Stolen Generations apology 'about right'

'Dawn of a new nation', by Chris JohnstonSitting at my computer in Silicon Valley, California, I was able to watch the national apology on the web. I would have loved to have been there in Parliament House. I know there are some things I would have missed or not felt from this distance. But then, this was a national event played out not just in Parliament but in public squares and workplaces throughout the nation, and in cyberspace.

I had just got off the phone from an Aboriginal friend who told me she would be watching the telecast at home. She wanted privacy, but was pleased that the words of apology released the previous day were 'about right', setting the right tone, respectfully, graciously, and strongly.

The process leading up to this apology was right. The compassionate Jenny Macklin consulted widely in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. A cross section of the 'Stolen Generations' sat down with the new government to tell their stories and assist with appropriate words.

Not only did the prime minister touch all necessary institutional consultative bases, he took the time to sit with Nanna Nungala Fejo and her family. He heard her story then shared it reverently with the nation. This 'elegant, eloquent and wonderful woman in her 80s full of life, full of funny stories, despite what has happened in her life journey' became the human face for the nation trying to get right this gesture of reconciliation.

The parliament, its galleries packed with indigenous Australians and their supporters, carried the pain, the stories, the apology, and the gratitude that at last the word 'Sorry' had resounded in the chamber, with support on both sides of the aisle. Only once before, in 1991 with the institution of the Council of Aboriginal Reconciliation, was there a show of bipartisan support in the parliament. This time it was not left just to the ministers. The prime minister and the leader of the opposition shook hands across the despatch box while all members present stood.

I now know many Australians in public squares stood and turned their backs on Brendan Nelson. Some members of the Stolen Generations were offended. With great respect, I beg to differ. I think he did well. He had brought the Liberal and National Parties with him, ensuring they did not rain on the national parade as they had in 1988 and again in 1997. He trusted both the government and its indigenous advisers sufficiently that he was prepared to lock in his side of the Chamber even though they were not to receive the actual wording of the apology until the previous afternoon. He was able to assert his new leadership sufficiently to indicate unqualified acceptance of the prime minister's offer to set up a joint policy commission to work co-operatively for Aboriginal wellbeing.

Some took offence that Nelson referred to indigenous children today who need protection. No matter what our moral clarity now about the policies of the past, we are still bereft of solutions in addressing the desperate plight of many indigenous children, who are removed from families at staggering rates even though government agencies are committed to removal only as a last resort.

It is one of the tragic ironies that the apology was delivered just two hours before the Queensland Court of Criminal Appeal started hearing the Attorney General's appeal against sentence for the 'Aurukun nine' — boys and young men aged between 13 and 25 who had been convicted of the multiple rape of a 10-year-old girl between 1 May and 12 June 2006.

The government brief in that appeal states: 'It is evident that the offences were committed against a disturbed 10-year-old girl who lived in a community in which a girl of that age could be subjected to repeated rapes without any intervention by responsible adults. The offences were committed by men and boys who, on the tendered facts, recognised her gross susceptibility to them as sexual predators and who were prepared to ignore her tender age in favour of their gratification or, in some cases, their disinclination to disappoint their peers.'

Some of those accused come from the establishment families of a once proud community. Aurukun is one of only two large Aboriginal communities which has been singled out for special attention and assistance by Noel Pearson's Cape York Policy Institute chaired by Professor Marcia Langton.

What will be said of all of us in two generations' time when the historians start debating the morality and utility of what was being attempted with full indigenous cooperation in the Cape York communities and with unilateral intervention in the Northern Territory while we took time to get right our apology for past wrongs?

The question of compensation remains unresolved. Rudd was right to put the apology now and to separate it from the issue of compensation. Most removals occurred before 1967 when the Commonwealth had no power to deal with Aborigines in the states. Most of the living now affected by removals were not themselves stolen but their parents were. Though they would not be eligible for individual financial payments, they ought to be eligible for programs and services designed to overcome some of the pain and loss their families have experienced.

As for those who were stolen, to date, only one test case has succeeded in the courts. Tasmania and Western Australia have already set up compensation schemes. It will be sensible for the other states and territories to set up administrative arrangements for assessing the claims of those who were removed without parental consent and in circumstances where their removal was not judged appropriately to be in their best interests. So Brendan Nelson was wrong to insist there should not be any compensation fund in the future.

