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Indigenous Australians

Is it Survival Day or Australia Day? Is it a commemoration or celebration? Was it Settlement or Invasion? But for Australia Day to have relevance to both points of view, it must be all embracing.

European Values

Contemporary Australia has many social justice and human rights issues that are a result of policies and practices originating in the 18th century. It was a world of different values, attitudes and beliefs to those of contemporary society. 18th century Europe practiced slavery, and child labour was common; astrology was a university subject and disease was linked to superstitions, not bacteria; the idea that Europeans were superior because of their religion, cities and technologies; the rule of kings and nobles was the dominant form of government; modern ideas of democracy were taking shape to burst onto the world stage at the end of the century; and the idea of terra nullius (an empty land) was a recognised international protocol. Doctrines of racism applied in practice throughout the world in their colonies. The world was there to be taken: land, resources and people.

The invasion of the Cadigal people’s land was part of a world-wide process in the Europeans’ grab for the land, resources and people. It was nationalist rivalry that drove this land-grab. As part of this process, the cultural norms and values of those Europeans travelled with them.

So the European values, beliefs and attitudes were imported with the colonisation. This is a natural phenomenon: all people take their personal and cultural identity with them where ever they travel. Therefore, all sections of Colonial and Australian society participated in the many different policies and practices that discriminated against Indigenous Australians by way of assuming their values were superior to those of the original inhabitants. These policies and practices were the same the world over. A number of European nations participated in some form of imperialism over indigenous peoples throughout the world.

However, not all people believed the dominant thinking, some people married out of their culture, some people formed friendship out of their culture; but many people did believe the dominant thinking because they were institutionally exposed to it (such as at school) and therefore exhibited prejudices; and successive governments reflected the prejudices in our laws and our practices.

Take this quick quiz.

Q: Name and describe the two recognised Indigenous flags.A: The Aboriginal Flag – it is divided horizontally into equal halves of black (top), red (bottom) and a yellow circle in the middle. The black is said to represent the people, the yellow represents the sun and the red represents the earth/land and the blood that was shed.

A: The Torres Strait Islander Flag – it has three horizontal stripes with green at the top and bottom and blue in between divided by thin black lines. A white dharri or deri sits in the centre with a five pointed star underneath. The green is said to represent the land and the blue sea, the black line and the dharri head dress the people and the five pointed star the five island groups.

Q: What event did William Cooper and William Ferguson organise? What were the objectives of this event?A: 1938 protest. The objective of the protest was to have Indigenous people recognised as citizens.

A: In 1932, William Cooper formed the Australian Aboriginal League in Melbourne in protest to the conditions under which Aboriginal people were forced to live and draft a petition to King George V.

In 1937, William Ferguson launched the Aboriginal Progressive Association (APA).

Together, they planned the 1st day of mourning in 1938, which was the 150th Anniversary of the First Fleet landing in Sydney Cove.

Q: Who was the first indigenous Australian to be awarded the Australian of the Year Award?

A: 1968 – Lionel Rose

Q: Name one contemporary Aboriginal artist from NSW.

A: Gordon Syron. Others include:
– Shirley Amos
– Marion Coghlal
– Robin Bailey
– Jingalu
– Euphemia Bostock
– Josie Haines
– Tracey Bostock
– Treanna Hamm
– Denise Brown
– Leeanne Hunter
– Robyn Caughlan
– Joanna Clancy
– Isobell Coe

Q: How many sovereign Aboriginal nations are in modern NSW? 

A: 70

Q: Name five Aboriginal nations in NSW.

A: Cadigal, Kurrajong, Boorooberongal, Muru-ora-dial, Tagary

Q: What is the Dreaming?

A: Law of lore

The understanding the past, as well as the debates of today, come from the knowledge of how and why these policies and practices were dominant for so long in our society. It is about the knowledge of the storylines of our histories.

The Dreaming means identity as people. It is complex knowledge, faith and practices that derive from stories of creation and which dominates all spiritual and physical aspects of Aboriginal life. The Dreaming sets out the structures of society, the rules of social behaviour and the ceremonies performed in order to maintain the life of the land.

