Apology only the beginning

February 16, 2008

"As prime minister of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the parliament of Australia, I am sorry." With these words, on February 13, PM Kevin Rudd opened the first session of the newly elected government and did what the previous Howard government had failed to do for its eleven years in power.

Rudd apologised on behalf of the Australian parliament to the tens of thousands of Aboriginals forcibly taken from their families, known as the Stolen Generations. The apology is a landmark occasion, and opens a new phase of struggle in Aboriginal politics.

The apology was broadcast in schools and workplaces and on public television screens across the country. On the lawns of new Parliament House, over six thousand people gathered to hear Rudd deliver the apology and his speech motivating it to parliament.

The speech was moving and powerful. It lacked the weasel words that are usually associated with politicians. Many in the crowd, including members of the Stolen Generations from all over the country, cried openly at Rudd's words, which marked the first implementation of any recommendation from the 1997 Bringing Them Home report.

Rudd used his speech to tell stories of those who were taken from their families by welfare authorities from 1910 to 1970. He spoke of the abuse and neglect that the one-in-ten Aboriginal children, who made up the Stolen Generations, suffered in institutions they were taken to.

Attendees cheered every time Rudd used the word "sorry" — a word that the previous government refused to say, arguing that those in the present should not be held accountable to the actions of those in the past. Then PM John Howard also refused to say "sorry" for legal reasons, arguing that it might open the government to legal action. In 2000, when Howard argued this to Aboriginal leaders, they turned their backs on him.

It was an action that people would recall later, on the day of the apology.

When Rudd finished, the leader of the opposition, Brendan Nelson, rose to speak. Unlike Rudd's speech, his was filled with caveats and weasel words. Nelson had hedged and dithered in the lead-up to the apology as to whether the Liberal-National coalition would support it. While Nelson also talked of the arbitrary nature of the removal of children, and the suffering by them and their families, he spent a great deal of time stressing the "good intentions" of those who implemented the policy, regardless of outcome.

He also said that child abuse was found in every one of the 45 Aboriginal communities recently surveyed in the Northern Territory. That this statement could also be said about every capital city and small town in Australia escaped him: he was implying that some of the policies that led to the Stolen Generations were justified.

"He's attacking Aboriginal culture!" someone cried outside parliament house, and the crowd turned their backs on Nelson, whose apology had become a justification — a defence of the indefensible — and he was shunned like Howard before him. A similar shunning was displayed by the thousands of people gathered in front of public television screens across Australia. In Melbourne's Federation Square, many amongst the 8000-strong crowd jeered "get him off", until somebody disconnected the sound.

It was Nelson, however, who — albeit probably inadvertently — pointed out the weaknesses coming after the apology: the policy of the continuing NT intervention, against which nearly 2000 people had mobilised the day before (see article page 3), and the current government's ruling out of a compensation scheme for the Stolen Generations.

"There is no compensation fund", Nelson said, "nor should there be. How can any sum of money replace a life deprived of knowing your family? Separation was then, and remains today, a painful but necessary part of public policy in the protection of children". He also went to great lengths to defend the NT intervention.

The Greens moved an amendment to the apology that called for the formation of a national compensation scheme, but it was voted down by Labor, the Coalition, the Australian Democrats and Family First. Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett on February 15 introduced a compensation bill for the Stolen Generations.

After the speeches, actual policy was moved. A bipartisan committee was established to improve housing in the NT, and Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin introduced policy to increase the number of teachers in outback communities. While both of these will go some way to making the apology more than just symbolism, at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy by Old Parliament House, there was a serious recognition that this was only the beginning. Aboriginal activists at the tent embassy that day were jubilant, but called on the government to do more.

Michael Mansell, from the National Aboriginal Alliance and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, called for people to mobilise for compensation for the Stolen Generations. He told Green Left Weekly, "Saying sorry is an important part of dealing with the Stolen Generations but the other part is compensation. You can't expect people who had their lives damaged so recklessly by the actions of racist people to be content with the word 'sorry'. Nobody else in Australia who suffers damages is content with the word 'sorry', so why should Aboriginal people be?"

While the NT intervention has been modified by the new Rudd Labor government, by reinstating some Aboriginal control of their communities through the permit system and the CDEP employment scheme, the intervention remains in force, and the government's policy is to continue it. Addressing the crowd at the Tent Embassy after the apology, Indigenous activist Isobell Coe called for a review of the intervention, and an end to welfare quarantining as a "racist, segregationist policy". She also asked people to mobilise on the 13th of each month at Centrelink offices as part of demanding this.

Sam Watson, Murri activist and Socialist Alliance member, spoke of black deaths in custody. He spoke about Mulrunji Doomagee and TJ Hickey, who both died as a result of police actions, and said those responsible got away "scot-free". He called on everyone to mobilise on April 4 in defense of Lex Wotton, an Aboriginal man who is facing court action for leading a protest against Mulrunji's death.

Grace Smallwood from Townsville told the crowd: "This was a very good day! But it can't end here!"

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