Senate debates

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Apology to Australia’S Indigenous Peoples

9:31 am

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I take great pleasure in moving this motion. I first want to acknowledge all the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet today. I want to acknowledge the presence of many Indigenous peoples in the parliament and its surrounds who are part of what we know as the stolen generations. I also want to acknowledge the many Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, across Australia who are listening or watching the parliament this morning—although probably the House of Representatives.

Today is a very important occasion in the history of our nation and this parliament. Today is not just about our past; it is also about our future. For many Australians, today means confronting and accepting what has gone before and acknowledging our values of civility, fairness and compassion, which hopefully will guide us in our future endeavours. I move:

That—Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.We reflect on their past mistreatment.We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

Nearly 10 years ago, on 27 May 1997, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission released its report Bringing them home. The report was the result of a national inquiry established by the Keating government in August 1995. The report was dedicated to the generations of Aboriginal children taken from their families and communities who are still searching for home and to the memory of the children who will never return. The inquiry visited every state and territory and most regions of Australia. It took evidence in public and private from Indigenous people, government and church representatives, former mission staff, foster and adoptive parents, doctors and health professionals, academics, police and others. Most hearings were conducted by Sir Ronald Wilson, the HREOC President, and Mick Dodson, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. We are indebted to these two great Australians.

In each major region throughout Australia an Indigenous commissioner was appointed to assist with the hearings. An Indigenous advisory council with representatives from all the regions also assisted the inquiry. A total of 770 people and organisations provided evidence or a submission. Some 535 were Indigenous people. Most had been removed as children; others were parents, siblings or children of removed children. The report found that somewhere between one in three and one in 10 Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families between 1910 and 1970. We do not know how many were separated prior to 1910. Indeed, we do not know with certainty how many children were removed from their families, but we do know that Indigenous children were placed in institutions and church missions, were adopted or fostered and were at risk of physical and sexual abuse. Many, of course, did not receive wages for their labour. The practice was on such a large scale and over such a long period, continuing so close to the present day, that its effect cannot be dismissed as only applying to olden times. It is our responsibility. The truth is in the past and is very much with us today in the effect on the lives of Indigenous Australians.

There are some, I know, who still believe that the removal of Indigenous children was good. Some removals, it is argued, were part of a broad welfare system which decided what was in the best interests of the children. But the truth is that the stolen generations were removed from their families because of their culture, their colour and their race, because they were considered inferior and because non-Indigenous Australians thought that they could do better.

Thousands of Indigenous people grew up without the love of their parents or the love of their brothers and sisters. Many never knew who they were or where they came from. These policies did break down families, clans and tribes and played a key role in dislocating communities, depriving many of them of the bonds that bind communities and depriving them of family and cultural legacies.

After the release of the report, many of the stolen generations made a request for an apology. They said that this would have meaning by showing that Australians recognised their hurt and pain and accepted that what had been done to them was wrong. It was a heartfelt request because, they said, this would help the healing process. The stolen generations are real people. Let us think of them as individuals as well. It is to them that we belatedly offer our apology.

Since that time, apologies have been given in state parliaments in New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania and in the parliaments of the ACT and the Northern Territory. Words of apology have been said in churches, in public meetings and in private conversations. They have been discussed and debated Australia wide. But until now no apology has been offered in this place by an Australian government. And that has been wrong. The stolen generations have been deeply damaged by the decisions of this parliament and of governments. Their suffering was a product of the deliberate policies of the state as reflected in the explicit powers given under statute.

There are countless moving stories from the many thousands of Aboriginal people who were taken from their families involuntarily. I was particularly touched by the story of Sandra Hill, who says today’s apology from the parliament will be the biggest thing to happen in her life. I would like to recount part of her story, which was published in the Sunday Times of Perth last weekend, for the benefit of the Senate today.

Sandra is a professional artist, a mother of three children and grandmother to five children, who lives in the south-west of Western Australia in Balingup. Sandra is also a strong, resilient and proud Nyungar woman who was forcibly taken from her parents in 1958 at the age of six. Along with her two sisters and younger brother, Sandra was taken to Sister Kate’s Children’s Home, where they lived for two years before being fostered out to a white family. It would be 27 years before those children saw their parents again.

