Australia: New PM Rudd says "sorry" for State-imposed atrocities inflicted on country's Indigenous Print E-mail
Sydney Morning Herald ~~ Wednesday February 13  2008

For the pain and suffering, we apologise

New dawn … Kevin Rudd with local elder Matilda House-Williams, who yesterday led the first "welcome to country" at an opening of Parliament (Photo: Andrew Taylor)

Phillip Coorey and Stephanie Peatling

Scroll down for the full text of Prime Minister Rudd's apology and a number of media reports

WITH just 361 words, the Federal Parliament will today seek to heal the hurt caused by past decades of state-sponsored ill-treatment of all indigenous Australians - not just those forcibly removed as children from their families.

More than 10 years since the story of the stolen generations was told in the Bringing Them Home report, the declaration of the apology will usher in a new era of recognition and reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia.

The Coalition, which refused to countenance an apology when John Howard was leader, saw the final text last night and will back Labor's motion this morning, giving it the Parliament's full imprimatur.

The apology - to be read by the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd - is extended to all indigenous peoples who were mistreated as a consequence of official government policy.

"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," it says.

It lends particular emphasis to the stolen generations.

"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.

"And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry."

The apology will follow yesterday's official opening of the 42nd Parliament, which for the first time included the local Aboriginal people, who performed a "welcome to country" ceremony. Mr Rudd and the Opposition Leader, Brendan Nelson, vowed that the ceremony would be a permanent feature of future parliamentary openings.

"It's taken 41 parliaments to get here," Mr Rudd said. "We can be a bit slow sometimes, but we got here. When it comes to parliaments of the future, this will become part and parcel of the fabric of our celebration of Australia in all of its unity and all of its diversity."

The Governor-General, Michael Jeffrey, backed the apology and called on Labor to incorporate more indigenous history into its proposed national curriculum. "The richness of indigenous culture is often under-recognised and, as a nation, we have much to learn about the history of indigenous Australians - a history that stretches over 60,000 years," Major General Jeffrey said.

Indigenous people from across the country have descended on Canberra for today's apology.

Controversially, it makes no mention of monetary compensation for the stolen generations, which neither side of politics supports but which some indigenous groups are demanding.

A spokesman for the National Aboriginal Alliance, Michael Mansell, said: "The one thing that we expected the apology would deliver was an explanation as to why the victims of the stolen generations were targeted. And the one thing that's missing from the apology is that explanation."

However, he was heartened by Mr Rudd's desire to address the past. "The reference in the text to righting the wrongs of the past indicates to us that the Prime Minister has left the door open for compensation," Mr Mansell said.

Reconciliation Australia, one of the main groups pushing for an apology, said it would not comment on the wording because it would detract from the emotion of the occasion. The apology was developed by Labor in consultation with the Stolen Generations Alliance and the National Sorry Day Committee.

Dr Nelson opposes the use of the term stolen generations but has accepted that its use was non-negotiable. He was not shown a copy of the text until about two hours before its release at 5.30pm yesterday. His indigenous affairs spokesman, Tony Abbott, called Labor "incompetent" for leaving it so late.

Dr Nelson, having been assured that he was not required to speak at yesterday's ceremony, was given about 60 seconds' notice once it began that he should say something. He did so off the cuff. He paid tribute to the sacrifices made by indigenous people and threw his support behind future welcome-to-country ceremonies.

"I assure you on behalf of the alternative government … that whatever happens in future parliaments, so long as I have anything to do with it, that we will have a welcome from Ngunnawal and their descendants."

There was a bipartisan recommendation five years ago for such ceremonies but John Howard rejected it. Mr Rudd lamented that when Canberra's first parliament house opened in 1927 no indigenous people were invited. "There was no welcome to the country; there was no welcome at all," he said at yesterday's ceremony.

