In a national address on 13 February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the stolen generations. Two years on, NAIDOC Person of the Year Larissa Behrendt reflects on the lasting impacts of the apology.
This part of Kevin Rudd’s speech in delivering the apology to the stolen generations on 13 February 2008 points to the historic importance of the occasion.
As both a child and grandchild of members of the stolen generations, I was like so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had a very personal perspective on the apology.
I can never completely understand the emotional trauma of being taken from my family. I have been privileged to have loving parents and a close relationship with my brother and cousins, I’ve had the privilege of knowing where I was from, of knowing my place in the Aboriginal kinship and totemic systems, of knowing my nations and the parameters of our traditions, of knowing bits of my language and hearing our cultural stories. But I can appreciate the extent to which members of the stolen generations were deprived of the most precious, most nurturing relationships.
My father did not live to hear the apology. As someone whose life had been shaped by his removal from his family, I know he would have appreciated formal recognition by the Prime Minister that the assimilation policy had been cruel in its consequences and shameful due to its inherent assumptions of white superiority.
For many Aboriginal people, the day of the apology will always have this personal as well as historic significance. But the day was important for the broader Australian community as well. The scenes of crowds gathering outside Parliament House in Canberra, in public squares where the speech was broadcast and in community events across the nation showed white faces mixing with black.
These Australians understood that the importance of the apology did not just lie in acknowledging the historic wrong done to Aboriginal people. It also signified a maturing of the relationship with Aboriginal people and a different vision of the type of country we could be.
One of the lasting impacts of the apology is that it changed the nature of the relationship between Australia and her first peoples: it was the promise of a new start, of greater possibilities in finding a way of sharing the country and of concluding the unfinished business of reconciliation.
Over the period of his prime ministership, John Howard reinforced and perpetuated his strong and tenaciously-held view that our country’s history should not acknowledge events or perspectives if it made white people feel guilty about their past.
This was perhaps best captured in this extract from John Howard’s speech at the 1997 Reconciliation Convention:
In facing the realities of the past, [...] we must not join those who would portray Australia’s history since 1788 as little more than a disgraceful record of imperialism [...] such an approach will be repudiated by the overwhelming majority of Australians who are proud of what this country has achieved although inevitably acknowledging the blemishes in its past history.
Compare that with this excerpt from Kevin Rudd’s apology speech in 2008:
We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.
A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.
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, Australia.
Here are two very different, almost diametrically opposed, visions for the kind of country we could have. These competing views challenge us to ask: Do we want a society that is guarded, fearful, backward-looking, insular and intolerant? Or do we want a society that is forward-looking, inclusive and generous? Do we want to live in a community where difference is looked upon with suspicion or where difference is celebrated? Do we want a system of laws that are considered fair because they look neutral on their face, or do we want a legal system that is considered equitable because it has no hidden prejudices and biased outcomes?
What would our ideal, reconciled Australia look like?
The apology to the stolen generations given by Prime Minister Rudd reminds us that, when it comes to working towards justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, there needs to be political leadership. There needs to be an understanding that how Australia treats its Indigenous people is a standard by which not only other countries will judge us, but also a standard by which we should judge ourselves.
Any democracy needs to extend itself the most when it comes to the way in which it protects its poorest members, those who have a distinct cultural and historical background and communities that have been historically marginalised.
But it is also time to reflect on the challenges that still lie ahead if we are to achieve true justice and equality for Aboriginal people and real closure for the members of the stolen generations and their families.