Opened with a 4-minute DVD of Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia, apologizing in Parliament to the Aboriginal people of Australia:
Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
We reflect on their past mistreatment.
We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations—this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.
The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.
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.
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.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.
For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.
We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.
To the Stolen Generations, I say the following: as Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the Government of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the Parliament of Australia, I am sorry. And I offer you this apology without qualification. We apologise for the hurt, the pain and suffering we, the parliament, have caused you by the laws that previous parliaments have enacted. We apologise for the indignity, the degradation and the humiliation these laws embodied. We offer this apology to the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters, the families and the communities whose lives were ripped apart by the actions of successive governments under successive parliaments.
So let us turn this page together: Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, Government and Opposition, Commonwealth and State, and write this new chapter in our nation’s story together.
In 1995 the Australian Government asked the Human Rights Commission to hold a national inquiry into the policies which removed children from their familes. This inquiry was chaired by a former High Court judge, Sir Ronald Wilson, and an Aboriginal human rights advocate, Mick Dodson. The report it produced was titled ‘Bringing Them Home’.
It was an agonising report, detailing hundreds of tragic stories resulting from these policies. However, by 1997, when it was published, the Government had changed, and the new Prime Minister, John Howard, was utterly hostile to it. He had won the election saying, among other things, that ‘the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of Aboriginal interests, and we are going to swing it back.’ This report was the last thing he wanted.
I heard Sir Ronald Wilson speak of the impact the inquiry had had on him. When he launched the report of the inquiry, he said:
It was like no other inquiry I have undertaken. At each session, the tape would be turned on and we would wait… I would look into the face of the person who was to speak to us. I would see the muscles straining to hold back the tears. But tears would stream down, still no words being spoken. And then, hesitantly, words would come.
We sat there as long as it took. We heard the story, told with that person’s whole being, reliving experiences which had been buried deep, sometimes for decades. They weren’t speaking with their minds; they were speaking with their hearts. And my heart had to open if I was to understand them.
This affected him deeply. “I came to this inquiry with fifty years behind me as a hardboiled lawyer, mixing it with all sorts of antagonists,” he said “and yet this inquiry changed me. And if it can change me, it can change our nation.”
I had worked with Aboriginal people, I had seen their pain. And I knew in my heart that the best thing I could do was to work with Sir Ronald. I didn’t know Sir Ron at the time. But I knew he was a churchman. So I went to the heads of the churches in Canberra, and I said, ‘If you will invite Sir Ron to Canberra, I will organise a speaking tour for him.’ They agreed, he accepted. In three days we made a huge impact on the city through the media, the schools, the Parliament, and through a huge overflow public meeting.
Among the speakers at that public meeting was the leader of Canberra’s Jewish community, who expressed her community’s empathy with the Stolen Generations, and promised full support for the campaign.
People in other cities watched with interest, and invited Sir Ron to speak there. So his message spreads across the country.
This did not please the Government. At the time Sir Ron was head of the Human Rights Commission, a Government appointment which would normally be renewed automatically. The Government refused to renew it. Sir Ron was out of office. So he was free to speak out, and he did so. He went to State Governments, churches, the police, asking for apologies from all who had been involved in implementing the removal policies – and led the way himself. “I was a leader of the Presbyterian Church in Western Australia at the time we ran Sister Kate’s Home, where removed children grew up,” he said. “I was proud of the home, with its system of cottage families. Imagine my pain when I discovered, during this inquiry, that children were sexually abused in those cottages.” He and the Presbyterian Church apologised wholeheartedly.
His actions struck a chord. In the following months, most of Australia’s State parliaments and churches held ceremonies to hear from representatives of the Stolen Generations, and to apologise for their role in this tragedy. They were very meaningful events.
One recommendation of the report was that a Sorry Day be held to commemorate the tragedy, and help the healing process. The Prime Minister ignored this. But Sir Ronald did not give up. He invited thirty people, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, to meet and consider whether a Sorry Day could be held without Government involvement. I was invited to this meeting.