The welcome was led by Matilda House-Williams, an elder of the Ngambri people, who have a traditional connection with the Canberra and Yass region. She entered the Members' Hall accompanied by a didgeridoo player and her granddaughter, who presented Mr Rudd with a message stick. "A welcome to country acknowledges our people and pays respect to our ancestors' spirits who have created the lands," she told the audience.

"In doing this the Prime Minister shows what we call proper respect to us, to his fellow parliamentarians and to all Australians. For thousands of years our people have observed this protocol. It is a good and honest and a decent and human act to reach out and make sure everyone has a place and is welcome."

The indigenous leader and a member of the stolen generations, Lowitja O'Donoghue, who is in Canberra for today's apology, said: "It will be a healing process for many of the stolen generation."

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, said the apology would allow members of the stolen generations to feel part of the community.

"It is not about black armbands and guilt," he said. "It is about inclusion and learning from the past. And ultimately it is about providing space in the telling of our national story for the stolen generations."

The Age ~~ Melbourne ~~ February 12 2008

Text of PM Rudd's 'sorry' address

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.

There comes a time in the history of nations when their peoples must become fully reconciled to their past if they are to go forward with confidence to embrace their future.

Our nation, Australia, has reached such a time.

That is why the Parliament is today here assembled: to deal with this unfinished business of the nation, to remove a great stain from the nations soul and, in a true spirit of reconciliation, to open a new chapter in the history of this great land, Australia.

Last year I made a commitment to the Australian people that if we formed the next government of the Commonwealth we would in Parliament say sorry to the stolen generations.

Today I honour that commitment.

I said we would do so early in the life of the new Parliament.
Again, today I honour that commitment by doing so at the commencement of this the 42nd parliament of the Commonwealth.

Because the time has come, well and truly come, for all peoples of our great country, for all citizens of our great commonwealth, for all Australians - those who are indigenous and those who are not - to come together to reconcile and together build a new future for our nation.

Some have asked, Why apologise?

Let me begin to answer by telling the Parliament just a little of one person's story - an elegant, eloquent and wonderful woman in her 80s, full of life, full of funny stories, despite what has happened in her life's journey, a woman who has travelled a long way to be with us today, a member of the stolen generation who shared some of her story with me when
I called around to see her just a few days ago.

Nanna Nungala Fejo, as she prefers to be called, was born in the late 1920s.

She remembers her earliest childhood days living with her family and her community in a bush camp just outside Tennant Creek.

She remembers the love and the warmth and the kinship of those days long ago, including traditional dancing around the camp fire at night.

She loved the dancing. She remembers once getting into strife when, as a four-year-old girl, she insisted on dancing with the male tribal elders rather than just sitting and watching the men, as the girls were supposed to do.

But then, sometime around 1932, when she was about four, she remembers the coming of the welfare men.

Her family had feared that day and had dug holes in the creek bank where the children could run and hide.

What they had not expected was that the white welfare men did not come alone. They brought a truck, two white men and an Aboriginal stockman on horseback cracking his stockwhip.

The kids were found; they ran for their mothers, screaming, but they could not get away. They were herded and piled onto the back of the truck.

Tears flowing, her mum tried clinging to the sides of the truck as her children were taken away to the Bungalow in Alice, all in the name of protection.

A few years later, government policy changed. Now the children would be handed over to the missions to be cared for by the churches. But which church would care for them?

The kids were simply told to line up in three lines. Nanna Fejo and her sister stood in the middle line, her older brother and cousin on her left. Those on the left were told that they had become Catholics, those in the middle Methodists and those on the right Church of England.

That is how the complex questions of post-reformation theology were resolved in the Australian outback in the 1930s. It was as crude as that.

She and her sister were sent to a Methodist mission on Goulburn Island and then Croker Island. Her Catholic brother was sent to work at a cattle station and her cousin to a Catholic mission.

Nanna Fejo's family had been broken up for a second time. She stayed at the mission until after the war, when she was allowed to leave for a prearranged job as a domestic in Darwin. She was 16. Nanna Fejo never saw her mum again.

After she left the mission, her brother let her know that her mum had died years before, a broken woman fretting for the children that had literally been ripped away from her.

