Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples

I strongly support this apology. It is a decade late but its lateness makes it all the more welcome. State and territory governments apologised following the delivery of the Bringing them home report in 1997. The Australian Labor Party, in opposition in 1997, moved to apologise in this place but the motion was lost. It gives me a particular personal satisfaction to stand in this House and see the fulfilment of a promise made by the Australian Labor Party to offer the apology that was made last Wednesday, 13 February, 2008, which will be a historic day for our country.

I strongly support this apology. It is a decade late but its lateness makes it all the more welcome. State and territory governments apologised following the delivery of the Bringing them home report in 1997. The Australian Labor Party, in opposition in 1997, moved to apologise in this place but the motion was lost. It gives me a particular personal satisfaction to stand in this House and see the fulfilment of a promise made by the Australian Labor Party to offer the apology that was made last Wednesday, 13 February, 2008, which will be a historic day for our country.

This is a matter of particular personal significance for me as well because, along with a dedicated team of lawyers, I worked for some four years on the stolen generations case in the Northern Territory, between 1998 and 2002. Last Wednesday was a poignant day for me not just because of its historic significance but also because one of the members of the stolen generation for whom I acted in that case as counsel was present on the floor of the House of Representatives to hear the apology offered by the Prime Minister. I am speaking of Lorna Cubillo. The case was fought on her behalf, and on behalf of the late Kumanjai Gunner. It was founded on actions by the Commonwealth in administering the Northern Territory until the 1960s. In that time, the administration of the Northern Territory removed Indigenous children from their families and communities. Children were taken long distances from the communities of their birth and they were made to live among strangers in a strange place—in institutions which bore no resemblance to a home. They lost the chance to grow among the warmth of their own families, to speak in their people’s language and to learn about their country. They were treated as orphans when they were not orphans. They lost the culture and tradition of their families.

Like the case in which I appeared which was decided by the Federal Court in 2000, the Bringing them home report of 1997 is filled with stories of great sadness—not just the stories of Lorna Cubillo and Kumanjai Gunner but those of the many witnesses who appeared in the litigation in the Northern Territory, adding to those that we have read in the Bringing them home report. Some are stories of people who were forcibly removed from their families as children. Others are stories of old women whose children were taken away from them. These are stories of decades of sorrow: the sorrow of being separated from family and country, the sorrow of a mother never seeing her child again, the sorrow of never knowing your mother or your family or the sorrow of lost opportunity in meeting up with family decades after removal, knowing there is no real way to make up for lost time together.

I should give a bit of context to these events. Several of the speakers in this debate have reminded the House of Paul Keating’s 1992 Redfern Park speech when, in acknowledging the many wrongs done to Aboriginal people, he used the phrase ‘We took the children from their mothers’. It was known then that there had been removal of Aboriginal children right through the 20th century, but the extent of it was not well understood. The Going Home Conference in Darwin in 1993 was attended by several hundred Aboriginal people. It was that conference which led to, first, Robert Tickner, as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Keating government, and, later, Michael Lavarch, as Attorney-General, commissioning the inquiry conducted by Sir Ronald Wilson and Mick Dodson that produced the Bringing them home report. They of course reported to this parliament in May 1997. Unfortunately, by then the government which had commissioned their report had been replaced by the Howard government in March 1996.

There was an overwhelming response to the tabling of the Bringing them home report. Members of the then opposition read stories from the report into Hansard. Some parliamentarians were moved to tears during their speeches. There was extensive media coverage and tremendous public debate. Unfortunately, the overwhelming public response was not matched by the Howard government’s response. As Lowitja O’Donoghue reminded us in her speech marking the 10th anniversary of the report, 35 of the 54 recommendations in the Bringing them home report were ignored.

The Howard government did not act on most of the recommendations when the report was delivered and still had not acted on the recommendations when the Australian people voted it out of office last year. It was an extraordinary missed opportunity, and, notoriously, the Howard government did not act on the recommendation of an apology. Indeed, the then Prime Minister marked the 10th anniversary by telling parliament that he would not say sorry and that there would be no formal apology to Aboriginal people. He said:

My view has not changed in relation to that, and it will not change.

The decision of the Federal Court in August 2000 that there would be no extension of the time needed to extend the limitations period that both Lorna Cubillo and Kumanjai Gunner faced in the litigation was seized on by the Howard government as proof that there was no stolen generation and that the Bringing them home report was a mistake. In other words, the defeat of the litigation was made to serve a political purpose.

But it is worth remembering that in the same year, 2000, there were huge marches across bridges in Sydney, Melbourne and other capital cities. Hundreds of thousands of Australians marched for reconciliation. The marches were seen at the time as tremendous popular support for reconciliation and the Aboriginal cause but, in some senses, these marches marked an end to reconciliation and not its beginning. Regrettably, until 24 November 2007, reconciliation has limped along, wounded by the Howard government’s failure to apologise and wounded by the Howard government’s failure to even recognise the unrighted wrong of the stolen generation. I have to say that the Howard government’s response to the case left me with a sense of shame, but it made me work with all the more vigour for a change of government. What we now have from the new government is the apology that was offered last Wednesday, which is, I must say, a tremendous step forward. It is a great first step to reconciliation of Aboriginal people with the nation, and what we saw in the lead-up to the apology last week and on the offering of the apology in this parliament was an outpouring of support for Aboriginal people, a real sense that there had been a turning of the page, a change of direction and the taking of a fresh direction on behalf of the whole nation, something on which we can build.

I received in my electorate office in the lead-up to and after the apology—and this is a demonstration of the outpouring of support that there has been for the apology and the national mood that has been created by its offering—a large number of emails supporting it. They are only representative, but I want to share some of them with the House to make clear just what sentiments have been elicited by the offering of the apology.

Peter Dibbs wrote: ‘We were very proud to be Australians yesterday when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd took the first step in rectifying the injustice suffered by our Indigenous population.’ Stephen McPhail wrote: ‘Congratulations on being part of the government that today made an enormously courageous and important symbolic gesture on behalf of our people.’ Lisa Hill, another of my constituents, wrote to say, ‘I have not felt proud of this country for a very long time but now I feel different. Thank you to everyone involved.’ Wendy Russell, another constituent, wrote:

Thank you for being part of and supporting a government that has at last given the Aboriginal people a sense of dignity and a feeling that they are believed in the stories they have told in relation to the stolen children.

The offering of the apology last Wednesday was a truly important day in the history of this country because it marked a very clear recognition on behalf of the whole of our nation that we have put the kind of approach that was bound up in the taking of children—which was, and it needs to be stated clearly, an approach that was based upon race—directly and squarely behind us. We now have the opportunity for what I would describe as a common future for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

I have in mind a future as one people, a future in which Indigenous people are a valued part. It is a common future which is not only about improving living standards and closing the gap in life expectancy, in health and education levels between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians but also about a common future as a distinctive Australian people—an Australian people who are grounded in the land, an Australian people who can draw on the ancient traditions of the people of this land who are, as we know, the people who can link us to the beginnings of human existence in our continent.

Finally, it is important that we treat the apology that was offered as a beginning. It marks a closing of a shameful chapter in Australia’s history where the production of the report in 1997 was met with virtual denials by the government of this country that the report had accurately described events which had happened.