australians, as equal partners in Australian society.
I do not want my speech to be misinterpreted as criticising the intent of the apology given by the parliament, but we have to look at these things in perspective. Firstly, we have to recognise that the people who took those actions, however unacceptable those actions are today, were largely well motivated. It is important to recognise that our Indigenous Australians have a whole lot of needs, and what we ought to be doing is facilitating the improvement of the lot of those Indigenous Australians up to the standard of the general community. I was pleased to be able to support the government on its delivery of its election promise. Now that we have that particular matter out of the way, it is important that we focus on the genuine and real needs of Indigenous Australians. It is important that we look at what their needs are and at what the Australian parliament can do to improve the situation of Australia’s first people. This debate has been healthy because we have been able to talk about a whole lot of issues in relation to Indigenous people. We have been able to highlight the needs of Indigenous members of Australian society. Hopefully, having made the apology, the government will get on with the real nitty-gritty of improving the lot of Indigenous Australians.
I also have a concern about the issue of compensation. I accept what the Prime Minister says—that compensation will not flow as a result of this apology—but my understanding is that certain claims have been lodged, and they could ultimately be matters to be determined by the courts of this nation. I would hate for this whole issue to become bogged down in the courts because, let’s face it, the Prime Minister said the apology was to be a symbol of the nation’s collective regret, not the vehicle for payouts of huge amounts of money by way of compensation.
We have sought to salve our nation’s collective guilt for too long by throwing money at Indigenous people without looking at the outcomes achieved as a result of the payment of those funds. On occasion, we have become too focused on process and self-determination, not outcomes. It is completely appalling that in 2008 we have a situation where the health prognosis for so many Indigenous Australians is so much worse than for the general community. I welcome the opportunity of participating in this debate and I hope that the result will be an improvement in outcomes for Indigenous Australians.
Mr Deputy Speaker Sidebottom, it is great to see you back in the chamber. Wednesday, 13 February was a momentous day in the history of this nation. It was a day when this federal parliament, on behalf of all Australians, finally acknowledged that the laws and policies of previous parliaments inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on Indigenous Australians, and offered an apology to members of the stolen generations. I must remind the House that the apology to our Indigenous Australians has been Labor philosophy and, indeed, policy for a decade. In fact, former Labor leader Kim Beazley stated the word ‘sorry’ on behalf of the Australian Labor Party a decade ago. I was particularly pleased that Auntie Lyn Warren, who is Chairwoman of the Bendigo and District Aboriginal Cooperative, was able to represent the members of the stolen generations from my electorate of Bendigo. The fact that Auntie Lyn sat on the floor of the chamber in the distinguished company of former Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating and former Governor-General Sir William Deane was in many ways symbolic of what Wednesday’s events were all about. It was a day to remember and to reflect upon our history, especially the history of relations between original inhabitants of this ancient land and the white newcomers from across the seas.
Fifteen years ago, former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating launched Australia’s celebration of the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People at Sydney’s Redfern Park. He reminded us then that finding solutions to the challenges of Indigenous Australia starts with non-Indigenous Australians. He reminded us that it was we Europeans who did the dispossessing, who took the native lands and who destroyed the traditional ways of life. We also brought the diseases and the alcohol. We excluded and discriminated against Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, and we took the children from their mothers through our ignorance and prejudice—even if some of those removals were well intentioned. It is now apparent that thousands of Indigenous children were forcibly removed from loving and caring families simply because of the colour of their skin. Mr Keating also reminded us that we cannot ignore these past injustices.
How we resolve Indigenous issues affects our standing in the world today. Our Indigenous inheritance is as much a part of who we are today as Australians as other experiences that we regularly like to commemorate. But we cannot be selective about the things in our past that we choose to acknowledge and claim as our heritage. We rightly acknowledge and pay respect to the men and women of Australia’s armed forces who have given their lives for their country. We commemorate their past deeds on battlefields, on the sea and in the air in theatres of war around the globe. We celebrate the past successes of our sportsmen and sportswomen. We celebrate the past achievements of Australians in the arts and the sciences, but what we are today as a nation is a result of the past actions of our forebears, both good and bad. If we want to remember the highlights in our history, including those with which our generation has no direct connection, we must also take responsibility for the darkest episodes and for righting the wrongs of the past as far as we can. To do otherwise is simply hypocritical.
Last Wednesday, the Prime Minister invited us to reflect on one such blemish in our society—the mistreatment of those who were the stolen generations. We who have never been taken away from our families will never be able to truly understand the hurt, pain and suffering involved. What we can do, however, is reflect on the scale of the removals and listen again to the stories of some of those who were removed. The stolen generations inquiry concluded that, from 1910 to 1970, between one in every 10 and one in every three Indigenous children were taken from their families. Up to 50,000 kids across Australia were forcibly removed from their loved ones. They include a Victorian man who was adopted into a non-Indigenous family at the age of three months. He told the inquiry:
I’ve got everything that could be reasonably expected: a good home environment, education, stuff like that, but that’s all material stuff. It’s all the non-material stuff that I didn’t have—the lineage. It’s like you’re the first human being at times. You know, you’ve just come out of nowhere; there you are. In terms of having a direction in life, how do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from?
Whether they were adopted or placed in institutions or church missions, the children were at risk of physical or sexual abuse, in many cases by their non-Indigenous protectors. One girl who was removed as a baby could not tell her sister that she had been raped when she was 15 years old. She told the inquiry:
And I never told anyone for years and years. And I’ve had this all inside me for years and years and years. I’ve been sexually abused, harassed, and then finally raped, y’know, and I’ve never had anyone to talk to about it ... nobody, no father, no mother, no-one. I felt so isolated, alienated. And I just had no-one. None of that family bonding, nurturing—nothing. We had nothing. That’s why I hit the booze.
Indigenous children were expected to work from a young age, but many were never paid for their labour. One Northern Territory man was 11 when he was sent to work on a pastoral station. He said:
I worked there for seven and a half years. Hardly any food or anything, put out in a remote area on me own, drawing water and that, looking after cattle ... no holiday, no pay. I never received one pay that seven and a half years I was there.
Some of those who have opposed this parliament apologising to the stolen generations have argued that we are not responsible for the well-intentioned policies and legislation of previous parliaments. But, as the Prime Minister reminded the House, the practice of removal was not confined to the dim and distant past. The forced removal of Aboriginal children was happening as late as the early 1970s. Many members of this parliament were adults in the 1970s and, if not members of this or other parliaments, were actively involved in politics or government. One man from New South Wales removed during that era was just eight years old. He told the inquiry:
There’s still a lot of unresolved issues within me. One of the biggest ones is I cannot really love anyone no more. I’m sick of being hurt. Every time I used to get close to anyone they were just taken away from me. If I did meet someone, I don’t want to have children, cos I’m frightened the welfare system would come back and take my children.
That man, if he is still alive, is today in his 40s or 50s. He is of our generation, not some distant ancestor. However uncomfortable and inconvenient it may be to acknowledge, the mistreatment of the stolen generations was still taking place in many of our lifetimes. Even while we may have moved on from the mistaken practices of the past, we must acknowledge that the consequences of those actions live on today.
How can we call ourselves a civilised country when so many of our citizens continue to live in appalling, Third World conditions? This is a national disgrace of which we should all be ashamed. We, and especially those of us who are privileged to serve in this place, are responsible for the present-day wellbeing of all Australians, including Aboriginal citizens. There is no room for buck-passing between the federal and state governments over this. For decades we, as the political leaders of this nation, have collectively failed in our responsibility.
In 2000, the Council of Australian Governments adopted its Reconciliation Framework, which recognised the ‘unique status of Indigenous Australians and the need for recognition, respect and understanding in the wider community’. That acknowledgement might be commendable, but the fact that seven years later we were still receiving harrowing accounts like last year’s Little children are sacred report is a reflection of our failure.
The time has come when we in this place have to take responsibility. We can no longer put the blame on past generations. We cannot continue the mean-spirited prevarication of the Howard government, which, for all its emphasis on practical reconciliation, did practically nothing to improve the life expectancy, educational standards or economic prospects of Indigenous Australians. Last year’s intervention in the Northern Territory now has to be seen in the light of Mr Howard’s admission that during his decade in office he failed to deliver reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The intervention was a knee-jerk, election driven reaction to a report made to the Northern Territory government whose conclusions differ little from others during the Howard administration.
In 2003, the Australian National University’s Professor Mick Dodson, in a powerful and emotional address to the National Press Club in Canberra, outlined precisely the same awful incidences of abuse in Aboriginal communities. Speeches last year by the Chairman of the Productivity Commission, Gary Banks, to an OECD forum and by the Secretary to the Treasury, Ken Henry, to a Cape York Institute conference highlighted similar issues and advocated similar remedies to the Little children are sacred report.
The reasons for the sickening treatment of many Aboriginal children are complex and often related to the wider breakdown of society in Aboriginal communities. To quote from the Little children are sacred report:
... the cumulative effects of poor health, alcohol, drug abuse, gambling, pornography, unemployment, poor education and housing and general disempowerment lead inexorably to family and other violence and then on to sexual abuse of men and women and, finally, of children. It will be impossible to set our communities on a strong path to recovery in terms of sexual abuse of children without dealing with all these basic services and social evils.
Complex problems often require complex solutions, and the report suggess that it may take 15 years to address these issues. But, although the answers may be complex, a former Liberal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and now Director of Reconciliation Australia, Fred Chaney, pointed out in a National Press Club address last year that they are well known. The authors of the Little children are sacred report, like many others, recognise that, although the causes may take many years to address, a start needs to be made now. But it must be the right start, on the right basis and in accordance with the right long-term plan. The most important of these is the need to engage in a partnership with Indigenous communities. Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma, in last year’s report to this parliament, said the previous government’s lack of capacity for engagement and participation with Indigenous peoples was a significant problem. And Mr Chaney told the National Press Club there is ‘really no contest about the fundamental importance of Indigenous engagement as a prerequisite for success’. He went on to say:
Let’s be upfront and learn from our mistakes. Centralised, imposed programs delivered from Canberra or state and territory capitals have not delivered the success we must now expect.
The Prime Minister has led the way with an apology that will form the basis of a new approach to the challenges facing Indigenous Australians. As well as aiming to right the past wrongs, this apology is aimed at building a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians—a partnership based on mutual respect. This new partnership has firm targets for closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians on life expectancy, educational achievements, adequate health care and employment opportunities. Within 10 years we must aim to halve the gap in literacy, numeracy and employment opportunities for Indigenous Australians. Within 10 years we must aim to halve the appalling gap in infant mortality rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, and within a generation we must aim to close the 17-year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
As this parliament has finally found the courage—under a Labor government—to say sorry to the stolen generations, I would like to add my own apology, an apology to all Australians—Indigenous and non-Indigenous—for the length of time that this unfinished business has languished in this parliament. I am sorry it has taken so long for the highest parliament in the land to take this historic step. But I am proud that we are now taking it and that last Wednesday’s apology has resonated right around the communities—Indigenous and non-Indigenous—of our whole nation. Consigning poverty, prejudice and injustice to the history books must now be one of our highest priorities over the next 10 years or 20 years or however long it takes to remove this stain from our nation. I note a recent statement by the shadow minister for Indigenous affairs—the member for Warringah, Mr Abbott—who said he had been on a journey of rediscovery in attempting to forge a deeper understanding of the history of the stolen generations tragedy. I sincerely hope that his journey leads to the same destination that I believe most Australians have arrived at, as outlined in the Prime Minister’s speech last Wednesday, because if that is the case then we have a far stronger chance of righting the wrongs of the past and making a stronger bipartisan beginning for the future. I commend the motion to the chamber as a start to that process.
I support this motion of apology to those who were taken from their parents and to those who were the victims of that process or affected in some way. I do so as a member of this parliament, as the member for Flinders and as a father. I speak on the basis of having spent much time over the last three years in many Indigenous communities across Northern Australia. I have been fortunate to have had time in places such as Anindilyakwa, Dhimurru, Yirrkala, Mutitjulu—at the base of Uluru—and in many other townships, communities and Indigenous protected areas across Northern Australia. In that time, I saw both the best and worst of modern living for Indigenous Australia. The Yolngu of Yirrkala on Cape Arnhem have made a proud transition into the 21st century. They have developed a culture which is strong. They have developed a process of profiting from and caring for their land in a way which links with their history, which gives their people a current way forward and which gives their children a proud future. They are a fine example of how a community can prosper. I have also spent time in Mutitjulu, at the base of Uluru. This community is sadly emblematic of the very worst conditions faced by modern Indigenous Australia. I have seen and met with those who are victims of petrol sniffing, abuse and so many other wrongs in such a community. I cannot say with absolute clarity what all the causes are, but I know that that is wrong.
I do know one thing. I do know that the history which has led to this includes the taking of children from their parents. It is, in my opinion, a wrong both in and of itself, one which should never be allowed to occur again, and a wrong which has led to a long-term blight and harm upon Australian society. That is my view. Others may not choose to agree with it, and I respect that, but that is the view that I present today before this parliament and so it is on the record for as long as I stand.