I asked Nanna Fejo what she would have me say today about her story. She thought for a few moments then said that what I should say today was that ''all mothers are important''.

And she added: ''Families - keeping them together is very important. It's a good thing that you are surrounded by love and that love is passed down the generations. That's what gives you happiness.''

As I left, later on, Nanna Fejo took one of my staff aside, wanting to make sure that I was not too hard on the Aboriginal stockman who had hunted those kids down all those years ago.

The stockman had found her again decades later, this time himself to say, sorry. And remarkably, extraordinarily, she had forgiven him.

Nanna Fejo's is just one story. There are thousands, tens of thousands of them: stories of forced separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their mums and dads over the better part of a century.

Some of these stories are graphically told in Bringing Them Home, the report commissioned in 1995 by Prime Minister Keating and received in 1997 by Prime Minister Howard.

There is something terribly primal about these firsthand accounts. The pain is searing; it screams from the pages. The hurt, the humiliation, the degradation and the sheer brutality of the act of physically separating a mother from her children is a deep assault on our senses and on our most elemental humanity.

These stories cry out to be heard; they cry out for an apology.

Instead, from the nation's Parliament there has been a stony, stubborn and deafening silence for more than a decade; a view that somehow we, the Parliament, should suspend our most basic instincts of what is right and what is wrong; a view that, instead, we should look for any pretext to push this great wrong to one side, to leave it languishing with the
historians, the academics and the cultural warriors, as if the stolen generations are little more than an interesting sociological phenomenon.

But the stolen generations are not intellectual curiosities. They are human beings, human beings who have been damaged deeply by the decisions of parliaments and governments. But, as of today, the time for denial, the time for delay, has at last come to an end.

The nation is demanding of its political leadership to take us forward.
Decency, human decency, universal human decency, demands that the nation now step forward to right an historical wrong. That is what we are doing in this place today.

But should there still be doubts as to why we must now act, let the Parliament reflect for a moment on the following facts: that, between 1910 and 1970, between 10 and 30% of indigenous children were forcibly taken from their mothers and fathers; that, as a result, up to 50,000 children were forcibly taken from their families; that this was the product
of the deliberate, calculated policies of the state as reflected in the explicit powers given to them under statute; that this policy was taken to such extremes by some in administrative authority that the forced extractions of children of so-called mixed lineage were seen as part of a broader policy of dealing with the problem of the Aboriginal population.

One of the most notorious examples of this approach was from the Northern Territory Protector of Natives, who stated: ''Generally by the fifth and invariably by the sixth generation, all native characteristics of the Australian Aborigine are eradicated. The problem of our half-castes'' - to quote the protector - ''will quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race, and the swift submergence of their progeny in the white''.

The Western Australian Protector of Natives expressed not dissimilar views, expounding them at length in Canberra in 1937 at the first national conference on indigenous affairs that brought together the Commonwealth and state protectors of natives.

These are uncomfortable things to be brought out into the light. They are not pleasant. They are profoundly disturbing.

But we must acknowledge these facts if we are to deal once and for all with the argument that the policy of generic forced separation was somehow well motivated, justified by its historical context and, as a result, unworthy of any apology today.

Then we come to the argument of intergenerational responsibility, also used by some to argue against giving an apology today.

But let us remember the fact that the forced removal of Aboriginal children was happening as late as the early 1970s.

The 1970s is not exactly a point in remote antiquity. There are still serving members of this Parliament who were first elected to this place in the early 1970s.

It is well within the adult memory span of many of us.

The uncomfortable truth for us all is that the parliaments of the nation, individually and collectively, enacted statutes and delegated authority under those statutes that made the forced removal of children on racial grounds fully lawful.

There is a further reason for an apology as well: it is that reconciliation is in fact an expression of a core value of our nation - and that value is a fair go for all.

There is a deep and abiding belief in the Australian community that, for the stolen generations, there was no fair go at all.