I would like to recount some of Sandra’s story, as only her words can do justice to the experiences that she and her family have endured. She said:

You can’t begin to imagine the sense of loss that I, and so many like me, have experienced. My children were the first ‘free’ children born into my family for four generations and I celebrate every day that we share together as a family.

She also said:

My heart aches for my Mum and Dad—to lose a child is bad enough, to lose four young children in one foul swoop is incomprehensible.

                  …              …              …

Our removal forced Mum to not only relive her own experiences, but also that of her father and grandfather (both were ‘surrendered’ to the monks at New Norcia).

In 1933 the Native Welfare swooped down on my grandparents’ camp in Caversham. They took my mother Doreen ... and her sister Hilda, who were seven and ten at the time.

She was taken to Moore River Native Settlement and then transferred, due to her fair skin, to Sister Kate’s Home for Half Castes at Buckland Hill. The authorities changed her name and her birth date so that her parents couldn’t trace her.

                  …              …              …

... over a period of 23 years, from 1933, my grandparents lost six children to the welfare authorities, ending in 1956 with their youngest daughter Boronia.

Mum could barely talk about the family’s experience without enormous distress, even after 60 years.

                  …              …              …

No education, material gain or so-called ‘opportunities’ could or would ever be a fair trade-off for losing the ones you love. My family was my world and it was stolen from me and my siblings and, if I could go back in time I would choose to stay where I belonged, where my spirit and my heart still live, with my beloved mum and dad.

She goes on to say:

We don’t want to relegate blame or guilt—that would be counter productive. However, recognition and acknowledgement of the profound and far reaching effects that past policies have had on my people is critical in helping us to move forward into a more positive and inclusive future.

While working on committees of this parliament and in moving around the electorate, I have listened to many of the stolen generations tell us their stories over the years. You are always struck by the dignity with which those stories are told. The thing that strikes me most is the lack of bitterness—the lack of thought of vengeance. I defy anyone not to be moved by those stories. Do not think of them as ‘a generation’ or under the title we give them. Think of them as individual people.

It has been written that the pain and suffering cannot be addressed unless the whole community listens with an open heart and mind to the stories of what happened and, having listened and understood, commits itself to repairing the damage. It is awful to comprehend the pain and suffering of the children who were removed and the anguish of their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. The trauma of a removal is indescribable. Every parent fears the death of their children. The forcible separation from their children must have been equally traumatic. To have such a policy organised and sanctioned by the national government would only have added to the trauma and the feeling of helplessness.

The past is always with us. It shapes the present and the future. It shapes who we are and how we behave. It determines the colour of our thinking, and we can only progress when we acknowledge the good and the bad that have happened. It has taken nearly 11 years since the report was published, but this morning, in the other place, the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Australian parliament, offered an apology to the stolen generations. There is no more important place for these words to be said, because this parliament speaks for the nation. The Prime Minister apologised for the laws and policies of past governments which caused profound grief and loss for many Indigenous Australians. He promised that this will never happen again. He has committed us to a new beginning—a new national effort—and we must succeed.

The response of the nation to today’s apology has been wonderful. People are embracing the opportunity to do the right thing, to do what we teach our children to do, to say sorry for doing something hurtful and, more importantly, to mean it. Non-Indigenous Australians should be proud that we are strong enough as a people to admit the wrong and to say sorry.

I know that this is a day that many Indigenous Australians believed they would never live to see. It has been far too long coming. For that, I am sorry too. And we acknowledge those who did not live to see this day. To their descendents we say sorry for the pain and hurt suffered over generations and the loss of identity, family and country that can never be restored.

Much has been said and written in the past few weeks about the symbolism of an apology and its significance. Some people have argued that the symbolic act of saying sorry will somehow undermine or even replace the practical reforms needed to fix the huge gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. I believe the opposite is true. I am mindful of what Sir William Deane said:

It is simply to assert our identity as a nation and the basic fact that national shame, as well as national pride, can and should exist in relation to past acts and omissions, at least when done or made in the name of the community or with the authority of government. Where there is no room for national pride or national shame about the past there can be no national soul.

