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Thursday, 14 February 2008
Page: 447

Mr SNOWDON (Minister for Defence Science and Personnel) (10:41 AM) —Mr Deputy Speaker, congratulations on taking up this onerous and very responsible task.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Sidebottom)—Thank you.

Mr SNOWDON —I acknowledge the member for Pearce and her contribution, which I thought was insightful and heartfelt, and also the member for Jagajaga and her contribution this morning. I think we have seen a great deal of strong leadership being shown on both sides of the parliament in the last 24 hours. One wonders why it took so long. A simple operation yesterday, really, just to say sorry—not difficult, not hard, a very simple exercise when it all comes down to it.

Yesterday we began in the 42nd Parliament a tradition; we had an event which is certain to become a tradition. We showed respect to the Aboriginal owners of the country on which this place sits and we acknowledged their ownership. The Prime Minister described the welcome to country as significant and, indeed, it is. But it was superseded by the monumental significance of the apology made yesterday to the stolen generations. It is significant for each and every one of those individuals affected by these past practices and those beyond them, but it is also significant for all of us, for all Australians, and it is profoundly significant for me.

Past policy in this area was wrong and people suffered. The words spoken in apology by the Prime Minister and others have been moving, respectful, as the member for Pearce has just demonstrated, and even noble. I want to support what has been said eloquently and evocatively by many speakers in the last 24 hours and to add some of my own reflections, far more personal in nature—personal because they derive from my 30-plus years of mixing with families in the Northern Territory affected by the assimilationist and racist policies of past governments. I have shared their range of emotions, from their happiness as adults reminiscing about shared childhood times to their sadness at the loss, the hurt, the loneliness, the confusion and the anger that they sometimes feel—and paradoxically, illogically, but no less genuinely, their guilt.

What is yet to be fully recognised is that many stolen generation members share what other victims of wrongdoing often feel or are made to feel—that they are somehow to blame for what has happened. Even more painful for some is the doubt and guilt they can feel as they attempt to build their own family life. The people institutionalised were denied learning about families and later in life they have no experience to draw on as partners and parents. Often, as we know, they themselves were subject to abuse. People I have come to know well over the years speak of the anxieties and, perversely, their guilt in having to guess how to deal with the difficulties of parenthood.

By saying sorry, the government is finally helping the victims—the children, the parents, the brothers, the sisters, the aunties, the uncles—to move on, to leave behind the dark clouds of doubt or guilt that they may have burdened their lives with for so long. In saying sorry to these people, the parliament has performed that duty. Our nation’s apology is significant and meaningful. Sorry: simple to say, complex in its significance.

The Bringing them home report documented the many personal stories of people removed and of the mothers and families who suffered from the removal of their children. The stories are from throughout Australia, but I am very familiar with many of the stories of those from the Northern Territory. There is one person whose life and times have mirrored the story of the stolen generations in the Territory, and that is Alec Kruger. Alec was on the floor of the chamber yesterday. His recently published book, Alone on the Soaks—The Life and Times of Alec Kruger, which was co-authored with Gerard Waterford, reveals a great deal about how the removal of children happened in the Northern Territory and its effect on the lives of so many, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike. I was taken by Alec’s words early in his book. When commenting on his reaction to the premiere of Rabbit-Proof Fence, that very excellent film, Alec writes:

I was nervous that people around us would think less of us. That it would feed the idea it was somehow our fault and we could have done something about it.

I have spoken earlier about how the burden of unjustified guilt can be destructive. I believe that yesterday, the parliament saying sorry, giving a united voice to that word, went a long way to eradicating that crushing burden. Yes, finally, the burden has come back to rest on government and government policy.

Any fair-minded person reading any of the available evidence is shocked and repelled by what was done not in the name of welfare but in the name of assimilation. As historian Dr Peter Read, from the ANU, noted when studying the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Act 1909:

White children too were removed from their parents. But white single mothers could apply for a pension to look after their own children.

Children could be committed to a suitable relative and they could be returned after a period of good behaviour.

Institutionalised children could be returned home for holidays.

No such provisions existed under the Aborigines Protection Act 1909 NSW, for its intention was to separate children from their parents (and their race) permanently.

It is only in recent times that we as a nation have realised what happened to many people—people alive today, people many of us know, people who have been here in Canberra this week.