There is a pretty basic Aussie belief that says that it is time to put right this most outrageous of wrongs.

It is for these reasons, quite apart from concerns of fundamental human decency, that the governments and parliaments of this nation must make this apology - because, put simply, the laws that our parliaments enacted made the stolen generations possible.

We, the parliaments of the nation, are ultimately responsible, not those who gave effect to our laws. And the problem lay with the laws themselves.

As has been said of settler societies elsewhere, we are the bearers of many blessings from our ancestors; therefore we must also be the bearer of their burdens as well.

Therefore, for our nation, the course of action is clear: that is, to deal now with what has become one of the darkest chapters in Australia's history.

In doing so, we are doing more than contending with the facts, the evidence and the often rancorous public debate.

In doing so, we are also wrestling with our own soul.

This is not, as some would argue, a black-armband view of history; it is just the truth: the cold, confronting, uncomfortable truth - facing it, dealing with it, moving on from it.

Until we fully confront that truth, there will always be a shadow hanging over us and our future as a fully united and fully reconciled people.

It is time to reconcile. It is time to recognise the injustices of the past. It is time to say sorry. It is time to move forward together.

To the stolen generations, I say the following: 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.

I offer you this apology without qualification.

We apologise for the hurt, the pain and suffering that we, the parliament, have caused you by the laws that previous parliaments have enacted.

We apologise for the indignity, the degradation and the humiliation these laws embodied.

We offer this apology to the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters, the families and the communities whose lives were ripped apart by the actions of successive governments under successive parliaments.

In making this apology, I would also like to speak personally to the members of the stolen generations and their families: to those here today, so many of you; to those listening across the nation - from Yuendumu, in the central west of the Northern Territory, to Yabara, in North Queensland, and to Pitjantjatjara in South Australia.

I know that, in offering this apology on behalf of the Government and the Parliament, there is nothing I can say today that can take away the pain you have suffered personally.

Whatever words I speak today, I cannot undo that.

Words alone are not that powerful; grief is a very personal thing.
I ask those non-indigenous Australians listening today who may not fully understand why what we are doing is so important to imagine for a moment that this had happened to you.

I say to honourable members here present: imagine if this had happened to us. Imagine the crippling effect. Imagine how hard it would be to forgive.

My proposal is this: if the apology we extend today is accepted in the spirit of reconciliation, in which it is offered, we can today resolve together that there be a new beginning for Australia.

And it is to such a new beginning that I believe the nation is now calling us.
Australians are a passionate lot. We are also a very practical lot.

For us, symbolism is important but, unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong.

It is not sentiment that makes history; it is our actions that make history.
Today's apology, however inadequate, is aimed at righting past wrongs.
It is also aimed at building a bridge between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians - a bridge based on a real respect rather than a thinly veiled contempt.

Our challenge for the future is to cross that bridge and, in so doing, to embrace a new partnership between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians - to embrace, as part of that partnership, expanded Link-up and other critical services to help the stolen generations to trace their families if at all possible and to provide dignity to their lives.

But the core of this partnership for the future is to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians on life expectancy, educational achievement and employment opportunities.

This new partnership on closing the gap will set concrete targets for the future: within a decade to halve the widening gap in literacy, numeracy and employment outcomes and opportunities for indigenous Australians, within a decade to halve the appalling gap in infant mortality rates between indigenous and non-indigenous children and, within a generation, to close the equally appalling 17-year life gap between indigenous and non-indigenous in overall life expectancy.

The truth is: a business as usual approach towards indigenous Australians is not working.

Most old approaches are not working.

We need a new beginning, a new beginning which contains real measures of policy success or policy failure; a new beginning, a new partnership, on closing the gap with sufficient flexibility not to insist on a one-size-fits-all approach for each of the hundreds of remote and regional indigenous communities across the country but instead allowing flexible, tailored, local approaches to achieve commonly-agreed national objectives that lie at the core of our proposed new partnership; a new beginning that draws intelligently on the experiences of new policy settings across the nation.

