On January 7, Indigenous activist Christine King made a statement to ABC Radio on behalf of the Stolen Generations Alliance. She called on the Rudd government to put its money where its mouth is and provide a national fund of $1 billion to compensate the stolen generations.
Immediately, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin declared that the Rudd government had ruled out a compensation scheme, saying that the focus should be on narrowing the health, education and employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. However, Aboriginal groups have threatened legal action to back their compensation claims.
The term "stolen generations" refers to the estimated 13,000 Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their parents between 1910 and 1970. The reason given at the time was that they were being saved from poverty and neglect, but no attempt was made to find Indigenous foster parents to replace the allegedly neglectful. Instead they were taken to foster homes and denied access to their native language and culture. Attempts by their natural parents to contact them were stifled, with letters destroyed before they could be read.
The 13,000 children subjected to this policy make up between 10% and 30% of the Aboriginal population. Most were taken to state and church institutions where they were given little education and expected to do menial farm work for their "keep". Many have stories of systematic rape and abuse, which lasted for years.
In 1997, a report commissioned by the federal government called Bringing Them Home recognised the psychological and cultural damage done by these policies, and made proposals to redress the wrongs. The report recognised that removing children from their families and culture was a form of genocide which obliterated language, tribal and family groups. It also identified the removal policy as a key cause of many social problems in Indigenous communities, such as alcohol and drug abuse, alienation and distrust of police and government officials.
First among the proposals was the need to recognise the damage done in the form of an apology by the government. The Howard government of the day ruled out any such action, which resulted in mass protests as part of the"Sorry Day" marches in 2000, demanding an apology from the government.
While the new Rudd government has declared it will issue an apology and has suggested constitutional changes to recognise the specific contributions that Aboriginal people make to Australia, it has come aground on one key element of the report: the call for compensation.
"We are not trying to claim anything other than what is the right of the Aboriginal peoples that were a part of and are part of the stolen generations", King said in her ABC Radio interview.
The $1 billion figure was based on the $5 million fund already established by the Tasmanian government to compensate the 130 members of the stolen generations in Tasmania. "The Prime Minister is going to stand up in front of the world and say that on behalf of the nation we are genuinely sorry that this happened," Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell told the January 7 Herald Sun. "If he then walks away and says but I'm not going to compensate you, it would give a hollow ring to the words he would be using."
Another aspect of the ALP's indigenous policy has been under scrutiny since it came into office — that of the Northern Territory intervention, which saw widespread attacks on the rights of all Indigenous people in the NT and placed most under income management, banned the purchase of cigarettes and alcohol and removed the permit system, which had given a certain amount of control to Aboriginal communities over who could enter their townships.
At the time, the ALP supported the intervention, but questioned some of its aspects, such as the removal of the permit system. On November 24 2007, just prior to the election, the ALP made an anouncement that it would restore the Community Development and Employment Program (CDEP), which was abolished under the Howard government and — while problematic on many levels — had provided employment and training in the NT for many Aboriginal communities. But on November 30, the ALP made clear its support for the NT intervention and said it would canvass the possibility of extending it to other states and territories.
"The Australian government has been committed to the Northern Territory intervention from the start," Macklin told ABC Radio on January 17. "We supported it in the parliament and we continue to support it."
"We indicated some time ago that we did not agree with the removal of the permit system … we made that clear before the election … we think that the system in fact enables communities to keep the grog-runners and the paedophiles out of the communities — not the reverse."
While the reintroduction of the permit system would be a welcome move by the ALP, it has been steadfast in supporting the welfare "quarantine" system. The community of Wadeye has just been placed on income quarantine. Aboriginal welfare recipients will have 50% of their welfare payments transformed into cards for various stores, and be limited in what they can buy there.
On January 15, ABC News Online published a report by Rachel Willika who lives in the Eva Valley community. The report, called Christmas spirit in the NT, told of the difficulties faced by her and others on welfare quarantine in remote communities. She told of hundreds of people lining up to wait for their welfare cards, with only five Centrelink workers to distribute them. The cards are specified for food, clothing or "other" and Centrelink only had so many cards of each.
In order to use the cards, people have to go to the right stores, and the vast distances and lack of transport make it untenable. Willika described a trip to Katherine to buy food; the cost of the taxi was $220 each way. Over the Christmas break, no provisions were made to extend the cards to stores which sold toys, so children went without.
Aboriginal activists are asking the ALP what they will do to allow for adequate input from Aboriginal people when formulating policy. Under the Howard government a National Indigenous Council (NIC) was established, whose members were hand-picked by the government. It was criticised for only being made up of representatives who supported government initiatives and for not being an elected body like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which preceded the NIC.
"ATSIC even though it had its problems, did have a legitimate mandate from a significant section of the Indigenous community," Sam Watson, Socialist Alliance member and prominent Aboriginal activist from Brisbane, told the January 17 National Indigenous Times.
"However, Mr Howard chose to ignore that mandate and show absolute contempt for the express wishes of the Indigenous voters and closed the Commission down. At no stage did [the NIC] ever seek any form of endorsement from their own communities and at their highest point, it could still only be said they spoke on their own behalf, as a group of individuals."
The Rudd government has inherited a legacy of racism and neglect in the area of Indigenous affairs. On February 12, Aboriginal activists and supporters will be mobilising on Canberra for the first sitting of parliament to demand that the new ALP government turn back from that legacy. The convergence will meet at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy at 11.30am and march to Parliament at 1pm.