National Apology Day 2017

Today (13th of February) is National Apology Day, the anniversary of then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, delivering the National Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples, especially the Stolen Generations, on the 13th of February 2008. The Apology is now considered a defining moment in Australian history. This is a separate occasion from National Sorry Day, the anniversary of Bringing them Home: the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families being tabled in parliament on the 26th of May 1997. This FlagPost covers government responses to Recommendation 5a of Bringing them Home, which recommended both apologies and reparations.

The National Apology was delivered in response to recommendation 5a of Bringing them Home, which reads:

5a. That all Australian Parliaments

1. officially acknowledge the responsibility of their predecessors for the laws, policies and practices of forcible removal,

2. negotiate with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission [ATSIC] a form of words for official apologies to Indigenous individuals, families and communities and extend those apologies with wide and culturally appropriate publicity, and

3. make appropriate reparation as detailed in following recommendations.

The Commonwealth Parliament was the final parliament in Australia to make an official apology. Western Australia was the first to apologise, on the 27th of May 1997, and the Northern Territory was the last state or territory to apologise, on the 24th of October 2001. All State and Territory Apologies can be found on the Australian Human Rights Commission website.

The Howard Government, in office when Bringing them Home was tabled, opposed an apology on a number of grounds, including that the current generation should not accept responsibility for the actions of previous generations, that previous generations had believed their actions to be lawful and in the best interests of children, and that an apology might expose the government to legal liability. Instead the Howard government response took the form of a $63 million package emphasising ‘practical assistance’ for those separated from their families, including making records more accessible, family support programs, Link-up services for family reunion, support for language and cultural maintenance, counselling, and emotional and social wellbeing. While welcomed, this package was overshadowed in public debate by the refusal to apologise or pay reparations.

After consultation with ATSIC and with the support of Gumbayynggir Senator Aden Ridgeway of the Australian Democrats, the government passed a Motion of Reconciliation on the 26th of August 1999 that did not specifically refer to responsibility or to the forcible removal of children. Labor attempted to amend this motion to a full apology but was defeated.

In November 2000 the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee tabled Healing: A Legacy of Generations, an inquiry into Federal government implementation of the recommendations of Bringing them Home, which again called for an apology and a national reparations tribunal. The government response extended the assistance package by $53.9 million over four years, but rejected a reparations tribunal on the grounds that it would duplicate the court system and responsibility primarily rested with States, territories and non-government bodies. Tasmania, Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales have since established reparation or redress funds for this purpose. Western Australia and Queensland’s redress schemes (now closed) covered all children who suffered in State care, not just members of the Stolen Generations.

After the 2007 election the new leader of the Opposition, Brendan Nelson, reversed Coalition policy and delivered an apology in his address supporting Prime Minister Rudd’s motion of Apology. In the Senate the Australian Greens attempted to move an amendment committing to compensation but this was opposed by both Labor and the Coalition.

In 2008 Senator Andrew Bartlett put forward a private members bill to establish a Stolen Generations Tribunal and compensation fund. The bill was the subject of a committee inquiry which recommended it not proceed. The Rudd government agreed with the committee as it did not propose to establish a reparations body. Instead, on the first anniversary of the Apology, the Rudd Government announced a Healing Foundation to address trauma and aid healing in Indigenous communities, with a budget of $26.6 million over four years.

High and increasing rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being placed in care continue to be of great concern to Australia’s Indigenous community and to policy makers. Michael Lavarch, the Keating Government’s Attorney General who launched the Bringing them Home inquiry in 1995, says we risk creating ‘a new stolen generation’. Inquiries into Aboriginal child removal have found that despite the efforts made since Bringing them Home and the Apology, state government child protection schemes are still not managing to effectively preserve, promote and develop cultural safety and connection for Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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