By the end of the day’s discussion, we had decided to try. We chose 26 May as Sorry Day, just four months away. And we chose two co-Chairs – one Aboriginal and one non-Aboriginal. We wrote a statement explaining what Sorry Day was. The statement described Sorry Day as
a day when all Australians can express their sorrow for the whole tragic episode, and celebrate the beginning of a new understanding…. Indigenous people will participate in a Day dedicated to the memory of loved ones who never came home, or who are still finding their way home…. Sorry Day can help restore the dignity stripped from those affected by removal; and it offers those who carried out the policy – and their successors – a chance to move beyond denial and guilt.
We asked a former Governor-General of Australia, Sir Zelman Cowen, to be a patron. He said, ‘I’ve read your statement. I agree with every word. I’ll be your patron.’ Then in March the idea was launched to the nation.
The response was amazing. I was soon getting many phone calls a day from people organising events. Artists painted, musicians composed, writers and playwrights wrote. A well-known actor created Sorry Books – manuscript books in which people could express their apology. More and more books were produced as demand grew from public libraries, town councils, schools, universities. Soon several thousand books were in circulation, and nearly a million people wrote messages.
When the day arrived, it was commemorated by hundreds of events. There were theatrical presentations, cultural displays, town barbecues. Universities, government departments, councils, churches held gatherings to hear from Stolen Generations people, and to ceremonially hand the Sorry Books to them. The churches of central Melbourne rang their bells. The Lord Mayor gave the keys of the city to representatives of the Stolen Generations. Over half of the 30-minute national TV news that evening was devoted to Sorry Day events, and to the heartfelt response of Aboriginal leaders.
The Federal Government had no idea how to respond to a campaign which included many people active on their side of politics. So they stayed practically silent. This provoked plenty of cartoons in the press.
But the Stolen Generations were deeply moved. For the first time, they felt that the Australian community understood what they had gone through. From across the country many of them met together, and decided to launch a Journey of Healing, inviting all Australians to play a part in healing the wounds. That was amazing. The people whose childhoods had been ripped up by callous white attitudes welcomed the white community to work with them for healing.
Again, there was a huge response to the Journey of Healing. A former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, and a respected Aboriginal leader, Lowitja O’Donoghue, became patrons. The Journey of Healing’s message was: ‘You can help heal the wounds of the Stolen Generations. Get to know those in your locality. Arrange for them to tell their stories to the newspapers if they wish, or on local radio. See how you can help them with the difficulties they face. Work at implementing recommendations of the Bringing Them Home report.’
Thousands responded. All over the country, throughout the year but especially around 26 May, events are held to express solidarity with the Stolen Generations. Memorials started to go up, as these photos illustrate.
All this kept the issue alive in the media and the Parliament. The Government produced a report which said that, since only 10% of Aboriginal children were removed, ‘Stolen Generations’ was a misnomer. This provoked intense anger. And our patrons made their views known.
But the response to Sorry Day had impressed the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, and they decided to launch an even bigger event. They invited all Australians to join them on a walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. A quarter of a million people came, many of them carrying placards saying ‘Sorry’. It was the largest demonstration in Australian history. Some who walked also paid for a plane to go up alongside the Bridge and write the word ‘Sorry’ in the sky. Many called it The People’s Apology.
Then a walk was held across a bridge in Melbourne, and 300,000 people came. Every Australian city and many towns held similar events. In all, about a million people took part.
I’ll just tell you one story from the Sydney event. We had invited the Stolen Generations to walk with us, and many came. But one woman phoned me – since my phone number was on the publicity – and was very angry. She said that after all she had been through, there was no possibility of healing for her, and she would only walk with us if we got rid of the Journey of Healing banner. When she told me her story, I understood how she felt. She had been removed from her family at the age of two – here are her parents – and had endured terrible abuse including rape. However, in the end she decided to walk across the bridge on her own, which she did carrying a sign saying ‘Stolen Generations – I am not a myth’. The next night she phoned me. ‘I looked at the thousands of people who had come, and I looked up at that word Sorry in the sky. Suddenly, she said, ‘tears began to pour down my cheeks. I have found a peace I have never known.’