Saying sorry gives us the impetus to move on. It reminds us of our responsibilities as citizens, as members of the Australian community, to help those in society less well-off. It is the next step in the huge task of closing the gap. Yes, it is arguably a symbolic gesture; but symbols are important by definition in sending a strong message, which I believe will help us tackle the substance of the issue: removing the inequalities that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

We know that the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians remain dramatically worse than that of the rest of the community as a whole. Many still endure inadequate health services, overcrowded and substandard housing, poor access to education and barriers in getting a job. Alcohol and drugs are crippling communities and child abuse is evident. Entrenched health problems are denying Indigenous Australians a future, and progress to improve their health status has been slow under successive governments. The inequality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is stark. The 17-year life expectancy gap remains one of the starkest indicators of inequality in Australian society. Current rates of Indigenous life expectancy are comparable to those of other Australians in the 1920s. Third World diseases like rheumatic fever and trachoma persist, and there are high rates of chronic disease, including renal failure, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The government, and I think the parliament, comprehend the enormity of closing this gap and we know it can only be done in a mutually responsible partnership with Indigenous Australians. That is why we seek the support of the whole parliament. The government is making a concerted effort to ensure the fundamentals of a decent life are shared by Indigenous Australians: good health and nutrition, a safe and comfortable home, a high-quality education and the opportunity to share in the dividends of our economy through work. We are determined to make sure that all children, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have the same healthy future.

We have pledged to halve within a decade the gap in mortality rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children under the age of five. Such goals, such targets, are important. In the same period we want to halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy. To do this we are providing comprehensive funding for child and maternal health services, early development and parenting support, and literacy and numeracy in the early years. Health services are being expanded and improved. The government is prioritising the expansion of alcohol detoxification and rehabilitation services across the Northern Territory. We are also expanding sobering-up shelters in Katherine and Tennant Creek so that alcohol abusers can be accommodated in a safe environment.

Giving Indigenous children the best chance for a bright future requires a sound foundation of education and training. Literacy and numeracy are the building blocks, but currently the performance of Indigenous children often falls far behind. This is not good enough. We have no illusions about the extent and complexity of the challenges before us, but we must close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and we must close the infant mortality gap for young Indigenous children. What we must understand from the past is that we cannot do this for Indigenous Australians. Paternalism, new or old, does not work. We must find solutions together with Indigenous Australians and empower them to overcome the enormous barriers to equal opportunity in our society.

Today’s motion is very different from the way we normally conduct business. The motion will be supported by the alternative government and other senators around the chamber. That is vital for Indigenous Australians to accept this apology. It has to be from all of us and we have to mean it. Hopefully the broad support for the apology will be a platform for a more bipartisan approach to attack the inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

It is a regret that, in the past, Indigenous policy became an ideological issue to be fought over. It would be good to think that today marks an end to the ideological battles of the past and marks a willingness on all sides to work together with Indigenous Australians. For too long the ideological battles of politicians have been at the expense of Indigenous people. These are our challenges for the future. The responsibility for a just and equitable future for Indigenous Australians falls on all our shoulders. Today, this parliament, on behalf of the nation, has taken a powerful step in this regard.

The apology today is not about imposing guilt or shame on this generation of Australians. It is not about attributing personal blame. It is the acknowledgement of the injustices and mistakes of the past and it is an acceptance of what has happened. It can also be the next step in reconciliation. It is now up to us as a nation, as the Prime Minister pledged in the other place this morning, to bring together Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians—government and opposition, Commonwealth and state—to write a new chapter in our nation’s story. I commend the motion to the Senate.

9:51 am

Photo of Nick MinchinNick Minchin (SA, Liberal Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the motion just moved by Senator Evans in relation to an apology to those Indigenous Australians that were forcibly removed from their families and communities under laws of past state and federal governments. While the coalition do support the motion, I must say at the outset that we do have strong objections to the way in which the government has handled this matter.

An apology has been Labor policy for many years, and they have now been in government for nearly three months, but it was only last night that MPs and senators were able to see the wording of the motion to be put to the House and Senate. Not only that but the government have insisted that a vote be taken on the motion after only a limited number of speakers and before everyone who wants to speak has had that opportunity. The government’s handling of this sensitive matter has been arrogant and disrespectful of the parliament in whose name this apology is to be made.

Nevertheless, as we have announced, the coalition will support this motion. We have given a very lengthy consideration to this matter in our party room. We admit this has not been an easy issue for many of us or for the millions of Australians that we represent. The debate about an apology has, of course, been held previously in this parliament, and state parliaments across the country have made some form of apology or statement of regret for the actions of the past. As parliamentarians we have a big responsibility to ensure that these issues are debated for the right reasons, and in this case it is about making sure that we see better outcomes for Indigenous Australians and that we all work to overcome obvious Indigenous disadvantage.

