On the 13th of February 2008, the Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, made a national apology saying 'Sorry' to the Aboriginal community for past wrong doings inflicted upon them by the state. It came after over a decade of campaigning by Aboriginal activists for the recognition the victims of the Stolen Generations deserved. The apology was welcomed by the majority of the indigenous and non-indigenous populations in Australia and was marked as an historical day for all.
Aboriginal Responses to the Apology
'I thought I was being taken just for a few days. I can recall seeing my mother standing on the side of the road with her head in her hands, crying, and me in the black FJ Holden wondering why she was so upset. A few hundred words can't fix this all but it's an important start and it's a beginning'
Lyn Austin, chairwoman of Stolen Generations Victoria
'I am inspired by this apology as an act of true reconciliation towards Indigenous Australia.'
Mick Dodson, co-chairman of Reconciliation Australia
'It takes courage to apologise. It takes courage to forgive. It takes courage to begin a journey when the destination is imagined but not known. On behalf of the nation, parliament has recognised the truth of my brother Mick's words to Prime Minister Howard--that the Bringing Them Home report contains the 'saddest of all stories'. We know these stories are as true as they are sad. Parliament has now accepted the complicity of Australian governments in a misguided attempt to destroy our people. We welcome Prime Minister Rudd's commitment to ensure that those 'saddest of all stories' will not be repeated in the future.'
Patrick Dodson, Director of the Kimberly Institute
'Today is an historic day. It's the day our leaders - across the political spectrum - have chosen dignity, hope and respect as the guiding principles for the relationship with our first nations' peoples'.
Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
Non-Indigenous responses to the Apology
'When Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the words 'I am sorry' a wave of emotion and a process of healing began across the nation.'
Brett Solomon, executive director of community advocacy organisation 'GetUp'
'The whole sorry thing is really to satisfy the white population, not the black population. Until whites give back to black their nationhood, they can never claim their own, no matter how many flags they fly.'
John Pilger, expat Australian journalist
'If someone can prove to me that there were stolen generations, I could change my mind... The children in most cases were given up by parents or guardians who were unable to look after them.'
The 'Bringing Them Home' report recommended that the first step to healing past wounds is the acknowledgment of the truth behind what happened and the delivery of an apology to the 'Stolen Generations'. Previous governments had refused to make a national apology. Former Prime Minister John Howard refused to apologise to indigenous people on the basis 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 my heart I feel there is a real need for [the apology]... For my family, it allows some kind of healing and forgiveness to take place where there is less anger and bitterness in the hearts of people.'
Cathy Freeman, Aboriginal athlete and Olympic gold medallist
The word 'sorry' itself is important and symbolic as it holds special meaning in Aboriginal culture. In many Aboriginal communities, sorry is an adapted English word used to describe the rituals surrounding death (Sorry Business). Sorry, in these contexts, is also often used to express empathy or sympathy rather than responsibility. It was also felt that an apology was important to officially recognise the past regime of the Australian government, which some non-indigenous Australians refute or deny ever took place. As well as the need for official recognition an apology was an admittance that the actions by past Australian government towards the Aboriginal community were wrong and have had long-term ill effects.
Under a new Labour government, on the 13th of February 2008 the Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd apologised to the Aboriginal community for past wronging doings inflicted upon them by the state, in forcibly removing children from their families.
Throughout the speech Prime Minister Rudd acknowledged and reflected on the actions and mistreatments inflicted on the indigenous people of Australia at the hands of past governments:
'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.'
The apology from the Australian Government to the Stolen Generations is an important step towards achieving the overarching objective of reconciliation. It also aims to close the 17-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. Rudd also acknowledges the inequalities persistent in Australia and the need to close this gap. In the apology he states:
'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.'
However, while the apology was overwhelmingly welcomed, some have reflected that actions speak louder than words. Many still believe that it is only through a commitment to fair compensation and consultation with the Aboriginal community that the words expressed in the apology will take on real meaning.
'The word 'sorry' doesn't come near what [my father] went through. They can apologise in a thousand different ways without saying sorry. Actions speak louder than words.'
Norman Stewart, son of a Stolen Generations member
Websites for further information
- To find more reaction to the apology which include pre-apology and post-apology poles go to http://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/stolen-generations-sorry-apology.html
- To find out some of the ways this historic event was marked in Australia go to as well as answers to some frequently asked questions you may have, check out http://www.reconcile.org.au/getsmart/pages/sorry.php
- For the full transcript of Kevin Rudd's 'sorry' speech go to http://www.pm.gov.au/node/5952