Beyond that, the reason that I believe this is wrong and was wrong stands on two great grounds. First, this was a policy which was widespread, prolonged and systematic. That is, I think, the worst element. It was systematic, based on race. There are other examples of people of good intention, but have no doubt—let there be no question—that it was widespread, it was prolonged and it was systematic on the basis of race. I only wish to quote one example as part of that, which is from page 47 of the Report of the national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, better known as the Bringing them home report. To me the short quote says it all:
I still can’t see why we were taken away from our home. We were not neglected, we wore nice clothes, we were not starving. Our father worked hard and provided for us and we came from a very close and loving family.
I feel our childhood has been taken away from us and it has left a big hole in our lives.
That is enough for me because that story is the story of many others. I am a father and, if I see that that occurred on the basis of government policy related to race, not in relation to the immediate protection of a child, that is wrong and this parliament should recognise that fact. I make this apology on my behalf and as the member for Flinders.
The second point that I want to make is about the legacy of this. There is an enormous immediate human toll on all of those who were affected, but beyond that there can be no doubt that this past practice has contributed in a significant way to the sort of example I outlined at Mutitjulu. I do not know whether this act will right the current wrongs, but if it in any small way helps then it is valuable. It is owed as and of itself for that which was wrong in the past, but I also believe that it has the potential to free up a way forward, and for that I am doubly happy to support this motion.
I note that in the present, which is where I want to turn to now, there are great difficulties and wrongs which need to be corrected. My position is very clear. We must keep up the work, which began many years ago and which was perhaps most profoundly carried forward by the former minister for Indigenous affairs Mal Brough in bringing into the light some of the obscene and improper activities which occur today. If this parliament is not the place to do that, then where will that light be found? So there is a great task now.
As we go forward, one of the things I think we need to do—beyond the policing, beyond the education, beyond the support—is provide a vital way forward for Indigenous employment that is tied to Indigenous culture and Indigenous land management. One of the programs with which I am pleased to have been involved is the Indigenous rangers program. This is not the answer to everything, but I believe that that form of employment, of land management twinned with significant funding—a program to which we allocated $47 million, which was an almost tenfold increase in the budget—provides a profound way forward for communities. That is why places such as Laynhapuy, Dhimurru and Anindilyakwa all practise the process of Indigenous rangers managing the land. They have created a great sense of pride. I offer this program to the new government. I say in the nicest way that we hope you will bring this forward and continue it and expand because, in all the communities in which I have seen it, it provides a way out of victimhood, it provides a way forward for self-management, it gives a connection to the land and it gives a sense of pride, as well as being an extremely positive way of achieving land management. That, I believe, is one contribution to the way forward.
As I said at the outset, of and in itself what occurred was wrong. Moreover, it contributed, I believe, in some way to the disadvantage we see today. On both of these grounds I believe this apology should be supported. I offer my sincere apology for what occurred in the past, but I also believe we should never lose sight of, nor lose the courage to acknowledge, the wrongs of great magnitude which continue today. We should have the courage to shed light on them and to deal with them going forward. I commend the motion and I thank all of those who have been part of bringing it before this chamber.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker Sidebottom. I appreciate that warm welcome and congratulate you on your election to high office as one of the deputy speakers. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to address this motion—an apology by the Australian government to Australia’s Indigenous people. For the great majority of us who are fortunate to be in this parlilament, 13 February was a proud day for Australia. I think the truth of the matter is that we all, collectively and individually, failed to estimate and appreciate how important this event was, not just in Parliament House but right across the broad spectrum of the Australia community. We had an especially important opportunity to actually meet with the people in the lead-up to the apology on 13 February and join with them, after the apology by the Prime Minister, to celebrate the event. It was not until late that evening, when I had a look at the late news, that I appreciated how many people were on the lawns of Parliament House. They were out the front, watching the big screen and gratefully saying thanks for this momentous achievement by the Australian parliament.
We should remind ourselves that similar events occurred all around Australia. In Federation Square, Melbourne, in Martin Place, Sydney, in regional communities and in workplaces, people were glued to televisions because they knew this event was historically important for Australia and for where we will go in the 21st century. In that context, I have a special responsibility to build on the symbolic nature of the apology. As a new minister, I have been doing a lot of reflecting about the weight of responsibility my position carries and how I can contribute personally, through my work as a minister, to build on the apology of 13 February. All ministers are very conscious of their personal obligation to create a legacy in their portfolio area that advances the Australian community and the nation generally but also in particular creates special opportunities for Indigenous Australians, who have been left behind far too long.
That is important to me because I first went to the Northern Territory in March 1977 and had an opportunity to meet a lot of significant Indigenous people who have made a major contribution to the Northern Territory. People I have worked with over the years include the Clarke brothers, Jim and Bingy Clarke; Ella Ahmat, a long-time worker at Darwin Hospital; Lenny Cole, who worked on the Darwin council; and Denise Ahsan, a key representative of my old union in the Northern Territory and a hospital worker. Then we have got those more in the public domain such as Tracker Tilmouth, David Ross, Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Norman Fry, just to name a few, who basically saw this apology as creating a foundation for the future.
I think we have now got to move on and turn the page to actually create a process of practical reconciliation in Australia. That has got to build on the symbolic reconciliation of the apology moved and passed in parliament by acclamation, which is now in the record of the Australian parliament and the Australian community forever. It also has to be a legacy that makes sure Indigenous Australians share in the benefits of Australia’s great economic opportunities, especially those brought forward by the current resources boom. They should share not only in the growing wealth and prosperity as a result of that but also in other areas of my portfolio such as tourism, which is very strong in rural, remote and regional Australia. Across all industries in Australia, there are opportunities that have to be grasped and driven home in terms of guaranteeing a better future for our Indigenous community.
I simply say that in terms of the facts—and I want to put some of these on the record—we have all got something to answer for. No side of politics can actually say that they have done the best in the past. We have all got to learn from our mistakes. I also say that the private sector has got a very important role to play in delivering these better outcomes because they are out there investing the money and they are the ones who largely employ people in Australia. We have got to create the environment and the programs that facilitate these economic opportunities for our Indigenous community.
We are also only going to make progress when we think about some of the educational and health indicators. I think it is shameful that the life expectancy of Indigenous people is around 17 years lower than that for the total Australian population, that kidney disease is 10 times as high in Indigenous people and that diabetes is three times as common. It is also shameful that one in five 15-year-old Indigenous teenagers are not in school and that half as many Indigenous kids as non-Indigenous kids continue on to year 12 and post secondary qualifications. Achievement rates for those at school are also far below the national average. More than 20 per cent of year 3 Indigenous children do not achieve the national benchmark compared to less than 10 per cent of non-Indigenous year 3 children. These figures clearly deteriorate as our children advance to the higher years of school because of a lack of foundational opportunities on the literacy and numeracy front.
Then we go to issues of employment. The labour force participation rate for Indigenous people stands at just 58.5 per cent, about three-quarters of that for non-Indigenous people. At a time when the country is at almost full employment and crying out for workers, the unemployment rate is three times higher for Indigenous people than for non-Indigenous Australians. We have clearly failed Indigenous people in health, education, employment and housing over many years.
I therefore suggest to the chamber that it is imperative for us, as a community, to address the low employment participation rate for Indigenous Australians. We are not going to resolve these problems in Indigenous communities until we accept that we need to make progress on that front. Just like Australians in general, Indigenous people define themselves, not only as individuals but as families and communities, by their capacity to work. To make progress on the employment front, you have also got to make progress on the educational front. Education and skills are the keys to employability. If you do not have confidence in your ability to work and deliver for your family then that creates major problems in local communities. So education is clearly critical. I believe it is the foundation that creates the opportunities to overcome some of the other problems being faced today in Indigenous communities. That requires leadership at a local community level and a state government level and also the federal government working in a cooperative way with all tiers of government and the private sector to actually make progress on this front.
That is why the Prime Minister has correctly promised an education revolution, and nowhere is it more important than in our Indigenous communities—communities that, in some instances, have known little else other than intergenerational unemployment, the welfare cycle and social dysfunction, despite the best endeavours and well-meaning intentions of successive governments. At this point in time let us seize the opportunity; we have never had a better time to do something about this.
As a result of the apology delivered by the Prime Minister last week on 13 February there was a great sense of goodwill in the Australian community to now seize hold of this problem and create real momentum for real change in Australia. We have the economic circumstances to create opportunity for Indigenous Australians to share in our vast wealth and in doing so overcome some of the major social problems that confront those communities. It is known in the Indigenous community that we as a community have now finally come together to recognise the urgency of improving Indigenous outcomes. The apology lays the platform for us to now make real progress and move beyond that symbolic gesture that was outstanding for far too long. In essence they are saying that they accept that the blame game is over, that they want a better future and that they want to be part of the prosperity that exists in Australia and that is being shared by their brothers and sisters and Australians at large.
It is also now acknowledged in the Indigenous community that it is not just about leadership at a government and private sector level; it is also about leadership at a community level. It is also accepted that a lot of that leadership is going to come from the women. A lot of those women, especially the more senior women, now understand. In some instances we have lost a generation of Indigenous people in Australia, and they do not want to see the same occur with respect to their grandchildren. They are prepared to work with government at every level and with the private sector to do the best thing by their grandchildren and to try to create those opportunities to get it right in the future.
The resources, energy and tourism sectors, where my ministerial responsibilities lie, clearly create some of those opportunities. When you just think about it, it is in rural, remote and regional Australia that a lot of the Indigenous communities live. That is where we can get meaningful improvements in education and health and increases in workforce participation so as to lay down the path to a better future for all Indigenous communities and families over the next generations, a path that is so important to Australia at large. Let us try to make sure that we actually do something about this. When you think about it, we have underestimated the importance of the Indigenous community as a key part of the Australian economy. It is not well known that by 2020 every second Australian living north of the Tropic of Capricorn, or above Port Augusta in South Australia, will be of Aboriginal descent. Just think about that. Think about the importance of that to workforce participation in companies in the mining, tourism, pastoral and forestry sectors, to name just a few. More importantly, those companies are prepared to share the burden of assisting government in a new partnership to deliver real outcomes in education and training, health, housing and business.
As I go about my work I regularly sit down with companies and remind them of their responsibilities. But I am pleased to say that a lot of these companies not only know about it but also want to actively do something about it. We have 40 per cent Indigenous employment in places such as Argyle in the north of Western Australia. Clearly, it has been recognised that working together is a good investment in the future of the private sector and it is a good investment in working with government to overcome these key challenges. That is why as a member of the government I will continue to work with the Minerals Council of Australia to build on the memorandum of understanding that was previously signed by the last government to make real progress on this front. This is not about blaming one another; this is about grasping the opportunities, recognising our mistakes and now working as one community to make practical progress on this front.
I simply say this: yes, it is a major challenge but it is one that Australia is equal to. In the same way that we kick goals on the sporting field we have to kick goals at home in a very sustainable way to get real improvements in the lifetime opportunities for our Indigenous communities all around Australia, be they living in capital cities or in rural, remote and regional Australia. Working in partnership programs and with memorandums of understanding with different sectors of the Australian industry is so important because that also means we are using a best practice model and we can teach other businesses about what they can do as stakeholders and how Indigenous people can learn about industry jobs in the mining sector and the forestry sector. It was no different in the past when we used this best practice model to build improvements in productivity and workforce change by creating successful models and then spreading the word throughout the whole Australian community. Stakeholders are part of that, be they government or the private sector.
In conclusion, I actually thought that the apology was exceptionally important. It was delivered with grace and received by the Australian community with open hands. It is now acknowledged that we have to go forward because this is so important not only to our feeling as a community of what is right and decent but also to overcoming what was real challenge to Australia in the 20th century and is now in the 21st century. That is why the Prime Minister was so right when he said at the conclusion of the apology:
Let us turn this page together, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, government and opposition, Commonwealth and state, and write this new chapter in our nation’s story together. First Australians, First Fleeters and those who first took the oath of allegiance just a few weeks ago—let us grasp this opportunity to craft a new future for this great land, Australia. Mr Speaker, I commend the motion to the House.
The Prime Minister is right. It is a responsibility that we all have to share in, to actually use this historic apology to Australia’s Indigenous people in the past, to say, ‘Yes, we got it wrong in the past.’ We have apologised. Let us walk now hand in hand to do something about the real social and economic problems that exist for our Indigenous community. They will be better for it and so will the Australian community. We will again walk tall in the international community, a community of respect because we have worked out our wrongs and we are now committed to doing something about it. I commend the motion to the House.
I want to use this debate on the apology motion to place on record some thoughts about Sorry Day in the House last week. Before I get to the crux of the motion, I just want to say a few words about the state of Aboriginal affairs in Australia. It is worth while reflecting on not only how difficult this problem of the stolen generation is but how there is a group of people in Australia which has a substantially lesser life expectancy, a high infant mortality and crime statistics which, quite frankly, boggle the mind. Why is it that there is a group of people in Australia whose children are not as well protected by the law as we would expect all our children to be protected? We should not underestimate the challenge of Indigenous affairs, neither should we think we are the first people to try to address this challenge. I think there has been a lot of goodwill to try and attack these areas of entrenched disadvantage.
