Feb 27, 2018

Statements on Indulgence – Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples: 10th Anniversary

Federation Chamber

At the time, of course, this followed years of indecision—years in which Prime Minister Howard said that it would be inappropriate for the parliament to apologise. It was argued that those who would deliver that apology were not personally responsible for taking Indigenous children from their parents over the previous decades. The events of that momentous day show how wrong that view was. It was certainly the proudest day of the 22 years I’ll celebrate as a member of this parliament this coming Friday. It was a day when we as a parliament righted a wrong. It was a day when, after years of denial, the parliament recognised the injustices and inhumanity visited upon the stolen generations.

Those who were there that day will all remember it. This was a time when the nation paused to reflect our history, and indeed that day made history. I want to pay tribute in particular to the generosity of the members of the stolen generations themselves who came to this parliament, sat around that chamber and weren’t bitter about their experience. They accepted the spirit in which the apology was given by Prime Minister Rudd on behalf of the nation. I looked up as the Prime Minister spoke, and I saw scores of members of the stolen generation weeping, sitting in their seats trembling, holding each other’s hands.

I’ve seen since, of course, the depiction of meetings out on the front lawn and right around our nation, where the response was the same. My son’s then primary school stopped to watch this historic event on a large screen. The members of the stolen generation, that day, received just a little bit of warm-hearted response that helped make them feel as though the nation understood, in a small way, the incredible trauma that had been done to them. It will indeed be remembered for a very long time. As Prime Minister Rudd said:

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.

As the speech continued, everyone in the parliament knew that we were doing the right thing, as did the millions of Australians gathered around the nation. And indeed, when Prime Minister Rudd finished that address, around the nation, as well as in the chamber, they leapt to their feet to applaud.

Of course, the apology was not the end of the story; it was just the beginning. We knew at the time that the apology needed to be backed up with concrete action, that it was just a step on the road to reconciliation. Importantly, establishing the Closing the gap report to parliament was an important step forward. Some progress has been made in three out of the seven targets. They include the target to halve the gap in child mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade, the target that 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds would be enrolled in early education by 2025, and the target to halve the gap in year 12 attainment by 2020. Not on track are life expectancy, employment, reading and writing, and school attendance.

I was somewhat disappointed by some of the reporting and public discussion of the Prime Minister’s report to parliament on Closing the Gap, because there was a tone of pessimism. That, I believe, is a wrong analysis. It will take generations to close the gap—indeed, decades of bipartisanship. Let me quote former Prime Minister Rudd when he spoke at the National Press Club just last month. He said:

… these targets were meant to be ambitious; they were meant to challenge us all; because we had to shake ourselves out of our national torpor that business as usual was fine, or we could just fiddle at the edges of indigenous disadvantage.

Mr Rudd went on to say that, while we must accept our failures and act to correct them, we must also celebrate our progress. Because of Closing the Gap, more Indigenous children are finishing school. Because of Closing the Gap, fewer infants are dying. Because of Closing the Gap, more youngsters are receiving early childhood education. We have a long way to go, but we can’t give up. We have a responsibility to the First Australians, as privileged as we are to live in the nation with the oldest continuous civilisation on the planet, to close the gap across the board so that these issues of education, health, employment and life expectancy are all dealt with.

The apology and Closing the Gap are also critical to the achievement of broader reconciliation. This requires collaboration and it requires that we listen to Indigenous people. Hence the importance of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This calls for a voice to the parliament. Who could disagree with the concept that Indigenous Australians are entitled to put forward their view about legislation before this parliament that impacts them? What they are not asking for is a third chamber. They are asking for a voice to the parliament. It was very pleasing that Labor have said that we will work towards achieving that. I’d ask the Prime Minister to reconsider the rejection of the Uluru statement. It is important that these issues be bipartisan. We must engage with Indigenous people who have gone through a process of consultation with communities around the nation, and not just dismiss them, and certainly not misrepresent what they are asking for. We have a long way to go to achieve reconciliation in this country, but the apology was an important step. It’s one that I’m proud, as a member of the House of Representatives, to be associated with. It is very important that we have signified the tenth anniversary of this historic occasion.