The Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples
In 1997, the Bringing them home Report recommended that all Australian Parliaments, police forces, churches and others involved nongovernment agencies officially acknowledge the responsibility of their predecessors for the laws, policies and practices of forcible removal, and issue an apology in recognition of this responsibility. It was also recommended that apologies be accompanied by appropriate reparations.
Between 1997 and 2001, each Australian State and Territory government apologised in Parliament to the Stolen Generations:
- Leader of the Opposition Geoff Gallop (motion supported by Premier, Richard Court) on behalf of Western Australia on 27 May 1997. - The Hon. Dean Brown, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs on behalf of South Australia on 28 May 1997.
- Chief Minister Kate Carnell on behalf of the Australian Capital Territory on 17 June 1997.
- The Hon Bob Carr, Premier, on behalf of New South Wales on 18 June 1997.
- Premier Tony Rundle on behalf of Tasmania on 13 August 1997.
- Premier Jeff Kennett on behalf of Victoria on 17 September 1997.
- Premier Peter Beattie on behalf of Queensland on 26 May 1999
- Chief Minister Claire Martin on behalf of the Northern Territory on 24 October 2001
Whilst the Commonwealth Government offered a motion of reconciliation in Parliament on 26 August 1999, which expressed “deep and sincere regret”, this was not considered to be a true apology as it did not contain the word ‘sorry’ – a word with rich cultural meanings for Indigenous Australians.
The Government’s submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee Inquiry in 2000, disputed the term ‘Stolen Generation’ and the number of children taken, arguing that the term could not be applied to a whole generation (the NSDC asserts that, apart from anything else, this position significantly underestimates the scale of the removals and the numbers of generations involved).
This rejection by the Federal Government of the option to give a formal, public apology caused a great deal of hurt for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the country and for members of the Stolen Generations in particular.
Between 1998 and 2008, the NSDC worked with likeminded organisations, community members, politicians and policy-makers to build a campaign for a formal and public apology by the Federal Government to all Indigenous Australians and to the Stolen Generations specifically.
The change in Federal Government in November 2007, and the Hon Kevin Rudd’s inauguration as Prime Minister on 3 December 2007, signalled an important positive shift for the campaign, with Prime Minister Rudd making an early commitment to delivering a public parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generations early in his term.
Soon after the Federal Labor victory in November 2007, as Prime Minister Elect, the Hon Kevin Rudd and his office made a public commitment to extensive consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in a bid to assure that the content of the apology was genuine, respectful and meaningful.
At the launch of the ‘Us taken away kids’ report by the Australian Human Rights Commission in Sydney on 11 December 2007, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin announced a commitment by the new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to apologise to the Stolen Generations, and to ‘framing this apology, both the language and the nature of the apology, in a consultative and respectful way’.
The NSDC initially recommended that an apology to the Stolen Generations by the Federal Government be given on 26 May 2008 – the 10th anniversary of National Sorry Day, and conveyed the language/terminology that would be most appropriate and sensitive to use in the Prime Minister’s apology speech in 2008.
However, on 13 February 2008, as parliament returned from its summer break, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd moved a Motion of Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) in the House of Representatives on 13 February 2008, apologising for past laws, policies and practices that devastated Australia’s First Nations Peoples – in particular members of the Stolen Generations. This was the parliament’s first order of business, and The Hon Kevin Rudd became the first Australian Prime Minister to give a public apology to the Stolen Generations on behalf of the Federal Government.
The motion was supported by the Opposition and passed through both houses of Parliament, as the then Leader of the Opposition Brendan Nelson gave a formal response (Part 1 and Part 2). Many members of the Stolen Generations were present in the Chamber to hear the Apology and thousands more filled the Great Hall of Parliament House and flowed out onto the lawns to watch it on big screens. The Apology was broadcast across Australia, bringing the country to a standstill, with people in their homes, workplaces, schools and at community gatherings stopping to watch the live broadcast.
The significance of the apology is enormous – for many, the Apology represented a public admission of the government’s responsibility for the trauma, loss and separation from family, community, culture and land that the Stolen Generations have experienced represented an important stage of the journey of healing for many Stolen Generations members. The Federal Government apology also represented the completion of one of five of the key measures of reparation recommended in the 1997 Bringing them home Report.
Dr. Tom Calma, then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, gave a formal speech in response to the Apology, and was quoted as saying 'Through one direct act, the parliament has acknowledged the existence and the impacts of past policies and practices of forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families, and by so doing has paid respect to the Stolen Generations for their suffering and their loss, and for their resilience, and ultimately, for their dignity'
Professional photographers Wayne Quilliam and Mervyn Bishop teamed up on the day to capture the significance of the occasion, and produced what has become a well respected and widely referenced photographic exhibition: 'SORRY: More than a word'.
It is important to recognise as well however, that the NSDC along with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and Stolen Generations members across Australia, understand the need for the Apology to be backed up by affirmative action that will support the assertions made by then Prime Minister Rudd. At the time of the Apology, it was acknowledged that words alone were not enough, and since this time efforts have been made by the Federal Government – with the support of advice and consultation from organisations such as the NSDC, the National Stolen Generations Alliance, and the Link Up organisations – to use the Apology as the foundation for tangible positive change.
Since the Apology, the Australian Government has increased funding to $25 million per year for Bringing Them Home Counsellors and family reunion services for Stolen Generations survivors (a funding increase of 50 per cent between 2007–08 and 2009–10). A further $26 million was allocated towards the establishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation, which now funds short term community-led healing initiatives focussed on the healing needs and aspirations of the Stolen Generations.
The NSDC holds annual celebratory events on the Anniversary of the Apology (13 February each year) to mark the significance of the formal apology to the Stolen Generations. These events also act as a reminder to the country's politicians, policy-makers and the the broader public that sorry is more than a word, and that we all - communities, Stolen Generations-focussed community and peak body organisations, government politicians and policy-makers - must continue to work together to achieve key outcomes for the Stolen Generations. For more information please consult this year’s annual priorities as set by the Stolen Generations Working Partnership.
As with National Sorry Day, the NSDC normally holds events in Canberra and Sydney to mark the Anniversary of the Apology, and works each year to support and encourage schools and community groups across the country to plan and hold their own events.
As the first significant date of the year in the school calendar, the Anniversary of the Apology offers a positive and solid platform from which lessons regarding this difficult aspect of Australia’s history can be launched.