Fifteen years ago today, the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, stood in a Federal Parliament packed with First Nations people, and delivered an Apology to the Stolen Generations: “we say, sorry; to the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry; and for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.”
It was Rudd’s finest hour. There were many more disastrous moments during the time of Rudd’s leadership. But this was a high moment—for him, as national leader, and for the nation, coming to grips with a long-enduring damaging factor in the history of Australia since the British invasion in 1788. “We say sorry”, that simple phrase, repeated with increasing intensity: short, pointed, focussed—and so, so needed.
Formally, the Apology which was delivered on 13 February 2008, was known as the National Apology to Australia’s Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Apology recognised the injustices of past government policies, particularly as they related to the Stolen Generations. Throughout much of the 20th century, governments, churches and welfare bodies had forcibly removed many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. These children became known as the Stolen Generations.
In April 1997, a landmark report on the Stolen Generations had been issued by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The report was entitled Bringing Them Home. (Interestingly, that exact phrase was then used for the NAIDOC WEEK theme in 1998: Bringing Them Home.)
Sir Ronald Wilson, former High Court justice and the then-President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, had led the National Inquiry along with Mick Dodson, the Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner. They heard testimony directly from 535 people and read a further 600 submissions that had been made. Wilson stated that they encountered “hundreds of stories of personal devastation, pain and loss. It was a life-changing experience.”
The report, entitled Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, estimated that “between 1910 and 1970, up to 100,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and put in white foster homes”. The commissioners found that this was in breach of international law, and called for a national compensation fund to be established. They also recommended a national “sorry day”; the first one was held in 1998 and this has remained an annual fixture of growing significance to Aboriginal Australians.
Creative Spirits offers an excellent overview of the issues associated with the Aboriginal people who had formed what became known as “the stolen generations”; see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/stolen-generations/a-guide-to-australias-stolen-generations
They also have a comprehensive cataloguing of the impacts that being removed from your family home as a child can have on such children, running throughout their lives and on into subsequent generations; see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/stolen-generations/stolen-generations-effects-and-consequences
The response of the Howard Government to this report was jarring: Howard refused to make a public apology to “the stolen generations”. Apologies made by the governments of South Australia (May 1997), Western Australia (May 1997), the Australian Capital Territory (June 1997) and New South Wales (June 1997), Tasmania (August 1997), Victoria (September 1997), Queensland (May 1999), and the Northern Territory (October 2001), as well as a number of local governments and churches across the country.
The texts of the above apologies can be found at https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/bringing-them-home-apologies-state-and-territory-parliaments-2008
Guided by Howard’s refusal to acknowledge the depth of the realities that had been experienced by First Peoples, his government had described this intentional, systemic, multi-generational mistreatment of Indigenous Australians as the “most blemished chapter” in Australian history. The understatement of this language (“regret” rather than “sorry” or ”apology”; “blemish” rather than “systemic injustice”, for instance) reflected the conservative white preference for minimising—or perhaps removing from sight—the story of Aboriginal people in recent centuries. There would be no apology from this mean-spirited government.
With the election of Rudd’s government in 2007, the perspective on Indigenous matters, and the way of dealing with the Bringing Them Home Report of a decade earlier, dramatically shifted. It was very early on in the term of the first Rudd Government that the Apology to the Stolen Generations was delivered, in the midst of an overflowing outpouring of emotions from those gathered in Canberra on that day, as they heard a direct apology for what they and their forebears had experienced over many, many decades,
This speech is worth remembering today, in the midst of our considerations about Voice, Treaty, and Truth. The 1997 Report and the 2008 Apology were steps along the way of Truth-Telling. There are more steps for us to take, as a nation, in this regard. And there is a pressing need for a Voice, from Indigenous Peoples, directly to the Federal Parliament, to advise and guide on the best ways forward for the First Peoples of this continent and its surrounding islands.