The Hardest Word Has Just Been Uttered


"It never goes away. Just ‘cause we’re not walking around on crutches or with bandages or plasters on our legs and arms, doesn’t mean we’re not hurting."
Confidential evidence 580, Queensland. Bringing Them Home

This morning the nation took a giant step forward when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the members of the Stolen Generations on behalf of the Government of Australia. Our country’s failure to acknowledge the gross wrongdoing involved in the forced removal of Aboriginal children by governments up until 1970 had been a dead weight on Australia’s capacity to progress as a mature nation. Now the stunning symbolism of the apology has lifted the spirits of the country, and the possibility of a real and lasting reconciliation with Indigenous Australia is tantalisingly close.

Today Rudd’s language was inspiring and unequivocal:

"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 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."

Opposition leader, Brendan Nelson, was for the most part gracious and genuine in his response. His anecdotal accounts from the Stolen Generations were heart-rending and the man himself was clearly moved. His reference to the sacrifice of Australian soldiers in world wars was jarring for those who thought that the day should have focused exclusively on the victims of forced removal. But Nelson responded positively to the suggestion – apparently sprung on him by the Prime Minister – that the Coalition join in a kind of ‘war cabinet’ of bi-partisanship to tackle the issues that bedevil Indigenous Australia.

The apology has been a long time coming. It could not be wrung from a curmudgeonly and mean-spirited Howard Government, which shamelessly muddied the waters around the issue in the interests of short-term political gain. Indeed, it is likely that history will remember Howard much more for his remarkable political tenacity that his largeness of spirit. One of the former Prime Minister’s legacies is a country divided, and sometimes bitter, over the unfinished business of reconciliation with our First Peoples.

April of last year saw the 10th anniversary of Sir Ronald Wilson’s landmark Bringing Them Home report. This document, monumental in both size and stature, offered 54 recommendations. Notable among them was recommendation 5, which called on all Australian parliaments to "officially acknowledge the responsibility of their predecessors for the laws, policies and practices of forcible removal." While all State and Territory governments long ago complied with this recommendation, John Winston Howard wore his refusal to compromise as a badge of honour. His party continues to struggle with the issue.

Image thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Sydney silver-tail and Opposition-leader-in-waiting, Malcolm Turnbull, has made no secret of his support for an apology, but his beleaguered boss, Brendan Nelson, prevaricated hopelessly for some time before reaching a guarded position of "in-principle" support. Nelson’s Indigenous Affairs shadow – an appropriate term for the dark presence of Tony Abbott – was also more intent on kicking the tyres of the reconciliation vehicle than offering grand gestures of statesmanship. A buoyant Prime Minister has exploited their smallness by pointing out with some justification that an apology is just that – and you are either for it or against it.

By contrast, a plain-speaking Mick Dodson pointed out to The Age that the word "sorry" has distinct meaning to Indigenous people, with "sorry business" being a term widely used to describe Aboriginal mourning ceremonies. He also articulated the obvious, noting that "You hear of the death of a friend who is close to one of your friends and you say sorry. Everone understands what the word means." Dodson has described the apology as "a wonderful platform to build on" and has urged the nay-sayers not to get "bogged down in pointless objections".

This morning’s event was carefully stage-managed by a Government entitled to extract some kudos from their actions. Reasonably enough, they are attempting to finesse the issue to minimise the potential for alienation among those in the community who remain unconvinced of the wisdom of saying sorry. "The apology will be made on behalf of the Australian Government and does not attribute guilt to the current generation of Australian people" offered a media release from Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin. Long after the apology has been delivered, psychologists will ponder the matter of this ‘guilt’ which loomed so large for some white Australians, but rarely rated a mention from the Indigenous victims of forced removal.

There is, however, a related matter that cannot be lightly dismissed. Recommendations 3 and 4 of Bringing them Home called for reparation – including monetary compensation – to be made to all of those who suffered because of the policy of forced removal. Hard-line Indigenous leaders like Tasmania’s Michael Mansell have called for the Federal Government to establish a $1 billion national compensation fund, as part of the apology. But former Prime Minister Paul Keating – a man who captured the spirit of reconciliation all those years ago in his watershed ‘Redfern Park’ speech – told ABC television this morning that it was "far more important to settle this issue in an emotional sense than in a monetary sense."

That said, it should come as no surprise that many Aboriginal people harbour a deep resentment towards the Federal Government’s refusal to acknowledge the consequences of a public policy which shattered their families and their culture. They are not unaware of the whitefella principle of financial compensation for wrongdoing on the part of the state, and are understandably unimpressed by Rudd Government’s precipitate refusal to consider compensation. But it may be that most Stolen Generation victims craved a symbolic apology much more than mere monetary compensation.

Australia has been waiting desperately for a leader to stand tall and come clean, so that we can move on as a nation, free of the skeletons of the last century. John Howard’s semantic skulduggery has done much damage, but today Brendan Nelson managed to eschew brinkmanship and fall into line. To have done otherwise would have left himself and his party forever diminished. All present in the House of Representatives today stood in their places at the Speaker’s request to indicate their support for the motion of apology.

The importance of this bi-partisanship cannot be overstated.

The policy of forced removal was clearly, emphatically, and unambiguously wrong. But today Prime Minister Rudd lifted the nation’s burden. Tears of joy are being shed and great things seem possible.

A small celebration is in order.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.