For the pain and suffering, we apologise

For the pain and suffering, we apologise

WITH just 361 words, the Federal Parliament will today seek to heal the hurt caused by past decades of state-sponsored ill-treatment of all indigenous Australians – not just those forcibly removed as children from their families.

More than 10 years since the story of the stolen generations was told in the Bringing Them Home report, the declaration of the apology will usher in a new era of recognition and reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia.

The Coalition, which refused to countenance an apology when John Howard was leader, saw the final text last night and will back Labor’s motion this morning, giving it the Parliament’s full imprimatur.

The apology – to be read by the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd – is extended to all indigenous peoples who were mistreated as a consequence of official government policy.

"We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these, our fellow Australians," it says.

It lends particular emphasis to the stolen generations.

"We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

"For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

"And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry."

The apology will follow yesterday’s official opening of the 42nd Parliament, which for the first time included the local Aboriginal people, who performed a "welcome to country" ceremony. Mr Rudd and the Opposition Leader, Brendan Nelson, vowed that the ceremony would be a permanent feature of future parliamentary openings.

"It’s taken 41 parliaments to get here," Mr Rudd said. "We can be a bit slow sometimes, but we got here. When it comes to parliaments of the future, this will become part and parcel of the fabric of our celebration of Australia in all of its unity and all of its diversity."

The Governor-General, Michael Jeffrey, backed the apology and called on Labor to incorporate more indigenous history into its proposed national curriculum. "The richness of indigenous culture is often under-recognised and, as a nation, we have much to learn about the history of indigenous Australians – a history that stretches over 60,000 years," Major General Jeffrey said.

Indigenous people from across the country have descended on Canberra for today’s apology.

Controversially, it makes no mention of monetary compensation for the stolen generations, which neither side of politics supports but which some indigenous groups are demanding.

A spokesman for the National Aboriginal Alliance, Michael Mansell, said: "The one thing that we expected the apology would deliver was an explanation as to why the victims of the stolen generations were targeted. And the one thing that’s missing from the apology is that explanation."

However, he was heartened by Mr Rudd’s desire to address the past. "The reference in the text to righting the wrongs of the past indicates to us that the Prime Minister has left the door open for compensation," Mr Mansell said.

Reconciliation Australia, one of the main groups pushing for an apology, said it would not comment on the wording because it would detract from the emotion of the occasion. The apology was developed by Labor in consultation with the Stolen Generations Alliance and the National Sorry Day Committee.

Dr Nelson opposes the use of the term stolen generations but has accepted that its use was non-negotiable. He was not shown a copy of the text until about two hours before its release at 5.30pm yesterday. His indigenous affairs spokesman, Tony Abbott, called Labor "incompetent" for leaving it so late.

Dr Nelson, having been assured that he was not required to speak at yesterday’s ceremony, was given about 60 seconds’ notice once it began that he should say something. He did so off the cuff. He paid tribute to the sacrifices made by indigenous people and threw his support behind future welcome-to-country ceremonies.

"I assure you on behalf of the alternative government … that whatever happens in future parliaments, so long as I have anything to do with it, that we will have a welcome from Ngunnawal and their descendants."

There was a bipartisan recommendation five years ago for such ceremonies but John Howard rejected it. Mr Rudd lamented that when Canberra’s first parliament house opened in 1927 no indigenous people were invited. "There was no welcome to the country; there was no welcome at all," he said at yesterday’s ceremony.

The welcome was led by Matilda House-Williams, an elder of the Ngambri people, who have a traditional connection with the Canberra and Yass region. She entered the Members’ Hall accompanied by a didgeridoo player and her granddaughter, who presented Mr Rudd with a message stick. "A welcome to country acknowledges our people and pays respect to our ancestors’ spirits who have created the lands," she told the audience.

"In doing this the Prime Minister shows what we call proper respect to us, to his fellow parliamentarians and to all Australians. For thousands of years our people have observed this protocol. It is a good and honest and a decent and human act to reach out and make sure everyone has a place and is welcome."

The indigenous leader and a member of the stolen generations, Lowitja O’Donoghue, who is in Canberra for today’s apology, said: "It will be a healing process for many of the stolen generation."

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, said the apology would allow members of the stolen generations to feel part of the community.

"It is not about black armbands and guilt," he said. "It is about inclusion and learning from the past. And ultimately it is about providing space in the telling of our national story for the stolen generations."

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