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Tuesday, 19 February 2008
Page: 790

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (Minister for Employment Participation) (5:24 PM) —This evening I would like to join my colleagues and the people of Australia in marking the historic day when the parliament finally responded to the recommendation of the Bringing them home report and apologised to the Indigenous people of Australia for the policies of successive governments. The report found that across the nation between one in three and one in 10 Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities between 1910 and 1970. It found that those Indigenous children were placed in institutions, church missions, adopted or fostered and, as a result, were at risk of physical and sexual abuse. These are staggering figures whose shocking effect has not dimmed in the long years since the report was first tabled 11 years ago; neither have the hurt and suffering of each generation dimmed,  as they carry this shame—and, of course, this spills over into the rest of their lives.

As a result of placement in institutions or unstable fostering situations, many children were so often raised with inadequate education, either in the basics of literacy or in the culture and traditions of their own country and people. They were excluded from not only the opportunity to better their situation that education brings but also the knowledge and traditions that only come with a living connection to country and culture. Some say those whose actions resulted in this suffering did so with the best of intentions. Indeed, this was repeated by the Leader of the Opposition in his speech on this motion last week. That may be so, but it is not good enough to say that they meant well. Some undoubtedly did, but lives were destroyed despite good intentions. If no harm was intended, harm was still done. Some say that those who acted with good intentions could not have known of the effect of their actions on those they attempted to help. I say to the House: our predecessors should have known. They should have understood the hurt that was caused. Their common humanity demanded that they understand the lack of common humanity in their actions.

Some reply that, as the current generation did not do it, the Prime Minister has no right apologising in their name. But no-one can deny that it was done by people acting in our name. We elected successive governments which created the laws that enabled them to do these things. It is entirely right that the government and the parliament apologise on behalf of the Australian people because it was elected governments who drew up the laws to allow these criminal actions to be done without criminal penalty. It was done in our names.

Interestingly, some years ago, the then Prime Minister John Howard apologised to the Vietnam veterans for the treatment they received after returning from the war. I was too young to have abused Vietnam veterans myself, but I have no objection to the then Prime Minister seeking to redress this historical wrong on my behalf. To those older Australians whose memories of the Second World War are still acute, I pose a hypothetical: if the government of present-day Japan were to apologise to those Australians imprisoned under appalling conditions during the war, would you object on the grounds that the people of Japan cannot be held accountable for the actions of the past? When considering this question, keep in mind that actions by government agencies which led to the suffering of the stolen generations were going on well into the living memory of most members of this chamber.

Some object that these actions were technically legal, but should we really excuse the reality of this dispossession for legalistic reasons? Many thought or were told that the absence of their child was a temporary measure, only to lose them permanently in the welfare machine. Many children were able to retrace their lost years with the help of discovered records or relatives, only to grieve again for the loss of parents who died never knowing what became of their offspring. In his historic Redfern speech, then Prime Minister Paul Keating noted that the nation had failed to enter into the hearts and minds of Aboriginal people by simply imagining that these things were done to us. Echoing Mr Keating, the Prime Minister last week challenged those Australians who see no need to apologise to imagine that it was done to us, to imagine how crippling that would be, how difficult it would be to forgive.

And we have no right to ask for forgiveness without acknowledgement that wrong was done. Some claim that an apology is empty symbolism, that what we need are practical outcomes. I could not agree more. Despite economic pressures, the change in government presents Australia with valuable opportunities to improve Indigenous economic development and social inclusion—opportunities Labor will be eager to foster.

As Minister for Employment Participation, I certainly want to work with the government to assist in fulfilling some of these concrete aims. Employment is one of the foundations of social inclusion. It creates opportunities for financial independence and personal fulfilment. Unfortunately, the unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians is about three times higher than for others. Employment participation rates are also almost 20 per cent lower than for the non-Indigenous population. The government is committed to closing this gap within 10 years. By fostering economic development, governments create opportunities to overcome these levels of social disadvantage. But development can only occur on a foundation of sound education and training, opportunities for real employment and regional consultation and partnership. More flexible and specific mentoring and work related learning opportunities ensure Indigenous people can access paths to career development in conjunction with mainstream employment services where they exist. We want to close the gap between demand and supply of skilled workers by using industry strategies with the pastoral and forestry industries, including of course initiatives like the memorandum of understanding with the Minerals Council of Australia. We will place industry demand at the heart of the skills training system. We want to create jobs for CDEP participants in government service delivery, delivering on an election promise of $90 million over five years to train and employ an additional 300 rangers in areas where CDEP cross-subsidisation remains.

We will announce future directions on the Northern Territory emergency response after the review is released in September, but the government will continue to work with service providers to ensure that projects are developed in consultation with communities, that activities have a strong work based skills focus and that the range of activities developed meets the needs of local communities.

Acknowledgement of white Australia’s conduct towards Aboriginal people was among the very first concerns that I raised in this place. In my first speech, I called upon the government to apologise to our original owners for the atrocities inflicted upon them. ‘Seeing one’s own history, warts and all,’ I said at the time, ‘was not to wear a black armband. We have more to fear from a blindfold than a black armband.’ Acknowledgement of our history, warts and all, is a sign of maturity and of a better and more conscious society. I feel privileged more than six years on to have been in the chamber to hear what I thought was a rather forlorn hope come to pass.

I am a parent to a very young daughter, and I can barely imagine what it would feel like to have her taken from me. But my imagination fails when I try to conceive of what future she could have without her parents, without her identity, without the love and guidance and support of her family. When I imagine these things, I try to put myself in the shoes of the stolen generations and the humanity we share—it is impossible to deny. But we as a nation have denied it and last week it was time to put an end to such denial.