Senate debates

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Apology to Australia’S Indigenous Peoples

10:29 am

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I begin, on behalf of the Australian Greens, by recognising the first Australians, the traditional owners, right across this great country of ours. I congratulate the Rudd government for yesterday’s affording of the welcome to country and thank the Indigenous people for that welcome. I also thank the government for providing this important moment in our nation’s history. The Greens wholeheartedly support this motion. Were it up to the Greens, we would have representatives of the stolen generations with us here on the central floor of this Senate to receive our apologies and to respond, because in human terms that is how apologies should be made and that is how they work best.

When I was a little boy my loving but somewhat exasperated mother, wanting to let me know that she was a human being with her own limits, once told me she would go away and leave me if I did not behave, and she closed the door. Of course, she did not go, and she lived to 73 years and was the mother I adored. Yet that shock of warned separation is seared into my mind at 63. I cannot express my debt to her and my father. What then, if at that dreadful moment, she had in fact gone? Or worse, if complete strangers had arrived as if from Mars and taken her from me or me from her? My life would have been taken too, and I certainly would not be standing here in the Senate today.

But I stand here in the Senate and, with the parliament as a whole, look back in horror at the fact that thousands of other little girls and boys were taken from their mothers and their fathers—not by strangers from Mars but by Australian governments. Thousands of mothers and fathers—because they were Aboriginal; because they were black, and therefore not understood or valued by the perpetrators—had their little boys and girls, many just babies, taken from them by strangers in the name of our nation. It does not matter what the reason was, personal or official. Governments not only allowed but directed this racist separation of the innocent Indigenous infants from their powerless, numberless parents in unaccountable fear and agony—an agony that would not, for all of life, let go its grip.

Today in this parliament of Australia we acknowledge that heart-rending wrong to the stolen generations. We express our sorrow, unencumbered by attempts to excuse or rationalise such behaviour. This nation let its authorities trespass against a fundamental law of nature—that every child deserves and must have the love of parents who have love to give and that no parent who loves a child should have that love denied. We know the facts. We try to understand the pain. And we reach out not just for forgiveness but towards whatever restitution can now be given to those who suffered and are suffering so much. And, in reaching out, all of us may rest a little better in the name of humanity and in the name of our nation, Australia.

We Greens welcome this day in Australia’s parliament. But we urge the government to logically move from sorrow through to just and fair compensation. To be sure, no government cheque will ever make up for the dispossession of Indigenous Australians taken from their parents, just as no compensation ever makes up for an eye lost in an accident or even a job lost in a corporate collapse. Yet logic and compassion make it clear that the national parliament should now move, and move speedily, to compensate the stolen generations, just as the Tasmanian parliament—with the Labor and Liberal parties and the Greens working together—did last year.

As foreshadowed, I move:

That paragraph 10 of the Government’s notice of motion no. 1 be amended in the following terms: After the words: ‘We the Parliament of Australia’ insert ‘commit to offering just compensation to all those who suffered loss and’.

This is not a last-minute amendment. This amendment came as a first-minute response to this great motion and is a logical follow-through that, down the road, we as a nation must take towards reconciliation.

We Greens advocate to the Rudd government that all of the 54 recommendations of the Bringing them home report should be implemented. The report’s recommendations on monetary reparation are critical to redressing the terrible wrongs of, to quote from the motion, ‘the blemished chapter of our history’. In particular, that report recommended to this parliament that appropriate reparation, including monetary reparation, be made in recognition of the history of gross violations of human rights; that reparation be made to all who suffered because of forcible removal policies, including those who were forcibly removed as children, their family members, their communities and their descendants, who as a result have been deprived of community ties, of culture and language and of links with and entitlements to their traditional land; and that the Council of Australian Governments establish a joint national compensation fund, managed by a board chaired by an Indigenous person and made up of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

I commend this amendment to all parties in the Senate because it incorporates the essential practical component to this historic gesture we are making here today. It moves us closer to a nation reconciled between the first Australians and all other Australians—that is, the 97 per cent majority of us who have come or whose forefathers and mothers have come to these shores since 1787. That reconciliation requires that all the people understand the history of dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Australians from their land. There were acts of consideration by the colonialists, but they were too few. Australia’s true history reveals that, through the ravages of European disease, official and unofficial military or vigilante operations and even poisoning of food and waterholes, the first peoples of this continent were cruelly decimated along with their cultures and their languages. That history has not yet been put in full reverse, but we are challenged to reverse it as best we can.

Former Prime Minister John Howard rejected what he called ‘the black armband’ version of Australia’s history and put on blinkers instead. But he could not, in the end, defy the truth or the more mature aspiration of Australians as a whole to honestly face the past and deal with it. So, as the sun set on his government, he lit candles of reconciliation by calling for acknowledgement of Indigenous Australians at the head of our Constitution and by moving, however crudely, unprecedented resources into addressing the plight of Aborigines in the Northern Territory.

Like the Australian Greens now, the new government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in consultation with first Australians, is committed to pursuing constitutional change and undertaking the work of ending the broad-scale disadvantages which first Australians still suffer. We Greens are committed to accelerating that course of action. Saying sorry is a step along the road to true reconciliation and recognition of the original sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples in Australia.

In 1997, as my Greens colleague Senator Milne was with the Liberal government and Labor opposition of the day bringing Indigenous people onto the floor of the Tasmanian parliament to receive and respond to an apology, I rose in this Senate to say sorry to the stolen generations on behalf of the Australian Greens. Here, a decade later, I congratulate the new Rudd Labor government for giving the nation this day when ‘sorry’ is truly said by all of us. We all understand that the dispossession and cruelty of the past cannot go away but that this simple act of heartfelt sorrow is an essential step to heal our nation’s history and therefore to help ensure that Australia’s future will be safer, securer, fairer and happier for all of us. So, at last in 2008, this nation says to the first Australians, ‘We are sorry.’ Now, from sorrow, let us move to fair and just reparation to the stolen generations for the betterment of all Australians.


No comments