Monday, 18 February 2008
Apology to Australia’S Indigenous Peoples
The motion before the House seeks to offer closure to those Aboriginal Australians who grieve at being separated from their parents in early childhood. This is the third apology on these issues and follows another, more comprehensive, resolution of this parliament made nine years ago, which included an expression of ‘deep and sincere regret that Indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations and for the hurt and trauma that many Indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices’. Australia is a prosperous country with opportunity for all. It is a stain on our integrity as a nation that our Indigenous people do not share fully in all the good things other Australians enjoy. It is simply unacceptable to me and all decent Australians that the life expectancy of an Aborigine is 17 years less than that of other Australians. Their health, education, economic, employment and social outcomes are all so much worse than the rest of us expect and take for granted. Aborigines are far more likely to be in jail or in detention and they are more likely to be victims of violence. Aborigines are more likely to be killed in car accidents, and too often they die from avoidable or curable illnesses. So few gain a trade qualification or university degree and even fewer reach the pinnacle of their profession. Many Indigenous communities are locked into a lifestyle that offers no opportunities, no productive jobs and no hope. It is distressing to visit communities where alcohol abuse, violence, filth and hopelessness are a way of life. I am sorry that as a nation we have not done better. With all the effort, all the funding, why couldn’t we have achieved more? If Aboriginal communities were in leafy suburbs or central business districts, would all this be tolerated? Too many communities are locked away by a permit system which hides the reality of what is happening.
Over the past decade the former coalition government allocated more money, devoted more cabinet time and was more innovative than any of its predecessors, but I am sorry and I apologise to the Aboriginal people that we did not achieve more. Our efforts were sometimes frustrated, including by state governments which frequently chose a different course, generally with even poorer results. I am sorry that in government we wasted too much time on initiatives which did little to improve the lot of Indigenous Australians—ideas that may have been politically correct but were of little worth in practice. So much effort was dedicated to delivering European-style land title for Aboriginal land, because we were assured that land rights would create better outcomes by rebuilding the soul of Indigenous people through a spiritual association with the land. Despite millions of hectares of land being transferred, most of which is no longer productive, it is hard to notice any improvement in the spiritual, mental or physical health or economic welfare of any Aborigine. We wasted too much time on the notion of separate development, a nation within a nation, and ATSIC, with all its corruption and mismanagement. We should have acted sooner to stop the ‘welfare without responsibility’ mentality and we were far too late to intervene where we could to stop the violence, the hopelessness and the wasted lives. Had we acted sooner, fewer children would have been raped and abused, and more women and children would have been safe and healthy. Some criticised us for intervening as dramatically as we did, but I say sorry that we did not act years earlier, and I appeal to the new government not to proceed with its planned rollback of this life-saving intervention.
It is not that there has been an absence of goodwill or lack of determination to provide better opportunities for Indigenous Australians. Whilst I may not agree with some of the policies or actions of those opposite or the Labor states, I do not doubt their sincerity and their desire to make a positive difference. I hope that they do not doubt ours. So often over the years, what was thought to be right at that time had perverse effects. Social justice demanded equal pay for Aboriginal workers but, as a result, Aborigines lost their productive jobs and the support and shelter provided by their employers. The churches were asked to leave the mission stations, but with them left the strength of character and the leadership which sustained a stable community. Welfare benefits flowed to all, but without the skills to manage money much of it bought alcohol and pain. People were made aware of their rights to land and justice but not their responsibilities as custodians and citizens. There has been an almost complete breakdown of traditional tribal elder authority, not replaced by any new regime of discipline. These policies destroyed lives, just like those hurt when taken away from their families, and I say sorry.
I acknowledge the valiant efforts of those who have worked so hard and given up their lives to truly help our original inhabitants. Many have forsaken and do forsake the comforts of life to live and work in difficult, dirty and dangerous circumstances because they want to help and to use their skills and resources to benefit the most disadvantaged of Australians. Some of these people may be criticised by the academic elite today, but many did make a real difference in their time: Pastor Carl Strehlow and the missionaries, who brought not just Christianity but also health care and education; John Flynn; Daisy Bates; Fred Hollows; and hundreds of others. Even today, much excellent work is being done, often away from the public gaze, by people who see injustice and want to see it reversed, who see how Aboriginal people can contribute constructively to our society and want to make it happen: men like Dick Estens and the people of Moree, who worked to break down the barriers to socially include the Indigenous community; mines like Argyle and Century Zinc, which are training Aborigines and employing them as valued members of their workforces; men like Noel Pearson, who are crying out for welfare and other reforms to teach responsibility as the key to more self-reliant generations; a man I know working with a group of young boys who were brain damaged at birth because of the alcoholism of their mothers; and the doctors, nurses, teachers, police and welfare officers who work in these communities, sometimes in danger, to build a better future. We need to acknowledge their efforts and recognise the work that they have done.
Today we say sorry to those wrongfully taken from their families and for our failings of the past, and that is important. But the most important emphasis in last week’s motion and the speeches of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition was the need to look forward. The expression of sorrow has been made before—and with conviction, though with much less show and spectacle. It will mean nothing if it is not accompanied by a deep and sincere commitment by all Australians, both black and white, to do very much better in the future. We must move to end the violence and the degradation, the premature deaths and the social inequity. Aboriginal children, even today, are six times more likely to be taken from their families, and in many communities almost no children live with both their natural mother and father. We on this side of the House pledge ourselves to support policies and initiatives which will make a difference. We will continue to support decisive actions to restore law and order to Aboriginal communities. The communities must remain open to encourage enterprise, industry and pride in citizenship, not locked away by a permit system and policies of exclusion. We will authorise the funds necessary to continue to build houses, hospitals and schools community sporting facilities and to supply the doctors, nurses, teachers, police, carers and business managers to create strong and stable communities. We call on the states to also recognise their failings and to make the Aboriginal communities under their control places that are safe and decent for this generation of children.
We will continue to remind the government that this motion, for all its symbolism, is not a sufficient response in itself and will be empty if it is not a catalyst for a renewed commitment to practical measures to address the profound social disadvantage which continues to be experienced by many Indigenous Australians. I was disappointed that the government spurned the opposition’s offer to work together on an agreed text for this motion. No state Labor government considered it necessary to include the emotive words ‘stolen generation’ in their apologies, but this government insisted. We support the motion, but it should have been so much better. In the end the media were given copies of the motion before the parliament and the opposition. Then the orchestrated partisanship, including by members of the Prime Minister’s staff, took much of the warmth from the day. Labor created division where there should have been unity.
Governments and non-Aboriginal Australians cannot correct Aboriginal disadvantage on their own. An expression of sorrow and regret will not give closure to the past if it is not embraced and accepted. The government can build houses, hospitals and schools, but Indigenous Australians will need to care for them and to use them well for their families. The government can provide land and opportunities for production and business, but the people must grasp them. Governments will provide welfare for those genuinely in need, but the recipients must recognise their obligations to their community and use the money to keep their families safe and healthy. Ultimately, Aboriginals will create their own destinies like all other Australians. They must share a positive willingness to embrace reform and build a better lifestyle for themselves and their children.
To be a turning point, this motion must be about the future—the future we want for our country—more than about the failings of the past. It must bring Australians together in reconciliation so that we can live in peace and confidence together. We are truly sorry when we demonstrate our actions collectively to build a better future for Aboriginal Australians and indeed everyone in our country.