Aboriginal leaders welcome Australian apology

The first act of PM Kevin Rudd's new gov't will be to ask Parliament on Feb. 13 to pass a motion apologizing for past policies.

Aborigini leader (photo credit: )
Aborigini leader
(photo credit: )
Aboriginal leaders welcomed Thursday a new era of indigenous relations in Australia with a government that plans to acknowledge their traditional land ownership and apologize for past injustices. The first act of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's new government will be to ask Parliament on Feb. 13 to pass a motion apologizing for past policies of removing mostly mixed-race children from Aboriginal mothers in a bid to make them grow up like white Australians. A national inquiry into the so-called "stolen generations" found in 1997 that many children taken from their families suffered long-term psychological effects stemming from the loss of family and culture, and recommended that Parliament apologize. Former Prime Minister John Howard had long refused to apologize, arguing that his government should not be held responsible for the policies of former officials. Mick Dodson, an Aboriginal activist and chairman of the Australian National University's Institute for Indigenous Australia, hailed the apology as a powerful symbol of healing for the country. "It's something that I think we as a nation can and will be proud of," Dodson told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. "It's hugely important to us as a nation and obviously of huge significance to members of the stolen generations," he said. For the first time in Parliament's 107-year history, the Ngunnawal tribe, traditional owner of the national capital, Canberra, has been asked to welcome lawmakers on Feb. 12, their first session since the center-left Labor Party won elections in November. "It's a great privilege and honor," said Matilda House, an Aboriginal elder who will give a speech welcoming the lawmakers on behalf of the tribe. "I think it's just a marvelous thing." The Ngunnawal have no official title to the land, but their participation in the opening ceremony underscores a new government attitude that Aborigines deserve special respect as Australia's original inhabitants and land holders. Megan Davis, an Aboriginal lawyer and director of the University of New South Wales' Indigenous Legal Center, described the indigenous focus of the first week of Parliament as "a good start" after the Howard era, when so-called symbolic reconciliation had been dismissed. "As part of those broader demands we have that are known as unfinished business, the apology is a really major step toward reconciliation," Davis said. But she said Rudd was making a mistake by not tying the apology to compensation as Canada did with its indigenous peoples, who were forced to attend boarding schools where they were often abused. She said Australian indigenous rights still lagged behind those in the United States and Canada because there was no treaty between the state and Aborigines and no Australian bill of rights. Rudd has asked for bipartisan support for the apology, but opposition lawmakers appear divided over the issue. Opposition Indigenous Affairs spokesman Tony Abbott told The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper that an apology must differentiate between those who were stolen from their families and those who were "rescued" or "helped." Opposition Sen. Barnaby Joyce dismissed the apology as "an empty rhetorical statement," The Age newspaper reported. The government holds a minority of seats in the upper house and will need the support of some opposition senators to pass the apology motion there. Aborigines, Australia's original inhabitants, account for about 450,000 of the population of 21 million. They are the poorest ethnic group in Australia and are most likely to be jailed, unemployed and illiterate. From 1910 until the 1970s, around 100,000 mostly mixed-blood Aboriginal children were taken from their parents under state and federal laws based on a premise that Aborigines were a doomed race and saving the children was a humane alternative.