I was initially relatively sceptical about the idea of providing an apology to the stolen generation, but I think it is important. In this place I think we can often stake out our positions and never move from them. All we do is just fight to defend the ground that we have already staked out and it makes it very difficult for us to move. But certainly on this issue I feel as though I did move some distance, and I was very happy to wholeheartedly support the apology, as given by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition last week.
Former senator Reg Withers, a very great Western Australian senator, said that consistency is a sign of a feeble mind. In this instance I was glad that, in listening to some of the contributions to this debate, I was able to change my thoughts on this motion. I was particularly taken on the day after the apology was given by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. I took the opportunity to talk to some of the people who had come to listen to the apology. I did not think symbols were necessarily going to help them in their situation and that was why I was initially sceptical. But certainly I was quite moved to see the emotion that they felt about coming down here and hearing the parliament apologise to them. It is important that, even if we do not necessarily understand it all ourselves, we acknowledge that if people are feeling like this then, as I do think, what the parliament did was extraordinarily worth while.
So I congratulate the Prime Minister and the new government on doing this. I was also extraordinarily proud of the contribution made by the Leader of the Opposition on the day. It was a difficult issue for the coalition parties; let us not beat about the bush on that. There was a diversity of views within our party room. There is also a diversity of views in the community. We should not just think that everyone in Australia supports us 100 per cent on this motion, because the reality is that there is a diversity of views. There certainly is in my electorate and people have put different views to me about the motion.
Symbolism can only take us so far and, whilst I do think this is an important step, we really need to use this apology to create a new agenda for action to attack this entrenched disadvantage. I firmly believe that the Northern Territory intervention by the Howard government—and I am not making a partisan comment here—was an extraordinarily good start to tackling some of this entrenched disadvantage. Members in this place for the past four decades have tried to do something to change the situation of Aboriginal Australians within our society and, quite frankly—let us be honest—the different approaches have not met with great success. Because that is the case, we need to think long and hard about how we do things. I do believe that the intervention was extremely important. If you cannot provide basic services and law and order to a community—all the things which everyone in the suburbs of Stirling expects and which we would expect to find in our electorates—then it is very difficult to see how you can build on these other issues.
That is why, in listening to some of the contributions in the debate, I have been concerned to hear the Northern Territory intervention being criticised. We should not doubt each other’s sincerity to address these issues; we may have different approaches to it. But I am very happy to put aside any scepticism about the government’s approach to this issue, and I would ask that the Labor Party do the same when they are evaluating the opposition’s approach and the former government’s approach to these issues, because I do believe that everybody in this place wants to see an improvement. I genuinely believe that.
I urge the government to continue with the intervention in the Northern Territory. I think it was a retrograde step to wind back the steps that the previous government were taking on the permit system. Again, whilst I do not doubt the sincerity of the new Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, I am not sure why we would want to go back to a system that has so obviously failed Indigenous people.
I want to just reflect on the challenge that is ahead of us because, as I said, we are not the first people to discover how difficult this problem is. Members in this place in the past have tried to address it but, sadly, we have not met with the success that we would like. But we should not be so arrogant as to assume that, suddenly, we have just discovered there is a whole group of Australians who are not enjoying the prosperity that Australia seems to offer everybody else and therefore feel that we are vastly superior to our forebears who have come before us in this chamber. A lot of effort has gone into Indigenous affairs, but the reality is that we have not seen the progress that everybody would like.
In a former life I worked for the then Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. The Howard government had a program that I thought was a very good initiative to address some of these issues. They made a minister and also their department head specifically responsible for progress in a particular community. I was working for Amanda Vanstone at the time and she was given responsibility for the community at Wadeye, which used to be called Port Keats, which is in the Northern Territory and quite close to the Western Australian border. It is not an easy place to get to.
I went up there with her—it must have been in 2002—and that was my first experience of going to an outlying Indigenous community. You really could not help but be shocked by seeing how this community was so incredibly dysfunctional. Any property that could have been moved or was capable of being stolen was behind barbed wire. From talking to the people there, you got an understanding that at night things descended into a state of lawlessness. It was extraordinarily difficult to get people from the Northern Territory government to go out there and provide services because it was not considered to be a particularly good place for them to go and take their own families. I was pretty shocked by that experience, and it was my first experience. We visited Wadeye on a number of occasions and a sincere effort was made by the former government to try to improve conditions there.
We need to use this apology to commit to providing Aboriginal Australia with the same services and life chances that are available to every other Australian. I think Australians are very happy to give people a fair go. Most of the groups that have come into Australia have been very successful. Why has this one group not been able to share in the broad success that the rest of the community is enjoying?
Of course, speeches in parliament will not achieve this progress. We need to back up our noble words—and they were good words—with actions. We cannot accept lesser standards of law and order in Aboriginal communities and, sadly, this is not just happening in the Northern Territory where the federal government is intervening; the reality is that it is happening in Western Australia, Queensland and other parts of Australia. I despair that the state government of Western Australia, instead of trying to take ownership of the problem, seem determined to try to downplay the problem. I think they see the fact that this problem is continuing as somehow an indictment of the policies that they have put in place. They have clearly failed. The problems in Western Australia are equal to those that are occurring in some of the communities in the Northern Territory.
I just want to move quickly to the issue of compensation. I do not believe that it is appropriate that this generation of Australians compensate the stolen generation for the obvious hardship that they endured. I do believe that that would be a very divisive thing for the government to do and I do think that that is not the way forward for the nation.
I will conclude my remarks by saying that I am very happy to support this motion. If you had asked me a month ago, I would not have said that but, as I have said, I have moved greatly on this issue. So I do wholeheartedly support this motion. I was moved by the proceedings in the chamber last week, but I would like everyone in this place to understand that we have not just discovered this problem; people have been trying to address it for decades. We do need a new approach, and the apology is only very much the first step along that road.
I have been a passionate and long-time supporter of an apology to the stolen generations and therefore I was very pleased to be a supporter and part of that motion in the House last week. I believe it has provided a very important symbolic step forward for reconciliation with Indigenous Australians. I also believe that it was only a Labor government that would have delivered an apology to the stolen generations and I am very proud to be part of the Rudd Labor government which did so because I think it moves this country towards a greater position of national unity.
I would like to say a few things in my remarks today about this week’s motion, the Bringing them home report and my electorate and some of its constituents. Firstly, on the apology itself, I was very proud to have been a member of parliament during the apology to the stolen generations, and to finally hear the Prime Minister and government of this country say the simple yet powerful word ‘sorry’ was a truly wonderful moment. Even more wonderful were the reactions of the Australian public—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians—who in the majority wholeheartedly and overwhelmingly supported the apology. A mountain of grief seems finally to have been released, leaving optimism and hope for the future.
The Prime Minister’s motion delivered on behalf of the parliament addressed the past, present and future. Firstly, it was a motion about the past. We apologised on behalf of the parliament for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that without question inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on fellow Australians. We focused particularly on the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country. We said sorry for the pain, suffering and hurt of the stolen generations, their descendants and their families left behind. And we said sorry for the indignity and degradation that was inflicted on a proud people with a proud culture.
Secondly, the motion was about the present. The motion called on us to reflect on the past and to honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, who have of course the oldest continuing cultures in human history. It offered us a chance and an opportunity to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and allowing us to move forward with confidence into the future.
The motion, importantly, was also about the future, and I was pleased to hear the Prime Minister, on behalf of the parliament, outline a very positive future program. The motion spoke of a future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity. It is a future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have demonstrably failed; a future that is based upon mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility; and a future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners with equal opportunities and an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country. It was a motion to be proud of, and today I again reiterate my heartfelt support for the motion and the apology.
I want to make a few remarks about why and how we reached the point where our parliament was able to say sorry and why it was necessary to the stolen generations. It was not really until the 1980s that Australians began to turn their minds to, learn about and realise what had happened in the past and what had happened to the stolen generations. There was early research by the academics Coral Edwards and Peter Read that started to draw people’s attention to this part of our history. Then in 1995, under the Keating government, the then Attorney-General, the Hon. Michael Lavarch, announced an inquiry to examine the past and the continuing effects of separation and to identify what could be done in response. Two years later, on 26 May 1997, the report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, entitled Bringing them home, was tabled in parliament.
I think some of the key findings of that inquiry are worth recalling. They included that, nationally, between one in three and one in 10 Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities between 1910 and 1970. That is an extraordinary statistic: between one in three and one in 10 Indigenous children were separated from their families. Indigenous children were placed in institutions, in church missions, adopted or fostered and were at risk, as we have heard in many instances, of physical and sexual abuse. Having been placed in work, such as in domestic labour, many never received any wages for the work that they performed for many years.
We also saw in the Bringing them home report that welfare officials failed in their duty to protect many Aboriginal wards from abuse. The report recommended, amongst other things, that all Australian parliaments issue an acknowledgement of responsibility and apology. The federal parliament, until the Prime Minister’s motion on Wednesday, was the only parliament in this country not to have done so. All state and territory parliaments, under the leadership of both sides of politics, had previously offered an apology. The former Howard government refused to do so. The wait for an apology has therefore been a long one and the actions of our parliament were overdue.
Within my electorate of Charlton, I have a significant population of Aboriginal people—quite a large community. I also, of course, have many non-Indigenous Australians who feel very passionately about the importance of saying sorry, and they have expressed this to me in the last week. I have received many letters and emails, every single one of them expressing their support for the motion and offering their congratulations to the Rudd government. I would like to thank those who have offered their support and specifically those who have kindly shared their stories and experiences with me. I would like to relate a couple of those stories that have been brought to me in the last week. They come from two people actually affected as part of the stolen generations.
One of the residents of my electorate came to Canberra last week for the occasion of the apology and, when I saw her in my office, she told me an extremely saddening history of her mother’s life and of her own experience. Unfortunately, it is an all too familiar story. Her mother had been taken as a child and placed in so-called care and thereafter subjected to appalling trauma and abuse. This apparently included a practice, in circumstances where a person resisted the systematic abuse, of brutally shaving women’s heads and, in the process, taking pieces of scalp, leaving permanent scarring. My constituent’s mother was placed in early adulthood in domestic service, like many other Aboriginal women. She never received any wages for her work and in this work she suffered sexual abuse and bore children. Her children were then removed, and my constituent was one of them. She related to me an appalling story about her own experience, which I would prefer not to repeat, but it is nonetheless very distressing. She has spent much of her life trying to understand who she is, to understand the system which so alienated her from her family and prevented her seeking out her siblings. She is a lovely person and I can only hope that the government’s apology has given her some comfort.
Another of my constituents wrote to me about her experiences. I was particularly taken with the hope and positive feeling of her words when she spoke of the future and her capacity to forgive. She wrote this:
I am just one of the many stolen children from the 1950s. I have learnt that we all do things that are not in the best interest of others, both great and small things, at some time in our lives. The best thing about this is that it can always be remedied with a heartfelt apology and made into a whole new beginning, and new beginnings can be wonderful. The next step after that and the one after that into that new beginning is equally as important as the sorry. What I mean by this is the follow-up of care and recognition for the original people of this land Australia, health, education, guidance, respect and support to enable them to live in a healthy and happy environment and to enable them to hold their heads up with dignity. We as a nation have much to say sorry for—two centuries of being downtrodden, robbed, raped and murdered. It is with much excitement and anticipation that I wait for the future of Aboriginal people to no longer be destructive but positive and constructive.
That is from one of the constituents in my electorate, and that message was conveyed in a wonderfully positive vein.
The accounts I have heard of people’s experiences of the stolen generations have been very disturbing and confronting. However, I am also pleased, of course, to say that I have sensed a great feeling of hope amongst the Aboriginal population of my electorate. The apology was more than just words to many of them; it was an important and symbolic act that helped signify a healing of old wounds. It was a great moment but it was also a first step. We must now make sure that we continue to offer practical solutions to the challenges that our Indigenous population faces. We must look forward to an improvement in health, education and economic opportunities. Old solutions to the problem have clearly failed and I hope that the apology will allow us now to move together towards a real and meaningful set of reforms. I am hopeful about this future and look forward to working with my colleague and close friend the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, on achieving a better future for the original inhabitants of this country.
I will just conclude with a few remarks about some of the people involved in implementing the policy of removal. It is true to say, I think, from many of the accounts that have been heard, that some of the people involved in the removal of the stolen generations committed wrongful and horrible acts. Generally, however, I think what we are looking at is a systemic failure, a system which was at fault. The predication that decisions of this magnitude could be taken due to a person’s race was and is wrong and offensive. There is no doubt that the system imparted a great deal of hurt and damage to those involved.
