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Tuesday, 27 February 2018
Page: 2170

Mr HILL (Bruce) (17:57): In reflecting on the 10th anniversary of this parliament's apology to the stolen generations and thinking about what I might say, I was struck again—as I was when reflecting last year on the anniversary of the 1967 referendum, the 25th anniversary of the Mabo decision and indeed the anniversary of Paul Keating's Redfern speech—by how contemporary this event is. Indeed, I was actually a staffer in this building from 1995 to 2000, so I was here in the year 1997, when the Bringing them home report was tabled and debated in this parliament. It recommended that the parliaments of Australia acknowledge the responsibility of successive parliaments and parliamentarians for the laws, policies and practices which allowed the forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their mothers and fathers. I'll just read into the Hansard a quote from the community guide, which summarised the report's conclusions in quite sharp, stark terms: 'Indigenous families and communities have endured gross violations of their human rights. These violations continue to affect Indigenous people's daily lives. They were an act of genocide aimed at wiping out Indigenous families, communities and cultures vital to the precious and inalienable heritage of Australia.'

The emotion of that debate—there's a lot that passes or washes over you that you either forget or wish you could forget at times, listening to debates in this place. But I cannot remember anything that stuck in my emotional memory of my five years working as a staffer in this building as much as the days when that report was debated. The building was filled with people from the stolen generations and their families, and every Labor member and senator got up and spoke and read into the Hansard some of the individual and personal stories contained in that report. To their shame, most of the now government did not adopt that spirit.

But we recaptured, I think it's fair to say, a brief moment of that kind of emotion at the breakfast with former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd a couple of weeks ago to commemorate the 10th anniversary. Now, I'm not a particularly emotional person—let's be honest; I know most of the people in this chamber—but who could not be moved? I do admit to uncharacteristically shedding a little tear at a couple of moments during the breakfast—not just at the stories of dispossession that were told and retold and should not be forgotten, but most of all, actually, at the faces—watching the faces that were up on the screen of the people who were in the chamber, in this parliament, out on the lawns and around the nation watching then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd deliver that historic apology. The emotion was real, it was palpable, and you can see it still and for the ages. Anyone watching that video footage of the reaction can see just how much this apology meant to people and how real the impact was.

Despite that, it wasn't until 2007, four elections later, that an Australian Prime Minister finally stood up in the House of Representatives and followed through on the recommendation to say sorry. John Howard, to his eternal shame, was too small a man to utter that simple word 'sorry'. He skirted around it with semantics and expressions of regret, but he could not say sorry. Kevin Rudd was brave enough, courageous enough and decent enough to do so. This year we could have been and should have been celebrating the 20th anniversary of the apology and not the 10th. We could have and should have had an extra 10 years of serious policy from this parliament to try to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians on things like life expectancy, educational attainment, employment, health outcomes and so on. The contemporaneity of this historic event is a reminder that progress is never won easily and is always resisted by some. To his eternal shame, the member for Dickson couldn't bring himself to even turn up and be in the chamber for that historic moment—a stain on his record.

There is a political truth that underlies this difficulty. It's much harder to unite, to build a case and to build momentum for positive change. As Kevin Rudd so aptly reminded us at the breakfast, all of the big moments in the history of Aboriginal rights in modern Australia were hard until they were done. The 1967 referendum, Gough's land rights, Keating's Mabo—all of them were hard until they were done. It is far easier, as some of those opposite know well, to trade on the base human emotion of fear—to make it your political business model and to leverage fear and difference to divide and conquer. In this way, the member for Warringah and the member for Dickson are the true heirs of John Howard, who was a master of the dark arts. It was only 10 years ago that the Australian Prime Minister stood up in this parliament and apologised to the First Australians who were ripped from their families and had their childhoods destroyed by policies enacted by people who sat in this chamber and in parliaments around the nation. Some may have meant well, but still it was wrong. Eventually, finally, our nation's leader said sorry.

Between 1910 and 1970, over 50,000 children were stolen from their families, often violently, due to the deliberate policies of Australian parliaments. This was no accident. Prime Minister Rudd made this point in his speech 10 years ago when he said:

… the laws that our parliaments enacted made the stolen generations possible. We, the parliaments of the nation, are ultimately responsible, not those who gave effect to our laws. The problem lay with the laws themselves.

It's a sobering reminder of the work that we do here and the responsibility that comes with the parliament's power to ensure that the laws we pass and the laws we propose are just. It's important also to note that this affected all Indigenous Australians and not just those who were stolen and had their lives disrupted. As Aboriginal people told the parliament through the Bringing them home report, the fear and the trauma engendered across a whole nation—the Aboriginal nation; a whole people—was that your kids might be next or your neighbour's kids might be next.

The anniversary of the apology is also an important reminder that, without action, words—especially apologies—risk becoming hollow. Prime Minister Rudd knew this, to his credit, and that's why he instituted the Closing the gap report, which forced the reality of Aboriginal disadvantage into the light, if you like, so that his own government and all of the governments that came after could not claim ignorance of the problem. In my former life as a public servant, I had the enormous privilege for close to a year of being responsible for the Victorian government's Aboriginal policy under a former coalition Liberal government. I was looking at the cross-government work to implement the Closing the Gap targets, and responsible for the reporting, preparation and finalisation of the next framework. In Victoria, I'm pleased to say, it has been a broadly bipartisan approach. The member for Grayndler outlined well the progress which has been made. I think I'd summarise it as patchy, not enough and insufficient, but there has been modest progress in three areas because of Closing the Gap.

There is a glass half full, glass half empty view you can take of these things—both are important lenses in this case. We do need to acknowledge the progress, but we need also to acknowledge, as Prime Minister Rudd said, these were ambitious targets. They were not meant to be easy to achieve. We have a responsibility to the Aboriginal citizens of Australia, as custodians on this continent of the world's oldest continuous living culture, to do more and to not abandon those targets. That's why Labor to a team, every member, every senator, every woman and every man, have committed to establishing a stolen generations compensation scheme, to ensure that saying sorry is actually met with determined action.

Of course, this is too late for some people. I was in despair, I suppose, to read media reports of quite cynical, disgraceful responses to our pretty modest announcement of the numbers in the scheme—$75,000 to around 150 people in the ACT and the Northern Territory not covered by the state schemes. People spoke about 'the Aboriginal industry' or 'people are only doing it for the money'. That stuff should be called out by any member of parliament and by any leader of the community. We'll also provide $10 million to programs that assist with the healing of stolen generation members and their families. These programs will support intergenerational healing, family reunion and return to country, as well as provide support for some of the older members of the stolen generation.

The apology is a reminder that words and symbolism do matter when dealing with grief and trauma. Put simply, if you hurt someone you say sorry. So acknowledgement of the truth of our nation's history, which is far too often uncomfortable and distressing, and ensuring that apologies were spoken and people were heard, and that a very real, important part of reconciling our history and ensuring we're able to move forward together is important to mark, but there is much more to be done. I was talking about the apology to someone who has known the Prime Minister for many years and used to be a personal friend. They said that there are a lot of good things about the Prime Minister. I asked what his problem with this issue was. They said, 'Like all humans, we all have some blind spots and we all have some gaps, but'—in their words—'the Prime Minister has always had a gap on the blackfella issues. He doesn't feel it in his heart.' I would urge his government to reconsider the Uluru Statement from the Heart.