All up, what a graced day in our nation's history. Our elected representatives on both sides have served us well. A heartfelt apology has been given and received. We are all the better for it.

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ AO is a professor of law in the Institute of Legal Studies at the Australian Catholic University and Professorial Visiting Fellow, Faculty of Law, University of NSW. He is presently the Visiting Presidential Scholar at Santa Clara University, California.



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Existing comments

I commend your publication for printing Frank Brennan's impression on the SORRY statement so quickly. I will now watch with interest as to how the State Governments will face the hard question of compensation.
John P Keane | 14 February 2008

How quick Frank is to rap the knuckles of Opposition Leader Nelson with his "So Brendan Nelson was wrong to insist there should not be any compensation fund in the future".

If Fr Brennan were even to attempt even-handedness, he'd condemn both the Prime Minister and Mr Nelson...for they have both clearly declared their unambiguous rejection of compensation.

If words of condemnation had to be used, they'd have been better directed at Mr Rudd's two media advisers caught in the Great Hall of the Parliament turning their backs on Mr Nelson during his gracious speech along with other protesters. Some wonder if they were also inciting that activity. Almost...a grace-filled day for the one-eyed.

Sad that a couple of days earlier, welfare officials found themselves obliged to remove an infant from the Canberra 'tent embassy' and take it into care.

Clearly, the focus has to be on practical remedies and solutions now...that's where compensation monies need to be spent, saving the present generations for their future.
Brian Haill | 14 February 2008

By whom and in who's name has the 'heartfelt apology' been received? By the 6000 still to be examined aboriginal children in the remote communities suffering with permanent deafness because of untreated middle ear infections, or those in agony from worm infestations and scabies. Perhaps those threatened with kidney failure and heart disease. The days of the Stolen Generations are not over. Let's consider those 'Children of the Intervention' who are about to be installed in the new co-educational high school on Melville Island. Why Melville Island you ask? Because once installed they won't be able to escape unless they can catch a wave to Bathurst Island then another to the mainland.
Claude Rigney | 14 February 2008

Frank, I found the Sorry experience uplifting and full of hope. I also applaud Brendan Nelson for his reminder that the hard stuff is still ahead.
Trish Taylor | 14 February 2008

I am somewhat surprised at Frank Brennan's take on Brendan Nelson and his speech yesterday. Yes, Nelson did manage a backflip and brought the coalition to the party but in such a way as to diminish the intent of the day. For Brendan Nelson to focus on current sexual abuse when Sorry was supposed to be about acknowledging the deep wounds (and therefore continuing dysfunction)caused by acts of arrogance and abuse by white people was deeply disrespectful. Who were the ones who raped Aboriginal women in the first place?.. - to produce 'half caste' children subsequently stolen and abused again and again by the system and their white 'protectors'. How would white Australia feel if the abusive dysfunction of returned Anzacs or Vietnam Vets was paraded before the nation in an 'apology' to them for the damage caused by policy. Brendan Nelson's speech demonstrated the depths of the underlying and unacknowledged white privilege and racism in this country. Yes abuse of children continues (in all communities) but yesterday was not the day to highlight it. These understandings do not come across in Fr Brennan's commentary.
Angela Ballard | 14 February 2008

THANK YOU FOR THIS GREAT ARTICLE. I really enjoy reading all the newsletters.
PATRICIA VAUGHAN | 14 February 2008

Great Day. I and members of my family who have lived with the pain and generational trauma of my grandmother's life and her mother's life, RESPECT the Opposition's response to this historic day, despite the fact that we don't agree with everything he had to say. Showing DISRESPECT is not a good start to cooperation and moving forward on a new page.
Julie Foser Smith | 14 February 2008

Well said Frank!
Mary Gleeson l.c.m. | 14 February 2008

Frank, thank you for your words. Yesterday was one of those days we shall remember for many years ahead - a day of cleansing and reconciliation. Kevin Rudd has put himself on the line to achieve the targets no-one else has yet been able to. The Parliament and the Government deserve our support!
Barbara Brown-Graham | 14 February 2008

I might have remained opposed to an apology had I not seen so many Aborigines say afterwards how much it meant to them. It was simply undeniable. I am suspicious however that Mr Rudd's motivation was at least partly to make the Coalition (past and present) look like 'meanies'. He mentioned 10 years of parliamentary silence but why not 20 or 30? And why keep the wording away from the coalition for so long?