I have been taken aback by the level of forgiveness shown by many of the stolen generations towards those who implemented this system, and this is surely remarkable, given what many of them experienced. But I have also read, as others have, I am sure, of a number of instances in which the public servants implementing the system themselves have apologised and also recognised the inherent wrongs of what they were being asked to do. It is these kind acts of apology and forgiveness from both sides that have given me hope in these circumstances in our grand project of reconciliation. I was proud to be associated with the apology given by this parliament, and I truly believe that it was an important and necessary gesture that will help heal some of the wounds of the past and help us move towards an agenda for the future.
I came into this parliament as the product of a Far North Queensland upbringing. I grew up in a small country town that is just west of Cairns called Mareeba, with a population of about 10,000 people. It was a relatively unique upbringing, I suppose, in a number of respects. The first is in my experience. Whilst it is certainly not the case that I am unique in this parliament in my upbringing, I think it would be fair to say that some of the experiences and exposure I had as a child are perhaps a little different to what a large proportion of those who are in this chamber and, indeed, in the parliament would have experienced.
In particular, I think about the fact that as a young boy growing up in Mareeba, a country town that had a very large Aboriginal population, it was not unusual for me to be at school with a large number of Aboriginal children and to count among my friends some Aboriginal children. My experiences as a young boy growing up in Far North Queensland—including regular travels out to the very western parts of Queensland, including Aboriginal communities such as Kowanyama and Weipa—were times I look back on with a certain degree of fondness. Having said that, it is also realistic for me to acknowledge that, in looking back at my experiences as a young boy, it was very evident, even from an early age, that a great gulf existed between Aboriginal Australia and a white person’s Australia.
In that respect, for me this debate has had a certain amount of poignancy. It has been particularly poignant because in a number of respects I have drawn on some of the experiences I had as a young child. But I have also sought to lay a fabric of evaluation across it and evaluate it through my more recent experiences and through the experiences and the feedback that I have received from members of my party and of other parties, as well as from the general community. I have got to say that I certainly understand the reasons for the apology that was made in the parliament and I certainly wholeheartedly support it. I support the apology because something that really crystallised in my mind in the past week or so—and it was largely from a document that Reconciliation Australia put forward, which was an objective and unemotional analysis of what an apology is about for Aboriginal Australia—was the fact that in part of this debate and in the tumult and divisiveness that this debate has in the past caused, we have lost sight of the fact that there are, in fact, several elements to what has taken place in Australia’s history. There is the element that deals with young Aboriginal children or teenagers who were removed and separated from their families for no reason other than the fact that they were black. And then there are also those young Aboriginal children and teenagers who were separated from their families on genuine grounds of welfare.
I do not intend to be an expert, nor do I believe, perhaps, that anybody should be an expert at raking through the coals of history and determining who was removed and for what purpose they were removed, but there can be no doubt—and history has made this clear—that there were a large number of Aboriginal children forcibly separated from their families for no other reason than the fact that they were black. To those Aboriginal children, many of whom are now adults, I think it is appropriate and fitting that the parliament, on behalf of all Australians, issued an apology.
But in the same way it would be intellectually dishonest to not acknowledge that there were also Aboriginal children who were taken with the best of intentions. In that respect, it has been my observation in attempting to be objective about this that there are many Australians who feel that in some way, when the apology washes from being an apology merely about one category of the community and then becomes an apology that is issued to all Aboriginal Australians, it erodes the bona fides of those children that were removed on true welfare grounds. I think it is important to put on the record the very clear delineation between these two acts. One act has at its core a malfeasance about it; the other act has at its core the very best of intentions. The reason I deliberate between these two is that the divisiveness of this debate in my view is principally drawn from which side of the camp you stand on with respect to those two experiences.
A number of speakers in this debate have spoken about those two elements and have decided to draw on experiences they thought were appropriate to suit their arguments in this debate. From my perspective, the most important aspect is that the Australian people in no small way came together last week through this national parliament to issue an apology. That apology—and I guess the fact that we were able to transcend politics on that particular day—truly was an uplifting experience. It truly was, I believe, cathartic to those Aborigines that had been removed from their families for the wrong reasons. Hopefully, as well for those that were removed with the best of intentions, it might also provide some peace.
Historically, the coalition has been against the symbolism of an apology, preferring instead to focus on the phrase that is often used, ‘practical reconciliation’. It seems to me now that the symbolic act of an apology has been carried through that we can start to move forward and again refocus on where the debate has been for so long—that is, on practical reconciliation. I have heard from a number of Indigenous leaders who have turned around and stated that following the apology there is forgiveness and there is opportunity for all Australians to move forward in a reconciled way and that is truly tremendous. The fact is—and it is a very sad fact—that we still have many concerns with respect to practical reconciliation.
I have to say that one area I am profoundly apologetic about and personally, as a member of this parliament, would take very deliberately on my shoulders is the issue of an apology to those Aborigines living in Australia today who are forced to endure the most horrific of circumstances. It seems to me that in many respects on the heady day that was last Wednesday, there were too many instances of and almost a blindness to the problems that exist in Aboriginal communities. I am sorry—and I say ‘sorry’—that this government and previous governments have not done enough to improve the lot of Aboriginals, especially those in remote communities.
It is worth putting on the record articles like one written in the Sydney Morning Herald on 1 December last year entitled, ‘Where children run from playtime’, which said:
It is late morning in Alice Edward Village, a sparse, windswept Aboriginal settlement behind Bourke, and already residents are gathering to drink, smoke marijuana or inject speed. For many of their children, it’s the start of a daily battle. The adults become aggressive as the day wears on. By nightfall, some have become sexual predators. Children, terrified, hide in ceiling cavities or wedge their bedroom doors shut.
‘I haven’t spoken to an eight-year-old and above that hasn’t been molested,’ said Ron Pagett, a small business owner whose family has lived in the state’s north-west since the area was settled by Europeans.
Pagett says he has visited homes where children have taken the knobs off their bedroom doors to protect themselves. ‘Most of the doors have been kicked in.’
He has heard of 12-year-olds giving birth, and of even younger girls having backyard abortions. Once he found two young girls who had been camping near the school for weeks. ‘We’re not going home any more,’ they said, ‘we’re sick of being dooried’ ...
an Aboriginal word which means raped. I talk about these things because we must recognise our responsibility on both sides of the chamber to do what we can to improve the law and order aspects, to improve the health aspects and to improve the childhood of young Aborigines in Australia today. It is not good enough if we now, having said the symbolic sorry, simply turn around and think that our work is done. In that spirit, I welcome the bipartisan committee that has been established in this parliament because, frankly, this issue must transcend partisan politics.
The fact is that if the kinds of rapes, gang rapes and child abuse that for some reason are accepted in Aboriginal communities—largely because they are off the front pages of newspapers—were occurring in white communities, there would be such an uproar that it would be unparalleled. Yet this has been going on for decades. I think back to when I grew up in that small country town when, I have no doubt, these same events were taking place and no-one said anything.
So it is a symbolic act of sorry, but a very sincere sorry now issued. It is important that we use this apology to now take practical reconciliation forward strongly. Certainly, we must make sure that young Aboriginal children, who in the past have been in harm’s way and who in the future might be in harm’s way, have the opportunity to actually enjoy being a child, have the opportunity to embrace some unique aspects of Aboriginal culture that they are exposed to, and have the opportunity provided to other Australian kids who are not in the same situations.
In every respect it is important that we do not think, because there has been one simple word of sorry put forward, that our work is finished. Each of us must absolutely steel ourselves to make sure that we take concrete steps forward to improve conditions, life expectancy and general educational experiences for young people in existing Aboriginal communities. So I am pleased to support the apology motion. I was pleased to see the parliament come together. It is now time though to truly feel sorry for all of those people who we in this chamber have stood by watching while so many negative things were happening. And we have not done anywhere near enough to improve the lives of children who are subjected to so many nefarious acts.
I begin by acknowledging the Ngunawal people, the traditional owners of the land where we meet today, and by paying my respects to them and their elders. The apology the parliament made to the stolen generations last week, on 13 February 2008, was a seminal moment in Australian history. At the outset, I wish to congratulate the Prime Minister and the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs on their leadership in this matter.
The Australian Labor Party can be proud of the leadership shown by the Prime Minister and Minister Macklin in the past few months, as we can be proud of the respective contributions of previous Labor prime ministers. Gough Whitlam, during an emotional ceremony in 1975, poured sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hands and handed the Wave Hill station back to the Gurindji people. The Hawke government took steps towards reconciliation with Indigenous Australians by establishing the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in September 1991. I was proud to be a member of that council for a number of years.
In May 1995, the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families was established by the Keating government. During the period from December 1995 to October 1996, the inquiry heard evidence across the country in cities, towns and regions. According to the Parliamentary Library, the inquiry received 777 submissions, including 535 from Indigenous individuals and organisations, 49 from church organisations and seven from government. On 26 May 1997 the inquiry’s report Bringing them home was tabled in the national parliament. On 28 May 1997, as shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs, I seconded a motion by the then Leader of the Opposition, the member for Brand, Kim Beazley, and I want to read parts of that motion:
... this House—
- affirms that the tabling of “Bringing them Home”, the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, presents the nation with an unprecedented historical opportunity to render justice and restitution to Indigenous Australians, for the good of all Australians;
- acknowledges the immense trauma inflicted upon the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia as a result of the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families under past government policies in place from before the time of Federation until the early 1970s;
- affirms that these racially discriminatory policies and their continuing consequences are a matter of national shame;
- affirms that current future and Federal and State governments are responsible for assisting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to rectify the ongoing effects of those policies;
- affirms its commitment to a just and proper settlement of the grievances of people adversely affected by those policies; andon behalf of the nation—
- unreservedly apologises to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians for the separation policies;
- calls upon Federal and State governments to establish, in consultation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, appropriate processes to provide compensation and restitution, including assistance for the reunification of families and counselling services ...
There are other parts to the motion. I clearly recall the vote on that day. There were 46 ayes and 83 noes; that is what Hansard records. Eighteen of those ayes who were present when Labor first proposed an apology in May 1997 were actually present on the floor of the chamber last week to finally hear that apology.
In seconding the motion I commented that the nation was watching—indeed, the world was watching—for leadership from the then Prime Minister. This is what I had to say:
Normally, prime ministers grow in office, they do not diminish in office. What is required in response to this report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families is generosity of spirit, not mean-spiritedness.
And further on I said of the Prime Minister:
He not only diminishes his office but also diminishes the nation. The nation is watching. The world is watching. Prime Minister, leadership is required—leadership from the highest office. You shame your office by your conduct. You shame the nation by your conduct. In 1967 this parliament was given the power to protect Aboriginal people, to act to their benefit, not to continue the discrimination against them. They are entitled to equality before the law, to respect before the law and to respect in all matters that others are entitled to.
That was part of what I had to say then. We as a nation entered a period of almost 12 years of profound shame. However, times change and leaders change. I would like to note the contribution made by Malcolm Fraser. It was his government that introduced the land rights act giving land rights to Northern Territory Aboriginal people. Mr Fraser has continued to support the issue of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians as well as actively pursue an apology.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the recent process of moving towards a formal apology has been the bipartisanship demonstrated between government and opposition, and I congratulate the Leader of the Opposition on his work in bringing his party to the table. The Leader of the Opposition established a position and, given the divisions within the conservative side of politics, he did quite well. It is obvious that there are some who did not agree, but there was no formal vote against the apology, and for that the Leader of the Opposition does deserve congratulations. He was in a difficult position. I did not agree with parts of the contents of his speech, but what he did from his point of view and from the conservative point of view was enormous. That should be acknowledged; it should be recognised by people on all sides of the parliament. It is very hard to bring some people along, but he did bring his party along, as well the National Party. The National Party, in many respects, has a lot of knowledge and understanding of Indigenous people. I know one of the former leaders, John Anderson, had an understanding in relation to Indigenous people and an empathy with them.
What I have learnt over my years of contact with Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal people is that at the most fundamental level we must work with the communities in question and not impose solutions. My mate Tracker Tilmouth always tells me, ‘We don’t want to be saved by you, Mels.’ What they want are people to sit down with and work with them and have them as part of the solution. I would object to outsiders coming in and telling me what was best for my community. Why would it be any different for Indigenous communities? I know that members on all sides of the House would object to having solutions imposed on them by others.
I congratulate the minister for Indigenous affairs on her work with Indigenous communities from their many perspectives to achieve this result, which has been delivered in the form of an apology. The thing I like about her approach is that she actually goes out and consults with Indigenous people. She does not go out and lecture and hector them or in effect try and take a missionary approach, which is to impose whitefella solutions on them. I think we all need to understand that. One of the reasons that mistakes have been made in the past is that people have wanted to do the right thing and good things, but Indigenous people are not like us. The way to solutions in those communities is to give them ownership and to help train the children. You can give them houses but if you do not train them in how to fix the problems with those houses and maintain them and a whole lot of other things then all that stuff is going to go to waste over time. That would be true of our communities as well.
