Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be warned that the following article contains discussion of the Stolen Generation, racism against First Peoples, and colonial trauma.
Ten years on from former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s motion of apology to the Stolen Generation, our nation is still bitterly divided on the truth of its blood-soaked past. The 2008 apology came after years of division, socio-political debate, and Indigenous resistance to colonial trauma. Although it was a moment of unity and racial healing, today we still see horrific denial of White Australia’s misdeeds, historical revisionism, and abject apathy to the plight of the First Peoples of Australia. While the apology was a step in the right direction, it has not been matched with similar steps forward in relation to meaningful improvements in Indigenous welfare and policies.
Although our current remembrance of Sorry Day lies on February 13, marking the day of Kevin Rudd’s formal apology, the original iteration of Sorry Day was held on 26 May, following the publishing of the 680 page Bringing Them Home report on 26 May 1997. The report was a culmination of an inquiry established on 11 May 1995 in response to the concern of key Indigenous agencies and communities that the general public’s ignorance of the history of the Stolen Generations was hindering the recognition of the needs of its victims and their families, and the provision of services. In its own words, the report focuses on the themes of “grief and loss” and “tenacity and survival”.
Sorry Day was born as an act of protest in 2000 following former Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s refusal to issue a formal apology for the mistreatment of First Peoples. Hundreds of thousands of Australians marched across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to demand an apology for the pain that had been caused to First Peoples across Australia. The march was followed by similar marches in Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth. Overall, the idea that current generations should not accept responsibility for the actions of their past generations was turned onto its head, and reconciliation was transformed into the people’s movement.
Unfortunately, the same racist apathy is openly endorsed today, albeit in a slightly different context, with the efforts to change the date of Australia Day. At the end of the day, the refusal of white Australians to take responsibility of the actions of the past because they somehow believe they have “nothing to do with the present” is laughable, since white Australians today continue to benefit from white supremacist policies, and First Peoples today continue to struggle due to dispossession of land, institutionalised discriminatory laws and policies, and cultural genocide. Most importantly however, this racist apathy is completely unfounded, since the forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is not a thing of the past.
Kevin Rudd’s apology was at the time, one of Australia’s best moments in terms of reconciliation, and Aboriginal elders have spoken of its immense importance as an act of healing. However, the apology carefully ensured that the recommendations of the Bringing Them Home report would be categorically ignored. It was looked over by constitutional experts and lawyers so that the Australian government made no admission of illegality or negligence. This was a deliberate act so as to ensure that members of the Stolen Generations could not reasonably ask for any form of compensation – something that the report stated that the Stolen Generations were entitled to as they were subjected to “gross violations of human rights”. While the state governments of Tasmania and South Australia have put aside dedicated funds to provide reparations to Stolen Children, the prospect of compensation has been continually disregarded by both the Labor and Liberal party. As notable Kuku Yalanji activist and academic Noel Pearson said, “Blackfellas will get the words, the whitefellas will keep the money.”
Since the Government did not accept that the laws which led to the forcible removal of Indigenous children were a misuse of power within the legal system, and failed to consider how such abuses would be guaranteed not to happen again, similar laws can theoretically be passed again in the future. And let’s not forget that they have been passed again. Coincidentally, and hypocritically, the Sorry Day apology came alongside the Northern Territory Intervention in 2007 which saw a large increase in budgets for law enforcement and child protection. The overwhelming increase in budget focused on surveillance and removal of Aboriginal children, rather than support for struggling families. According to figures from the Productivity Commission, the number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care has increased from 265 children in June 2007 to 920 in June 2016. The Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory heard stories of children, including newborn infants, being forcibly removed from their families and relocated hundreds of kilometres away, sometimes even interstate, and losing contact with their cultures, communities and Country.
The Intervention, which was introduced to halt child abuse in Indigenous communities following the release of the Little Children are Sacred report in 2007, has largely decreased the quality of life for Indigenous children and youth with a decrease in school attendance rates of Aboriginal children, an increase in youth suicide and self-harm, and an increase in mass incarceration. It has been widely condemned by human rights experts, Aboriginal leaders, and the original authors of the report. Pat Anderson, one its two authors stated that the Intervention was a product of “ignorance and prejudice”. Chris Graham, publisher and editor of New Matilda, also critiqued the mainstream media’s role in the Intervention, condemning the “sensationalised”, “fraudulent”, and “biased” coverage that portrayed Aboriginal people as dangerous. In particular, he criticised the role of ABC’s Lateline which misrepresented many issues facing Indigenous communities.
The Child Protection Australia 2013-2014 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 9.5 times more likely to be in out-of-home care than non-Indigenous children, and that Indigenous children were seven times as likely as non-Indigenous children to be receiving child protection services. Despite the prioritisation of the reduction of the over-representation of Indigenous children in out-of-home care in the National Framework for Protection of Children, which is endorsed by the Australian Government, it seems as though all reforms to child protection legislation in all jurisdictions risks the increasing removal of Indigenous children from their families.
These reforms and policies are a result of the ongoing legacy of colonialism and racist paternalism that resulted in the Stolen Generations in the first place. Somehow we as a people have collectively decided that the First Peoples of Australia, who have survived on this wondrous continent for over 60 000 years need to be told how to live their lives and raise their children. The idea that somehow the Western way to raise children is superior is a result of white supremacist notions of civilisation, and it continues to inform the way that policies regarding Indigenous welfare are created today.
Groups like Grandmothers Against Removals have been relentlessly campaigning to highlight the continuation of the Stolen Generations in a modern context. For countless First Peoples today who resist the institutionalised oppression they face, forcible removal is a horrible reality. There is something profoundly hypocritical about acknowledging a ten year old apology while doing absolutely nothing to take concrete steps to ensure that it is being remembered in good faith. Acknowledging the past, and our role in it, no matter how small, is only the first step to giving First Peoples the rights and respect they deserve. And indeed, this acknowledgement and responsibility also falls upon settler migrants who find themselves a part of colonial history.
Apologies mean nothing if they aren’t followed through on. So we must ensure that the recommendations in the Bringing Them Home report are followed through on, including provision of access to personal and family records, funding to Indigenous services assisting family reunification, and services that address the effects of forcible removal on individual and familial wellbeing. We must ensure that forcible removal of Indigenous children actually does become a thing of the past.
We must ensure that for once and for all, we genuinely say sorry.
Empty Cradles ǀ Mandy Hunter-Hebberman (1996)
Nunga baby taken away
‘Where’s my mama’ hear him say
‘You takin’ me to Goonyaland?’
Carried and fed by white man’s hand
Growing up different
Aunts and uncles, cousins growing
Mama cries – Government pays
Children lost to city ways
But they’ll return
when they grow old
and tell their children
of lies been told
So it won’t happen again
The cradles outback
that were left empty.
Ishita Mathur | @ishitamathur7
Image credit: Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education 2008