House debates

Tuesday, 14 February 2023

Ministerial Statements

National Apology to the Stolen Generations: 15th Anniversary

6:01 pm

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Monday marked 15 years since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued the apology to the stolen generations. It's 15 years since the nation offered a formal apology to our First Nations peoples, which acknowledged the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments had resulted in the forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, and 'inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians'. It was a profound moment for this place, and for our nation. It was a moment where, as a nation, we could collectively acknowledge the wrongdoings of our predecessors and start to look together towards the future. It was a moment where, collectively, we told the truth.

The apology 15 years ago was just a step on the path of reconciliation. As the Prime Minister has said, one of the greatest achievements of the apology was to:

… keep alive the faith in decency and the hope for reconciliation that illuminate the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

It paved the way for the next steps on our national journey of reconciliation—voice, treaty and truth.

I want to say a few words about this anniversary in my role as Australia's Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs. This journey, this national journey of reconciliation, frames the way that the world sees Australia. And in framing the way that the rest of the world sees Australia, it underlies and underpins our influence internationally. Gough Whitlam recognised this as Prime Minister when, in 1972, he said in a significant foreign policy speech:

More than any foreign aid program, more than any international obligation which we meet or forfeit, more than any part we may play in any treaty or agreement or alliance, Australia's treatment of her aboriginal people will be the thing upon which the rest of the world will judge—

it. Whitlam was right.

As Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs I can see how other nations with similar histories to ours, similar colonial pasts, are further along this path of national reconciliation with their first nations people, particularly when it comes to constitutional recognition. New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Norway—all democracies comparable to our own—all have structures in place to represent first nations people. In comparison, Australia is an outlier. We sit alone, without a formalised recognition of First Nations people. So it's no surprise, in this context, that the Albanese government's commitment to the full implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, our work to enshrine both constitutional recognition of our First Nations people and a First Nations voice to parliament, has not been lost on our international counterparts. The Albanese government understands that we need to incorporate the 60,000 years of Indigenous wisdom present in our nation, a gift that all of us have inherited, when we engage with our international partners.

That's why we're progressing a First Nations foreign policy, centring Indigenous perspectives, voices and practices in the way that we engage with the rest of the world. As part of this, we're appointing an ambassador for First Nations peoples. I've seen how this isn't just a 'nice to do' thing; it's not a piece of PR. It's really deepened our engagement with other countries, and the First Nations peoples in other countries, and it's really shaping the way that those countries view Australia.

We know that we need to harness the knowledge of the world's oldest continuing culture when we engage with the world. But some nations that we compete with, in our region, like to portray Australia as a colonial outpost, out of place in our own region. The process of constitutional recognition of First Nations Australia, the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Voice to Parliament, puts paid to this lie. It shows the ability of our nation, of our political system, to change, to grow, to become a greater nation tomorrow than we were yesterday, to recognise and address the mistakes of our past.

This process of national growth and evolution is a living demonstration of the strength of our nation as an evolving society and country and of the strength of our political system. It's a comparative advantage of our democracy to be able to recognise mistakes and to change course, to set off on a more positive, inclusive course.

I have seen the enormous interest in Australia's process of Indigenous, First Nations, constitutional recognition, firsthand, in my travels as Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, particularly in regions like Africa and South America, that there's substantial interest in our process to appoint a voice to parliament.

I think this is important because, among the many reasons for the Voice, constitutional recognition is fundamental to ensuring our international counterparts see us for who we are: a proud and diverse country that lays claim to over 300 different ethnicities, a country that embodies what Noel Pearson has described as the three stories that make us one as Australians—the tens of thousands of years of continuous Indigenous culture, the Westminster traditions that followed and the multicultural migration that has enriched our society in recent decades. You cannot tell the one story of Australia without telling these three stories. As Noel Pearson has said, together these three stories tell an epic. Our job as parliamentarians is to bring these three stories together into the one national story.

The process of the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, particularly the referendum that we will hold this year to enshrine the Voice to Parliament in our Constitution, is an important moment to bring together these three stories of Australia. It is an important moment of nation-building. It's a great obligation on our part. I see it as part of the continuum from the apology that we saw 15 years ago, in this building, to the implementation of the Voice to Parliament.

