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Thursday, 14 February 2008
Page: 453

Mr BOWEN (Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs, and Assistant Treasurer) (11:10 AM) —Many words have been said on this motion and many more will be said before it passes this chamber. I do not profess that there is anything I can say that will add to that debate. I do not profess that there is anything I can say that will be more eloquent than what was said by those who have come before me or those who will go after me, certainly not more eloquent than the Prime Minister yesterday. We just heard another eloquent contribution from the honourable member for McMillan.

Yesterday was a very emotional day. I was prouder yesterday than the day I was elected to this House; I was prouder yesterday than the day I was sworn in as a minister in this government—proud to be associated with the Prime Minister and with a government which has taken this action and proud to be a member of the chamber, which stood as one on that moment. It would be a matter of some regret for me if, after I left this House, I were to say to somebody that I was there for the apology motion but I did not speak, and I am not going to let that happen. Even though I do not propose to detain the House for very long, I do want to speak on this motion and add my apology, my personal apology, to that which the Prime Minister gave on my behalf and on behalf of all members.

Between 1910 and 1970, between one in 10 and one in three young Aboriginal children were removed from their families. Some went to a loving environment and were nurtured in their new homes; most were not. None of them were removed for any other reason than their colour and their race, and that means that the motives of those who did the removing, at the end of the day, are in some senses irrelevant. The fact that they were removed from their families, their loving families, because of their race is something that we need to be sorry for and something that we are sorry for as a parliament and as a government.

On 22 February 1933, JA Carrodus, who was Secretary of the Department of Interior of the Commonwealth, said: ‘The policy of mixing half-castes with whites for the purpose of breeding out their colour is that adopted by the Commonwealth government.’ It is appropriate that this parliament apologise for that offensive, stomach-turning policy which was carried out in our name as a nation. No parent who has not experienced it can begin to imagine the heartache and the gut-wrenching, stomach-turning sense of loss of the parents who watched their children being removed or came back to find their children gone; nor can we begin to imagine the psychological impact on children who had this done to them.

Those affected do not have to imagine it; they live it every day, still. They will live it every day that they are on this planet. We are therefore forced to imagine it if we can even begin to. As former Prime Minister Keating said, ‘It seems to me that if we can imagine the injustice then we can imagine its opposite.’ We can have justice. It will require imagination and goodwill. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition yesterday invited us to imagine it with them and, as the member for McMillan said, the Prime Minister extended the hand of friendship to the Leader of the Opposition and asked him to come with us on that journey.

The state is a continuum: members change, members come and go, ministers come and go. As a member of that continuing entity—the state, the government and the parliament—I apologise. As a parent who cannot begin to imagine what the parents went through, I am sorry.

We hear a lot today about early childhood, about the importance of the first years of life and about how somebody’s chances in life are determined by the time they are three. Can we begin to imagine what we did to the chances of those people who were ripped from their families at very early ages? If it happened today, the eyes of the world would be upon us. If it happened today, we would be regarded as a pariah. There would be sanctions, we would be cut off from the world community—rightly so. But it happened at a different time. The fact that it was a different time does not excuse it. There were people who argued at the time that this was wrong. There were people, white and black, who said, ‘This cannot be allowed to continue.’ There were people who, despite the norms of the time, said, ‘This is offensive.’ They were not listened to. They were right.

But now we must build on this apology and move on. We must tackle the issues of child mortality, life expectancy, education, health—the list is endless. There have been governments of both persuasions who have tried over the years and who have had varying degrees of success, but nowhere near enough. Now we recommit ourselves as a parliament to doing that.

I remember as a relatively young man watching the then Leader of the Opposition Kim Beazley responding on the television when the report was first released. I think you might have been in the chamber at the time, Mr Deputy Speaker Sidebottom—no, you came just afterwards, my apologies. I remember the Leader of the Opposition losing control of his emotions during that speech. I remember wondering why. I remember thinking: what could be in that report? I went away and read it and understood immediately what had brought the then Leader of the Opposition Kim Beazley to that conclusion. Yesterday was perhaps an equally emotional day in a very different sense, a sense where we can now build on that and move on.

I do not speak for my electorate today; I speak for myself. I must say I have been just a little surprised about the strength of feeling in my electorate—the emails coming to my office are 10, 15 to one in favour of the apology. But I do not profess to speak for those who do not support the apology; I profess to speak for myself and, to the degree I can, for those who do. I speak as a member of the continuing state and say, on behalf of those who came before us, we are sorry. I speak for them. I speak for all those who wish to move on and build on that in a sense of friendship and achievement—I am sorry.