As I said, we have given a lot of thought to this matter for a decade. When our government responded to the Bringing them home report in 1997 the then Prime Minister, John Howard, expressed his profound personal sorrow but stated that the coalition did not believe that Australians of this generation should be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies over which they had no control. That was a view sincerely held by our government and it was, I think, shared by many Australians at that time. I must say that one should always approach with caution any proposition which involves judging past actions by contemporary standards or seeking to hold one generation responsible for the actions of those who came before.

I should also state for the record that our government were concerned that a formal statement of apology could trigger a substantial number of claims for compensation which we felt then would be both very divisive and, if successful, an unjustified burden on current taxpayers. We remain of that view in relation to the issue of compensation. We note that, while the government has ruled out any compensation, this motion is silent on the matter. I note that Senator Bob Brown proposes to move an amendment on that matter and I give notice now of our opposition to an amendment relating to compensation.

In light of our reservations about a formal apology, in 1999 the then Prime Minister moved a statement of regret in the House of Representatives. That statement reaffirmed the parliament’s commitment to reconciliation, acknowledged that the mistreatment of many Indigenous Australians over a significant period represents the most blemished chapter in our national history, expressed the parliament’s deep and sincere regret that Indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and acknowledged the hurt and trauma that many Indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices. The intent of that statement remains as relevant today as it was nearly 10 years ago, but we acknowledge that Indigenous Australians affected by the policies of the past need more than our sympathies and regret in order for them to accept the sincerity of our nation’s remorse for past practices.

It has been a long road since that national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children—the Bringing them home report. May I say that Brendan Nelson’s contribution to the debate after the release of that report is as poignant and emotive today as it was then. His strong sense of humanity and commitment to Indigenous Australians helped to ensure that the coalition would move to support this motion today. Dr Nelson is to be commended for his leadership on this issue which, as I said, is not an easy one for the men and women of the Liberal and National parties and the millions of Australians we represent.

But Dr Nelson was right when he stated back then that this is not a question of our generation or subsequent generations carrying guilt. It is about understanding what was done and the consequences of it. We now understand and accept that this apology is the right thing to do. We accept that the Australian people want this parliament to come together to settle this matter. Our policy on this matter has evolved against the background of our strong faith in the importance of families. The impact on families of the policies of forced removal does not sit well with what our parties fundamentally believe in. When we look at the individual stories of those affected by separations we find hurt, damage, regret and, in many cases, justifiable anger.

But we also find that those who implemented these policies were in many cases acting in what they believed were the best interests of the children at the time. Of course, any civilised society has laws to provide for the protection of children from harm, including from their own families. Such laws exist today in Australia but regrettably do not always operate to protect Australia’s vulnerable children. This is a fundamental argument about who knows what is best for children in our society. It is a debate that is still going on. We trust that even today state government officers around the country act appropriately when they remove children at risk, even from their parents. The danger is in creating a perception that removal is always wrong. Ultimately, authorities must act to protect children at risk. So the balance between the sanctity of the family and the state’s responsibility for the protection of children is never easy to achieve, especially in the case of Aboriginal children.

The last decade has seen much action and many programs in relation to Indigenous affairs, and this chamber has been very active in the matter. The former government implemented a number of significant reforms as we turned away from what we perceived to be political correctness to focus on real results. The former government had at the forefront of its policy for Indigenous Australians the ensuring of better outcomes. Our policies were admittedly about substance; they were not about symbolism. John Howard was not the barrier to an apology. It cannot be said of our government in any way that we did not do our utmost to ensure that Indigenous people in this country received adequate support, or that our reforms did not help reduce the disadvantage facing our Indigenous communities.

I personally had the privilege of spending a considerable amount of time in our Indigenous communities during the first three years of our government, when I had executive responsibility for native title. I therefore experienced firsthand the enormous disadvantage suffered by people in many of our more remote Indigenous communities. Negotiating native title reform with Indigenous leaders and their communities was a difficult but personally very enriching experience. Native title is just one aspect of Indigenous affairs where our determination to implement practical improvements—which we can now see have resulted in real advances—was met with hostility. Our reforms to the way in which we deal with native title claims have resulted in much better outcomes for all involved.