It's important that we trace the history of the Voice to Parliament. When the constitutional recognition committee, Indigenous Australians, got together to consider how they wanted to be recognised in our Constitution, how they wanted to be recognised in the birth certificate of our nation, they did not want a mere symbolic recognition. They didn't want to be simply included in the preamble of our Constitution; they didn't want a tick-a-box exercise. They wanted something substantive. The consensus ask they came up with was the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Voice to Parliament. It's a great gift that we have been given—a gift that is an opportunity for nation building.

In my community in Melbourne's west we are very proud to be the home of that wonderful, outstanding Indigenous leader William Cooper, who lived in Footscray. His magnificent moustachioed visage is visible from the Footscray train station to everyone commuting into the CBD. William Cooper wasn't just a trade unionist; he wasn't just a pastor. He was an advocate before his time. His ideas were before their time. In the 1930s he called for land rights, but he also called for direct representation of Indigenous voices representing Indigenous peoples in Parliament House—in the 1930s. He included that in a petition to the Prime Minister and later to the King. And we can clearly see the echoes in that petition—that desire for an Indigenous voice, a First Nations voice in our Constitution, in our parliament—in William Cooper's advocacy in the 1930s.

This is part of Noel Pearson's story of the great epic of Australia. But it's incumbent on us to take it forward. I would suggest to colleagues that while the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Voice to Parliament are a great opportunity to tell that epic story of Australia to the rest of the world—to grow our reputation, to show the ability of our country to grow and become ever greater—there's also a risk. If we fail to grasp this moment—if, as a nation and if, as parliamentarians, we fail to rise to meet this moment, to seize this opportunity for nation building—then we will be judged very harshly in the eyes of the international community who are watching our journey.

I think it's incumbent on all of us to realise the scale of the opportunity before us and the gravity of it and to put aside the petty things that sometimes dominate the discussion in this building—to take the guidance of the Apology 15 years ago, that very significant moment, and to take that shared unity of purpose together towards the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Voice to Parliament.

6:12 pm

Photo of Zali SteggallZali Steggall (Warringah, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in response to this motion on the 15th anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations and the introduction of the latest Closing the Gap implementation plan. In doing so, I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri elders of the Canberra region, where parliament gathers. I also acknowledge the traditional custodians of my area in Warringah. Their names remain contested, but they are part of the longest surviving culture in the world. And in acknowledging them I acknowledge, too, their sorrow and the cost of sharing this land, and I commit myself to genuine healing—and I acknowledge that the land was never ceded.

I commend the Albanese government's commitment to closing the gap for Indigenous Australians and support the 2023 implementation plan introduced on Monday, accompanied by the $420 million of new funding for practical action. The implementation plan represents an important step forward in enacting the promises made by this government. The government must emphasise working with Indigenous people on policies that will affect them. That is so important.

I firmly believe that the Voice will be a vital contribution to future Closing the Gap implementation plans and other policies impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The success of Closing the Gap must be determined by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities themselves. The third review of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap tells us that, as a government and as a parliament, we need to move away from giving updates and seeking endorsement and towards enabling and sharing decision-making. The progress of some targets in the plan continue to go backwards, including children's school readiness, child removal rates and incarceration rates.

We need to work on coordination across related areas like alcohol and drugs and like health and mental health and to look at the links between areas such as housing, unemployment and health. We need to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander local groups, hear their feedback and work on engaging with grassroots communities. It is so clear that, while progress has been made in some areas following the 2008 Apology, Australian governments along the way have failed to truly close the gap, in so many drastic areas. While so many in our communities are faced this year with the question of the referendum and the Voice, it's important that people remember where we are.

Child removals: in fact, in 2020 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children represented around 37 per cent of children in Australia living away from their families. That is increasing at a staggering rate. So whilst we celebrate the Apology to the Stolen Generations that shocked so many by making them understand the rate of the practice of removing children from their families, to know that in 2020 we still have a rate that shows an over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being removed says that this is not working. To compare, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children represent about six per cent of the total population of children in Australia. They are six per cent of the population but make up 37 per cent of the children living away from families. The number of Indigenous children being removed from their homes has increased over the past decade. Of these children, those who are adopted are usually placed with non-Indigenous families, removing them from culture and community. We must acknowledge the fact that the number of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care is now greater than the number of those removed during the decades of the Stolen Generations. That is just a staggering fact. Obviously, it's indicative that there is a serious flaw in our system; what we're doing isn't working.

