Australia says "sorry" to Stolen Generations
Today the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said “sorry”. The long-awaited apology was given in recognition of the hurt and harm caused by earlier government policies and actions which saw many aboriginal and half-caste children taken forcibly separated from the families, culture and homelands. It was a symbolic act, unaccompanied by compensation or any promise of such, but still an act that is seen by many as a potential turning point in Australian history.
Despite being one of the world’s wealthiest and most developed countries, Australia has a poor record as far as indigenous affairs are concerned. The life expectancy of indigenous Australians is 17 years less than that of their fellow countrymen. Aboriginal children are 3 times more likely to die in infancy. Lack of school attendance, unemployment and alcohol problems are all significant issues within the indigenous community. Recent reports also show that child abuse and incest have much higher occurance in these communities.
The apology offered today by the Australian Prime Minister is seen by many as a first step. In itself, the apology may be a symbolic move but it is one that was denied by the former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard. In fact, the former Prime Minister was adamantly against any form of apology but had specifically stated that the word “sorry” would not be used in any discussions about the matter. Thus it may only be a first step but it is an important one.
The apology included specific reference to the actions required by the government going forward. In particular, Kevin Rudd referred to the necessity of “closing the gap” – a phrase that has been popularised of late in Australia, referring to the need to reduce the gap in life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
Exactly what the next step will be is difficult to say. The Rudd government has only been in power for 11 weeks and has a lot of reform on its agenda. Significant planning and investment is required in Australia’s aging infrastructure, home ownership is becoming increasingly unaffordable and the education system is failing. Years of neglect need to be addressed. Perhaps for these reasons Rudd has stated that he will not be looking into the issue of the Northern Territory intervention implemented by the Howard government for a further 6 months. The intervention was a heavy handed reaction to the issue of child abuse in indigenous communities which many feel breaches the basic rights of the people. The intervention can be viewed in many ways as not dissimilar to the decisions that lead to the Stolen Generations in the first place – with a white government taking a strongly paternalistic, “we know best” attitude towards the indigenous people and creating a set of rules which they would never attempt to enforce in a white community.
This morning’s apology provides a reminder to all of us as to what can happen if we sit back quietly and allow governments to breach Human Rights conventions and democratic responsibilities under the guise of taking care of the greater good. It provides an important insight into the long term effects of such behaviour and to lessons we should have learned the first time.
While the apology is a magnificent first step, for it to be truly meaningful we have to show that we have learned from the behaviour that led us here and to show a determination not to repeat our mistakes. Let’s hope the Rudd government has the courage to address the Northern Territory intervention with the same compassion and efficiency with which he apologised to the indigenous population for past wrongs.
Tags: Australia , Indigenous , Stolen , Generation , Kevin Rudd , John Howard , Apology , Sorry
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