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Thursday, 14 February 2008
Page: 439


Ms MACKLIN (Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) (10:02 AM) —Yesterday in this place, members of the Australian parliament joined together to offer an apology to the stolen generations. We said sorry for the pain and suffering that flowed from the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. We said sorry to them, their families left behind and their descendants. We said sorry for the indignity and degradation inflicted on a proud people and their proud culture. We reflected on the mistreatment of Indigenous Australians and apologised for the laws and policies of successive governments which brought profound grief and loss to these, our fellow Australians, and we promised that such injustices would never happen again.

We asked that our apology be received in the spirit in which it was offered, as part of the healing of the nation. We acknowledged the past and laid claim to a new future of shared opportunity for all Australians. We did it to go some way towards righting past wrongs, to complete this unfinished business. We did it to build a new relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians based on respect, cooperation and mutual responsibility. With our apology comes our pledge for new approaches and fresh ideas to solve the enduring inequalities in health, education and employment.

Yesterday was a day that many Indigenous Australians feared they would never live to see. It was far too long coming, and for that I am sorry too. I will never forget the mixed and raw emotions so clear on the faces of those seated on the floor of Parliament House, those in the galleries and those outside on the lawns: deep sorrow and grief, of course, but also the healing emotions—relief, joy and a great and deserved pride in the Indigenous peoples of Australia. It has been a very long journey to get to this day, a long and sometimes fraught journey that has tested the will and courage of so many people. There is no denying that along the way there has been disillusionment and disappointment, but now truth and good sense have prevailed.

This journey began when brave men and women stood up and demanded justice and recognition and acknowledgement of past oppression and injustice. For too long they were ignored and disparaged, but they refused to be silenced and slowly others started listening. Over the years the momentum of reconciliation has ebbed and flowed. At times there was frustration, anger, and even despair that the road to reconciliation could be so tortuous. But the course was set. There would be no giving up. Slowly, over the decades, more and more Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, heard and understood and spoke out.

Today, as the minister responsible for Indigenous affairs, I want to acknowledge the work and commitment of all those people. It is totally impossible to name them all, but I do want to name a few: the wonderful leadership shown by the late Sir Ronald Wilson and Mick Dodson in their leadership of the inquiry that resulted in the Bringing them home report; Tom Calma, the Social Justice Commissioner of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission; Lowitja O’Donoghue, an extraordinary woman; Sir William Deane and Fred Chaney, who have persisted against great obstacles along the path of reconciliation; and our previous prime ministers Malcolm Fraser, who has joined Lowitja O’Donoghue as a patron of the Stolen Generations Alliance, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. All of these previous prime ministers have shown such great leadership. Also, I do particularly want to mention a previous Indigenous affairs minister, Robert Tickner, who was the minister at the time when the Bringing them home inquiry began.

I want to extend my very special thanks to those who have given me such wise counsel in the consultations leading up to today, and particularly all of those members of the Stolen Generations Alliance and the National Sorry Day Committee. I will name just two people—so many gave me so much. In particular, I want to say thank you to Christine King and Helen Moran, who gave me not only wise advice but so much of themselves as well.

In my own office I want to say a very special thankyou to Rita Markwell and Helen Hambling, who made yesterday such an extraordinary experience for so many Australians, and my department, who put together all the arrangements to bring people here to Canberra, to make sure that the day could be the special day that it was. I want to add my particular thanks to everyone at Reconciliation Australia, who for so long have done so much but who, in the last couple of months, have really helped many, many Australians—Indigenous and non-Indigenous—to come to the heart of what we were trying to do in the very special celebrations that we had in the country.

In 1996, the then Governor-General Sir William Deane delivered the inaugural Lingiari lecture in Darwin. He recounted the story of Vincent Lingiari, who in 1966 defied the bosses and led members of the Gurindji tribe off Wave Hill station, where they worked for a pittance as stockmen. At nearby Wattie Creek they established a settlement called Daguragu. This unprecedented strike began as a protest against appalling working and living conditions but crystallised into a demand for the return of the Gurindji’s traditional lands. In fact, when the Gurindji were later offered money to return to work, Vincent Lingiari replied: ‘You can keep your gold; we just want our land back.’ The Wave Hill strike lasted seven years. It became a potent national symbol of the struggle for Aboriginal land rights. To this day it continues to be a powerful symbol.