Raising the age of criminal responsibility: let's illustrate this differently. Sixty-five per cent of children aged between 10 and 13 held in juvenile justice systems are Indigenous. Our government currently invests far more in out-of-home care support, taking children to live away from their families, than they do in actually solving the issues that lead to child removal. It's also the product of the age of criminal responsibility. In the majority of states and territories in the country, it's still only 10 years of age. There has been debate and some progress towards raising it to 12. But the recommendation is 14, and I urge the government to increase the age of responsibility to at least 14 years of age to bring us more in line with international standards and to reduce the contact of our youth with the criminal justice system. We know that this is the beginning of a spiral—of a journey that doesn't end well—and by having such a low age of criminal responsibility, it discriminates, and Indigenous youth are over-represented. The story of Dujuan from the documentary In My Blood it Runs is truly heart-wrenching. His plea to the United Nations in 2019 highlighted that raising the age would make a huge difference.

The rate of recidivism from those locked up at such an early age is huge. This was made plain in the report released late last year by the Attorney-General at the Standing Council of Attorneys-General:

Studies have shown that the younger the child is when first having contact with the justice system, the more likely they are to go on to reoffend.

The key recommendation of that report was to raise the age to 14. The states have committed to a plan to raise the age to 12, which many experts claim will be virtually meaningless. It's pretty simple: children belong in classrooms and playgrounds, not in handcuffs, court rooms and prison cells. I'm not excusing where there are instances of civil unrest and difficulty, but we know the current approach is not working.

Underlying factors: ultimately, these statistics are a product of the government's—successive governments'—historical failures to intervene early enough to prevent intergenerational trauma. Without concrete action being taken to close the gap, the government will likely look back on our time, marked by so much child removal, and will be apologising again. Child removals are just one example of the issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today. Many Australians did not know the extent of the removals occurring during the Stolen Generations, and were shocked in 2008 when the apology was done by former prime minister Kevin Rudd. But we must acknowledge the statistics we have access to surrounding child removals and other issues today, and the fact that they are still so bad, or we risk these issues continuing and getting worse.

Why the Voice matters in this context is just so clear. The Voice to Parliament would represent a step in the right direction. It is the next step towards our reconciliation. The National Agreement on Closing the Gap's priority reform No. 4 aims for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to:

…have access to, and the capability to use, locally relevant data and information to set and monitor the implementation of efforts to close the gap, their priorities and drive their own development.

This must embody how we pursue the implementation plan and the Voice to Parliament. Indigenous representation and advice in parliament will prove instrumental in achieving the goals set out in the 2023 implementation plan, and it will aid the government's continued mission to close the gap.

As a country, we have become far better at acknowledging our Indigenous heritage and at celebrating it. We are such a lucky country, in that we have the oldest living continuous culture in the world—some 65,000 years. It boggles the mind to even stop to think about it. Yet we are still so far from truly recognising it, acknowledging it and celebrating it.

We need to get much, much better at the crucial step of inclusion and engagement, of providing genuine opportunity and optimism for our Indigenous people. For so many communities, their history is ultimately Australia's history. By improving their lives and outcomes, we improve all our lives and outcomes. That's why it is with excitement but trepidation that we engage this year in this process of conversation and listening when it comes to the referendum and finally achieving constitutional recognition.

I remind so many that, when the Constitution was drafted, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not included and not consulted. They were not in any way referred to. That is an omission that needs to be fixed. It is a very basic step. So it is with trepidation that I think that, this year, we're going to have a conversation as Australians—a mature conversation about what kind of nation we want to be. We can't undo the wrongs of the past and we can't change them, but we can certainly decide what kind of Australia we want to be in the future. I have a deep, deep faith that we can be a much better Australia.

6:21 pm

Photo of Carina GarlandCarina Garland (Chisholm, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In rising to speak on the anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations, I'd like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples of the Canberra region, as well as the Indigenous people, the traditional owners, from my electorate of Chisholm, the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people.

What a significant week in the life of our parliament and our nation this has been, with the cross-parliamentary friends of the Uluru statement and, of course, the anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations. The occasion of the apology 15 years ago, on 13 February 2008, was and remains a momentous day in our country's history and in the process of healing, which is necessary to walk towards real reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

While state and territory governments had already made their own apologies for the violence and harm rendered on the Stolen Generations before 2008, it took Kevin Rudd's election in 2007 to see a national apology. This apology came after the harrowing Bringing them home report and related inquiry, which heard from over 500 people who had been impacted by forced child removal and assimilation, which had been government policy. It was brave and it was generous for those who participated to share their often very painful stories with the inquiry. It was only right that their words, their stories and, unfortunately, their trauma could lead to taking the next step towards healing.

