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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 1027

Dr STONE (Murray) (18:04): I wish to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of Australia, wherever they may be. In particular, I acknowledge the special status of the Yorta Yorta, Bangarang and other Indigenous peoples in my electorate of Murray. Today I am recognising the anniversary of the national declaration of Sorry Day on 13 February 2008. This followed the motion of regret passed on 26 August 1999, moved by John Howard when he was Prime Minister, with words fashioned in consultation with Indigenous leaders of the day.

The problem continues to be that few Australians are closely familiar with the facts of the contact history of our country. We did have frontier wars as different Aboriginal nations fought to keep their land and defend their people. We did have native police, led by white officers with secret verbal instructions to 'track and disperse' the natives—a euphemism for shooting to kill. We did have slavery, which we called the indenturing system, whereby Indigenous children were forced into labour without pay, some from the age of six, with masters who could and did summon the police to track them down, punish them and return them to work when they escaped. We did have 'miscegenation policies', which is a euphemism for 'breed them white', when it was noticed that Aborigines of mixed descent were outnumbering so-called full bloods in many places and when the economy was desperately short of manual labourers.

These colonial and post-Federation policies are described in detail and documented in a series of royal commissions and parliamentary inquiries—in the House of Commons in the UK, in every Australian colonial parliament and then in the states and the Commonwealth after 1901. Page after page of sworn evidence gives a window onto the attitudes and policies which we find unthinkable today but which led to the need for the nation to collectively say sorry on 13 February 2008.

I think it is timely to be reminded of how far we have come as a nation in adjusting our attitudes and responses to the Indigenous peoples of Australia—the original owners. Today Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are acknowledged with protocols and with respect where once they were mostly or only objects of sympathy or disgust or were racially vilified.

In 1977 my documentary history of official government policy and race relations was published after years of research. I still reach to these documentary extracts to remind myself—often—that the miracle is that Aboriginal people survived with their oldest living culture intact or evolved in many parts of modern Australia and that some of their languages survive but, most importantly, that their identity as Aboriginal peoples has never been stronger since the usurpation of their countries which began in earnest in 1788.

I want to read from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers, volume 2, part 2, 1929, when the Chief Protector, Mr Bleakley, reported on the conditions of the Aborigines and half-castes of Central Australia and North Australia. He reported under the heading 'Quadroons and octoroons' after going through various other headings describing full bloods, half-castes and so on:

As already indicated the crossbreed with a preponderance of white blood should be considered separately. Their blood entitles them to be given a chance to take their place in the white community and on as favourable a footing as possible. That this may be successfully accomplished, the children should be removed from aboriginal associations at the earliest possible age and given all the advantages in education and vocational training possible to white State children to minimise as far as possible the handicap of their colour and friendless circumstances.

He goes on:

To avoid the dangers of the blood call, employment should be found where they will not come into contact with aborigines or aboriginal half castes. In spite of such precautions however, a few will doubtless drift back, and it may be found advisable to allow, even encourage, the marriage of such difficult cases with crossbreeds of darker strain.

He continues:

While official supervision and control is essential in their own interests, any appearance of branding with the aboriginal stamp should be avoided so as not to hamper unduly their upward progress. For instance, a rigid application of the regulation rates of wages for aboriginals would be manifestly unfair, as, with equal opportunities for learning, many should prove as useful as the average European servant.

This advice and Bleakley's recommendation were already in play in some parts of Australia at that time—we are talking about the 1920s. Following this very significant report to the government they were taken up more seriously. The children were removed from their parents—often forcibly, of course, and often after a great deal of hunting and tracking by police to find those children. They were placed in missions and training institutions. These children are often referred to today as the stolen generations. But did governments of the day, whether state or Commonwealth or the nascent territory governments, in fact honour the misguided but philanthropic intentions of Chief Protector Bleakley and his like minded officials and members of parliament? Did they in fact protect and educate these children who were taken away? Sadly, the children removed to be educated and raised as white were too often neglected and abused.

In the House of Representatives Commonwealth parliamentary debates of 1939 to 1940, on 7 December my predecessor, the member for Murray, Sir John McEwen, complained about the condition of the Alice Springs shelter for half-castes. He said:

There I saw a state of affairs which honorable members will find it difficult to believe—120 half-caste children, and 13 or 14 adult fullblooded and half-caste women, the parents of some of the young half-caste children, living in that most deplorable old building, which, when it rained heavily, took in the water almost as if there were no roof at all. The dormitories were a disgrace. …

The building was roofed with corrugated iron, and had a concrete floor, so that it must certainly have been too hot in summer and almost unbearably cold in winter. I know many stud stock breeders who would not dream of crowding their stock in the way that these half-caste children were huddled in this institution in Alice Springs. Today I see that there is not one penny of the estimates to correct the deplorable state of affairs that exists at Alice Springs. It is a shameful thing to allow it to continue.

Sir John went on to describe the so-called half-caste compound at Darwin as equally shocking and disturbing and without any relief in sight.

It is right that we remind Australian citizens of this parliament's 'sorry' motion, moved in parliament four years ago. We also need to remind ourselves of its forerunner under the Howard government in 1999 and the Reconciliation Council, which worked for a number of years. I was proudly a government representative on that council. We tried to put together something that in some way would be for all Australians a serious and real statement of reconciliation. We need to continue, however, to translate a sense of sorrow and regret into real actions and new commitments for all Australians.

I am very pleased to be the Deputy Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. We have just completed a study of adolescent youths in custody and we are now considering how to retain and restore Indigenous languages at the same time as helping all Indigenous children become fluent in English so that they can fully participate in the broader Australian society. This is important work, and I am constantly struck by the goodwill of those working in the fields of linguistics, education and policy making who stepped forward to give evidence to our inquiry. There were Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people from every background and from every part of Australia.

We have come a very long way from our often brutal colonial views and actions. We are a great nation with a great future for all Australians and our spirit of reconciliation is a lesson to be learned by many other countries struggling to reach the point that we are now at in our nation. But we must never forget the past as we build a better future. We must never forget that all things are possible when people from different parts of the country remember that we are in fact all humans with equal opportunities and with an equal sense of our own humanity.