Friday, February 15, 2008

Seldom can the uttering of one word have caused such joy across a nation.

The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, stood up in the Parliament this week, and said the word ‘sorry’. He was speaking on behalf of the Parliament to the ‘stolen generations’ – the Aboriginal people removed from their families as children with the aim of assimilating them into Australia’s mainstream Western culture. ‘We apologise for the hurt, the pain and suffering that we have caused you by the laws that previous parliaments have enacted,’ he said.

Eleven years ago, when a national inquiry brought to light the tragic impact of the removal policies, the then Prime Minister refused to apologise. Many Australians disagreed, and a community apology attracted a million signatures. Since then this has been a running sore in Australia’s national life. So when a new Government was elected, and the new Prime Minister announced that he would apologise, the pent-up feelings ensured that this received nation-wide attention. The Opposition gradually sensed the national mood and changed its stance, agreeing to support the apology.

Across the country, Australians gathered in hundreds and thousands to watch the speech on outdoor video screens. Australian are not given to public emotion on matters other than sport. But the cheers which greeted Mr Rudd’s apology showed how deeply many feel about this issue.

The apology was expressed in more than words. Mr Rudd stated as aims of his Government a transformation in the health conditions of Aboriginal Australians within a decade, and vastly improved educational opportunities – a programme that will demand massive resources. He invited the Leader of the Opposition to join him in leading a commission to overcome the desperate shortage of housing in Aboriginal Australia. His invitation was immediately accepted.

The response of the stolen generations has been heartfelt. The media has been full of articles in which they express their relief that, at last, their Government understands the pain they have endured. ‘Now I feel I can forgive,’ said one to me.

‘I am inspired by this apology,’ writes well-known Aboriginal leader Mick Dodson. ‘It allows us to move forward with honesty, an acceptance of shame about parts of our history, and with courage, pride, maturity and hope. It may just see us addressing the unfinished business of reconciliation, demonstrated in stark terms by the 17-year life expectancy gap between our children.’

This presents all Australians with a challenge. The task of transforming the living conditions of Aboriginal Australia is far beyond the ability of Government alone. It will take the skills and commitment of tens of thousands of people – health professionals, builders, teachers and many more.

The skills are there. And with strong Government leadership, I believe the commitment will be there. There is now a real hope that Australia’s greatest shame – the degradation of the original people of this continent – will be brought to an end, and that Aboriginal people will be enabled to make their full, unique contribution to our national life.

For background stories on the process leading up to this national apology click here and here and here

For stories of members of the Stolen Generations, read about Val Lindow and Avis Gale

John Bond, an Australian, has worked with Initiatives of Change on several continents. In the past decade he has given leadership in nation-wide community initiatives aimed at healing the harm done by tragically misguided policies towards Aboriginal Australians. In 2007 he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to the community through the activities of the National Sorry Day Committee.