The Past

Once upon a Dreamtime the people roam,
Land shaping the people as they ever shape the Land

Black is Dreaming
Black is free

Australia has always been multicultural. It has about 250 sovereign Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations. Each nation always embraces change, as the Dreaming is about the living land, the Land, the mother. Moreover, Australia has seen many changes since the Dreaming began.

The balance of the law and the lore are inherent in all nations. Thus the synergy of the Land and people remains. Over many 1000s of years Indigenous people have continued to adapt to new ways. It is inherent in the Dreaming.

In northern Australia, Aboriginal and Macassan peoples, from Indonesia, influenced each other’s cultures over 400 years ago. The evidence is seen in the language of the Yirrala area where there are about 400 borrowed words from Macassan; in Arnhem Land there are songs about Macassans; and smoking of Malay, or Macassan, pipes. Recent evidence show groups in Victoria developed an extensive eel smoking industry for export to other nations. All have adapted to fire, flood, drought the extremes that are Australia.

Since 1788 there have been an extra 170 cultures added to the original cultures. In contemporary Australia there are over 400 language groups. This is a unique position in the world as the meaning and expression of cultures has changed, again.

Moreover, Indigenous people are still adapting and re-inventing the culture. New expressions blending urban, rural and traditional culture are evident in the storylines of modern Australia.

Nevertheless, it must be remembered that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations had change forced upon them with the coming of European laws, values and social constructs.

Black metal kills Dreaming
Black metal violence
White control : gun
Black control : MotherEarth
White control : fence
Black control : clan voice
White control : poverty
Black control : clan life

New South Wales nations bore the brunt of forced change.

Impact of the smallpox epidemic on the Cadigal people: Soon after he (Arabanoo) was taken the smallpox raged among them (the natives) with great fury and carried off great numbers of them. Every boat that went down the harbour found them laying dead on the beaches and in the caverns of rock forsaken by the rest as soon as the disease is discovered.
Irvine, N. (ed.), (1988), The Sirius letters. The Complete Letters of Newton Fowell 1786 -1790 p.113

The frontier war: not written in the histories nor taught to generations of Australians. Lord John Russell to Sir George Gipps:

You cannot overrate the solicitude of H.M. Government on the subject of the Aborigines of New Holland. It is impossible to contemplate the condition or the prospects of the unfortunate race without the deepest commiseration. Still it is impossible that the Government should forget that the original aggression was ours.
Despatch 21 December 1838
Historical Records of Australia Series I Vol. XX p 440.

Official Government Policy of the 1880s for the status of Aboriginal children in NSW schools. This was not removed as an official policy from the NSW Department of Education until 1972, when challenged in court:The Department of Public Instruction’s policy became dependent on local attitudes: child whatever its creed or colour or circumstance ought be excluded from a public school. But cases may arise, especially amongst the Aboriginal tribes, where the admission of a child or children may be prejudicial to the whole school.
George Reid, Minister for Education 1883
Unpublished NSW Department of Education and Training Paper.

The maltreatment of Aboriginal peoples on missions in the 20th century: … In 1934 John Howard, the new manager of Stoney Gully station was instructed to use ‘any reasonable means’ to end the dispute at Lismore between Aboriginal people and town whites….

Howard, on his first visit to Tuncester, stopped the rations completely, starved the inhabitants, acting on instructions by his Board… He then attempted to bluff the people, saying the Aborigines Protection Board is forcing them to another reserve and if they didn’t comply with his instructions he, or the Board, would take the children away from their parents. Next step was to demolish the school at Tuncester and move it to another settlement 52 miles away. The result is now thirty-five children are without a school.

Words cannot express what is scandalous treatment by the Destruction Board.

Quoted in Goodall, H. (1996), Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770-1972, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, p220

The culmination of the exclusion policies led the racism of omission and paternalism. This is reflected in the 1960s in the books and encyclopaedias of the time:Native Peoples When white settlement of Australia began in 1788 the continent was sparsely inhabited by only about 800,000 very primitive people. They were short, with black, wavy hair and chocolate-brown skin, wore no clothing, had no domestic animals except the dingo, and had tools and weapons made only of wood or stone. They had no permanent homes, but moved from place to place hunting and gathering wild fruits and nuts for food.

