Page 226 - Week 01 - Thursday, 14 February 2008

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There are still some, perhaps many, among us who protest that it is not our place to apologise for things that occurred in the past. To argue this is to insist that an object dropped into an ocean will sink without displacing water, without setting in motion the expanding ripples of consequences that, at their worst, can sink an ocean liner—ripples that will persist long after the object has settled onto the seabed. The ripples, the legacies, of the social policies of our shared past are still disturbing the smooth surface of Australian life. Thirty years after the last child was removed, Indigenous Australians can still expect a lifespan cut short by almost two decades. Thirty years after removal of children by our governments, our churches and our charities officially ceased, many Indigenous Australians remain displaced, sore of soul and dispirited. Others remain angry.

Yesterday’s apology will not dissipate all that anger or heal all those spirits, but it will start a process. I do believe that, in time, the issue of compensation will need to be debated. I do not say that compensation is necessary; I say that conversation is necessary, for we are here talking about reparation. International legal principles established over the long decades since humanity first recognised the need for such global standards insists that apology, acknowledgement linked to apology, is the first step. Beyond apology, those affected will require a guarantee that the past will not be repeated. Beyond that is restitution, the return of what was taken, which here in Australia imperfectly and grudgingly has begun in the form of native title. Step 4 is rehabilitation. Here, too, we are acting haphazardly, haltingly, progressing by trial and error, with small successes and a frustrating lack of speed. The fifth step is compensation. We need to have the discussion.

It was a Canberra historian, Peter Read, who first introduced into our vocabulary the phrase “stolen generations”. It was also here in Canberra 13 years ago that the then federal Attorney-General, Mr Michael Lavarch, asked the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to conduct the inquiry that resulted in a report titled Bringing them home. Not a single Indigenous Australian who gave evidence to that inquiry indicated that they wanted or expected non-Indigenous Australians to feel guilt for what had occurred. Most of all, they wanted the truth to be known and they wanted their experiences to be acknowledged as the truth.

I am convinced that, before the publication of the Bringing them home report, most non-Indigenous Australians were probably relatively oblivious to the policies of removal that had been quietly eroding the ancient cultures and communities of their fellow Australians for most of the 20th century. Sadly, I can say with some certitude that, more than a decade after an apology was offered in this chamber, some oblivion persists.

Perhaps, as the head of our education department, Dr Michele Bruniges, alluded to on radio yesterday, our school curriculum will remedy that for the next generation at least, and perhaps our children will teach us. This is not the teaching of black armband history nor white blindfold history, but the shades of grey that, in the end, constitute an approximation of what happened, how it can be remembered and how it can be retold. But today is not a day for greys; today we say sorry to those members of our ACT community whose lives have directly or indirectly been affected by policies of removal based on skin colour and parentage. In the spirit of reconciliation, we again say sorry and pray for forgiveness.

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