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Thursday, 14 February 2008
Page: 455

Mr GEORGIOU (11:17 AM) —Mr Deputy Speaker Sidebottom, congratulations on your elevation. I would like to echo one sentiment expressed by the member for Prospect, and that is the sense of pride in being part of a body that could have a debate like this on both sides of the parliament. What the member for McMillan said, what the member for Pearce said, and what the minister on the other side said was very moving. It is very important. I wish to endorse what is a momentous apology of the parliament to members of the stolen generation, to their families and to their communities.

Let me first say how moving it was to have been in the House to hear the apologies given in the presence of those members of the stolen generation who were there in the House. The fact is that many thousands of Indigenous families across Australia have been affected by this tragedy and this injustice. Indigenous communities have lost their children and they have borne the burden of grief. We need to acknowledge the harm that was done and we also need to accept responsibility for the fact that our predecessors in this parliament played a major part in the removals. I do embrace this need both as a person and as a politician and I say unequivocally that I am sorry.

In 1997 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Bringing them home report revealed that between 1910 and 1970 across Australia many thousands of Indigenous people had been forcibly removed from their families, as a matter of deliberate government policy. The report told the stories of hundreds of living witnesses. They told of grief and loss, tenacity and survival. The knowledge of what had occurred in our recent past shocked and deeply moved our nation. It was the impetus for a Sorry Day movement that saw hundreds and thousands of ordinary Australians take to the streets and express their desire for reconciliation.

Through the recommendations of the report, the members of the stolen generations called upon this parliament to acknowledge the truth and to formally acknowledge the harm that had been done. Let us be entirely clear: this parliament was directly involved in the practice of Indigenous child removal in this country. Our predecessors enacted the laws that sanctioned it. They armed the bureaucrats, the police and the welfare officers with the tools to administer it. This parliament directly oversaw Aboriginal administration in the Northern Territory for the 50 years in which it pursued a policy of removing so-called ‘half caste’ children from Aboriginal settlements.

An insight into the thinking that underpinned these policies and these actions is given by the resolution agreed to at a national meeting in Canberra in 1937. This meeting was one of Aboriginal administrators from Commonwealth and state levels on the future of mixed-race Aboriginals in Australia. That resolution stated:

... the destiny of the natives of aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth—

and it urged that—

... all efforts be directed to that end.

The absorption policy was furthered by the involuntary removal of mixed-race children from their Aboriginal families. The circumstances of child removal varied across Australia. In some states, young children were separated from their families but remained in dormitories on the same reservation. In others, they were sent to institutions to prepare them for employment in their early teens. In the postwar era, the policy of child removals continued throughout the nation as a matter of furthering Aboriginal assimilation. The number of children removed increased in the 1950s and the 1960s. Children were removed on grounds of alleged neglect. They were forced to attend faraway schools. They were removed for medical treatment and they were adopted out at birth.

For as long as it existed, however—and I think this needs to be emphasised when we are reflecting on the mores of the time—the removal policy was strongly opposed by many Aboriginal and other Australians. The Chief Protector of Aborigines in the state of Queensland once described the ‘kidnapping of boys and girls’ as a ‘serious evil’. Some parliamentarians spoke passionately against passing laws that allowed the arbitrary removal of Aboriginal children. One said:

These people have the same parental feelings and have the same love for their children as have white people; we must take that into consideration.

Aboriginal parents frequently pleaded with local authorities to stop the removals. A letter sent to the ‘Protector Aboriginals’ in Alice Springs in April 1941 reads:

Will you please place this Protest, as we do not understand any forcible removal, of any of us, from this Central Australia, our birthright country.

The testimony of what was done does not just lie in historical records; it lies in the memories and the words of the members of the stolen generations themselves, and it is these testimonies of living witnesses that are truly compelling. They tell of the panic created by police raids on Aboriginal camps:

You can understand the terror that we lived in, the fright—not knowing when someone will come ...

They described the moment of separation:

We jumped on our mothers’ backs, crying, trying not to be left behind.

They speak of mothers—

... chasing the car, running and crying after us—

of parents fleeing with their children into the bush, darkening the skin of their half-white kids, and mums who ‘always made sure that everything was right in case welfare came around’. They spoke of ‘stolen years’ that have been lost forever. And they have asked for our apology.

One woman told the HREOC inquiry:

The Government has to explain why it happened.

…            …            …

... an apology is important to me because I’ve never been apologised to. My mother’s never been apologised to, not once, and I would like to be apologised to.

Through this motion, the Australian parliament is saying sorry to the members of the stolen generations and to their families and to their communities. This motion rightly calls us—all of us—to recognise what was done. We must heed the stories of those who suffered. The injustices of the past are many; the wounds are deep. This motion speaks of healing and of future resolve. It commits us to never allowing injustices against Indigenous people to be perpetrated or repeated.

I have received hundreds of communications from my constituents asking me to support an apology to the stolen generations. In its bipartisan support for this motion, the parliament gives expression to a profound and widely shared sentiment of the Australian people. This unity demonstrates our commitment to address injustices that have been unfinished business for far too long. This motion exemplifies a new national determination to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity. We need to move forward and do so with urgency. We need to do whatever it takes to address the causes of Indigenous disadvantage in Australia today. In apologising to the stolen generation, this parliament unites in a solemn recognition of the injustices of the past. We must use this united resolve to work together with Indigenous Australians to eradicate the injustices of the present.

I wish to place on record my gratitude to the Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who pursued the cause of an apology over the years when it seemed so difficult to attain. I support this motion wholeheartedly and without reservation. It has been too long in coming, and I share what I think is a widespread sense of relief that it is now done. As Sir William Deane—and I share the member for McMillan’s taste for the former Governor-General’s quotes—said:

This brings us back to the stage where we can really see and appreciate the importance of the spiritual as well as the practical aspects of reconciliation. We have again come to the stage where, spiritually, I think we are together. Now we can go on and start doing something.

I commend the motion to the House.