Senate debates

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Apology to Australia’S Indigenous Peoples

10:14 am

Photo of Lyn AllisonLyn Allison (Victoria, Australian Democrats) Share this | Hansard source

I begin by acknowledging country and the Indigenous peoples of this land, particularly those who are here with us today. I congratulate the government on arranging yesterday’s long-overdue welcome to country for the opening of parliament. I thank Matilda House for her deeply moving words and the Indigenous dancers and musicians for their deadly performance. I acknowledge the patient but persistent efforts of our colleague, former Democrats senator Aden Ridgeway, to have a welcome to country included in ceremonies that mark events such as the opening of parliament. I think it is a great shame that we are having this debate without a contribution from an Indigenous member of parliament or senator in this place.

My colleagues and I join, without reservation, the Rudd federal government in offering an official apology from the Australian parliament to those Indigenous Australians who were taken from their mothers, their fathers, their siblings, their communities and their land and placed in institutions and in the charge of complete strangers. We are sorry for the lifetime of damage that this did to them and to their families. We are sorry for the ongoing damage that this causes to Indigenous communities and we are sorry that the principle of self-determination was so completely denied by this and other acts of political, cultural, economic and physical domination by our forebears.

We say sorry for the ignorance and the prejudice and the misguided attempts to improve the opportunities and the lives of Indigenous children that gave rise to more than 60 years—three generations—of people being dispossessed of their kin and their dignity. The precise numbers are not known but, from 1910 to 1970, between one in three and one in 10 Indigenous children were taken.

We are sorry that the removal of children was so often brutal. I quote the Bringing them home report:

They put us in the police ute and said they were taking us to Broome. They put the mums in there as well. But when we’d gone [about ten miles] they stopped, and threw the mothers out of the car. We jumped on our mothers’ backs, crying, trying not to be left behind. But the policemen pulled us off and threw us back in the car. They pushed the mothers away and drove off, while our mothers were chasing the car, running and crying after us. We were screaming in the back of that car.

We are sorry that Aboriginal children and their parents were deliberately kept apart and denied the truth of their heritage. Here is another quote:

I remember this woman saying to me, ‘Your mother’s dead, you’ve got no mother now. That’s why you’re here with us’. Then about two years after that my mother and my mother’s sister all came to The Bungalow but they weren’t allowed to visit us because they were black.

We say sorry that it was not until 30 years after the child stealing stopped that we asked Aboriginal Australians to tell us their stories. We are moved by the courage shown by the stolen generations in doing so.

We have read Bringing them home and, to the extent that it is humanly possible, we try to understand their pain. We acknowledge that removing a baby, a small child or even an adolescent from its parents, whatever their circumstances or culture, is the cause of deep hurt, sorrow and grief to both parent and child. There was a time when white children were more readily taken away from their families than is the case now; however, it was mandatory for children with Aboriginal mothers and white fathers. I quote again from the report:

Lots of white kids do get taken away, but that’s for a reason – not like us. We just got taken away because we was black kids, I suppose – half-caste kids. If they wouldn’t like it, they shouldn’t do it to Aboriginal families.

They were lied to, so the separation—as some prefer to call it—would have an awful, painful finality.

‘Your family don’t care about you anymore, they wouldn’t have given you away. They don’t love you. All they are, are just dirty, drunken blacks.’ You heard this daily.

We are sorry that many children were abused and exploited and emotionally, physically, educationally and culturally deprived in institutions and at the hands of some heartless men and women when the state held that they were being protected. One person said:

I was sent out when I was eleven years old to [pastoral station]. I worked there for seven and a half years. Never got paid anything ...

And there was this story:

I was the best in the class, I came first in all the subjects. I was 15 when I got into 2nd year and I wanted to … continue in school, but I wasn’t allowed to, because they didn’t think I had the brains, so I was taken out of school and that’s when I was sent out to farms just to do housework.

Punishment was routine. Another story told of Moore River settlement:

Young men and women constantly ran away ... Not only were they separated from their families and relatives, but they were regimented and locked up like ... animals, locked in their dormitory after supper for the night. They were given severe punishments, including solitary confinements for minor misdeeds.

Another story stated:

Dormitory life was like living in hell. It was not a life. The only thing that sort of come out of it was how to work, how to be clean, you know and hygiene. That sort of thing. But we got a lot bashings.

One in 10 boys and three in 10 girls report that they were sexually abused in foster placements. The probability is that most went unreported because those who did report it were not believed. One in 10 girls reported sexual abuse in the work placements organised by protection boards or institutions, as in the following story:

The thing that hurts the most is that they didn’t care about who they put us with. As long as it looked like they were doing their job, it just didn’t matter. They put me with one family and the man of the house used to come down and use me whenever he wanted to … Being raped over and over and there was no-one I could turn to. They were supposed to look after me and protect me, but no-one ever did.

The New South Wales protection board recorded the following in 1940:

It has been known for years that these unfortunate people are exploited. Girls of 12, 14 and 15 years of age have been hired out to stations and have become pregnant.

Their children were also removed and, with them, often the responsibility of the men who sired them.