However, unless we as a Parliament set a destination for the nation, we have no clear point to guide our policy, our programs or our purpose; we have no centralised organising principle.

Let us resolve today to begin with the little children, a fitting place to start on this day of apology for the stolen generations.

Let us resolve over the next five years to have every indigenous four-year-old in a remote Aboriginal community enrolled in and attending a proper early childhood education centre or opportunity and engaged in proper pre-literacy and pre-numeracy programs.

Let us resolve to build new educational opportunities for these little ones, year by year, step by step, following the completion of their crucial pre-school year.

Let us resolve to use this systematic approach to build future educational opportunities for indigenous children to provide proper primary and preventive health care for the same children, to begin the task of rolling back the obscenity that we find today in infant mortality rates in remote indigenous communities up to four times higher than in other

None of this will be easy. Most of it will be hard, very hard. But none of it is impossible, and all of it is achievable with clear goals, clear thinking, and by placing an absolute premium on respect, cooperation and mutual responsibility as the guiding principles of this new partnership on closing the gap.

The mood of the nation is for reconciliation now, between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. The mood of the nation on indigenous policy and politics is now very simple.

The nation is calling on us, the politicians, to move beyond our infantile bickering, our point-scoring and our mindlessly partisan politics and to elevate this one core area of national responsibility to a rare position beyond the partisan divide.

Surely this is the unfulfilled spirit of the 1967 referendum. Surely, at least from this day forward, we should give it a go.

Let me take this one step further and take what some may see as a piece of political posturing and make a practical proposal to the opposition on this day, the first full sitting day of the new Parliament.

I said before the election that the nation needed a kind of war cabinet on parts of indigenous policy, because the challenges are too great and the consequences are too great to allow it all to become a political football, as it has been so often in the past.

I therefore propose a joint policy commission, to be led by the Leader of the Opposition and me, with a mandate to develop and implement, to begin with, an effective housing strategy for remote communities over the next five years.

It will be consistent with the Government's policy framework, a new partnership for closing the gap. If this commission operates well, I then propose that it work on the further task of constitutional recognition of the first Australians, consistent with the longstanding platform commitments of my party and the pre-election position of the opposition.

This would probably be desirable in any event because, unless such a proposition were absolutely bipartisan, it would fail at a referendum. As I have said before, the time has come for new approaches to enduring problems.

Working constructively together on such defined projects would, I believe, meet with the support of the nation. It is time for fresh ideas to fashion the nation's future.

Mr Speaker, today the Parliament has come together to right a great wrong. We have come together to deal with the past so that we might fully embrace the future. We have had sufficient audacity of faith to advance a pathway to that future, with arms extended rather than with fists still clenched.

So let us seize the day. Let it not become a moment of mere sentimental reflection.

Let us take it with both hands and allow this day, this day of national reconciliation, to become one of those rare moments in which we might just be able to transform the way in which the nation thinks about itself, whereby the injustice administered to the stolen generations in the name of these, our parliaments, causes all of us to reappraise, at the deepest level of our beliefs, the real possibility of reconciliation writ large: reconciliation across all indigenous Australia; reconciliation across the entire history of the often bloody encounter between those who emerged from the Dreamtime a thousand generations ago and those who, like me, came across the seas only yesterday; reconciliation which opens up whole new possibilities for the future.

It is for the nation to bring the first two centuries of our settled history to a close, as we begin a new chapter. We embrace with pride, admiration and awe these great and ancient cultures we are truly blessed to have among us cultures that provide a unique, uninterrupted human thread linking our Australian continent to the most ancient prehistory of our planet.

Growing from this new respect, we see our indigenous brothers and sisters with fresh eyes, with new eyes, and we have our minds wide open as to how we might tackle, together, the great practical challenges that indigenous Australia faces in the future.

Let us turn this page together: indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, government and opposition, Commonwealth and state, and write this new chapter in our nation's story together.

