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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 146

Senator CROSSIN (7:15 PM) —In 1995 the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission was asked investigate and report on the history and circumstances of Aboriginal children taken from their families by authorities. This came about in response to efforts made by key Indigenous agencies and communities. They were concerned and had a growing concern that there was a real general ignorance in our history of the forcible removal of children and this was hindering the recognition of victims’ needs and the provision of remedial programs and services. HREOC was asked to make recommendations regarding any compensation, counselling or the establishment of ways for Indigenous communities to have control of their children.

I think history will show that little did we know what an outstanding and lasting effect the report from this group of people was to have on this country. The report now known famously as the Bringing them home report was presented in May 1997. It drew on 535 Indigenous submissions, 49 church submissions and seven submissions from governments. On 26 May we will celebrate the 10th anniversary of this major report and what I think has become a milestone in the history of the Indigenous people of this country.

The report concluded that between 1910 and 1970—a period of 60 years, in fact—between 10 and 30 per cent of Indigenous children in this country were forcibly removed from their families or communities. Non-Indigenous communities were largely ignorant of this aspect of our history and the trauma it caused. It is important to note that children were being removed from their families as late as the 1970s. It is interesting to note that this is also the year in which we recognised the 40th anniversary of the referendum in which Indigenous people were given the vote. But that means that people who are now in their late 30s were being affected as early as the 1970s, and the after-effects of this policy still very much survive today among Indigenous individuals, families and communities. It is also important that for some years after the 1967 referendum this practice was still happening. Even after this major event in Australian history, Indigenous children were still being taken from their families.

The signs of this trauma, of being removed from your family, do not necessarily survive in an obvious outward form—these people do not wear armbands or badges—but does not mean that they are not hurting in many other ways. Not only those removed from their families are hurt but their families and communities are affected as well. For those involved the effects have been and still are devastating and lifelong.

The Howard government distanced itself from the report. The Prime Minister is still continuing to refuse to make any form of apology to Indigenous people. This has only served to make a bad situation even worse. The government made its response on 16 December 1997 in a package of just $63 million in what were then called practical assistance programs. This package included funding to copy and preserve in national archives files and oral histories pertaining to the matter, develop family support programs, and establish Link Up services and more counselling centres to help those from what has now become known as the stolen generation. These children were removed from their families supposedly to remove them from very poor conditions. Sometimes this may have been so but in many cases, as we now know, removal was a means of control or sometimes even punishment.

Many children may have been handed to the authorities by parents who thought their kids would be better off but who would be returned when home circumstances improved. We now know they were never returned and they were never going to be. The parents were deceived. Even the church was equally guilty of removing children from their families. The harsh truth was that for many it was seen as a way of reducing Aboriginal culture as these kids were meant to be brought up as non-Indigenous. The Aboriginal culture was seen by many as being worthless. While some, probably many, homes or adoptive parents tried to provide a loving family environment, this was probably more the exception than the rule, even where home was friendly and the outside environment was not.

As stated by Peter Read, an eminent academic in this area, in After ‘Bringing them home’:

Neither the policy statements nor oral history demonstrate that governments acted at most times with the very best of motives.

He further points out that it was the feeling that Aboriginal culture was worthless which Indigenous people find hardest to forgive.

This government has to date refused to give any apology, which was one of the central recommendations from the report. Professor Lowitja O’Donohue said on 27 April that she was stillwaiting to hear Prime Minister John Howard say sorry and, as far as leadership goes, ‘he doesn’t rate’. An apology would not be admitting any responsibility for past actions; rather, it could be seen as acknowledging that past actions and government policies, while believed to be right at the time, were now seen to be wrong—so very wrong. Only the federal government can make an adequate apology on behalf of all of us in our nation. Again, as Peter Read said:

When we admit whatever our intentions, the end result of the separation policy would have been the extinction of Aboriginality, then we are ready to apologise to the stolen generations ... we concede that separation ... was an act of aggression. When we ensure that the war is over we can seek reconciliation. Without that reconciliation there can be no peace between us.

This Prime Minister has steadfastly maintained that an apology would unfairly imply the guilt and responsibility of present generations. He neglects the often accepted norm that nations are in fact accountable for past actions of their elected governments. He totally lacks any fairness or compassion in this area.

In November 2002 the National Sorry Day Committee released a report entitled Are we helping them home? Their report outlined the lack of progress in addressing the other recommendations of the Bringing them home report. They saw the government handling of the $63 million package as flawed. They saw a lack of consultation with stolen generation people about the use of the funds and that the major stakeholder had little involvement or input into how these funds would be delivered. The Link Up programs recommended in the report have been inadequately resourced to be effective and still, I believe, remain so. Other recommendations, such as the payment of compensation, have been totally and utterly ignored. In fact around two-thirds of the recommendations of the Bringing them home report have never been enacted.

So 10 years down the track there is still no apology, nor any compensation—except for the recently announced compensation from the Tasmanian government—both central recommendations from the initial report. That is not to say that money can bring back a lost childhood, but it is one way of acknowledging that the past policies and practices of this country were wrong.

Former Prime Minister Fraser, Lowitja O’Donohue and Bob Randall have praised the Canadian model of compensation for their indigenous communities and have called on this federal government to do likewise. In Canada the government is set to pay its equivalent of the stolen generations some $1 billion in compensation. In 10 years this federal government has committed only $116 million in response to the recommendations. That is pretty poor in comparison to Canada. What limited practical assistance programs have been attempted have all been underfunded and very much tokens rather than substantial programs.

A report by the federal Department of Health and Ageing on the provision of Bringing Them Home counsellors in 2003 to 2005 found that difficulties encountered in this program included inadequate resourcing and funding, poor staff and employment conditions and poor professional support and networking.

I want to say in conclusion that on 26 May, as the 10th anniversary of the Bringing them home report is celebrated, the Kimberley Stolen Generation Committee are encouraging people to wear lilac silk hibiscus flowers as a sign of respect for and recognition of the resilience and strength of the Australian stolen generations and for their journey of healing. The purple flower is a sign of healing and compassion. It is widespread and grows everywhere. Like the stolen generations people the lilac hibiscus is also a survivor.