The distinction between being stolen and being separated will be argued by some, and it is true that some Aboriginal children were not forcibly removed. Some were removed because of neglect, but for the most part their circumstances were totally irrelevant. Some parents were coerced into giving up their children to institutions to avoid them begin taken by force. Others were tricked into signing documents, so the official record will always be unreliable. Some hoped their children would be better off away from the poverty and the squalor. However, we now know that removed children are less likely to have a post-secondary education and are much less likely to have stable living conditions. They are less likely to be in a stable, confiding relationship with a partner, they are twice as likely to be arrested by the police and convicted of an offence, they are three times as likely to have been in jail and they are much more likely to have used illicit substances.

The institutions that took Aboriginal children received only minimal funding and as a consequence the children were constantly hungry and denied basic facilities and medical treatment. In any case, the objective of taking so called half-caste children, whatever their circumstances, was clear and it was official. The policy in the earliest times of settlement was to ‘inculcate European values and work habits in children who would then be employed in service to the colonial settlers’. The theory by the late 19th century was that children of mixed descent would be merged and absorbed into white society and other Indigenous people would be forced onto reserves and missions and over time would die out.

This generation of parliamentarians must make this apology because we are the ones confronted with the evidence. Many of us were here in the parliament in 1997 when the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission presented its report, and I acknowledge here the great work of the commission and particularly Sir Ronald Wilson, who briefed us on the awful findings. We learned the depth of racial discrimination, the arbitrary deprivation of liberty, the pain and suffering, the abuse, the disruption to family life, the loss of cultural rights and fulfilment, the exploitation and the loss of opportunities. The report tells us:

For the majority of witnesses to the inquiry, the effects have been multiple and profoundly disabling ... Psychological and emotional damage renders many people less able to learn social skills and survival skills. Their ability to operate successfully in the world is impaired causing low educational achievement, unemployment and consequent poverty. These in turn cause their own emotional distress leading some to perpetrate violence, self-harm, substance abuse and anti-social behaviour.

The apology must be official and it must come from the highest level and it needs to be heartfelt and heard by those who were hurt, if it is to make a difference. Ten years were lost and yet more of the stolen generations have died without hearing this apology. State and territory governments have apologised. Churches have apologised. As Australian Democrats and as individuals we have said sorry, but saying sorry as members of our federal parliament matters more. I regret that it took 10 years and a change of government to say sorry. The commission made 54 sets of recommendations, one of which was acknowledgement and apology—from parliaments, from state and territory police forces, from churches and other non-government organisations. This done, we should move to the rest: the guarantees that there will be no repetition; the measures of restitution; the measures of rehabilitation and monetary compensation. Mr Ted Lovett, a member of the Gunditjmara nation and the stolen generation, said:

NO APOLOGY to the Victorian Aboriginal community or to the members of the stolen generations could ever be adequate without compensation for what has been lost.

Of all the things that were stolen, the loss of our country, language, culture, traditional lore and family have been the most hurtful. The removal and dispersal of family members from our traditional lands, and government policies that controlled our lives (even the relationships that we were allowed to enter into), have caused enormous pain for all our people.

As a boy, I was made a state ward in Victoria during the 1950s and late 1960s. I was put into the Turana Boys Home in Melbourne and then the Salvation Army Boys Home at Bayswater. During that time, I was subjected to inhumane and unjust treatment as if I was a criminal, even though my only “crime” was to have been born into an Aboriginal family. I was subsequently prevented from being in their care. Up to this time, I had not committed even a minor offence of a criminal nature.

We say sorry that incarceration for Indigenous youth has been, even recently, a mandatory first resort, and many lives and opportunities have been lost as a consequence.

We are disappointed that the Rudd government has so far rejected compensation. However, we will not support Senator Bob Brown’s amendment today. An apology is a distinct action and we consider that it should be there to stand on its own. The Democrats have for many years called for compensation and have legislation before the Senate that would achieve this. If I have learned anything in this place it is that governments must be persuaded to change position and that a last-minute, simplistic amendment will not do that. I also know that the more multipartisan the debate and the vote on this motion is, the more complete and the more meaningful it will be to those for whom it is intended. What is so exciting about today is the fact that the coalition has reversed its long-held public opposition to making an apology, and I acknowledge the political courage it takes to do that. I hope this change of heart and the consensus vote it delivers is so much the sweeter and so much more healing to the stolen generations as a result.

My commitment, during the short time that remains for us in the Senate, is to push not only for compensation but for a truly collaborative, all-party effort to solve the problems that give rise to such serious disadvantage for Indigenous people. Eventually the government will see that compensation is the right course of action—after all, Tasmania and WA have done that. Reparation must include family reunion and collecting and communicating the oral histories and experiences of the stolen generations. We need properly funded, long-term, soundly based goals and strategies to tackle drug and alcohol dependence, incarceration and deaths in custody, child mortality and poor levels of education, health and economic endeavour. Indigenous Australians should get a better deal for what they have given up. The housing crisis would be solved if profits and royalties from mining operations alone were more fairly shared with the traditional owners of the land. And we must all listen—intently, carefully and respectfully—or the strategies will be totally worthless and the money again wasted.

Forcing a baby from the arms of its Indigenous mother because white people knew what was best for that child proved very stupid and very wrong. It was a sorry business and we say sorry.


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