Senate debates

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Apology to Australia’S Indigenous Peoples

10:41 am

Photo of Steve FieldingSteve Fielding (Victoria, Family First Party) Share this | Hansard source

Today, Australia’s parliament will deliver a long-overdue apology to Australia’s Indigenous people. It will be a historic and emotional day for many who have waited a long time to hear these words. Saying sorry should not be so hard. In families, just like any relationship, we know that we should be quick to say sorry when we do something wrong and to mend any hurt we have caused. It is not about blame. It is about genuinely being sorry that the other person has been hurt, even if that action or that hurt was unintentional. Every parent knows and understands the importance of teaching our children to say sorry when something goes wrong. There is no doubt that something has gone wrong for the children and families of the stolen generations.

But what exactly do we mean by the term ‘the stolen generations’? I think many Australians may not understand the wrong that was done to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, that it was Australian government official policy from the mid-1800s right through to the 1970s to remove children from their parents in order to assimilate the Indigenous population into the wider community.

Family First does not believe that Australian governments 50 years ago or even 100 years ago intended harm to any child or family. These governments and authorities acted in a manner that they thought was right at the time and in the best interest of the children involved. But removing children from their parents just because they were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children—not on genuine welfare grounds—was wrong. The parents were hurt and the children got hurt.

A report found that many of the children taken from their families fell victim to physical and sexual abuse. They got hurt, and everybody should be sorry—very sorry—for the hurt caused to these children. We should show compassion and empathy. These children are now adults, while many others have passed on. But the unresolved hurt continues in them, in their families and in their communities. Unresolved and unacknowledged hurt in any family or relationship just festers and never really goes away. We would not wait to say sorry if this was our family. We would want to fix the rift and restore the relationship. When we do not resolve past hurts, we find that resentment builds and there really is little possibility of an ongoing healthy relationship. However, ‘sorry’ often seems to be the hardest word to say. Yet it is one of the most important words in any family, marriage or relationship. Saying sorry allows our kids and us as parents to move past our mistakes and our failures. Saying sorry is a part of life because at times we all do and say things we should not. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes out of ignorance or out of carelessness, hurts are made. But we need to fix them and we need forgiveness. There is responsibility on both parties here.

And it is no different in the relationship between the Australian government and Indigenous people, which was torn apart by the government’s policy to remove Indigenous children from their parents, their families and their communities. In our family, we also teach that when someone says sorry they must also ask for forgiveness. Sometimes, we can say sorry as a throwaway line just to get us off the hook, but my wife, Sue, and I have taught our kids that a proper apology comes with the words: ‘I’m sorry. Please, will you forgive me?’ The child who has been hurt, even in an unintended situation, then feels that their hurt has been acknowledged. Importantly, they are also part of the healing by actively forgiving their brother or sister. We reckon that saying sorry and being forgiven go hand in hand. Relationships get restored, friendships are mended and fences are rebuilt.

As I said before, sorry can be the hardest word to say, but forgiving can be the hardest thing to do. Forgiveness is not an easy thing. As a nation, today we are sincerely sorry for the great hurt and pain caused and we admit that Australian governments have treated Indigenous Australians badly. In turn, I hope Indigenous Australians can be open to a process of forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean condoning what happened. We cannot change the past, but we can forgive it.

There are real, positive effects from letting go of the hurt by forgiving. It enables us to move forward. Most importantly, forgiving makes room for hope: hope for the future; hope for a better life for the kids; hope for a united Australia. As a nation, we need to help that process of forgiveness by really committing to dealing with the complex and longstanding problems facing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. We need to close the 17-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. Who can hope for a future without knowing that their kids will get good schooling and decent health care? It is a scandal that Indigenous Australians are so far behind other Australians in the standard of education and health care provided to them and in the outcomes from those key services. The big task for government is to make sure that schooling, health and other services are provided at a level equal to the broader Australian community, and the challenge for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is to make the most of those opportunities.

Family First agrees the Australian parliament should say sorry for the past. I hope the children and families that have been hurt can then accept that apology and forgive us. The debt must finally be cancelled so we can all move on together to build a united family of Australians.

Question put:

That the amendment (Senator Bob Brown’s) be agreed to.


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