Monday, 18 February 2008
Apology to Australia’S Indigenous Peoples
Today I come into this chamber and I have not written a speech because I feel that there are perhaps not the words in written form to determine and correctly articulate how I feel about the whole process of reconciliation and the sorry motion.
I guess it is with confusion because I grew up in a small rural community and many, many times I have to stop and think about this because I have to wonder whether it was ignorance or just what took place. But we had a camp called the one-mile camp; obviously, it was one mile outside of our local town boundary. Then in the early sixties—I was just a young child—the council and the state government decided to repatriate or rehouse many of those Indigenous people to the street that I lived in. It was very early in my life; five houses were built next door to us. My father was a wonderful man. He had this value that if you cannot say anything good about anybody then simply do not say it. My father thought everybody was a good bloke. It did not matter what their shortcomings were, everyone was a good bloke.
I remember as a very small child perhaps some people being concerned—and there were only a few houses in our street; it was a very small rural community—about the building of these houses and the moving, but my father warmly welcomed the new arrivals to the street. As such, we did. So we grew up as playmates, as neighbours, sharing your house, sharing my house, sharing our sporting escapades at school. Charlotte Irving was a great friend of mine and ours. I think of Percy Strong who was the same age and went on to be a schoolteacher. I think of Carmen Brown. I think of Vincent and Andy Blair and all the Blair boys who were great footballers; we absolutely adored them and we did not seem to see anything amiss. There did not seem to be any differences.
Yes, there were white men who would get drunk on a Saturday night at the hotel and there would be a black man who would get drunk on Saturday night at the hotel. There did not seem to be any difference. On Sunday we all attended the football and we were all part of the same community. We all wore our school clothes and attended school. There was no issue of having to force people to attend school because we all just walked to school together. So when I think about the way in which some of our people across Australia have been confused, I understand that confusion, because to many of us it was normal life and we did not know there was an issue in the way in which the Aboriginal men were paid differently. We did not know that, if that was the case. We did not know that there were issues and, because all of these children were with their mums and dads, we were not aware of what was happening in the Northern Territory or Western Australia. We were not aware of that kind of action that was taking place.
We were confused, ignorant and perhaps just not living in reality, but it was different. The media now brings things into our lounge rooms on our TVs and radios that expose us to things that we were not exposed to. There were not even TVs in our houses. So we only knew the community in which we lived and we seemed to know how that community operated. It is with such shock and utter dismay that years later, as the TV screens zoom information into our homes and the radios come on all day every day, we are exposed to movies like Rabbit-Proof Fence and those sorts of things. We feel like we were in the dark about what was happening in many of our communities, because we were not in remote areas and we just did not see this happening. When we hear about these things, we find it almost impossible to imagine how they were allowed to happen. Of course, there is sincere sadness and depth of despair at the forcible removal of children from adults and that many of these children then went on not to have great lives but to be abused. We learn more about this every day, and I still get amazed when I read about it.
I was on the inquiry into capacity building in Indigenous communities and I am still surprised at the level of need in Indigenous communities. Because of my past, it has just been a normal thing for me to have the same relationship with Indigenous people as non-Indigenous people across my electorate and in my community. It is just not something that is different. But I stand here today knowing that in 1999 I was becoming very well aware of what was happening in Indigenous communities, in territories that were far-flung from the land I grew up in. I became aware of that, I was sorry about that and I am regretful about that. I am regretful for any pain inflicted upon innocent people—children or parents. In 1999, when the motion of regret was put forward by the then Prime Minister, I felt it deeply because there was sincere regret in my heart and I felt that it was the right thing to do.
As we progress down the path of reconciliation, I wonder why people have been so incredibly damning of the last government when there have been so many governments—we are told this happened up until 1970 and probably a little later—that have not moved to do anything to say sorry or to express regret and a sincere apology for what many Australians did not know was happening. It is true that the general public are very ignorant about what governments do. They are very ignorant about local government, they are very ignorant about state government and they are very ignorant about the Commonwealth government. Many do not know the differences in how each level of government acts and represents them. In those days there was little media and little opportunity to learn what was happening. Many of us, in our lifetimes, travelled no further than the next town and it was a very difficult thing for people to come to terms with.
Having said that, I believe the Australian people have come to terms with the fact that what happened to families, parents and children under these extraordinary conditions was wrong and should not have happened. I am pleased to be a part of saying to the communities—those that are with us now and those who went before us—that I am sorry their lives were turned upside down. Whether it was done with the best intentions by well-meaning people, or whether it was evil, the fact of the matter is that things happened. I believe the anger and confusion being felt at the moment by people across my electorate simply comes down to the way they have been raised, the lives they have lived and, perhaps, their lack of understanding of exactly how bad things were for many of our Indigenous communities.
I would like to think that the communities that now need assistance will receive very clear direction and very clear guidelines and principles to enable that capacity building in the communities. I wonder how it got to the point that many of the Indigenous children in my electorate are not attending school, as they did in past years. I wonder how we can instil pride back into the Indigenous community and hold up the incredible role models that were just the norm when I was growing up—just the normal kid on the block.
When I go to my home town I see that the weatherboard house I once lived in and the three other houses in the street are still there and in great condition, yet the Indigenous housing there has been rebuilt for a third time in that period. I hear speakers on both sides of the House saying that the tools and the guidance have to be provided in order that pride can then be a major factor in the lives of our Indigenous Australians. I stand here today to indicate that, in supporting our apology—the ‘sorry’—I also would like to support the Leader of the Opposition in a speech that I believe came from the heart and a speech that moved me to sincere tears. I know of no other man in this place who has genuinely always fostered the interests of Indigenous people. I know of no other man in this place who should have had some respect paid. I was so pleased to hear the member for Banks make that statement in this place today. I was proud of Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister, but I was equally as proud of Brendan Nelson, the Leader of the Opposition, for that speech that drew from his heart and from his very being. I am very proud to be a part of the opposition which supported him that day.