There needs to be a stepping back in terms of the approach, and I want to see Indigenous people involved in their own solutions. It is self-determination. That self-determination comes from helping them—not from haranguing them, not from harassing them and not from saying, ‘This is the way you are going to do it.’ I have had some quite vigorous discussions and arguments with my friends who are well-intentioned, but the thing that I learnt in the 4½ years I enjoyed being the shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs—and it was a pretty momentous time when I was there—was never to go in there to save them from themselves. I was their advocate. I actually listened to them. That is what I also did when I was practising as a solicitor and barrister. You took instructions. You were the advocate; you used your professional expertise to help people. You did not in effect substitute your views for their views and say, ‘That is the way it is going to happen.’
Tom Calma, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, in responding to the apology, said of the role of the Prime Minister:
Prime Minister, can I thank you for your leadership on this issue ...
It is far more difficult to try and unite people than to divide them.
Your efforts should be praised universally for attempting to create a bridge between the many diverse elements of our society.
I applaud the leadership of the Prime Minister on this matter and the respect he has so rightly earned from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. People would know of my relationship with this Prime Minister over the years in relation to these matters. We have not necessarily seen eye to eye but I believe he has grown in the job, firstly as Leader of the Opposition and now as Prime Minister. I have seen the change in him and his advocacy, especially in relation to this matter—and I have to say I am surprised but I am overjoyed. I am joyous because in terms of Indigenous issues it is the leader of the government, the Prime Minister, who needs to be there driving it—hopefully with the support of the Leader of the Opposition.
Ministers have no chance in selling this stuff to the community. We need to use the office, as Bill Deane has done. It was wonderful to see him there the other day. I had an opportunity to talk to him and spend a little time with him before the apology. As Governor-General he was inspirational and showed leadership at a time when there was much misinformation in the community. I think it was significant that this was the parliament’s first item of business.
My worry is that, over the last 11½ years, I do not believe there has necessarily been progress. I think there has been regression—not necessarily intentional regression, but it goes very much to the heart of attitudes. I think it would not have been appropriate for the previous Prime Minister, Mr Howard, to be present last week. His heart was not in it; his soul was not in it. He is entitled to his view—I know that his view is honestly held—but I think his presence in the chamber on that day would have cast a pall over the joy and tears that we all experienced, and I think he was right not to attend. I think it meant that imagery that would otherwise have occurred but would have not been sincere did not occur. I am not critical of him for that. I know he holds his view honestly; I just have a different view.
Many of my colleagues have already articulated their emotions. I am not ashamed to say that I was moved to tears several times over those historic two days—on 12 February, with the welcome to country, and on the 13th, which was the apology. On Tuesday, 12 February we experienced a welcome to country for the first time since the inception of the Commonwealth parliament. For the first time in over 80 years the land on which we meet as a parliament resonated with the voice and the dance of the people whose ancestors have lived here for at least 40,000 years—and how joyous it was! For me it was actually the highlight of the opening of the parliament. It added; it enriched us. It is the first time, in fact, that the name of this place, Canberra, has fully justified its European name, believed to mean ‘a meeting place’. The word ‘Canberra’ seems to have been derived from the Anglicisation of the name of one of the local Indigenous groups, the Ngambri, into ‘Canberry’ as the geographical area where the group met. The name of the tribe became the European reference to the physical place. The welcome to country should now become a permanent feature of the opening of parliament.
I have said all along, and I do not resile from it, that there should be reparations or what you would call compensation. This has happened in Canada and in other places. It was a recommendation in the Bringing them home report; it was part of the motion that Kim Beazley moved and I seconded back in May 1997—and I do not apologise for that. As I said, it was recommendation 3 of the Bringing them home report. That is something we should get to gradually. What does the reparation involve? It does not necessarily involve money. What we need is a non-litigious process. In the civil law—in other parts of the law in this country—we have non-adversarial options which people can pursue and there is a ceiling on the amount of money that is paid. It is done by mediation and conciliation. Why should Indigenous people have to go to court to necessarily prove their case when for other Australians that is not necessarily a requirement? That is something that I think we can evolve over time.
This is a source of pride that I have. Basically, the reason I recontested my seat was Indigenous people—to see this happen. (Time expired)
I rise here in the Main Committee this afternoon to make my contribution in response to the formal apology that was moved by the Prime Minister in the main chamber at the opening of parliament. I want to comment on that and also on the Leader of the Opposition and his response on that day. I went to witness the welcoming ceremony to the parliament in the Members Hall. I guess for many of us, or probably anyone who saw it, it was a first, and it was very interesting from my point of view. It was a historic moment and I have to say the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are many and quite unique, as I could witness in those dance routines. I only wish we had a bit of an explanation of them. Probably it is a bit like going to the ballet—you have to interpret what they are dancing—and I am not a great one for having been to have been to many ballets! But I thought if we had had an interpretation of that it would certainly have helped us as well. I certainly went along. I made sure that I was in a good position to watch. It was interesting and I think it was a reflection also of the many cultures that make up the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
I do support the Prime Minister and his right to bring forward the apology. After all, he did campaign on it during the election and the Labor Party has for many, many years campaigned on that issue. The Prime Minister has the absolute right to bring forward that motion at the time of his choosing, albeit in this case the opening of the 42nd Parliament. I commend the Prime Minister on his speech to the parliament. Likewise, I commend the Leader of the Opposition on his speech. Whilst there are some who said in commentary around this place that they did not believe all that the Leader of the Opposition said, I have to say that I did. I guess that is why our nation is so great. We believe in democracy. We also believe in freedom of speech and the right of people to express things in a different manner, and I thought Brendan Nelson’s speech was appropriate. At the end of the day, I think he had a responsibility to reflect some other views in the community that I believe would be more supportive of our side of the House than of the government’s side. I think that in a sense he was trying to balance both the support for the motion put by the Prime Minister in the apology and his own experiences throughout his life.
Certainly, while listening to the stories from both leaders, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, no-one could deny that children were forcibly removed and that, having heard the stories relayed and put on the public record, that could not be right in our day and age. It was not right. I have to say that at that time people, governments and government authorities believed that they were doing the right thing. We reflect on it from our time in history. I know there are many church organisations, missionaries—nuns and others—and government agencies who believed that they were doing the right thing. I think they were well-meaning people. But once you listen to the stories of those that were forcibly removed and of the impact of that removal on those children—and it was not universal that they were all forcibly removed—you note there is certainly a need for us to acknowledge that that was wrong. That is what we are doing in this parliament, in this place, at this time.
I was disappointed that the Leader of The Nationals was not given an opportunity at that moment in the House to make a contribution. I say that because the opposition is made up of two political parties.
I acknowledge that. I just say that we are made up of two political parties, not one, and I think it would have been great if the Leader of The Nationals, Warren Truss, who is the member for Wide Bay, had been afforded an opportunity to stand and support the motion put forward by the Prime Minister and supported by Brendan Nelson. I say this because the National Party in Queensland has for a very long time acknowledged the contribution that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have made to our community, their place in history and their place in communities. In fact, the National Party, back in 1974, endorsed the first Aboriginal member of the Queensland parliament, Eric Deeral. So we come to this debate with a commitment to the wellbeing and the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. That is why I would have liked to have seen our political leader, Warren Truss, being afforded the opportunity in the main chamber at that very historic moment.
This formal apology is important. It is a landmark and it has received overwhelming support across the nation. I think I could say quite safely, as I think Noel Pearson has said as well, that, if the apology leads to a raft of compensation claims, there will not be that same level of support within the Australian community that there has been and that I have witnessed and that we have all witnessed through the media reports that have come forward in relation to the offering of an apology.
It is important that we move on. I was interested in the Prime Minister’s offer to have a war cabinet, a bipartisan approach, to address the substantive issues that have been with us for decades and decades in relation to the situation in which many Aboriginal communities find themselves in remote parts of Australia. Our side of the House will support that, as we saw prior to the election the then opposition, the now government, supporting the coalition’s approach in the Northern Territory, where we had a constitutional power to intervene. It is absolutely vital that that program continues. If we are to do something that is more than just symbolic, albeit important, we must marshal all our resources and, with bipartisan support, address the other substantive issues of health, wellbeing, the opportunity for economic advancement and jobs, and life expectancy in Aboriginal communities, particularly in the remote parts of Australia.
I was interested to see the comments of Dr Bill Glasson, who is chairing the Northern Territory health task force. He is a very highly respected doctor. He does a lot of work in remote communities as an ophthalmologist. He said of the 8,000 children who have been given health checks so far that they are riddled with worms, scabies and dental decay. He said some of the skin infections caused by the scabies are so bad that they have caused renal disease, and many of the children have severe hearing problems. That health situation will be with these young children for life. We have to ask ourselves how on earth the children will be able to make the most of educational opportunities at a young age if they cannot hear a teacher and start to learn. That is why we have to work together to make sure that we give these children and their communities an opportunity for greater life expectancy and opportunity in life.
Having said that, this has taken more than a generation to manifest itself and I believe it will possibly take more than a generation to come out the other side, where we will see greater life expectancy, greater job opportunities and these communities being more a part of mainstream Australia. I can think of examples of so many Indigenous Australians who have been given that opportunity. I can think of one person in my own town who I grew up with who had the opportunity. That is Artie Beetson. He had an opportunity. As an Aboriginal growing up in Roma he found rugby league was where he could excel. He went on to be captain of Australia and led our rugby league team overseas. He is a great Australian, a great person. He is an example, and in many ways a role model, that I think we ought to use in this debate to bring awareness to the Aboriginal people of what can happen when Aboriginal children and communities are given an opportunity.
There would not be an Australian who was not proud of Cathy Freeman at the Sydney Olympics, when she won the 400 metres for Australia. There were tears of joy. I was in Sydney at the time. That is another example of where an opportunity was given. I know that Cathy went to a Presbyterian girls school in Toowoomba—possibly on a scholarship—and that gave her an opportunity. It did not separate her from her family and her culture, which are both important to Cathy. I have to commend her on the work she is doing now. Weren’t we as a nation all so proud to see her win that 400 metres? She beat the best in the world, and she is the best in the world. So we know that when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are given this opportunity in life they can rise to be the best—not all of them, of course, but many can become the best at what they do in life.
I have many Indigenous communities in my electorate. In fact, I have them from the Northern Territory border and the remote community of Cunnamulla to the border between New South Wales and Queensland to my main office in Dalby. I have quite a lot of contact with the Aboriginal community. Prior to coming to this place—in fact, prior to getting married—I spent time on cattle mustering camps. We had many Aboriginal stockmen in those camps and I learned a great deal from them. Their natural instincts about the land and the signs of nature made it just fascinating to talk to them. Often riding behind a mob of cattle when you were moving them along, I would ride over to one of the Aboriginal stockmen and quiz them, because you had to tease the information out. Some of these things were second nature to them; it was not second nature to me or to many of the other stockmen. But it was fascinating just listening to them; we can learn much from the Aboriginal people.
I have worked with Aboriginal people. I have them in my electorate. I went to school with Arthur Beetson in my home town of Roma. I admire the contribution that they have made. I admire the skills that they have. If we as a nation, at a state and Commonwealth level, can all work together to really do something out there in those communities where we have absolutely appalling conditions of life expectancy, health outcomes and opportunities in life then we just have to do it. I would like to think that, in relation to job opportunities, we might get some of our large corporations looking at how they could work with Aboriginal communities. We have seen in some parts of my electorate and over the border in Moree large corporations and industries start to work with the Aboriginal communities and bring them into the job opportunities that are in their community and to demonstrate—at least in the case of the agricultural sector—how we work the land and consider the agronomy before crops are planted. We have seen corporations bring them into our mainstream communities and work with them. I know that they will rise and be equal to anyone else in our community if we can give them that opportunity.
Madam Deputy Speaker Burke, I think we all—perhaps more my generation than yours—remember Bruce Woodley from the Seekers and Dobe Newton from the Bushwackers. They penned the words of that great song that has become so famous:
We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We share a dream and sing with one voice:
I am, you are, we are Australian.
At the end of the day we have to reflect on those words as we try to work together to ensure we do the right thing to make a better life for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and address those appalling situations and circumstances that many of them find themselves in. The apology that the Prime Minister had every right to bring forward is the first step on that road. I know that the majority of Australians will be on that road with him, as well as the Leader of the Opposition, Brendan Nelson, and the National Party.
I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which this House stands, the Ngunawal people. The Indigenous people of the land in which my electorate of Grayndler is now located bore the brunt of the European colonisation of this country. The Cadigal and Wangal clans have lived in what is now inner western Sydney for thousands of years. Within a few years of the First Fleet’s arrival at Port Jackson many had died from diseases to which they had no immunity or from starvation as European farming practices encroached on their traditional lands. Others were killed resisting the invasion of their country. This tragic story was repeated throughout Australia over the subsequent 150 years. But of course many Indigenous Australians survived. They found ways of accommodating white settlement. They worked as unpaid labour on pastoral stations or lived on missions, for example. With varying degrees of consent, the two populations became intermingled. To the eternal shame of this nation, past governments saw the persistence of Indigenous Australia, its refusal to peacefully die out, not as a triumph to be embraced but as a problem to be overcome.