We persuaded the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and several colleagues to meet her and listen to her story. One member of the governing party who heard her story stopped me in a corridor of Parliament a few days later. ‘We have arguments in the Party room as to whether the Stolen Generations are exaggerating their story,’ he said. ‘But when you hear a story like hers, you just know it is the truth.’
When a million people walked in 2000, the Government had to respond. The Prime Minister announced that they would build Reconciliation Place, in the centre of Canberra and, he said, ‘It will include a memorial to those removed as children from their families.’
Then we discovered that the Government was creating this memorial themselves, without any consultation with the Stolen Generations. Their memorial was insipid, and included a soundscape of children laughing happily. Immediately there were protests and demonstrations. The project ground to a halt.
We went to the Government and said, ‘This memorial could be deeply healing if it is created properly. We are prepared to arrange consultations all over the country, not just with the Stolen Generations but with those who staffed the institutions, or fostered removed children. We believe we can reach consensus on what it should say.’ Eventually the Government agreed to this.
We arranged teams in every State and Territory, who consulted hundreds of people. Then we met for three days, which included much passionate discussion. By the end we had consensus on a powerful statement about the removal policies.
And it was a magnificent text. Here is one extract: ‘We the removed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children of Australia would urge you to look through our eyes and walk in our footsteps, to be able to understand our pain. We call on all Australians to acknowledge the truth of our history, to enable us to move forward together on our journey on healing, because it is only the truth that will set us all free.’
In 2007, on the tenth anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report, the Howard Government was still in office, still refusing to apologise. We booked the Great Hall of Parliament. Both the Minister of Health and the Minister of Indigenous Affairs came. And both of them were sitting in the front row when Lowitja O’Donoghue spoke, challenging the whole Government approach. You can see their discomfort in this photo from the front page of the Canberra Times.
However, the Minister of Health’s speech was unexpected. He was one of the Prime Minister’s closest allies. But when he spoke, he broke with the Prime Minister’s approach. ‘The forcible removal of Indigenous children is an episode in our history of which we are rightly ashamed,’ he said. ‘The fundamental premise on which it was based – that children were better off away from their black families – was wrong, indeed repugnant. We should have known it then. We certainly know it now, and we do have to atone for it.’
When the election was held, the new Prime Minister announced that he would make this apology, and he invited the Opposition to join him in it. They consulted among themselves, and agreed to join it – even though they had opposed it for ten years. Now there is a massive programme underway, in which about $5 billion dollars will be invested over the next few years, to transform the condition of Aboriginal Australia.
I believe this experience contains lessons for those who want to help to heal the harm caused by British policy in Israel and Palestine. Whatever settlement is worked out between Israel and Palestine is primarily their business, and I have no doubt that in both countries there are people with creative solutions. Where we can help is in creating the climate in which negotiation has a possibility of success.
Let me give you an example. In the midst of the Second World War, most French would have assumed that friendship with Germany was impossible. They had fought three times in 70 years, and millions had died on both sides. A French politician, Robert Schuman, thought differently. In 1942 he was on the run from the Gestapo, and amazed the family who sheltered him with his certainty that Franco-German unity would be the cornerstone of a new Europe. But he could do nothing to advance his ideas in wartime France.
After the war he became Prime Minister then Foreign Minister of France, and his Schuman Declaration of May 1950 launched the joint management of France’s and Germany’s coal and steel industries. As it stated, ‘The pooling of coal and steel production will change the destinies of those regions which have long been devoted to the manufacture of munitions of war, of which they have been the most constant victims.’ This was the first step towards the creation of the European Community. But I do not believe Schuman could have taken this step without the work of healing which had been undertaken by many ordinary French and Germans in the five years since the end of the war.
Kevin Rudd made a similar point when he spoke this July at a conference in Switzerland which I coordinated. ‘For an apology to be effective, the community has to have been engaged much earlier. Politicians are notoriously slow, notoriously reactive. The work done by those who organised Sorry Day committees over a long period of time when the political obstacles seemed formidable and insurmountable was critical. The groundwork may have affected only 10% of the country’s population. But that foundation was necessary for it to catch fire for the country at large.’
