Last week marks six months since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd uttered the word "Sorry". On February 13, the Prime Minister honoured his election promise by issuing a formal apology to the Stolen Generations in Federal Parliament.
Rudd expressed a desire to "deal with this unfinished business of the nation" and to reflect upon this "blemished chapter in our nation's history". He called upon 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".
In offering the apology, the federal government stressed that its actions would not involve the establishment of a compensation scheme for members of the Stolen Generations. Instead, "closing the gap" between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians has been identified as a "national priority".
Six months on, what has the government achieved in its efforts to "close the gap"? How are "we" as Australians re-imagining ourselves in light of this "new beginning" for the nation?
Issues of indigenous sovereignty, reconciliation and disadvantage are highly politicised questions that affect understandings of who "we" are as Australians and who "belongs" to and in Australia.
The Stolen Generations apology has entered the history books alongside other defining moments in the narrative of indigenous/white relations in Australia, including the Mabo and Wik native title decisions, the release of the Bringing Them Home Report in 1997, and the South Australian Supreme Court's award of compensation to Bruce Trevorrow, who last year became the first successful Stolen Generations claimant in Australia's legal history.
The apology has the power to renegotiate the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. It has the potential to create a new threshold of inclusiveness in imagining Australia's national community. The Rudd government's approach to indigenous affairs demonstrates a decisive shift away from past exclusionary policies.
The Howard government made a number of controversial policy decisions during its 11 years in office. The Wik "Ten Point Plan" and amendment to the Native Title Act restricted the ability of indigenous Australians to bring native title claims. John Howard refused to issue a formal apology to the Stolen Generations, asserting 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". The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), deemed a failed experiment, was abolished in 2005. Howard's final imprint, aimed at protecting indigenous children from abuse, was the Northern Territory National Emergency Response in 2007, which is presently under review.
Underlying these actions is an identifiable theme - the rights and status of indigenous peoples within the Australian nation. What Rudd's apology – and Howard's lack thereof - reveals is a cycle of inclusion/exclusion. An oscillation between a national identity inclusive of indigenous peoples, and one where a more anxious and sectional "we" dominates the national psyche.
Decisions and policies affecting the rights and needs of indigenous peoples are complex and challenging for contemporary governments. There are considerable disparities in infant mortality, unemployment, incarceration, school retention, homelessness, welfare dependency and substance abuse rates between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. The gap in life expectancy is a staggering 17 years. A social trends report released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) last month revealed that housing conditions in remote indigenous communities showed little improvement between 2001 and 2006. The effects of colonial and postcolonial oppression, structural violence and unsettled traumatic events continue to resound throughout indigenous communities today.
But the signs of progress are promising. Over the last six months, the federal government has instigated a number of initiatives in the areas of health, education, employment and housing, to improve the social and economic conditions of indigenous Australians.
It has pledged to fund a training scheme supporting an initiative for the creation of 50,000 jobs for indigenous Australians over the next two years, proposed by Australian mining entrepreneur and CEO of Fortescue Metals, Andrew Forrest. Last month, the government launched the National Teacher and Community Leadership program, to assist school principals and teachers who work with indigenous students. Just last week, the Defence Force unveiled a pilot program to enhance recruitment of indigenous peoples in the Northern Territory.
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