The removal of children from their families purely on the basis of their race occurred over much of the 20th century and is well within living memory for many Australians. Child removal continues to have devastating repercussions in the appalling levels of family dysfunction, violence, alcoholism, abuse and social disadvantage suffered by many Indigenous people and communities. To those who still think that stolen children were given a better start in life by being removed from their families, look at the facts in the Bringing them home report. I have no doubt that many of Grayndler’s 1,500 Indigenous constituents are members and descendants of the stolen generations. I would like to express how sorry I am for the terrible wrongs that were perpetrated on them by past governments and to pledge to work with my colleagues to overcome the inequality and suffering that they endure.
I would also like to pay tribute to the capacity of Indigenous Australians and their cultures to survive in spite of the history of child removal. On Wednesday in this parliament, I was pleased to see many of my constituents and friends: Linda Burney, the first Indigenous state MP, elected as the member for Canterbury and now a minister in the Iemma Labor government; Shelley Reys, one of the conveners of Reconciliation Australia; Leah Purcell, a great actor and artist; and the footballers and friends of mine through the South Sydney connection, David Peachey and Dean Widders. They were so overwhelmed and pleased to be here on Wednesday. Whether it was the people who were here, the people watching in Martin Place or the people at my son’s school, Dulwich Hill Public School, who watched that magnificent moment in Australian history, I think it was indeed a time unsurpassed, and I was proud to be a member of the House of Representatives.
I was also proud that on Tuesday we had the first welcome to country to open the parliament. As Leader of the House, I saw what this parliament can be. I would like for there to be discussion about ways in which we can give an appropriate formal recognition to the first peoples of this land in the opening of parliament, not just a recognition of our Westminster traditions, which are also very important to us. The parliament can be a place for all Australians, but it can only be that if we acknowledge our true history.
The apology showed an understanding that is grasped by most Australians. It is unfortunate that it was not done at the time of the Bringing them home report. If anyone wanted to find an example of the change that has descended on this place, they need only listen to the words of the Prime Minister and look at the expressions on the faces of those who attended the galleries last Wednesday.
As for the Prime Minister’s announcement of a joint policy commission to deal with the challenges we face in a bipartisan fashion, I welcome it. Those of us on the Labor side of the House felt no part in the refusal of the previous government to apologise, or in many aspects of its Indigenous policy. We did not agree. If there remains a simmering tension between the direction the government takes and the views of the opposition, real progress will be difficult and easily reversed. Real progress on the issues of infant mortality, of the life expectancy gap and of our coming together as a nation must transcend the changing of government and, as the Prime Minister says, move beyond our mindlessly partisan politics. A very positive step was the fact that the motion before the parliament last week was seconded by the Leader of the Opposition and that, with a few exceptions, it was greeted with goodwill and spirit across both sides of the chamber.
The new government is intent on focusing now on the priority of closing the 17-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. We will do this by halving the gap in mortality rates for children under five within a decade and halving the gap in literacy and numeracy achievements for Indigenous children within a decade. The government will honour its election commitment with an extra $261 million for child health and early development to help achieve this goal. The government will also ensure that remedial initiatives such as Link-Up, family history programs and Bringing Them Home counsellors are adequately resourced to meet demand, committing $15 million to support this work.
I firmly believe that last week saw this parliament at our best. It saw the people of my electorate certainly and, I believe, the nation embrace the leadership that the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has brought to the nation. I certainly know, because I saw him crafting the last draft of that speech, that we now have a Prime Minister whose gut instincts, compassion and preparedness to show leadership to the nation and to appeal to our better instincts were on full display in the speech that he delivered so eloquently on the floor of the House of Representatives last Wednesday.
Today I come into this chamber and I have not written a speech because I feel that there are perhaps not the words in written form to determine and correctly articulate how I feel about the whole process of reconciliation and the sorry motion.
I guess it is with confusion because I grew up in a small rural community and many, many times I have to stop and think about this because I have to wonder whether it was ignorance or just what took place. But we had a camp called the one-mile camp; obviously, it was one mile outside of our local town boundary. Then in the early sixties—I was just a young child—the council and the state government decided to repatriate or rehouse many of those Indigenous people to the street that I lived in. It was very early in my life; five houses were built next door to us. My father was a wonderful man. He had this value that if you cannot say anything good about anybody then simply do not say it. My father thought everybody was a good bloke. It did not matter what their shortcomings were, everyone was a good bloke.
I remember as a very small child perhaps some people being concerned—and there were only a few houses in our street; it was a very small rural community—about the building of these houses and the moving, but my father warmly welcomed the new arrivals to the street. As such, we did. So we grew up as playmates, as neighbours, sharing your house, sharing my house, sharing our sporting escapades at school. Charlotte Irving was a great friend of mine and ours. I think of Percy Strong who was the same age and went on to be a schoolteacher. I think of Carmen Brown. I think of Vincent and Andy Blair and all the Blair boys who were great footballers; we absolutely adored them and we did not seem to see anything amiss. There did not seem to be any differences.
Yes, there were white men who would get drunk on a Saturday night at the hotel and there would be a black man who would get drunk on Saturday night at the hotel. There did not seem to be any difference. On Sunday we all attended the football and we were all part of the same community. We all wore our school clothes and attended school. There was no issue of having to force people to attend school because we all just walked to school together. So when I think about the way in which some of our people across Australia have been confused, I understand that confusion, because to many of us it was normal life and we did not know there was an issue in the way in which the Aboriginal men were paid differently. We did not know that, if that was the case. We did not know that there were issues and, because all of these children were with their mums and dads, we were not aware of what was happening in the Northern Territory or Western Australia. We were not aware of that kind of action that was taking place.
We were confused, ignorant and perhaps just not living in reality, but it was different. The media now brings things into our lounge rooms on our TVs and radios that expose us to things that we were not exposed to. There were not even TVs in our houses. So we only knew the community in which we lived and we seemed to know how that community operated. It is with such shock and utter dismay that years later, as the TV screens zoom information into our homes and the radios come on all day every day, we are exposed to movies like Rabbit-Proof Fence and those sorts of things. We feel like we were in the dark about what was happening in many of our communities, because we were not in remote areas and we just did not see this happening. When we hear about these things, we find it almost impossible to imagine how they were allowed to happen. Of course, there is sincere sadness and depth of despair at the forcible removal of children from adults and that many of these children then went on not to have great lives but to be abused. We learn more about this every day, and I still get amazed when I read about it.
I was on the inquiry into capacity building in Indigenous communities and I am still surprised at the level of need in Indigenous communities. Because of my past, it has just been a normal thing for me to have the same relationship with Indigenous people as non-Indigenous people across my electorate and in my community. It is just not something that is different. But I stand here today knowing that in 1999 I was becoming very well aware of what was happening in Indigenous communities, in territories that were far-flung from the land I grew up in. I became aware of that, I was sorry about that and I am regretful about that. I am regretful for any pain inflicted upon innocent people—children or parents. In 1999, when the motion of regret was put forward by the then Prime Minister, I felt it deeply because there was sincere regret in my heart and I felt that it was the right thing to do.
As we progress down the path of reconciliation, I wonder why people have been so incredibly damning of the last government when there have been so many governments—we are told this happened up until 1970 and probably a little later—that have not moved to do anything to say sorry or to express regret and a sincere apology for what many Australians did not know was happening. It is true that the general public are very ignorant about what governments do. They are very ignorant about local government, they are very ignorant about state government and they are very ignorant about the Commonwealth government. Many do not know the differences in how each level of government acts and represents them. In those days there was little media and little opportunity to learn what was happening. Many of us, in our lifetimes, travelled no further than the next town and it was a very difficult thing for people to come to terms with.
Having said that, I believe the Australian people have come to terms with the fact that what happened to families, parents and children under these extraordinary conditions was wrong and should not have happened. I am pleased to be a part of saying to the communities—those that are with us now and those who went before us—that I am sorry their lives were turned upside down. Whether it was done with the best intentions by well-meaning people, or whether it was evil, the fact of the matter is that things happened. I believe the anger and confusion being felt at the moment by people across my electorate simply comes down to the way they have been raised, the lives they have lived and, perhaps, their lack of understanding of exactly how bad things were for many of our Indigenous communities.
I would like to think that the communities that now need assistance will receive very clear direction and very clear guidelines and principles to enable that capacity building in the communities. I wonder how it got to the point that many of the Indigenous children in my electorate are not attending school, as they did in past years. I wonder how we can instil pride back into the Indigenous community and hold up the incredible role models that were just the norm when I was growing up—just the normal kid on the block.
When I go to my home town I see that the weatherboard house I once lived in and the three other houses in the street are still there and in great condition, yet the Indigenous housing there has been rebuilt for a third time in that period. I hear speakers on both sides of the House saying that the tools and the guidance have to be provided in order that pride can then be a major factor in the lives of our Indigenous Australians. I stand here today to indicate that, in supporting our apology—the ‘sorry’—I also would like to support the Leader of the Opposition in a speech that I believe came from the heart and a speech that moved me to sincere tears. I know of no other man in this place who has genuinely always fostered the interests of Indigenous people. I know of no other man in this place who should have had some respect paid. I was so pleased to hear the member for Banks make that statement in this place today. I was proud of Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister, but I was equally as proud of Brendan Nelson, the Leader of the Opposition, for that speech that drew from his heart and from his very being. I am very proud to be a part of the opposition which supported him that day.
I think it would be appropriate if I begin my comments in support of my personal apology to acknowledge the Ngunawal people on whose land the parliament is located and pay my respects to elders past and present. Last Wednesday, 13 February, was a memorable day for me, probably the most memorable day in my time as a representative in this federal parliament. The Prime Minister’s apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, and specifically to the stolen generations, was heard in gatherings across the nation, including at many meeting places in my region of the Illawarra. Here at Parliament House, and on the lawns outside, the PM’s apology was greeted with a mix of emotions and many of these I witnessed. There were tears and there was joy, there was pain and there was happiness, there was grief and there was pride. Certainly, there was relief and release. I think people felt that, finally, it had happened. There was indeed a collective sigh of relief that the long awaited moment had finally arrived—just like the day before when the moment had also finally arrived. It had only taken 41 Australian parliaments to be sworn in before we collectively came around to accepting that a ‘welcome to country’ from the local Indigenous community would be very appropriate. But it did happen, and I am pleased to see a bipartisan commitment to ensure that we continue this tradition into the future. As the member for Grayndler commented, it was a very unique blend of our Westminster tradition with the traditions of one of the world’s oldest living cultures.
For me, the content and the power of the Prime Minister’s apology ranks his speech alongside Prime Minister Keating’s Redfern speech of 10 December 1992 as being among the most significant in our nation’s history. The speech accompanying the formal apology helped lift our spirits by appealing to the better side of our natures, and tonight I want to add my personal apology to that given by our Prime Minister on behalf of the parliament and the Australian people. I think the PM’s apology has helped in transforming our national consciousness about the relationship with our Indigenous communities. Importantly for me, it acknowledged historical wrongs and injustices and it put an end to a decade of stubborn intransigence and political mean-spiritedness about this issue and, very importantly, foreshadowed an ambitious agenda for further reform, which I hope can be conducted on a bipartisan basis.
As the Prime Minister indicated, that agenda will feature very much our government’s commitment to do all in our power to reduce the very unacceptable 17-year gap in life expectancy between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. I want to quote a small section of the Prime Minister’s speech when he said:
For us, symbolism is important but, unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong. It is not sentiment that makes history; it is our actions that make history.
Saying sorry is a very important further step in the long journey for genuine and lasting reconciliation. As we all know, there is much unfinished business. I was delighted to see Sir William Deane, a distinguished former Governor-General, present at the ceremony in Parliament House on the day of the formal apology. I want to quote his wise words:
True reconciliation between the Australian nation and its Indigenous peoples is not achievable in the absence of acknowledgment by the nation of the wrongfulness of the past dispossession, oppression and degradation of the Aboriginal peoples ...
I listened to my colleague the member for Riverina speak. I went to school in about the same period of time as she did and it is true to say that for many non-Indigenous people our understanding of and contact with Indigenous communities and people was very scant indeed. Like the member for Riverina, my understanding of these issues and the history of that tortured relationship of the past has really developed in more recent times. But now that we know what occurred I think it is even more incumbent on us to address some of that dark part of an otherwise very inspiring history of Australia’s nationhood. There were certainly dark chapters of our history, ones that we believe should never be repeated in the future, that need to be understood and recognised and apologised for.
As we know, the term ‘stolen generations’ refers to up to about 50,000 Indigenous children who were forcibly removed from their families and communities from about the mid-1800s right through to the 1970s. We have to understand that these forcible removals occurred as the result of official laws, statutes and policies aimed at assimilating these children into the wider non-Indigenous community. It was clearly the case that these removals were instigated predominantly on racial grounds.