As a coalition we are proud of our overall achievements in Indigenous affairs. Expenditure on Indigenous-specific programs and services in our last budget was set at $3.5 billion for the current financial year, a 39 per cent real increase from the levels of 1995-96, when we came to office. More Indigenous Australians are participating in our strong economy. That includes a fall in the unemployment rate among them from 30 per cent in 1994 to just 12.8 per cent in 2004-05. Over the same period, Indigenous long-term unemployment has fallen from 14.2 per cent to 5.1 per cent. Although more improvements need to be made in the fields of health and education, there are some positive signs, including a 16 per cent decrease in the Indigenous mortality rate in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia from 1991 to 2003. So we have seen some real and significant improvements—but of course we acknowledge that there is very long way to go to ensure that Indigenous Australians are on an equal footing and no longer feel shamed by past policies.

One of the most significant steps of our government was the introduction of emergency measures in the Northern Territory just last year to protect Aboriginal children from abuse in their own communities. Our government launched this drastic but decisive action after the release of the Little children are sacred report to the Northern Territory government. Like many here I am a parent and particularly felt the repulsion caused by the revelations in that report. This is a most significant intervention. We must act to stop such abhorrent crimes against children in Indigenous communities and must establish the protection of the law.

The measures in that intervention are worth noting. They were increasing police levels in prescribed townships, including secondments from other jurisdictions, funded by the Australian government; introducing comprehensive voluntary health checks for all Aboriginal children, and providing treatment and making referrals where necessary; improving governance by putting managers of all government business in prescribed townships; widespread alcohol restrictions; banning the possession of X-rated pornography and introducing audits of publicly funded computers to identify illegal material; welfare reforms to stem the flow of cash going towards substance abuse and gambling, and to ensure funds meant for children’s welfare are used for that purpose; enforcing school attendance; improving housing in townships through increased funding and the introduction of market based rents and tenancy arrangements.

They are a very comprehensive set of interventions and they were initiated by our government in its single-minded pursuit of ensuring that Indigenous children no longer suffer abuse of any description. That is why the Northern Territory intervention launched by John Howard is just so important. We do need to ensure that children in these communities can grow up without fear and grow up to reach their full potential.

The intervention in the Northern Territory, I think, has also been pivotal in focusing the public’s attention on the plight of Indigenous communities, particularly of their children, and this intervention—its aims, its early successes—have helped bring us, the coalition, and, I think, the parliament and the nation to where we are today. Of course, it raises broader questions about a community. Every one of us is and must be concerned about child abuse in every Australian community, and we need to ensure that all jurisdictions continue to work together to counter child abuse.

I was part of a government that may not have approved a formal apology but did make sure that our Indigenous communities received assistance when and where they needed it most. If there was any failure on our part, it was in relation to recognising the significance of symbolism in helping Indigenous communities to move forward. We were unashamedly focused on practical outcomes but we can now acknowledge that that was at the expense of important symbolic acts. The transition to supporting an apology, for us and I think for the people we represent, has been a gradual process, but the report to the Northern Territory government, that Little children are sacred report, was yet another wake-up call that I think did capture the attention of our population. The fact that such horrific abuse of children could be so prevalent today required that intervention, and it did require the nation’s attention. There is, as Senator Evans has rightly said, so much more to be done, and I do hope this debate focuses the new government on ensuring that funding to Indigenous communities is well managed and does deliver the results we all want. It is vitally important that the new government presses ahead with the measures adopted by the emergency intervention and does not just rest with the symbolism, as important as it is, of today.

We do accept that the lack of a formal apology from the federal government has been an impediment to better relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The coalition now recognise that this apology is very important to Indigenous Australians and that the parliament should adopt this motion in the interests of enhancing their hopes, their aspirations and their opportunities. But, as important as this motion may be, parliaments and governments must remain focused on delivering real results on the ground for disadvantaged Indigenous Australians. We can only do that by maximising their chances to take advantage of all the opportunities offered by this great country to lead a rich and rewarding life. So, on behalf of coalition senators, I re-emphasise our commitment to our 1999 statement of regret and I do now offer our support for the motion moved by Senator Evans today, as we apologise to all those Indigenous Australians affected by the policies of the past.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Original question agreed to.