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Thursday, 29 May 1997
Page: 4008

Senator COONAN(3.23 p.m.) —What a storm in a teacup it is if the best attack that the opposition can mount on Senator Herron is to do with when he got a report or what sort of form he had it in—whether it was a photocopy or whether it was any kind of final document. As if in this sorry history of the plight of Aboriginals in Australia, in our country, a matter of weeks or days really matters.

It is not as if the plight of the stolen children was a closely held secret over the past 13 years—or indeed over the past 30. It is demeaning, to say the least, to reduce what is clearly an important public debate in this country involving very complex issues to a bay for an instant response and a complaint that a minister had a document a week or so earlier than he may have done.

Not only has this debate not surfaced in the last few days, but also it is pretty clear that for the past 13 years nobody said `sorry' to the stolen children. Nobody has gone on, as they have in the last few days, with the semantics of how you say sorry and how symbolic it is. Most of the debate over the past few days has been about semantics. Collective guilt is, I believe, rather different from collective responsibility and an acknowledgment, as a community, of past wrongs.

I want to take this opportunity, because it is the first opportunity I have had, to say that as a parent I can see the horror of what happened to the stolen children and to express my personal regret for what has happened. The government has said, and I acknowledge it, that it will give a considered response to the report, as indeed it should. This is not about, and does not raise issues about recent wrongs but wrongs that have been going on for many, many years, that have not been remedied in past years. This is not the time for a knee-jerk reaction and a quick response that will have vast consequences and significant consequences for the foreseeable future for our indigenous Australians.

However lofty and well intentioned the ideals and sentiments of the reconciliation convention—I acknowledge the fact that some very fine sentiments were expressed, some of which I would endorse—I think we do need to acknowledge as a community, and to try to get this above party political cheap shot scoring, the enormous frustration felt by many Australians, in fact I would say most Australians, at the obstacles that have been placed in the path of reconciliation.

There is a high level of frustration felt by both black and white Australians that, despite an expenditure of a little over $10 billion over the past decade, Aboriginal Australians still live in the most appalling conditions of shame. However fundamental symbolic gestures may be, let us not forget that this is all hollow rhetoric unless it actually gets translated into real commitment for the future—real commitment to addressing, for example, the delivery system that will produce practical programs for reconciliation, practical programs that I suggest should have been undertaken long before 1997.

In all the blaming that is going on in the reconciliation debate, let us not forget that there is a big measure of collective blame that we share as a community. This is a matter that affects us as a community and ought to be above political party process, other than of course bipartisan support for some real attempt to address the wrongs of the past. Of course it means that it is not a one-way process. For the delivery system to be effective and to help indigenous Australians, we have to of course have programs that will help indigenous Australians to better help themselves.

There is a strong community desire for reconciliation that produces positive and sustainable outcomes for our indigenous Australians. The community demand is coming across the board, and it is not just by Australians who have some memory of these past wrongs. It is from young people. It is from young Australians. I commend this to the Senate. (Time expired)