Dr Nelson has been criticised for his speech but Fr Brennan acknowledges that he had boxes to tick in order to bring conservative Australia along. As for mentioning sexual abuse he has been criticised for tainting a special day, but with what? Reality? By acknowledging the intimidating policy challenge? If as reported every single NT settlement has a sexual abuse problem then how pleased should we be with ourselves for saying "Sorry...but hey, don't expect compensation"? (We're not THAT sorry!). Remote aboriginal Australia is hellish and not for the lack of parliamentary goodwill and resources. Who owes an apology for this? ATSIC? Is anyone prepared to say that these communities are fundamentally unsustainable? The Aurukun case suggests that these 'communities' are anything but...
Andrew Coorey | 14 February 2008

Fr Brennan thank you for this article. Watching the Government Apology was a most moving event. I was very impressed by the Statesmanship of Kevin Rudd, and at the time I was thinking that he may never equal or rise to this level of Statemanship again, I hope that I am wrong. Like many members of the public I am unimpressed by many politicians on all sides of the House. Yesterday thanks to our new PM he seemed to try to reach across and to realise that the only way forward was to work together. If only this could be achieved on so many more of the great wrongs in our Society.
Brian F. Wing | 14 February 2008

Thank you Frank for your insightful artice, and for acknowledging Brendan Nelson's contribution - the level and tone of some of the criticism levelled against him after his speech has in my opinion been over the top, and is indicative of many people wanting to simplify what after all remains a complex issue. Perhaps more people should have a read Noel Pearson's article in the Australian this week.
Thomas Ryan | 14 February 2008

I think this is a very well balanced article dealing thoughtfully with Brendan Nelson's contribution in bringing the opposition with him. It also touches tellingly on the remaining issues of compensation and previous responsibilities of States and Commonwealth for the removal of children from their families.
Tony santospirito | 17 February 2008

Thanks for your article Frank. I drove from Wagga Wagga to be part of the national apology and attended outside on the parliamentary lawn with my brother and a colleague from my days in the Northern Territory. There was a quiet intensity about the crowd - people had gathered with a purpose, were deeply reflective, varying emotions etched on their faces, each with a story to tell and bearing symbols of varying kinds. Kevin Rudd was received with approbation - I believe for his directness and the fact that he went clearly and unequivocally to the heart of the matter. Yes, Brendon Nelson may have brought the Coalition to the table, but it is not possible to qualify an apology and his relating of incidents irrelevant to the apology brought looks of disbelief and pain - indigenous people felt publicly shamed on this occasion for rejoicing. As we were leaving I caught the eye of a young Aboriginal man. I asked where was his country - west of Bourke. He thanked us a number of times for coming, said how proud he was to have been part of the apology, placed one of his hands on my brother's shoulder the other on mine, held us a moment head bowed before hurrying off to join his friends. A symbol to remember.
Denis Quinn | 20 February 2008

I took offence at Brendon Nelson because he chose to speak about himself. Most inappropriate.
marian grantham | 02 March 2008

I have just returned from the US where there was great interest in the apology. It was even front page news in the New York Times. Interested readers can find an article I wrote for the Markkula Ethics Center on lessons for the US here. Also I did a more historical piece for the British Jesuits, click here.

It is heartening to return home with the apology having been made and received with such openness and relief after all these years of debate and hairsplitting.
Frank Brennan SJ | 11 March 2008

Claude Rigney: Tiwi College on Melville Island has been established by Tiwi landowners. No student or any other member of the Tiwi community is being "installed" anywhere; parents are free to send their children to schools on the mainland and most community members have welcomed the recent establishment of Tiwi College. I do feel that increased emphasis should be placed on early childhood programs, but as a young Tiwi man from Milikapiti on Melville Island - I support the Tiwi College and I encourage people like you to examine the benefits of Tiwi College.
Tristan Mungatopi | 02 May 2008

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