AUSTRALIA: Apology To Stolen Generations - A Good Start
MELBOURNE -- Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s recent apology to indigenous Australians, for the wrongs and injustices inflicted upon them by the policies of past governments, was momentous. But other indigenous issues are yet to be resolved.

Analysis by Stephen de Tarczynski, IPS

"For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry," said Rudd in his Feb. 13 speech, referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who were forcibly removed from their families and communities.

The "apology", as the Prime Minister’s speech to Parliament is known, generated much public interest. Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians crowded into the public viewing area to witness the event, while hundreds of thousands more watched the live broadcast in lounge rooms and on public screens across the nation.
Rudd apologised to the parents and the siblings of those stolen, as well as for the breaking up of families and communities.

"As Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the Australian government, I am sorry. On behalf of the parliament of Australia, I am sorry. And I offer you this apology without qualification," he said.

Aboriginal leader Pat Dodson -- formerly chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and director of the Central Land Council -- was among those welcoming the apology.

"I see the apology as an epic gesture on the part of the Australian settler state to find accommodation with the dispossessed and colonised," Dodson told the National Press Club a day after Rudd tabled his motion.

That the apology is a symbolic acknowledgment of past injustices rather than an apportioning of blame to ordinary Australians is a point apparently lost on some. One online poll showed 64 percent of respondents opposed to the apology, while in another only 44 percent supported Rudd’s motion. However, a recent Newspoll survey indicated that 70 percent of voters supported the apology.

And in a sign of the gap that exists between the previous government and the current regarding the apology, Rudd’s predecessor in the top job, John Howard -- now retired after last November’s electoral defeat -- was the only living former prime minister who was not in Canberra to witness the apology.

Rudd, however, remains popular, with the Newspoll survey finding that he is the preferred prime minister for 70 percent of voters. But while his short tenure as Australia’s leader has already seen him make grand gestures -- Rudd was also quick to begin the process of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and the government has flagged its willingness to reverse the previous government’s decision to oppose the United Nations declaration on indigenous rights -- he will ultimately be judged on what follows the symbolism.

The government has already ruled out setting up a fund to compensate the Stolen Generations. This is despite monetary compensation, along with an apology, being part of the reparations to be made to the Stolen Generations recommended in the landmark Bringing Them Home Report, released in 1997 by the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children From Their Families.

A compensation fund would mean that the Stolen Generations would be less likely to undertake costly, time-consuming and emotionally draining legal battles. But a precedent has already been set, with Bruce Trevorrow successfully suing authorities last year. Others have also initiated legal action.

Prior to the apology, Les Malezer, spokesman for the National Aboriginal Alliance, said that an apology would be a wasted event without compensation. "Once the apology has been issued, and providing the apology is not qualified, we will then go on to ask the government to now consider how it will pay compensation," said Malezer.

But the Rudd government does not appear likely to budge. State governments, however, seem to be more open to the possibility of such a move. Tasmania has already established a compensation fund, with others currently considering this option.

There is also the issue of the controversial intervention in the Northern Territory. Implemented by the Howard government -- ostensibly in reaction to the "serious" and "widespread" abuse of children in the territory’s Aboriginal communities -- measures have included linking welfare payments to children’s school attendance, the introduction of alcohol restrictions on Aboriginal land, and the government’s acquisition of five-year leases of community land.

The intervention has been a divisive issue amongst indigenous and non-indigenous Australians alike, with some welcoming the measures and others labelling them "paternalistic" and a "land grab". The Rudd government, which supported the intervention while in opposition, intends to maintain it, with the re-introduction of permits -- with exceptions for journalists and government contractors -- required to access Aboriginal land.

Likewise, the government faces another difficult task in determining the structure of a new national body to represent indigenous Australians after it officially disbanded the National Indigenous Council (NIC) in January.

The NIC, whose members were appointed rather than elected, was never very popular. It was established by the Howard government after its forerunner, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) -- an elected body -- was abolished in 2005.

"The Rudd government will undertake discussions with indigenous people about the best process to develop a new representative body," said Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin in a statement released last month.

While some indigenous Australians want a fully elected body, others, such as prominent activist Sam Watson, are willing to compromise. It appears that the government favours a mix of elected and appointed representatives.

"It is important that the new body has representation from urban, regional and remote indigenous communities," said Macklin.

And while these issues present some difficult decisions for the government, there remains the serious and formidable state of indigenous health. Rudd rightly sees the apology as a beginning, enabling other issues to be tackled. But if he can’t also make inroads into key health indicators -- such as life expectancy and infant mortality rates -- among Australia’s indigenous population, the apology may ultimately lose its shine.

Updated 03.03.2008
Published by: Magne Ove Varsi