First Australians, First Fleeters, and those who first took the oath of allegiance just a few weeks ago. Let's grasp this opportunity to craft a new future for this great land: Australia. I commend the motion to the House.

The Sydney Morning Herald ~~ Wednesday February 13 2008

Kevin Rudd says sorry

Australia has formally apologised to the stolen generations with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd reading a speech in Federal Parliament this morning.

The apology was read at 9am to the minute, as the first action of the second sitting day of the 42nd Parliament of Australia.

Both Mr Rudd and Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin received a standing ovation as they entered the Great Hall before the Prime Minister delivered the speech.

The reading of the 361-word apology was completed by 9.30am and was watched by hundreds of parliamentarians, former prime ministers and representatives of the indigenous community.

Former prime ministers Paul Keating, Bob Hawke, Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser and Sir William Deane were all seated on the floor of the Parliament as well as 17 people representing the stolen generation.

Removing a stain from the soul of Australia

In another address directly after reading the apology, Mr Rudd spoke of removing a "stain from the soul of Australia".

"The time has come, well and truly come ... for all Australians, those who are indigenous and those who are not to come together, truly reconcile and together build a truly great nation."

The Prime Minister also discussed the first-hand accounts in the Keating government-sponsored report Bringing Them Home.

"There is something terribly primal about these first-hand accounts. The pain is searing, it screams from the pages - the hurt, the humiliation, the degradation and the sheer brutality of the act of physically separating a mother from her children is a deep assault on our senses and on our most elemental sense of humanity.

"These stories cry out to be heard, they cry out for an apology.

"Instead from the nation's Parliament there has been a stony and stubborn and deafening silence for more than a decade.

"A view that somehow we the Parliament should suspend our most basic instincts of what is right and what is wrong.

"A view that instead we should look for any pretext to push this great wrong to one side.

"To leave it languishing with the historians, the academics and the cultural warriors as if the stolen generations are little more than an interesting sociological phenomenon.

"But the stolen generations are not intellectual curiosities, they are human beings, human beings who have been damaged deeply by the decisions of parliaments and governments.

Time for denial is at an end
"But as of today the time for denial, the time for delay, has at last come to an end."

At 9.28pm Mr Rudd finished his address, and was greeted by loud and lasting applause by both sides of the house.

He reached across the house's table and shook the hand of Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson before returning to the front bench, where he himself applauded.

Brendan Nelson
Dr Nelson then stood and delivered a speech in support of the apology.

"We will be at our best today, and every day, if we call to place ourselves in the shoes of others," he said, "imbued with the imaginative capacity to see this issue through their eyes with decency and respect.

"We cannot from the comfort of the 21st century begin to imagine what they overcame, indigenous and non-indigenous to give us what we have and make us who we are.

"We do know that language, disease, ignorance, good intentions, basic human prejudices and a cultural and technological chasm combined to create a harshness exceed only by the land.

"In saying we are sorry, and deeply sorry, we remind ourselves that each generation lives in ignorance of the long-term consequences of its actions."

At the end of Mr Rudds's speech, all MPs stood except for the Liberal MP Chris Pearce. Mr Pearce did stand after Dr Nelson's speech.

Liberal MPs Wilson Tuckey and Don Randall were not in the chamber.

People watching in the Great Hall turned their backs during Dr Nelson's speech.

Reaction to the Prime Minister's apology in Canberra and Sydney today. Photos: Peter Rae, Jon Reid and Mark Graham.

Paul Keating: words more important than money
Mr  Keating told ABC TV: "This is a day of open hearts.

"A country has always got to look for its golden threads and when we start looking for the black threads you lose your way," he said. "We lost our way for a decade looking for black threads.

"What is important is that when policy cut across the human spirit we are always in for misery and as a consequence the stolen generation was a cut right across the spirit of those people and the soul of the country."

Mr Keating's government was responsible for commissioning a report into the stolen generations which focused on possible processes of compensation.

However today, Mr Keating said words were more important than money. "It is true the report does in some respects focus on compensation," he said.