To come back to Britain, there are a number of conflicts around the world which stem, at least in part, from British policies in colonial times. Often we British do not realise the strength of anger in these situations towards Britain. But if we try to understand it, this gives us an opportunity to contribute towards solutions. Take Northern Ireland, for instance. Widely in Britain, even in Parliament, people looked on the conflict there as a baffling squabble between two communities, and had little idea of the British role in provoking that quarrel.
Some people had the courage to educate us. One was John Austin Baker, Chaplain to the House of Commons and later Bishop of Salisbury. He had a five-point programme:
* Face the past
* Face what it reveals about our past character
* In the light of our personal and national behaviour today, face the fact that this may still be our character
* If so face God and ask forgiveness
* Then face the present with a new honesty
He applied this himself, which led him to make a wholehearted apology on Irish television.
I think that programme should be at the heart of the Balfour Project. Governments have to deal with the impact of policies of their predecessors, and I think both Jews and Arabs deserve an apology from the British Government for our role in the tragic events of the past 100 years. But this is not just a matter for Government, because policies often express national attitudes. I hope the Balfour Project will enable many British people to discover the history, and to consider our attitudes in the light of this.
And if we apply that programme, we may be amazed at the response. As Kevin Rudd said: ‘If an apology is authentic and if it is received with an open heart it can be transforming. This is difficult for those of us in the formal business of politics to comprehend. We are accustomed, particularly in the West, to think about politics and policy in formal processes. We have a committee for this and a committee for that. We don’t yet have a Ministry for Human Feelings. But if an apology is genuine and is received with an open heart, its ability to transform the way in which people feel about themselves and others with whom they have had conflict is remarkable. I describe is as a secular sacrament, the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual event. It is hard to overestimate its spiritual and emotional significance.’
And that is a vital point. A genuine apology heals. And healing is a step towards justice. Unless traumatised people find healing, their attempts to achieve justice can destroy them. That was our experience with the Stolen Generations in Australia, and it was the same in Canada. They needed healing from despair, from self-loathing, from hate. Then they had the strength to work for justice.
But we can’t expect apology to start with our political leaders. In Australia it started with Sir Ron Wilson. Then it spread to the community. And it didn’t stop with apology. In the absence of effective Government action to help the Stolen Generations, tens of thousands of people took action. They went and met the Stolen Generations in their town or suburb, they arranged for them to tell their story on radio or in the local newspaper, they helped people who felt alienated by their unnatural upbringing to feel part of the community. It was profoundly healing. Without that work, I doubt that the Stolen Generations would have accepted Kevin Rudd’s apology.
I hope that a movement can grow, here in Britain and elsewhere, which focuses on truth and healing as a means to justice. It will do whatever it can to overcome the tragic conditions in which many Palestinians live. Many of us British could help improve health, housing, education, and work for equitable political status. Then Israelis and Palestinians will be able to negotiate on a basis of equality.
And this movement will also focus on building bridges with Israelis. I visited Auschwitz in July this year. It is an agonising experience, especially if you accept, as I do, that vengeful British policies at the end of World War I helped create an economic wasteland in Germany, out of which Hitler arose. If you are like me, you just want to run away. That is why I respect those who have taken on the Balfour Project. We need forgiveness of Jews as much as of Palestinians. And I believe we should ask for it.
Because forgiveness is the key to the future for all in that region. Desmond Tutu was telling the simple truth when he called his book, ‘No future without forgiveness’. But forgiveness cannot be preached. It can only be lived. As Secretary of the Sorry Day Committee I learnt a lot about forgiveness. Because the Stolen Generations are wary of white people, and some hate us. And since I was interacting with them all the time, I copped plenty of abuse. Some of it I deserved personally. Some I deserved as a member of the white Australian community. It was painful. But I knew I had to stick with these people. And with many of them, deep friendship grew.
I know Israelis and Palestinians who take that path. An Israeli friend of mine takes her students to Auschwitz, as many teachers do. Then she takes them to France and Germany to discover how countries which have fought each other can become friends. I know Palestinians with a similar approach. We British can help strengthen the contribution of such people, thus helping towards creating the climate in which political solutions become possible.