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Thursday, 14 February 2008
Page: 427

Ms OWENS (4:43 PM) —Yesterday was a great day to be a member of parliament, a day that will be remembered by many and talked about for years to come. It was, of course, the day that the Prime Minister of the country said sorry to the stolen generation. It was the greatest of days and I, like so many of my colleagues, felt so privileged to have been present on the floor of this House sharing the space with four great former prime ministers, the current Prime Minister and so many Aboriginal elders and representatives of the stolen generation. The Prime Minister, on behalf of the Australian parliament, said sorry three times and without qualification.

I was expecting the apology—we had promised it and it still moved me deeply—but I have to say that what I did not expect and what surprised and moved me more than anything was the sense of joy, relief and hope about the House, the warmth of the welcome towards our Indigenous brothers and sisters and their sense of confidence and belonging in this place. In fact, I have said several times that Indigenous Australia owned Parliament House yesterday and that is a great thing. We should never underestimate the power of belonging and of being valued, particularly for those who have been so disadvantaged in so many ways for so many years.

It was a day to honour the people of a living culture that dates back tens of thousands of years and to feel relieved and pleased for them that finally the day had come—the day to acknowledge the experiences of the stolen generation, to walk with them into the light, to look them in the eye, to recognise them in their grief and to acknowledge, once and for all time, the sheer scope of the nation’s responsibility for fractured lives, broken families and decimated culture and  to say the simple words: ‘I’m sorry.’ It was a day to acknowledge openly that Western civilisation in Australia flourished at the expense of the dignity and, in many cases, the very survival of the oldest living culture in the world.

The losses of the Indigenous people over 200 years of modern settlement are beyond measurement. But I think we should acknowledge that the nation as a whole, through our own actions, lost much more than we can comprehend when we valued our own culture and needs above those of the first inhabitants and when modern Australia as a nation accepted such incredible losses of life, culture and family for the first Australians as the price paid for our own development.

I am incredibly saddened, on this day following the day we said sorry, that I cannot meet my local tribe, the Barramatugal clan of the Darug nation, in its full strength. When we rowed up the Parramatta River just a few weeks after first settlement we found a space which was like a park because the local tribes had burnt the land. The crescent in the Parramatta River was their meeting place. We built Government House there at that meeting place. Today there are a few elders—we know a few of them well. But the opportunity to meet that nation and that tribe in its full strength is gone forever from this nation. I feel that I have lost the opportunity to know my community well because of this loss—to meet them and marvel at a people whose perception of the world, space, time and land is so different from ours, to marvel at concepts that exist in one language and not in another, and to be introduced to the land on which I live by a people who have a very real spiritual connection to that land. We as a nation have all lost something. The settlers and governments that destroyed so much, gained so much and lost so much for future generations actually had some say in the choices that they made, but the stolen generation did not have a choice.

The new seat of Parramatta has a larger population of Indigenous Australians than the old one and some members of our Indigenous community are clearly under stress. We in this House have the task, as we return home, of taking the sense of appreciation and hope with us to work with local communities on moving forward. We all have much work to do, but the events of yesterday make that task just a tiny bit easier.