When in 1990 Barbara Cummings, from the Northern Territory, completed her research into the removal of children and their institutionalisation, with its publication as Take this Child, many of us realised how little we knew of that part of our history. We realised how little we knew of the extensive attempts to destroy Aboriginal family life and traditions. Many people in the Northern Territory were shocked to learn of the systematic way in which a separation was undertaken.

Boys from Central Australia, people I know, adult men of my own age, were institutionalised in the Top End, often on Croker Island or at Garden Point in the Tiwi Islands. Michael Long is an example. Michael Long’s father came from Ti-Tree and was taken to Croker Island and eventually to the Tiwi Islands. Boys from the Top End were sent to ‘the bungalow’ in Alice Springs, thereby ensuring complete absence of any family contact. The now infamous removal of children en masse from Phillip Creek, outside of Tennant Creek, and the journey to Darwin, over 1,000 kilometres in the back of an open truck on dirt roads, in those days, shows the lengths that the authorities went to to ensure permanent separation. Regrettably, and sadly, they were successful in many instances.

Even now, people in their 50s and 60s and even older are finding their family and family members for the first time since they were forcibly separated. For some the reunion is too hard; the damage is permanent. For others many years of no contact, of being told, ‘Your mother wanted nothing to do with you. She didn’t love you and she didn’t care,’ evoked anger and confusion in the stolen offspring rather than the desire for reunion. Reunion that has occurred was often slow, tenuous, fragile. For many others adopted or fostered interstate, often into uncaring and abusive situations, linking back up with the family was never an available option. To all of them, the parliament has said sorry.

Alec Kruger’s account of his first reunion with his mother is interesting. Alec was taken perhaps as a three-year-old in 1927. Fifteen years later, more or less by accident, he met his mother for the first time since his separation. He was then wearing an army uniform. He ended up in Katherine and was directed to the Aboriginal compound on the outskirts of the town. Alec writes:

It had been more than fifteen years since I had been snatched and taken away by the police. For my mother to have me back standing in front of her must have been a tremendous shock.

... I didn’t have a lot of experience dealing with strong emotions. Institutions, stockwork and then the army had toughened me up to shut down anything too hard. It had been such a long time since I had felt my mother’s hug or any family affection, not since I was too young to remember.

Hugs and affection were not to be the inheritance of many Aboriginal people from the Territory and from many other parts of Australia.

I think it is difficult for us to understand this—those of us who are parents, who have children, who come from families where love is part of existence and the absolute bedrock on which we base our lives. Yet these young people, Alec Kruger among them, were taken, separated forever effectively. To finally gain that acquaintance again, to come in contact with the family, how difficult it must be. I know of the heartfelt work of many who are involved in linking families together and eventually the positive rewards, the emotion that occurs as a result of that work.

We know how the arts have become a place for people to talk, to demonstrate their feeling about these things. Musicians—among them Bobby Randall, who was on the floor here yesterday, and Archie Roach—have given us hauntingly sorrowful, emotional songs about these experiences. They have played their very important part in the national recognition of what happened and what needed to be done. Now let that apology, that sorry, ring around the nation.

It is very difficult in my circumstances to actually convey the depth of feeling that exists within me, within my family and within many people that I work and live with about how important yesterday was. That is why, when I saw the emotion in the media last night of people actually joyfully crying, one wonders why we could not do it before. What is it that prevented us doing it? Happily, though, it has been done.

And now we have the challenges before us. We have said more than sorry. I have been working in and out of this place for 20 years, and for all of those years I have talked about Indigenous poverty. For all of those years I have talked about Indigenous education, health and housing. At last there is a beacon, a beacon which was lit by the Prime Minister yesterday, a commitment in the form of this commission which will involve the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister himself to unify and find a way to deal with the intransigence that exists with many of these policies.

Mr Deputy Speaker, unfortunately my time has run out, but I have to say to you that I am immensely proud to have been here yesterday. I am immensely proud to be part of a Rudd Labor government which is forging this new pathway ahead. It will be difficult. We should not underestimate the task in front of us. I would just say to you, and I say to the parliament and anyone else who might be listening, that we cannot do it on our own. We can only do it in partnership. We can only do it if we show respect to the Indigenous people of this country and work with them. We should not treat them as third-party objects; they should be treated as partners in the process. Too often in the past they have been the subject of policy, the objects of policy, and the stolen generations are but one example. I reaffirm again my commitment to the task that is before us and my support for that great deed that was done in this parliament yesterday.