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Thursday, 14 February 2008
Page: 468

Ms HALL (12:17 PM) —I would like to start my contribution to this debate on the Prime Minister’s motion of apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples by apologising to the Indigenous people of this land. I would like to apologise for the past injustices that have been done to the stolen generations and to give an undertaking to work to see that those injustices are made right in the future.

I am not the only member of this parliament—there is one other member on the opposition side—to have been a member of another parliament when such an apology was given, and to have witnessed an apology on two occasions. I sat in the state parliament of New South Wales about 10 years ago and was there when an apology was given to the Indigenous people of that state. It was a very moving experience on that occasion. But I would have to say, having been part of what happened in this House yesterday, that yesterday’s was probably the most inspirational, moving experience that I have had as a member of parliament. It was historic. It was a very emotional day and other members who have spoken before me have said how they had tears in their eyes. I felt exactly the same and saw all those people in the gallery feeling exactly the same way I felt. Those present were so committed to the making of that apology, receiving that apology and then moving forward into the future. I think it shows our maturity as a parliament and our maturity as a nation. The magnanimous nature of our Indigenous Australians was shown—as I heard the minister say earlier today—when the minister gave the apology and that apology was accepted. That is how it is. It is the start. It is the beginning. It is the first step forward for the future. While sitting in this chamber this morning, I have heard some of the most wonderful speeches I have heard in this parliament. This apology is very personal. Each of us views it in a different way and it means something different to all of us.

I grew up on the north coast of New South Wales. I lived next door to a hospital and from time to time young Aboriginal children would turn up in this hospital. They would be allowed to come and play with me and I thought it was wonderful and then they would go. I did not understand and did not have a clue what was happening. These were children who were ripped away from their parents, taken from families, put in the hospital and then farmed out into the community. When I was at high school, a large number of Indigenous students came to that school, in the town that I grew up in. There were basically two rules, two streams within that system. The school I attended was Macksville High School. The non-Indigenous population generally were streamed into the top classes; the Aboriginal kids were generally streamed into the lower classes. The expectation placed on those children was totally different from the expectation placed on me. Their treatment was very different from the treatment that I received.

There was one Aboriginal student by the name of Gary Foley. I think he now lives in Melbourne. When he did his school certificate year 10 he performed outstandingly. He came back in year 11, and I can remember it as if it were yesterday. The then principal of the school stood up and said, ‘Gary Foley, what are you doing back here?’ Gary Foley was not there the next day. These are the types of things that have been perpetuated through our education system, perpetuated through our health system, where those young Aboriginal children who used to turn up in the hospital next door to me then disappeared and throughout their life had totally different expectations placed upon them.

I see this apology as the beginning, a start to the future. Yesterday in parliament, when the Prime Minister stood up and made his speech, you could have heard a pin drop because it was perhaps one of the most significant speeches that a Prime Minister has ever made. Then I looked around and the way people jumped to their feet and clapped was spontaneous. That spontaneity happened because he had touched their hearts. He had built a bridge between this parliament and those Indigenous Australians who have suffered for so long. I welcome the fact that the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister are going to work together bipartisanly to move forward from that apology to try to address the dreadful educational and health outcomes that Indigenous Australians are faced with, those social determinants that affect their lives each and every day and the battles that they have to combat.

One might ask: why are we apologising? Some of those young people who were taken from their families have had successful lives. I believe that the member for Tangney made a contribution stating that he felt it was actually in the interests of those people who were taken from their parents, that his electorate proved it and that he believed that those children were better off taken away from their parents.

I will address it from the perspective of a mother. If anyone tried to drag my children from me, I know how I would feel. If, as a child, I had lived in an environment where I did not know who my parents were; where I was isolated, where I did not have the love and the nurturing that I did have, then I know I would be a different person from the person that I am today. It is not about wealth, it is not about all those ‘things’ that we can buy—it is about family, and family is so important in Indigenous communities. That is what we have denied the stolen generation.

One of those watershed experiences in my life was reading the Bringing them home report. I remember that I was sitting in a plane when I was reading this. I had tears running down my face as I read story after story; I could feel the hurt of those people. As a nation, for us to have sat back and let that happen—as I have already said, I lived right next door to a hospital where it was happening—means that we do have something to apologise to our fellow Australians for. Let us clean the slate and move forward; look to the future.

Yesterday’s experience was made even greater by the fact that some of our past prime ministers were present: Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. We also had a previous Governor-General present, Sir William Deane, whose work in this area has been monumental and whose contribution to this debate has been outstanding. Fred Chaney was also present and those people involved with Reconciliation Australia were present. This made the day historic, because it brought together those against whom the injustice had been done and those who recognised that there had been injustices. To right those injustices, the apology needed to be made so that we as a nation can become a whole nation, so that we can truly join hands with our fellow Australians—Indigenous Australians—and look to a future where we will be a united nation.

In my own electorate I am pleased and proud to have been able to join with the Bahtabah Aboriginal Land Council, Mr Michael Green of Bahtabah LALC and Mr Robert Coombs, the state member for Swansea, in celebrating this historic occasion with a local community function, held yesterday. I have recorded my commitment on a plaque that, with the member for Swansea, I have presented to the Bahtabah people.

Debate (on motion by Mr Hayes) adjourned.