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The government finally 'gets it'

By Antonio Buti - posted Wednesday, 13 February 2008

In a 1995 conversation I had with Aboriginal activist and leader, Rob Riley, he said he hoped that “white Australia would listen to our stories, our suffering and then apologise”.

Rob was to tragically take his own life before the 1997 release of Bringing Them Home, the report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. The report recommended that Australian parliaments should apologise to the so-called “Stolen Generations” and their families and descendants. All state and territorial parliaments have done so; the one exception being the Commonwealth parliament of Australia.

The former Howard federal government refused to countenance an apology, although in 1999 Prime Minister Howard did offer a statement of regret but no apology to Aboriginal people. The speech acknowledged past mistreatment of Aborigines and regretted any resulting hurt and trauma but failed to specifically acknowledge or apologise for damages suffered by those Aborigines removed from families to missions and other institutions.


The federal parliament is to now rectify this 11 year failure. The first order of parliamentary business for the new federal Labor Government on Wednesday, February 13, 2008 is a statement of apology by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. And federal opposition leader, Dr Brendan Nelson, has given qualified support for the apology.

When Nelson originally rejected supporting the apology he said there are more important priorities than a national apology to the Stolen Generations. Yes, there are other important issues for the incoming Labor Government to deal with. But the importance of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd saying sorry in parliament to the Stolen Generations, should not be underestimated.

In his 1998 Social Justice Report, the then Aboriginal and Social Justice Commissioner William Jonas wrote that for many Aborigines the issue of an apology was felt to be the most important reparative issue. There was uniform disappointment felt with Prime Minister Howard’s refusal to make a parliamentary apology and also the then Commonwealth Government’s overall response to the National Stolen Generation Inquiry. Many felt that the critical stance taken by the government towards the National Inquiry and its report amounted to a denial of the truth and an unwillingness or inability to empathised and recognised the pain and hurt of the Aboriginal community.

A national apology to the Stolen Generations is an important restorative reparative justice measure. US legal academic Roy Brooks writes “redress should be about apology first and foremost”. By providing an apology (and other reparation measures) “the government, in short, not only clarifies the historical record, but also communicates to the world that it ‘gets it’”.

An apology is of great moral importance. Australian philosopher, Janna Thompson writes that for a state apology, the citizens and their political representatives must appreciate the “need for their state to make recompense to victims for a history of injustice and disrespect”.

Many Australians have displayed this need by being involved in Sorry Day events and signing their names in “books of apologies”. While many members of the Stolen Generations appreciate these apologetic acts from their fellow Australians, the demand for a state or national apology made by the Prime Minister still heads the aspirations of many members of the Stolen Generations.


Of course the content of a state or national apology is crucial. Thompson has suggested that a meaningful or “genuine”, national apology will require the content and requirements of the apology to be negotiated between the state and the Stolen Generations and/or their representatives, with the wronged party having “a role in determining the nature of the apology and how it is presented”.

Rudd has consulted members of the Stolen Generations over the content of the apology although what input they have had with the final form of words remains unclear.

Some in the opposition coalition ranks and in the wider Australian society reject the need for an apology. Some even go further and say that the former practice of removing Aboriginal children from their families was a good thing. No doubt in some cases, there was a need for separation. But the historical truth is that under the previous removal policy, Aboriginal children were removed from their families because they were Aboriginal, regardless of their living conditions. Furthermore, many, but not all who were removed were denied contact with their families and sadly some were subjected to physical and/or sexual abuse.

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About the Author

Dr Antonio Buti is a Senior Lecturer in Law and JLV/Louis Johnson Memorial Trust Fellow, Law School, The University of Western Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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