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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.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, national apology, stolen generations, reconciliation, kevin rudd, brendan nelson



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Existing comments

I was touched when I saw Mr Rudd make the official apology for the stolen generation in the opening of Federal Parliament in February 2008.
It took a lot of courage and compassion on the part of Mr Rudd to issue the formal apology. However you have Andrew Bolt, the Herald Sun journalist, who disputes that there ever was a stolen generation.
Rudd's speech was a defining moment in Australia's political history. I hope he will go to the next level by improving and raising the educational, health and employment outcomes for our indigenous Australians.

Terry Stavridis | 06 January 2009  

well said but what about the white stolen generation. i was never given my baby a girl after giving birth to her in 1978 i was 24 years old at the time and i wanted her i want to take this to court can you refer a good lawyer to me who is willing to take my case on many thanks if u can. she was my first born and i am her mother why was she not given to me after i gave birth to her i need an answer for this and if it has to be through the courts so be it it was criminal and it was kidnapping

julie morgan-thomas | 27 January 2009  

i believe that kev rudd should have it done to him money and an apology are nothing compared to what they went through. i wouldn't be surprised if you said no to having it done to you didn't they say no? then you should do a lot more, live like one of them at least for a week.

george | 02 March 2009  

I was stolen away from my white father, taken to be adopted by a hard to concieve couple, taken to make their family complete, taken to make there son a "Playmate" now at 40 I know my father tried to keep me but as a white 19 yr old male had not a chance, my mother was white too, she was happy with the arrangement and went on to use the experience to become a midwife herself. I had my identity changes, my blood ties seavered and all along my father wanted to keep me. I WAS STOLEN TOO, society made it happened, SA GOVT changed my birth certificate and apparently its OK

kelly | 10 March 2009  

what is available for white members of the stolen generation some of whom are of Royal decent and are being targeted to prevent them from exposing the true level and nature of their abductions. foster families are actively doscrediting many of them and with the support of the courts are stripping them of assets to the point where they are unable to afford to take action to ptotect their own rights and identities such as they are.

Andrew Hudson | 11 July 2010