It's an unfortunate truth that children's homes in my own electorate, long gone now, were sites of horror, and I'm very sorry that that happened in our community. I remember the debate, when I was at school, around whether the Stolen Generations should be apologised to by the government and the extent to which it was even considered bad. Now, when I visit schools—and it's one of my favourite parts of the job—it's clear that the apology is now embraced by young people as a turning point in our nation. And the history of First Nations people is not sanitised; the brutal truths are known, as well as the 60,000 years of continuous culture of First Nations people in this country. That is taught and that is celebrated. In a similar vein to the way the apology opened up a pathway for reconciliation, for understanding and for healing, our nation now has the opportunity, with the voice referendum, to continue down that pathway and ensure constitutional recognition for our first people and to really listen to first Nations People in this country.

The work of this nation will not end once the referendum to enshrine a voice is voted on—even with a 'yes' vote. This is just another step on the journey towards reconciliation, towards better outcomes for Australia and Torres Strait Islander people, towards Closing the Gap. The voice is the first part of implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which we are committed to as a Labor government—voice, treaty, truth.

Our nation does have a way to go to ensure that, on critical measures, including infant mortality and life expectancy, there are improvements for First Nations people. The statistics on health and educational outcomes are not good enough for First Nations people, and there needs to be more done in relation to the justice system to ensure there is not a disproportionate number of First Nations people incarcerated. We must do better.

The voice is a step towards a better nation. The national apology, too, was a leap forward in our healing journey. For all those impacted by the stolen generations, by government policies that sought to separate children from families and from culture, I am sorry. It is right that, 15 years later, we are still sorry as a nation. I hope that people across this country make the decision to be on what I believe is the right side of history and vote for constitutional recognition and an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. I hope we as a nation can take the next step towards reconciliation, towards better outcomes and justice for First Nations people in our country and for a stronger Australia for all of us.

6:27 pm

Photo of Kate ChaneyKate Chaney (Curtin, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in response to the 15th anniversary of the apology to the stolen generations and the introduction of the latest Closing the Gap implementation plan. I'm not going to reiterate the statistics about Aboriginal disadvantage, which we all know. Instead I want to share what I've learnt about why symbols like the apology and the voice are important and, indeed, practical.

I started working as Aboriginal affairs manager at Wesfarmers at about the time of the national apology to the stolen generation and the commitment to Closing the Gap. At the time, I don't think I realised how significant it was. I now realise that more than half of the adult Aboriginal population in Western Australia is either stolen generation or descended from the stolen generation. This was not a historical issue; it was a very real and current open wound. I came to the issue with a fairly corporate way of thinking. I saw the apology as a symbol—a good symbol but just a symbol. I now understand why it was much more than that and why symbols are vital.

The commitment to partnership and accountability around Closing the Gap fit better with my corporate framework of measuring your key performance indicators and managing to them. Since then, I've seen the bureaucratic knots we tie ourselves in and the layers of Closing the Gap documents and structures, but committing to quantitative targets meant that we had to accept our failures as well as our modest successes.

As the Aboriginal affairs manager at Wesfarmers Ltd, which was the largest private sector employer in the country, I was on a steep learning curve about Aboriginal history and culture, guided by some wonderfully wise Noongar leaders. Like so many others on that journey, the more I learned about Aboriginal history and culture, the more I realised I didn't know and the more I questioned my own culture. I had a number of moments on my cultural awareness journey that were characterised by the feeling of having the rug pulled out from under me—moments when I realised that all that I confidently believed to be true was a bit shaky, that made me question so many of my own assumptions.

I'm talking about this because I think it's deeply relevant to how we now think of milestones like the apology and the upcoming Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. My experiences helped me understand why this was important to First Nations people and that maybe they were on to something. Here's what I learned: the Noongar people in the south-west of WA recognise six seasons during the year. They see the weather, plants and animals change every year through this cycle: from Makuru, the season of fertility; to Djilba, the season of conception; Kambarang, birth; Birak, childhood; Bunuru, adolescence; Djeran, maturity; and then back to Makuru and fertility again.

After I'd been working with Aboriginal people for a while, I heard from someone—

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

It being 6.30 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 192B. The debate is adjourned, and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next setting. The member for Curtin will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed on a future day.