Senate debates

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Apology to Australia’S Indigenous Peoples

10:05 am

Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | Hansard source

In rising to speak to this motion I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this country and their ancestors. For many people in this place, their life’s journey was very varied before they became a senator. I was very lucky before entering the Senate for the Northern Territory to be engaged as both a commercial fishermen and a professional shooter. As part of that, I was very privileged to work alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—not only work alongside them but live together as a family and often play together. Many of these times we were in fairly remote circumstances, where there is no television, often for many months at a time. So at night, normally around a fire, there were two or three hours where we had the opportunity to simply discuss things as the fire died down. That is all we had. As people do, we discussed each other’s life experiences, and I had the great privilege of hearing very different stories.

Where I worked in Arnhem Land, for instance, the people had not been dispossessed; they had always had their own country, they always had connection to country. But there were also many people who were part of the stolen generation and had been dispossessed. They had a variety of views about a number of issues but a particular view about an apology. I was an apology cynic through much of that time, and as mates we had pretty robust discussions about the practical applications of an apology and how that would have an effect on their lives. I think it is important that I make that confession.

I also had an opportunity last year to speak with a group of over 100 Indigenous men who were part of the Attorney-General’s leadership group. An older group of men and a younger group of men met in one of the rooms in Parliament House. They had asked me to give them a presentation on my leadership journey. As a pragmatist, I said, ‘You’re not often going to get a pretty frank and forthright discussion with Chatham House rules with the minister in government; you should possibly spend more of your time having a crack at that.’ It was not long into the conversation when someone said, ‘If you were the Prime Minister, Nigel’—as unlikely as that would ever be—‘would you say sorry?’ I declared myself a cynic and I said no. We had a discussion. As a pragmatist, I did not really understand how it would help if we went through these processes and thought it was a bit of a distraction.

Thanks to a long-term relationship with many of the people in that room and the discussions we had after that, a number of people were able to convince me, by their own stories, just how important this was and that, whilst it was not a practical step, it was the way that people felt. I believe now, through that experience, that it is so difficult to put yourself in the shoes of others that we need to acknowledge the past practices that resulted in harm and hurt to many Indigenous people and we need to say sorry.

The exact number of children involved and the exact number of people bearing internal wounds as a result of their removal under past government policies and practices may never be known, nor may the true number of people that shared that pain through not knowing their ancestral history or the fate of other family members. What I do know is that it is very important that we acknowledge the pain and suffering that resulted from those policies, and for that I say sorry. I am also sincerely sorry that any individual or family has suffered through past government policies and practices, however well intentioned or otherwise they may have been at the time by that government.

I must also acknowledge that not all Indigenous policies and practices of past and current governments of all persuasions have necessarily failed. I cite the intervention in the Northern Territory. Whilst it was fairly controversial, I think everybody would agree that it contained very important policies that will be very positive for Indigenous communities. I think there are positive aspects of policies from the past that we need to look to for the future. I think it is really important that we learn from the past, that we never repeat the failures and, as I have said, that we learn from the positive aspects in regard to any future policies.

I view today’s significant motion as a very important acknowledgement and acceptance of previous actions and as a sincere apology to those who have suffered personally. Today’s debate is a further step towards a collective better future, and I believe it should signal an end to the focus on the past and a step towards a new future. From here we must continue to move forward, and it is so important that we move forward together. As the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, said: ‘I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.’

The policies of removing children from their families ended about 25 years ago, but I think it is important that we recognise and acknowledge that, unfortunately, the rate at which Aboriginal children are now being removed from their families by welfare authorities has actually increased since then. It should also be acknowledged that the way in which they are removed is far better and that we have managed to ameliorate that. We have a lot better communication. Normally, they are removed for a period of time until the environment they have been taken from has been restored.

If you are going to be fair dinkum about this apology and this debate, I would hope that people do not take this as an assault against anyone. It should not really tarnish our future endeavours, and that is certainly not my intention here today. But, unless we are honest with ourselves and accept the realities that many Indigenous communities still find themselves in, I do not think we can move forward in the way that we should. Indigenous health, Indigenous education, social opportunities and employment opportunities still lag so far behind what is experienced and expected by many other Australians. The exposure to and actual neglect and abuse are still far more prevalent in Indigenous communities than in other sectors of our community. These are real issues that confront not only Indigenous Australians but also all Australians.

We must acknowledge these facts in order to address the underlying issues that have led to the reality confronting many Indigenous people today. I think we also need to acknowledge that the policies of today are having a similar effect to the policies of the past. I would cite the need to acknowledge the contribution of unconditional welfare to the cycle of substance abuse and poverty in many Indigenous communities today. If we fail from today to develop and implement effective policies that look very carefully at the past—and, in fact, at failures of the present—then I fear that at some stage in the future there will be another generation of Australians apologising for our failures.

My vision for Australia is to have a nation where everyone is encouraged to add to our richness and collective cultural wealth while being unified as a single proud nation, sharing equally in the opportunities that this wonderful country has to offer. We are never going to achieve anything close to this vision if we refuse to accept that there are serious problems that are still present within some of our Indigenous communities. These problems will never be resolved without first accepting that they exist. We can no longer deny the problems simply because we do not see them and, as we move through our daily lives, we only read about them. They are real, they exist and they deserve to be dealt with immediately. If we deny that this is happening, we deny a future for the next generation of children; and this is totally unacceptable.

Today’s apology is a recognition of the past and an acceptance of the outcomes that resulted from those policies. More importantly, today’s apology must constitute a significant step towards the future. Our rhetoric of today must be matched by all of our actions of tomorrow. Only then will we truly have a stake in our collective future. I and the Nationals are fully committed to doing everything that we can to make our future a brighter one for all Australians.


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