"The most important thing is the sorry. The most important thing is the national emotional response. I don't believe that these separations or that sadness will ever be settled in a monetary sense.

"It can never be settled in a monetary sense. Far more important in my term was to settle it in an emotional sense and that's what the prime minister and government have done today.''

Mr Rudd's speech received a standing ovation at the Redfern Community Centre, where hundreds gathered.

Residents, workers, families, students and Sydney's Lord Mayor Clover Moore braved the rain to watch the speech via a large outdoor screen.

David Page, composer with the indigenous dance group Bangarra Dance Theatre, said he liked the fact that Mr Rudd made a personal apology.

"It was very moving to see a prime minister with a bit of heart. I loved it when he said he was sorry. There was just something personal about it. It's very hard for a prime minister to be personal," he said.

Enid Williams, 72, who was brought up on a mission in north Queensland after her father was forcibly removed from his family, said she was happy with Mr Rudd's speech, but said it was now important to look to the future.

"I'm 72. The main thing is the young people, to give them a better future."

Martin Place
At Martin Place in Sydney, hundreds of Sydneysiders from all walks of life gathered to watch the Sorry Day celebrations holding Australian, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags.

Men and women in business suits, schoolchildren and other passers-by of all different backgrounds cried, smiled and stood in respect as they listened to Mr Rudd apologise.

Lawn at Parliament House
Many thousands more assembled on a lawn in front of Parliament House to watch the apology on a big screen. As Mr Rudd delivered the first of three sorrys, loud applause and cheering rang out.

Aboriginal flags and Australian flags coloured the air and as Mr Rudd closed his address, the crowd rose to their feet in applause. It was a standing ovation. Many were crying, most were smiling and others just quietly said yes.

As Dr Nelson took the microphone, booing was heard. One woman said he shouldn't have been allowed to speak.

Helen Ford, 70, from Beacon Hill said Mr Rudd's speech was magnificent.

"Mr Rudd's speech was just magnificent. It's a wonderful day. Pity about the Opposition speech."

Ray Finn, 52, from Oodnadatta, South Australia, said: "My family had been affected directly and I felt like the chain had finally broke from us.

"There's still racism to deal with but hopefully from this day we'll go forward together."

Torres Straits Islander Lydia George, from Erub Island, said: "The first speech was very symbolic. The second speaker tarnished it. I was thinking of my granddaughter and her future is now, not tomorrow. She'll face a new future that will be bright. The healing process has began."

Wilson Tuckey
Mr Rudd's speech was not greeted with unanimous approval, however, with Mr Tuckey telling Sky News shortly before 9am he doubted the speech - which has bipartisan support - would change anything.

"So the Prime Minister reads a speech, apparently some people stand up and sit down and then a miracle happens over night, there'll be no petrol sniffing ... and girls can sleep safely in the family bed at night," he said.

When asked by Sky News if he supported the apology, a technical error occurred, with Mr Tuckey telling the camera he was unable to hear the question.

- with Edmund Tadros, Yuko Narushima, Phillip Hudson, Leesha McKenny and AAP

TOMORROW: Sydney Morning Herald souvenir Sorry Day edition.


The Sydney Morning Herald ~~ Wednesday February 13 2008

A nation shocked by tales of sorrow

There were tears in Parliament in 1997, but an apology was a long way off, writes Joel Gibson.
Howard's eternal shame!
'When the girls left the home, they were sent out to work in the homes and outlying farms of middle-class white people as domestics. On top of that you were lucky not to be sexually, physically and mentally abused, and all for a lousy sixpence [a week] that you didn't get to see anyway. Also, when the girls fell pregnant, their babies were taken from them and adopted out to white families. They never saw them again."

This was confidential submission No.617 to the Bringing Them Home report, from a NSW woman removed at eight with her three sisters and sent to Cootamundra Girls Home in the 1940s.