The publication of the Bringing them home report 10 years ago revealed to all of us the rather cold, confronting and uncomfortable truth about the stolen generations, a truth that we can no longer ignore. That report contained evidence of case studies and evidence of past practices and policies and recounted many studies pertaining to the members of the stolen generations. It told of cases of children ending up in situations of deprivation and at times physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Even those who were taken in by well-meaning foster families and well-meaning institutions had to deal with life-long and profoundly disabling consequences: losing connection to the land, losing connection to their culture and losing connection to their language. But, most significantly of all, losing connection to their family has caused the children of the stolen generations and their families immeasurable grief. One child wrote of her experience:
As a child, I had no mother’s arms to hold me, no father to lead me into the world. All of us damaged and too young to know what to do. Many of us grew up hard and tough. Others were explosive and angry. A lot grew up just struggling to cope at all. Everyone and everything we loved was taken away from us as kids.
In the local paper, Sonny Simms, CEO of the South Coast Aboriginal Lands Council, recalled on the day how thousands of Aboriginal children were told they were going on a train ride but one that took them only one way: to the Bomaderry Children’s Home located in my neighbouring electorate of Gilmore—I see the member for Gilmore here tonight. Mr Simms recounted that there were no official records of the children, but he estimates their number would be in the thousands. He said:
They came to us as babies ... and some were here for more than 10 years. When they left at 14, they were sent to work on farms around NSW.
We know the experience, too, of young Aboriginal men and women in other homes, most notably the Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls Home and the Kinchela Boys Home near Kempsey. We know that their stories are based on a fact—a fact that has to be recognised and dealt with as part of the process of atonement and apology.
The first step in healing for the Aboriginal community is the acknowledgement of the truth. And as I say, that truth has been there now in official publications for all of us to read, to empathise with and to understand. On reflection, I think that refusal to apologise over the last decade has amounted to a denial of the life experiences of many children and indeed their identity and how it was framed and forged. The apology which has now been given allows those who were forcibly removed to feel that their pain and suffering has finally been acknowledged.
In 1992 in that memorable Redfern speech, which I referred to earlier, Prime Minister Keating asked us to imagine the perspective and view of Aboriginal people of the injustices of our nation’s past. There were some memorable lines in that speech. Among other things, he said:
... we took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask how would I feel if this were done to me?
As a politician, it is always a salutary experience to walk in the shoes of others to truly understand. The Catholic Bishop of Wollongong said on the day:
May this apology be a genuine step that will free us to look objectively at the issues that we must address if all Australians are to be able to live in peace and unity with dignity and mutual respect.
I hope this apology will be a preface to a new chapter in our nation’s history, a chapter based on mutual respect and resolve between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, as together we find the ways of dealing with enduring problems, challenges and disadvantage. At a gathering in Wollongong on the day of the apology, Kellie Evans, whose mother was taken from her family at the age of six, had this to say:
I feel relieved because I was so nervous about what was going to be said and I am so glad that Rudd did it in such a respectful way and I’m glad that its over and we can move on to the next stage. It is healing, we are here for our people and it’s a good day, a good memory and I’m glad I was alive for this.
Following the apology, I looked around the chamber, engulfed in spontaneous applause. I paid my quick and silent respects to members of the stolen generation and later spoke with a number of my colleagues from the former days of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, including Patrick Dodson, Linda Burnie and Lowitja O’Donoghue, from whom I have learnt so much. And I shared these precious moments with Col Markham, a former member of state parliament and a great friend to many Indigenous peoples across New South Wales.
That is right. I thought about those who were involved in the first day of protest by Aboriginal people back in 1938, the first day of mourning, including my friend Faith Bandler, who worked so hard in the successful referendum campaign. I thought of the groundswell of support for the reconciliation movement and most importantly that walk across the bridge with the word ‘Sorry’ in the blue sky. I thought about the significance of the Mabo and Wik decisions. I thought too of my Indigenous friends and elders in the Illawarra and felt so sad that Auntie Mary Davis had not lived to see the day and hear the apology.
The day was a memorable and significant step in the long journey to achieve lasting reconciliation and to right the wrongs of the past. The memory of Wednesday, 13 February 2008, will live with me forever. I was indeed privileged to be part of history.
I rise once again to support this motion. Like most Australians, I have had very little direct experience or contact with this issue. I do, however, come here with a sense of what I believe is the right thing to do. My first real contact with our first Australians took place almost 30 years ago on a property called Greenwood, which is around 30 kilometres east of Cloncurry in Central Queensland near a place called Oorindi. This was the family property of my Uncle Bill, the grandson of Australia’s grand old lady of letters, Dame Mary Gilmore, whom I know as Great-Aunt Mary. There is much that Aunt Mary and I would probably disagree on today and I am sure, based on my father’s reports of his regular visits to her little flat in Kings Cross when he was a young policeman on the beat, she would be more than up for the discussion. However, one thing I know we would not disagree on is the need to address the disadvantage of our Indigenous communities.
Aunt Mary was an undisputed champion of Indigenous rights in this country, long before it attracted the attention it does today. In speaking on this motion today, I wish to pay tribute to her efforts on behalf of the Indigenous people of this country by reading from one of her most moving verses, The Waradgery Tribe:
Harried we were, and spent,
Broken and falling,
Ere as the cranes we went,
Crying and calling.
Summer shall see the bird
Never shall there be heard,
Those, who went yearning.
Emptied of us the land;
Ghostly our going;
Fallen, like spears the hand
Dropped in the throwing.
We are the lost who went,
Like the birds, crying;
Hunted, lonely, and spent
Broken and dying.
When I was 12 I travelled to Greenwood with my older brother Alan to visit my Uncle Bill and his family. It was our first real trip to the bush, and I recall being completely in awe of the landscape of this great country. Growing up on Sydney’s beaches, I was very used to seeing a horizon on water; I had never seen one on land. There was a large Aboriginal family who lived in the area and worked on the Greenwood station. They were skilled stockmen who understood the land and were indispensable to the workings of that property. They were beautiful, kind and generous people but certainly different from any I had ever known. When encountering such difference, it is often a natural human reaction to withdraw—particularly when you are only 12 years old. Uncle Bill sensed my unease. He approached me to provide reassurance and said that, above all, I must treat my new friends with the utmost of respect and that, while in so many of our ways we were different, we were in fact the same. He may have chosen different words at the time—I do not recall—but I do recall his meaning. Any relationship must be based on respect, and that is why I believe this motion is so important. It is out of respect that we make this apology and do so without reservation—out of respect for our shared humanity and out of respect for our shared future in this country.
In 1998 my wife and I moved to New Zealand, where I was working for the then National government in the area of tourism and sport. In New Zealand I was struck by the majesty and strength of Maori culture, and it caused me to reflect more seriously on the Indigenous culture of my own nation. The history of the relationship between the Maori and Europeans in what they call Aotearoa is different from our history in Australia. Our beginnings are different and so too are the Maori and Indigenous Australian cultures. However, what is common is the special standing of Maori stories and the tradition in binding their communities together to provide a source of strength, support and identity, as is the Maori association with the land they call the ‘tanga te whenua’, people of the land, and the primacy of family, of ‘whanau’ as it is known. What is also common is a story of conflict and survival, despite the odds. Whilst in New Zealand I witnessed the ongoing treaty settlement process that had begun back in 1975. My witness of this process brought home to me the very real impact of European settlement on Indigenous communities, not just in New Zealand but in Australia and many other lands.
I was particularly struck by a story in the build-up to the millennium celebrations, in which I had an involvement. There is a tribe called Ngati Porou in Gisborne, which is the site of the first place where blood was shed between Europeans—Captain Cook, or Lieutenant Cook, as he was then known—and the Maori people. In the lead-up to the millennium celebrations, the elders of Ngati Porou provided what I thought was a remarkable gesture of forgiveness to the Queen. This is something I want to return to in a few minutes.
The fact that Indigenous Australians represent the oldest living culture on the planet is an achievement of staggering proportions, and in just so many ways, most often unwittingly, we have made this journey more difficult. Whether it is the failed policies of previous administrations, in particular the forcible and illegal removal of children from their families, or fostering a culture of welfare dependence or the evil influence of alcohol, substance abuse and violence—for all of these and for their devastating impact on Indigenous communities, both yesterday and today, I am profoundly sorry.
I do not seek to say sorry on behalf of our past generations. I have no right to do that, nor do I, or any of us, have the right to judge previous generations. The world we confront today is different from that confronted by policymakers 50 years ago, let alone 200 years ago. We have the benefit of hindsight; let us use this facility wisely. The business of being able to confront our past without a sense of judgement was brought home to me in the outstanding novel by Kate Grenville, The Secret River. I am sure Dame Mary would have been very proud of this effort by another great female Australian writer. In this work, the author is able to capture the sense of ignorance and fear that gave rise, wittingly or otherwise, to the many abuses and conflicts that comprise our past, particularly in the early years of our nation. It also captures how these events can haunt us if we fail to deal with them. This was a particular theme of Andrew McGahan’s novel, The White Earth, in which he also raised these issues.
Our apology in this place is not only important to our Indigenous brothers and sisters. It is important for the rest of us to lay to rest the demons of the past, the errors and the omissions, and allow non-Indigenous Australia to also move forward. But while this motion rightly deals with the disadvantage of Indigenous Australia, the reason for the motion principally deals with the policy to remove children from their parents on the basis of race. I must admit that I could not understand, for many years, why such a motion would be brought only for this matter of failed policy. As many have said, there are so many more contributing factors. There is so much to be sorry for. Equally, my hesitation stemmed from my knowledge of the many fine Christian men and women who have selflessly worked in Indigenous communities trying to relieve the disadvantage of which we speak. As I said at the outset of this speech, I do not know these things firsthand. These Christian men and women went there well before I was in this place and selflessly served for that purpose, and I pay tribute to them and thank them for their service. However, at Christmas time, in the knowledge that I would be called upon here in this place to address such a motion, I spoke to another member of my family, Barbara Goldberg, and her husband, David. Both have had significant interaction and fellowship with our Indigenous community, particularly in the areas of education and health. My Uncle David has served the Wreck Bay community near Jervis Bay for many years. When I posed this question to Barbara, her answer was simple and penetrating: ‘Because it is so important to them.’ In short, it is about them, not us. While an apology is important to those providing it—and I have said why—it is most significantly about those to whom it is addressed. This apology is deeply important to our Indigenous communities, and we have seen the impact in recent days of just how important it is to them. For that reason alone it is worth while, and for that reason I support it strongly also.
The final influence came for me on the day of the apology itself as I listened to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition recount the stories of children being removed from their parents. As a recent father, and now a firsthand witness of the bond between a mother and her child, I was deeply moved by these accounts. This connection between a mother and her child is a divine and mysterious one that should never be broken, excepting only to protect a child from serious harm. As others thought of those they have known while this apology was taking place, Indigenous people and their communities, I could not get the image out of my mind of my own wife and child and what I would have thought had this happened in my own family. So it is a very simple thing for me to stand here today and share the views of others in supporting this apology. When the time came, I could proudly stand with my colleagues in this place to support the motion.
An apology is an act of grace. It involves putting aside your own issues and reservations, however justified you may think they are, and standing in the middle ground exposed, vulnerable and seeking forgiveness. The apology is not given on the guarantee of such forgiveness but rather is provided without reservation. This is what this parliament has done. This parliament has crossed the Rubicon on this matter and I want to pay tribute, as others have in this place, to the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister, but particularly to the Leader of the Opposition, for bringing the coalition to the table on this issue. The challenge now is what the member for Berowra spoke of earlier in this debate when making reference to the moral rearmament movement of postwar Europe.
If our Indigenous communities wish to move forward from this point then forgiveness is the only way. The forgiveness does not need to take the form of a national ceremony or even a public statement. It must take place in the hearts and minds of Indigenous people in their own communities. It is the same process that Desmond Tutu championed through the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa and that was then subsequently adopted in Rwanda where eight million Rwandans had to deal with the brutal massacre of some 900,000 of their own citizens in just 100 days.
Grief, sadness and regret are part of every national story. How we deal with those defines our national character. Forgiveness is difficult, far more so than saying sorry. It requires a laying down of grievance and picking up the cause of reconciliation. It is my hope that this motion will lead a path for forgiveness, that our actions by this motion will empower Indigenous communities. That is when we will be able to make progress on this issue. This is when we will really be able to equip Indigenous communities to confront and deal with the problems they face, whether they be economic, social or even moral.
Several weeks ago, I attended a very similar ceremony to that which took place in this House today—the welcoming of the World Youth Day cross. The ceremony was conducted at Kurnell in my electorate of Cook. The focus of the ceremony was an acknowledgement that this was the site of Cook’s landing where the Gweigal people first came in contact with European culture. I think it is highly relevant that this cross, being a symbol of forgiveness, was taken to this place because it is the same forgiveness that we must now seek and pray for. Our focus is now clear: to address the many issues of disadvantage in Indigenous communities.
In conclusion, it is my hope that, as a consequence of this motion, our debate in this place will no longer be about the past but what we do in the present and will do in the future to address this disadvantage. Whether the solution is in the liberating programs of microfinance—where a good friend of mine has been involved for many years providing small business loans to assist Indigenous communities get ahead, start businesses, employ people, take control of the events that surround them and provide a future for themselves—in the intervention in the Northern Territory or in the prayers and generosity of everyday Australians, let this be our focus. These are topics for another day; today I rise to support the motion.
