Feb 18, 2008

Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler—Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government) (7.18 p.m.)—I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which this House stands, the Ngunnawal people. The Indigenous people of the land in which my electorate of Grayndler is now located bore the brunt of the European colonisation of this country. The Cadigal and Wangal clans have lived in what is now inner western Sydney for thousands of years. Within a few years of the first fleet’s arrival at Port Jackson many had died from diseases to which they had no immunity or from starvation as European farming practices encroached on their traditional lands. Others were killed resisting the invasion of their country. This tragic story was repeated throughout Australia over the subsequent 150 years. But of course many Indigenous Australians survived. They found ways of accommodating white settlement. They worked as unpaid labour on pastoral stations or lived on missions, for example. With varying degrees of consent, the two populations became intermingled. To the eternal shame of this nation, past governments saw the persistence of Indigenous Australia, its refusal to peacefully die out, not as a triumph to be embraced but as a problem to be overcome.

The removal of children from their families purely on the basis of their race occurred over much of the 20th century and is well within living memory for many Australians. Child removal continues to have devastating repercussions in the appalling levels of family dysfunction, violence, alcoholism, abuse and social disadvantage suffered by many Indigenous people and communities. To those who still think that stolen children were given a better start in life by being removed from their families, look at the facts in the Bringing them home report. I have no doubt that many of Grayndler’s 1,500 Indigenous constituents are members and descendants of the stolen generations. I would like to express how sorry I am for the terrible wrongs that were perpetrated on them by past governments and to pledge to work with my colleagues to overcome the inequality and suffering that they endure.

I would also like to pay tribute to the capacity of Indigenous Australians and their cultures to survive in spite of the history of child removal. On Wednesday in this parliament, I was pleased to see many of my constituents and friends: Linda Burney, the first Indigenous state MP, elected as the member for Canterbury and now a minister in the Iemma Labor government; Shelley Reys, one of the conveners of Reconciliation Australia; Leah Purcell, a great actor and artist; and the footballers and friends of mine through the South Sydney connection, David Peachey and Dean Widders. They were so overwhelmed and pleased to be here on Wednesday. Whether it was the people who were here, the people watching in Martin Place or the people at my son’s school, Dulwich Hill Public School, who watched that magnificent moment in Australian history, I think it was indeed a time unsurpassed, and I was proud to be a member of the House of Representatives.

I was also proud that on Tuesday we had the first welcome to country to open the parliament. As Leader of the House, I saw what this parliament can be. I would like for there to be discussion about ways in which we can give an appropriate formal recognition to the first peoples of this land in the opening of parliament, not just a recognition of our Westminster traditions, which are also very important to us. The parliament can be a place for all Australians, but it can only be that if we acknowledge our true history.

The apology showed an understanding that is grasped by most Australians. It is unfortunate that it was not done at the time of the Bringing them home report. If anyone wanted to find an example of the change that has descended on this place, they need only listen to the words of the Prime Minister and look at the expressions on the faces of those who attended the galleries last Wednesday.

As for the Prime Minister’s announcement of a joint policy commission to deal with the challenges we face in a bipartisan fashion, I welcome it. Those of us on the Labor side of the House felt no part in the refusal of the previous government to apologise, or in many aspects of its Indigenous policy. We did not agree. If there remains a simmering tension between the direction the government takes and the views of the opposition, real progress will be difficult and easily reversed. Real progress on the issues of infant mortality, of the life expectancy gap and of our coming together as a nation must transcend the changing of government and, as the Prime Minister says, move beyond our mindlessly partisan politics. A very positive step was the fact that the motion before the parliament last week was seconded by the Leader of the Opposition and that, with a few exceptions, it was greeted with goodwill and spirit across both sides of the chamber.

The new government is intent on focusing now on the priority of closing the 17-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. We will do this by halving the gap in mortality rates for children under five within a decade and halving the gap in literacy and numeracy achievements for Indigenous children within a decade. The government will honour its election commitment with an extra $261 million for child health and early development to help achieve this goal. The government will also ensure that remedial initiatives such as Link-Up, family history programs and Bringing Them Home counsellors are adequately resourced to meet demand, committing $15 million to support this work.

I firmly believe that last week saw this parliament at our best. It saw the people of my electorate certainly and, I believe, the nation embrace the leadership that the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has brought to the nation. I certainly know, because I saw him crafting the last draft of that speech, that we now have a Prime Minister whose gut instincts, compassion and preparedness to show leadership to the nation and to appeal to our better instincts were on full display in the speech that he delivered so eloquently on the floor of the House of Representatives last Wednesday.