Australian Parliament apologises to the Stolen Generations

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

People queuing at Parliament for the Apology
Crowds gather at the Redfern Community Centre in Sydney to watch the live telecast

A motion has been passed in the Parliament of Australia to make a formal apology to the Stolen Generations. Thousands of people converged on Canberra, the capital city, to witness the event. Many Indigenous people set up camp on the lawns outside Old Parliament House at the site of the Tent Embassy which has been on the site since Australia Day 1972.

The front doors of Parliament House opened at 7:30 a.m. with many people queuing from before 7 a.m. to gain a place inside. With the House of Representatives public gallery packed, about a thousand people watched a live telecast of the event on screens that had been set up for the event in the Great Hall. A special area was set up at the front of the Hall for members of the Stolen Generation. Thousands of others watched outside Parliament House, gathering on the lawns of Federation Square. Some members of the crowds wore t-shirts with the word "Thanks" on the front. Many more people watched at venues across the country.

Crowd building in the Great Hall.

All living past Prime Ministers, with the exception of John Howard, were in the chamber to witness the apology.

The Prime Minister's speech was received warmly by the crowds and received a long standing ovation at its conclusion. During the Opposition Leader's speech, a majority of the audience in the Great Hall and Federation Square turned their backs.

There are more images in the photo gallery.

The Apology

Camp outside Old Parliament House

The motion was presented to the house as the first item of business at 9 a.m. on the second day of the new Parliament. It was read by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and said (in part):

Cquote1.svg 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 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.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

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.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country.

Cquote2.svg

After the formal apology, Rudd gave a speech in which he referred to specific members of the Stolen Generation, and also addressed some common arguments against the apology.

He told the story of Nanna Nungala Fejo, an Aboriginal woman born in the late 1920's. "She remembers her earliest childhood days living with her family and her community in a bush camp just outside Tennant Creek. She remembers the love and the warmth and the kinship of those days long ago, including traditional dancing around the camp fire at night. She loved the dancing," Mr Rudd said. "But then, sometime around 1932, when she was about four, she remembers the coming of the welfare men .... What they had not expected was that the white welfare men did not come alone. They brought a truck, two white men and an Aboriginal stockman on horseback cracking his stockwhip. The kids were found; they ran for their mothers, screaming, but they could not get away ... Tears flowing, her mum tried clinging to the sides of the truck as her children were taken away to the Bungalow in Alice, all in the name of protection."

Mr Rudd criticised the former government for refusing to apologise. "These stories cry out to be heard; they cry out for an apology. Instead, from the nation’s parliament there has been a stony, stubborn and deafening silence for more than a decade," he said.

Responses

Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson spoke in Parliament after Kevin Rudd. He reiterated the apology made by Rudd. "We formally offer an apology to those Aboriginal people forcibly removed from their families through the first seven decades of the twentieth century," he said.

Nelson had a different take on the issue of inter-generational responsibility. "Our generation does not own these actions, nor should it feel guilt for what was done in many, but not all cases, with the best of intentions," he said. "But in saying we are sorry - and deeply so - we remind ourselves that each generation lives in ignorance of the long term consequences of its decisions and actions. Even when motivated by inherent humanity and decency to reach out to the dispossessed in extreme adversity, our actions can have unintended outcomes."

Nelson spoke against compensation to children forcibly removed from their parents. "There is no compensation fund, nor should there be. How can any sum of money replace a life deprived of knowing your family?"

In the Great Hall the crowd grew uncomfortable during the Opposition Leader's speech and the majority of the audience stood and turned their backs to the screens on which he was being broadcast. As the speech progressed a slow clapping began which drowned out Dr. Nelson's speech.

The crowds in Federation Square, the gardens outside Parliament House, also turned their back on the Opposition Leader.

One of the first to stand and turn his back in the Great Hall was Chris Osborne, representing the State Executive of the United Services Union of N.S.W. Mr. Osborne told a Wikinews reporter that his son had Aboriginal heritage and his sister-in-law was a member of the Stolen Generations. Regarding Dr Nelson's speech he said that the Opposition Leader "had not learnt and understood the fundamental issues" and said that he had presented a "begrudging apology".

A member of the Stolen Generations interviewed by Wikinews said that she had personally resolved the issues in her life and had made a success of it, but was pleased that the Nation had made the apology. She said that she did not turn her back on the Opposition Leader as she believed that it was better to listen to what people said and then take from it what was useful. Another Indigenous person said that he felt that people would leave the event with a spirit of hope and optimism. Of Dr. Nelson's speech he said that the Opposition Leader: "...had us for a nano-second and then he lost us. He lost the spirit."

Live telecast

The audience at Redfern Community Centre in Sydney applaud at the conclusion of Kevin Rudd's speech

Thousands of people gathered throughout the country to watch a telecast of the apology.

In Sydney, 1,000 people gathered the Redfern Community Centre in Redfern, an inner city suburb that is a focal point for Sydney's aboriginal community. The event was organised by the City of Sydney and number of Indigenous organisations.

An aboriginal smoking ceremony was performed before the telecast, and attendees were welcomed to the land by a member of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council.

As the live telecast began it started to rain. This didn't deter the participants, who sheltered under ponchos and umbrellas. Rudd's apology was met by cheers and applause. The crowd booed at the mention of former Prime Minister John Howard.

The sound of the live telecast was turned down after Rudd's speech, so that the Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney, Clover Moore could speak. She acknowledged the traditional owners of the land and declared her support for the apology, but also said that it was a first step only and that there was much work to be done on the way to reconciliation. "For the first time, we have acknowledged the history of this country, and the privilege to live in this country," she said. "But we have to ask ourselves: what's the cost of that privilege? Who paid the price?"

"In our hearts we know the costs, whether in child-abuse, in petrol sniffing in remote communities, and drugs, and alcohol in the city districts."


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Sources

Wikinews
This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
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