There were thousands of such testimonies, most of them appalling, many never before shared, and as they piled one on top of the other, first in the report and then through the media, they revealed for the first time the sheer depth and scope of the suffering of indigenous Australians who were removed from their homes because they were deemed neither white enough, nor black enough.

By the time the Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Parliament on May 26, 1997, it had sparked national soul-searching. In Parliament, the opposition leader, Kim Beazley, tried to read out some of its horror stories of sexual and physical abuse but became misty-eyed and had to stop to compose himself.

A Herald-AGB McNair poll showed almost two-thirds of Australians believed all the parliaments should apologise for removal policies that took part-indigenous children - or those who looked part-indigenous - from their families until 1970.

But a Morgan poll also found that 37 per cent of those surveyed agreed with the prime minister, John Howard, who said to apologise would be to hold present generations responsible for the past. Mr Howard agreed the report was "very shocking" but his government attacked it as legally flawed and said compensation would be impractical and divisive.

The West Australian Liberal senator Ross Lightfoot was threatened with expulsion from the party after telling Parliament that Aborigines "in their native state were the lowest colour on the civilisation spectrum".

And Pauline Hanson, then at the peak of her powers as the member for Oxley, said many of the children who were taken away "are only alive today because they were taken".

The result of the National Inquiry Into The Separation of Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Children From Their Families, the Bringing Them Home report was commissioned by the Keating Labor government and prepared by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

Among its key findings were that between one in three and one in 10 indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities between 1910 and 1970, that one in five of those fostered or adopted and one in 10 sent to institutions reported being sexually abused, that many were never paid wages for their labour as apprentices, domestics and farm boys, and that under international law, policies of forcible removal amounted to genocide after 1946 and racial discrimination after 1950.

Genocide was the report's most controversial word and was insisted upon by the late Human Rights commissioner, Ronald Wilson. A former High Court judge and president of the Uniting Church Assembly, he had apologised for his own role in child removals as a leading church figure and chose genocide, "a nasty word, an offensive word", to shock people, he said.

The inquiry made 54 recommendations, including that reparation be made to those who had become known as the "stolen generations". It recommended an acknowledgement of responsibility and apology from all Australian parliaments, police forces, churches and non-government agencies which implemented policies of forcible removal, plus restitution and rehabilitation.

By mid-August 1997, all state and territory parliaments had issued statements of apology except the Commonwealth, the Northern Territory and Queensland - which expressed its "sincere regret". (Queensland later apologised under Labor premier Peter Beattie in 1999, and the Northern Territory in 2001.)

The Commonwealth committed $63 million over four years for family reunion, counselling and indigenous language services in 1997, but refused to apologise. In what he later said was a low point in more than a decade in office, Mr Howard gave a speech to the Australian Reconciliation Convention on the day after the report was tabled in Parliament.

Incensed by audience members who turned their backs to him, he thumped the lectern and said that "Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies over which they had no control".

In the aftermath, the government argued that forced removals "were sanctioned by the laws of the time, and … were believed to be in the best interests of the children concerned" and that "a formal unqualified apology does, according to the legal advice … have certain legal implications".

Eventually, on August 26, 1999, Mr Howard moved a motion of reconciliation expressing "deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices".

Some indigenous leaders said the government had come a long way towards reconciliation, others felt the absence of the word sorry made it meaningless.

Nine of 54 of the report's recommendations dealt with monetary compensation - an issue that will be left unresolved after today's apology as advocacy groups continue to fight for a national scheme or reparations tribunal despite the Rudd Government ruling it out.

Last month, Tasmania paid $5 million to members of the stolen generations and their families as part of a scheme announced in 2006.

NSW and Queensland have run schemes to repay the lost or stolen wages of some former state wards, while Western Australia announced a $114 million redress scheme last year for those who were abused, indigenous and non-indigenous, while in state care. Queensland will spend up to $100 million on a similar scheme.

South Australia said it would investigate a scheme after 50-year-old Bruce Trevorrow won $775,000 in compensation last year for pain and suffering after being unlawfully removed from a hospital as a baby.