Indigenous Affairs Minster Jenny Macklin announced on January 30 that the federal government will make a formal apology to the stolen generations — the 13,000 Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their parents as part of a government policy of assimilation — on February 13, the day after the first sitting of the new parliament. Despite calls by Aboriginal groups to include a compensation plan, PM Kevin Rudd's government has continued to rule out any national compensation fund to go with the apology.
In the 1997 Bringing Them Home report, the stolen generations policy was identified as a key cause of Aboriginal disadvantage and alienation, and among its proposals for action were an apology and a call for compensation.
In an interview with Channel Seven's Sunrise program on January 29, Rudd explained his government's position on compensation: "We will not be establishing any compensation fund. I said that before the election, I say it again. And since the Stolen Generation report came out years and years ago, it has been open for any individual, Aboriginal person affected by that to engage their own legal actions through the courts of their State or Territory. That's fine. But at the level of national Government, we will not be establishing any compensation fund."
Tasmania is the only state to establish a compensation fund for members of the stolen generations thus far and the acting Queensland Premier Paul Lucas told ABC News Online on July 7 that his government was not considering a compensation fund. NT acting Chief Minister Marion Scrymgour has said the same. She told ABC News Online on January 10: "It's not monetary form that's going to overcome that disadvantage. We need to work with the Federal Government to look at what needs to be put in place so that people can move forward. It's about dealing with the past and moving into the future so that people can get on with their lives."
Some individuals, such as Bruce Trevorrow from South Australia — who was the first to win such a case in August 2007 — have managed to prosecute state governments for compensation. But such individual actions, or even class actions, are time-consuming, and the Aboriginal population has already been identified as being alienated from the legal system by numerous reports, including Bringing Them Home. Even if this alienation can be overcome, the right to pursue legal cases against states doesn't address the fact that — during the period the policy was in place — the federal government was directly controlling the NT, where most of the children were taken. The federal government, therefore, must also be held to account.
Michael Anderson, whose grandmother was taken from her Aboriginal parents in 1914, put out a press release criticising the apology on January 29. He said: "For an apology to be meaningful, there is a lot of history that PM Kevin Rudd has to admit to. He has to say why the Prime Minister and government is sorry and the public has to accept that the sorry statement is necessary for Australia to move forward.
"In 1937, State and Federal governments convened a conference in Canberra to decide on a policy of what to do with the Aborigines — the resulting policy objective was for the complete annihilation of a race of Peoples.
"The principle method to achieve this was to remove Aboriginal children from their parents and from the influence of customs, traditions and law/lore. The primary objectives were to de-Aboriginalise these children and to expunge their colour, because Australia was working towards an Aryan race."
While a federal compensation scheme has been ruled out, the government has promised to put more funds into solving the serious problems of Aboriginal disadvantge in Australia. Early indications of this commitment, however, are so far inadequate. Health is one example. A BMC International Health and Human Rights report released on December 20 acknowledged that between 1990 and 2000 Aboriginal health indicators declined relative to other Australians. Average life expectancy remains at 59.6 years, in comparison to 77 years to other Australians.
The Australian Medical Association estimates $450 million per year is needed to bridge the gap in Indigenous health funding, but according to the January 24 National Indigenous Times the federal government has only committed to $261 million, with $75 million of that from state and territory governments.
Meanwhile, the NT intervention policy — introduced under previous PM John Howard and requiring the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act — continues, despite demands from a range of Indigenous groups that the new government heed the wishes of the communities and change its approach.
Greg Eatock is a member of the Aboriginal Rights Coalition, one of many Aboriginal activists and organisations converging on Canberra on February 12. These groups are calling for compensation for the stolen generations, the adoption of the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights and an end to the NT intervention. "We acknowledge the gesture of an apology and [we] stand alongside the Stolen Generations, but Rudd must act now," Eatock was quoted in the January 31 National Indigenous Times.
"We don't want to be asking for another apology in 20 years for the people whose communities are being shut down and family lives torn apart by this intervention."