What happened at Daguragu and the subsequent ceremonial return of the land by the then Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, was a turning point in Indigenous and non-Indigenous history. Who can forget the image of Gough spilling a handful of Daguragu soil into Vincent Lingiari’s outstretched hand—the symbolic gesture marking the coming home of country? Who would deny the significance of that simple symbolic gesture—Gough, known to the Gurindji as ‘that big man’, handing back Daguragu soil to the Gurindji people and their children forever? It is a symbol as quintessentially Australian and as much part of our national story as the poetry of Banjo Paterson and the paintings of Emily Kngwarreye.

Much has been said and written in the past few weeks about symbolism and its significance. Some people have argued that this symbolic act of saying sorry will somehow undermine or even replace the practical, on-the-ground reforms needed to fix up the huge gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. I believe the exact opposite is true. Saying sorry gives us the impetus to move on. It means we can get on with the huge job of closing the gap. Yes, it is a symbolic gesture, but one that I certainly passionately believe will allow us all to tackle the substance of the issue—that is, to remove the crippling inequalities that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. True reconciliation can never be achieved without Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians recognising and dealing with the wrongs of the past, the dispossession, the oppression and the degradation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This has been the common thread running through the hundreds of conversations I have had with Aboriginal people over the last few months.

Another underlying sentiment has been their extraordinarily generous willingness to accept the apology in the spirit in which it has been offered. For me this has been probably the most inspiring and humbling thing about the occasion—the dignity and humanity of their assurance as they said to me, ‘As you say sorry, we forgive.’ Our apology is not about imposing guilt or shame on this generation of Australians; it is not about attributing personal blame. Rather, it is an expression of sorrow for the cruel injustices of the past. It is an understanding that the past cannot be denied or set aside. We spent decades dismissing or ignoring the past and now we have had the courage to face up to it. Having done that, we can learn from it and never make the same mistakes again. We can become an Australia that knows and profoundly understands the complexities of the past—the good and the bad—an Australia that admits that past government policies damaged Indigenous families, that comprehends the pain and devastation of the children who were removed and the relentless grief of their parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles. We want to be a nation which, having failed to enter into their hearts and minds, now feels and shares that loss and grief.

For the stolen generations, the past is a constant and painful presence that never leaves them. For all of us who have read the pages of the Bringing them home report, which documents the systematic removal of up to 100,000 Indigenous children from their families, these harrowing stories are revealed. It contains just some of the stories of the children forcibly removed in the 60 years between 1910 and 1970. Children were taken from their mothers and fathers on the basis of their race under laws that allowed this practice. Their stories have a common theme of hurt, loss, grief and a common lament that they are forever visited by this sad and troubled past. It was so live and painful yesterday for so many people. For them, the past can never be a distant country.

The past shapes our national character and identity. As a nation we are just as much defined by past wrongs and injustices as we are by past acts of courage and heroism. As Sir William Deane so eloquently puts it: the basic fact is that national shame as well as national pride can and should exist in relation to past acts and omissions, at least when done in the name of the community or with the authority of government. Where there is no room for national pride or national shame about the past, there can be no national soul.

What happened here in Parliament House yesterday marked the beginning of a new partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, a partnership of mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility. Through this partnership we can drive reforms to close the gap that divides us. The responsibility for a just and equitable future for Indigenous Australians falls on all of our shoulders. We know that despite the ambitions of the 1967 referendum, the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians remains dramatically worse than the rest of the community. Many still endure inadequate health services, overcrowded and substandard housing, poor access to education and barriers to getting a job. Alcohol and drugs are crippling Indigenous communities, there are entrenched health problems—and so the list goes on.

We know that it is our task together to address these problems. The government does fully comprehend the enormity of closing this gap on life expectancy, educational achievement and employment opportunities, and we know that it can only be done by working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, all of us working together. Clearly the old approaches have failed, and that is a responsibility we all have to shoulder. What we need is a new era of cooperation and responsibility and a new way of doing things. That is why we have set ourselves concrete targets to make sure that the fundamentals of decent life—good health, nutrition, a safe and comfortable, high-quality education, an opportunity to share in the dividends of the economy through work—are shared by Indigenous Australians.

Within a decade we have pledged to halve the gap in mortality rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children under the age of five. In the same period we have pledged to halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy through the comprehensive package focusing on early childhood development. (Time expired)