In rising to speak on the motion offering an apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, I would like to show my respect to and acknowledge the Ngunawal people—the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which this parliament meets. I would also like to pay my respects to the Awabakal and Worimi people, the traditional owners and custodians of the lands in my electorate of Newcastle.
I join the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, in honouring the Indigenous peoples of this wonderful land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history, and I too apologise for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country. For the pain, suffering and hurt of the stolen generations, their descendants and their families left behind I am truly sorry.
Like the Prime Minister, I hope this apology will be received in the spirit in which it is offered, as part of the healing of this nation. This apology is delivered to our fellow Australians in a spirit of human compassion and given in the same generous spirit as the welcome to country which was extended to us on the day preceding the apology motion, the first formal sitting day of this new parliament. For those who were not here, I have to say what a great privilege it was to be part of the first ever welcome to country in the Parliament of Australia. It was a most joyous ceremony which set the tone for last week. It was also very revealing for all of us—and we were enjoying it too—to see the diversity of culture of our different Indigenous peoples from all around Australia. It was an absolute treat and I congratulate everyone involved in the welcome to country ceremony. It was something that lifted us all to a much higher level, enabling us to better respond to each other’s needs. Certainly, the parliament demonstrated that the next day. For those who could not be so generous, I apologise for them and I am sorry for them.
Last Wednesday this parliament made history when our Prime Minister apologised to Australia’s Indigenous peoples. Our parliament resolved that the injustices of the past must never happen again. We committed ourselves to a future in which all Australians, whatever their origin, are truly equal partners with equal opportunities and an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this nation. It seems to all of us who are now sitting on the government benches that this will be a chapter of great decency, of great passion and of genuine discourse where we can talk to each other, look each other in the eye and try to understand, and set those ideals together and be part of the journey of achieving those ideals. We do so as friends and as fellow countrymen and women. It has been too long coming.
For all those people who watched the apology on television around the country, the atmosphere in the chamber that day was something that none of us could imagine and all of us will never forget. It was amazing to walk in and see the past prime ministers from both sides of the House, with one very notable exception—or not very notable exception—and in particular Sir William Deane, a former Governor-General, who will always be remembered as a very special moral guide for this nation during his time as Governor-General. He was always a man of the people. He was always a friend to people in this country, particularly the Indigenous Australians.
The atmosphere in the gallery and the joy of the people who were specifically invited to represent the stolen generations, and the tears that flowed so freely, were things which all of us were moved by, and we were proud to be Australians on that day. It seemed that we were holding our very own ‘national tear fest’, and it does seem to have started some wonderful healing. I suppose that, sitting in the chamber, we did not know that, all around Australia, those feelings were being echoed and those experiences were being shared, particularly by Indigenous communities.
I am proud to say that, in Newcastle, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people gathered at the city hall. I am told it was a very moving experience. Richard McGuinness, the chair of the Guraki Committee, rang me afterwards and fessed up to being very moved. I think that was something we all happily fessed up to on that day. I thank the Guraki Committee and the Newcastle City Council for allowing the people of Newcastle to share in this important occasion via a big screen in the Newcastle City Hall. I also want to acknowledge and thank the Indigenous people from Newcastle who travelled to Canberra to witness this historic occasion. I know that Laurel Williams and Mrs Kelly—Ray Kelly’s mother—were here in the chamber as guests of the Prime Minister. I know that, out on the lawn, Yarnteen, a very successful Indigenous enterprise, was represented by its CEO, Leah Armstrong, as well as board members and participants. I also know that Donna Meehan was there that day celebrating the wonderful occasion. Donna Meehan is someone I will be eternally grateful to. When I was a principal in public schools in Newcastle, Donna was an Indigenous liaison officer. To me personally and to all my staff during those many years, and to the many Indigenous students and families, Donna was an absolute pleasure to work with and always a friend.
Donna has made her own very special contribution as an Indigenous person of the stolen generations. In 2000 she published her book, It Is No Secret: The Story of a Stolen Chid. I quote from the publishers notes:
At the age of five, Donna Meehan was taken away from her large and loving Aboriginal family at Coonamble NSW and sent to be the only child of a white family in distant Newcastle. Tiny and vulnerable, she had to try and make sense of her strange new world and the loss of everything she had known and loved. Despite the true and enduring love of her adoptive parents, and of her husband, her loss of her sense of belonging brought Donna close to suicide. Only when she traced her birth parents could the healing begin.
Donna recalls the day she was taken from her family, describing the patterns on her mother’s dress, which she can remember so vividly. The brothers who were to be separated from her for such a long time were there too. She describes her mother, saying: ‘Mum in her good blue dress, tears rolling down her cheeks too fast to wipe away.’
For people like Donna it was a very special day. For that I am very grateful, because it is nice to be able to pay back those people who have so generously assisted the Indigenous people and the education communities in Newcastle.
I also want to acknowledge and thank the Indigenous people who joined me in my room during that day. I was very honoured to meet with Stephanie Gilbert, Bev Shipp, Megan Kirby and Laurel Williams here in Parliament House. When I asked these Aboriginal women what they thought would be important to include in this speech, they said, ‘Make sure people understand that we have survived despite everything and that we have a proud culture.’ They wanted me to remind people that the removal of Aboriginal children was not something from the distant past and that they were still dealing with the consequences. Many, they said, are still meeting previously unknown brothers and sisters. I am told by Charlotte Connell, a Novocastrian journalist, that that was happening right here in Canberra at the tent embassy on that day. She witnessed the reunion of two brothers who had not seen each other for 40 years. But they also asked me to remind people that every reunion is a renegotiation of familial relations; it is not easy. ‘And just as mothers are important,’ they said, ‘please also acknowledge the pain and suffering of fathers.’
I have been contacted since that day by many, many Novocastrians, including Rick Griffiths, a former ATSIC commissioner. Thank you, Rick, for your contact and for expressing the way that day made you feel proud. Your contribution to Indigenous Australians in the Hunter and Newcastle has always been very much valued.
I am also told that this event was watched around the world via podcast. I received an email from a very good friend, Helen Williams, who is the daughter of Joy Cummings, the first female lord mayor in Australia. Joy was the first lord mayor to raise the Indigenous flag over a town or city hall—that was Newcastle’s—and to hold a civic reception in honour of our Indigenous people. Helen’s daughter is the actress Sarah Wynter. Sarah and her mother, Helen, watched the apology in New York. Helen commented that in the many times she has visited America and read the Fairfax press and the New York Times, including throughout the Iraq war, she has never seen mention of Australia. But on that day in the New York Times there were headlines, a beautiful photograph of four Aboriginal elders and a story that read: ‘Formal apology to Aborigines by Australia’s new leader. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pledged to Australian lawmakers on Wednesday “to remove a great stain from the nation’s soul”.’ It meant a great deal to expat Australians to know that such an important occasion was held here and that they were part of it as well.
Greg Heys, a former Lord Mayor of Newcastle, was the first lord mayor in Australia to honour a partnership between a local government council and the region’s Aboriginal community. He signed a very special document at that time, a commitment to reconciliation. The ceremony was held in 1998, at which Councillor Heys said that the document recognised the community’s efforts to see the past clearly. He said:
I do not find it hard to say sorry for particular sins perpetrated by my culture, including the stolen generation issue. We have a clear responsibility as a nation to see the past clearly, such that we can see our way clearly ahead, and this is what this commitment is about.
I know that those two Labor lord mayors would be very proud of this Labor government having put the wrongs of the past right, finally.
I would also like to say that so many Novocastrians sent text messages and emails saying they were proud to be Australians. They were Indigenous and non-Indigenous, but they were proud to be Australians. They also said that, finally, we have a Prime Minister who can inspire us and who can appeal to our better angels and make this country truly great. Yes, we have, and I am very proud to be a member of that government.
I think that it is only right that we also acknowledge the work of the media. I know that, in Newcastle, ABC 1233 in particular provided the opportunity for so many Novocastrians to express their feelings on talkback radio on that day.
I also acknowledge the work of previous prime ministers in this place. I particularly mention the inquiry that Paul Keating commissioned into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. I acknowledge the Bringing them home report, which resulted from this inquiry. I was not a member of this House at the time, but I can remember watching Kim Beazley in tears in the chamber, detailing some of that report. I knew why when I read it, because it certainly was the most moving report. For it to have sat on the parliament’s table for 11 years with no action was a great shame.
But now, of course, our challenge is action. As the Prime Minister has said, we have made this heartfelt apology but we must face the challenge ahead and deliver, with Indigenous Australians, real outcomes that provide dignity, justice and equity. It is the actions, not just the symbols, that will be important. In mentioning the targets that Labor has set for Indigenous affairs, I would like to acknowledge the great work of Minister Macklin. The apology was a great achievement. The wording was beautiful. The negotiations were respectful and certainly were detailed and long. I think they have created a much closer bond between Labor and Indigenous Australia.
In speaking about the targets we have set for Indigenous Australians, I would like to acknowledge my staff member Sharon Claydon. She spent many years at Fitzroy Crossing. She is an auntie to many people at Fitzroy Crossing. I have watched her pain as she has lost many friends through deaths and suicides in that area. I would like to acknowledge the wonderful work she has done on the ALP New South Wales Indigenous Policy Committee that I know developed similar targets and set a model for us to follow.
I applaud the Prime Minister’s commitment to improving Indigenous housing as a first priority. I am pleased to see that will have bipartisan support. A landmark study published today reinforced how important that is. I remember being shocked, when I went to Yuendumu, at the very poor design of Indigenous housing. It is appalling. Housing is vital to closing the gap. You cannot improve Indigenous people’s health or give Indigenous kids a good education or expect them to thrive and be part of the future of this country if they do not have at least decent shelter.
There is much to do, but I am very proud to be part of this parliament and to have supported the motion of apology. I hope it will be the hallmark of a compassionate government, a government that does actually achieve its outcomes and does so with great respect for, and consultation and collaboration with, the stakeholders involved. Thank you to my Labor government and to the parliament for allowing me to be part of this. To the people of Newcastle: I am very proud to have represented you on this great occasion and to have been part of the national apology. (Time expired)
It is a pleasure to be speaking in the Main Committee tonight, for the first time in this parliament. I look forward to many other contributions. I am very pleased to be speaking, quite impromptu, as you can imagine, on the issue of an apology to the stolen generations. I am one of those people in the coalition who are glad that the parliament has finally said sorry to Indigenous people, not just for the policy of the stolen generations but also for the injustices the Indigenous people have suffered at the hands of colonisers since 1770 or 1788—depending on which date you wish to take in history. That is not to say that we should have any kind of black armband view of Australian history; we are a fantastic country and we have a magnificent history. But there is one deep stain on our nation’s psyche and history and that is the appalling treatment that we have meted out to Indigenous people over 200 years. We are probably one of the worst countries in the Western world, in the Anglo-Saxon group of countries, in the way we have handled our Indigenous people. The Inuit are better off in Canada, the Red Indian in America and the Maori in New Zealand. In Australia the health, housing, education and life expectancy outcomes of Indigenous Australians are worse than any of those peoples. Yet we are an incredibly wealthy, powerful country that should have done a lot better.
So when the Bringing them home report was handed down in 1997, recommending there be a national apology, my view was that that should have been done then. I think it is disappointing that it is 10 years later that the parliament has united and apologised for the treatment of those people who were forcibly removed from their families and for a 200-year history of not handling Indigenous policies or politics well. Certainly, there was ignorance on both sides but we should have been able to handle the situation with which we were presented much better than we did.
Today Australian Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders still have reason to feel that successive Australian governments have not succeeded in addressing their issues. Certainly health, welfare, education, employment and life expectancy outcomes are the critical things that Indigenous families want to have successfully addressed. Governments have failed to understand Indigenous Australia—and I am no expert on Indigenous Australia and I do not hold myself out as one. They have failed to understand, respect and recognise the culture and the connection with the land that Indigenous people feel is quite different from the feeling of a Celt like me, whose family came to this country in 1858. Symbolism therefore is important. To be able to draw a line under this ledger, to say we are sorry for what has gone before, that we are prepared to begin again and that we look forward to you forgiving us for the mistakes we have made is very important and I am very pleased that I was in the parliament last Wednesday to be part of what I regard as a historic moment. I am disappointed that it got to the point where it was such an historic moment. If there had been an apology in 1997, the building up of what seemed to be disappointment in so many people’s hearts over a long period of time would not have made it as significant as it was last Wednesday. But it has been done and I am delighted it has been done.
My father was a royal flying doctor in Alice Springs in the 1950s, and he had a deep connection with the Indigenous people. That is what made him become an ophthalmologist—because of the glaucoma and trachoma problems that Indigenous people suffered then. He returned to Adelaide and decided to become an ophthalmologist. He filled me with stories about respecting and understanding the culture of Indigenous people that I still hold very dear. I am delighted, so many years after his death in 1988, to be able to be here and to be part of a healing process.