The crowd watches Kevin Rudd's National Apology speech on a big screen at Elder Park, Adelaide.
The crowd watches Kevin Rudd's National Apology speech on a big screen at Elder Park, Adelaide.

Awkward question Australians must ask

TEN years ago on February 13, a small group of indigenous representatives walked uncertainly through security gates to the Prime Minister's courtyard inside Parliament House.

They passed a low, sculptured representation of inland Australia with a representation of a waterhole and of The Olgas, known to local Aborigines as Kata Tjuta.

It was a shy and diffident procession by people unused to being this close to political power.

Waiting for them at the end of the courtyard, beaming their welcome, were Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, his wife Therese Rein and Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin.

It was a warm reception shorn of formal folderol, which underlined the importance the Rudd Government attached to the statement delivered later.

And it was a historic occasion that nearly didn't happen.

This was the day of the national apology to the Stolen Generation: a bipartisan, unprecedented acknowledgment of official brutality addressed to several generations of Aboriginal people, and informing non-Indigenous Australians of the nation's history.

Last Friday, 10 indigenous delegates - much savvier about dealing with governments than their predecessors in 2008 - addressed the premiers and Prime Minister in Canberra.

The discussion between the Indigenous delegation and the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting indicated much has changed.

But the coming occasion has sparked intense debate over whether the unprecedented acknowledgment of wrongs has been matched by improvements in indigenous opportunities and lifestyles.

Mr Rudd will be at the National Press Club on Monday to give analysis of his achievement and its consequences, but the emotional anniversary will come the following day.

The ten-year anniversary of Kevin Rudd’s televised apology to Aboriginal Peoples of Australia has sparked intense debate over how much has changed for our indigenous community. Pictured, Rhonda Randall and Sharon Mumblerin 2008
The ten-year anniversary of Kevin Rudd’s televised apology to Aboriginal Peoples of Australia has sparked intense debate over how much has changed for our indigenous community. Pictured, Rhonda Randall and Sharon Mumblerin 2008

The history leading up to the moment has to be accepted for the occasion to be meaningful.

As late as 1969, state government had the power to remove indigenous children from their families for just about any reason, real or otherwise. Policy decisions reflected a contempt for Aboriginal culture and racism towards individuals.

They were rarely returned and their devastated young lives were mirrored in unhappy adulthood.

Of the 99 cases investigated by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, 43 were people who had been taken from their families.

The plan for a formal apology was contested by some right-wing columnists and politicians.

Mr Rudd, who had become prime minister just the previous December, wanted this as his first big statement. He has now revealed the pressure on him not to do it.

"Within the Australian Labor Party, of course, there are a bunch of people who have a conservative view of Indigenous policy," he last week told NITV's Living Black.

"I remember being cautioned by some of the right-wing bovver boys of the Australian Labor Party after I'd become Prime Minister, saying, 'Whoa, I don't know if you should be doing this first up.' The apology, that is.

"And I said, 'We committed to doing it. I intend to honour my word, and because it's so symbolically significant, we should make it the first act of the Parliament.'"

Ms Macklin recalled the opposition to the move in her recent essay for Meanjin magazine.

"I realised what a big risk we were taking, and what a big decision it was to have the Apology on the first day of the new Parliament," she wrote. "Kevin was understandably worried something could go wrong.

"He was also receiving advice from others against the apology occurring on the first day of his prime ministership in the Parliament."

But go ahead it did, and the tears of Aboriginals who heard it, people who had been robbed of important family roots, endorsed the decision.

They will be repeated by some on Tuesday.

News Corp Australia


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