Their way of life was a good adjustment to their environment but the coming of the white man upset the balance. Diseases new to them took a heavy toll and today there are only about 52,000 and they are rapidly decreasing. Those who are able to adjust to white man’s ways are valued as expert hunters and trackers. They can follow even the faintest trail, know every possible source of water in the desert, and are of great value to the police.

Britannica Junior 1961, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. United Kingdom pp. 467-468

In the 1990s came government recognition of the past:

The Redfern Park Statement.
And, as I say, the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians.
It begins, I think, with that act of recognition
Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing.
We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life.
We brought the diseases. The alcohol.
We committed the murders.
We took the children from their mothers.
We practised discrimination and exclusion.
It was our ignorance and our prejudice.
And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.
With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds.
We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me?

Speech by the Hon. the Prime Minister, P.J. Keating, MP 10 December 1992 Australian launch of the international year for the world’s indigenous peoples.

As always, it’s those that inherit the past that are left to deal with the consequences of events, policies and practices. All Australians are left to face the facts from the past.

It is estimated that some 2,500 European settlers and police died in this conflict. For the Aboriginal inhabitants the cost was far higher: about 20,000 are believed to have been killed in the wars of the frontier, while many thousands more perished from disease and other unintended consequences of settlement. Aboriginal Australians were unable to restrain – though in places they did delay – the tide of European settlement; although resistance in one form or another never ceased, the conflict ended in their dispossession.

Resistance took many forms. People like Pemwulwuy, William Cooper and Gary Foley have led the fight. Events like the presenting of Yirrkala bark petitions 1963, the sesqui-centenary protests, freedom rides of the 1960s, tent embassy of the 1970s, land rights marches of the 1970s and 1980s, Deaths in Custody protests of the 1980s and High Court challenges by Mabo and the Wik peoples of the 1990s reflect the commitment to the fight for the sovereign rights taken at the time of invasion / colonisation.

Is the 26th of January Survival Day or Australia Day?
Was it Settlement or Invasion?
Is it a commemoration or celebration?

To many Indigenous peoples there is little to celebrate and it is a commemoration of a deep loss. Loss of their sovereign rights to their Land and the right to practice their culture.

For those Australians who are passionate about the English view it is a celebration of great achievements.

For Australia Day to have relevance to both points of view it must embrace both. For it is about both. It is about the loss of Indigenous land and sovereignty and about the achievements of past and present Australians.

To achieve the balance there has to be an honest remembrance of the past, for it too has its good as well as the bad.

January 26 – An Overview

The choice of 26 January as the day of celebration for all Australians has been queried and argued from a historical and practical viewpoint from the 1800s. That the day might symbolise invasion, dispossession and death to many Aboriginal people was a concept alien to the average Australian until even the latter half of the 20th century. The Editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald of 2 January 1995, arguing for a change of date, stated that January 26 “can never be a truly national day for it symbolises to many Aborigines the date they were conquered and their lands occupied. This divisive aspect to 26 January, the commemoration of the landing at Sydney Cove will never be reconciled”.

Involvement of the Indigenous community on Australia Day has taken many forms – forced participation in re-enactments, mourning for Invasion Day, peaceful protest through to an acknowledgment of survival and an increasing participation in community events at a local level.

By 1888, the year of the centenary celebrations, the white population had increased significantly while the Aboriginal population had declined from at least 750,000 in 1788 to a mere estimated 67,000. (Aboriginal people were not counted in the census until after 1967). The 1888 Centenary events overwhelmingly celebrated British and Australian achievement and as Nigel Parbury writes in his book Survival: ”In 1888 Aboriginals boycotted the Centenary celebrations. Nobody noticed.”

By 1938, the Aboriginal community was becoming well organised in the white ways and able to make strong demands for political rights and equality. An Australian Aborigines League (AAL) had been formed in 1932 and this was followed in 1937 by the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), a group that began to achieve publicity in the press and addressed a variety of groups such as the NSW Labor Council.

The AAL leader William Cooper and the APA’s leader William Ferguson, were instrumental in organising the Day of Mourning Committee for the 1938 Sesquicentenary celebrations. A manifesto, Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights, was published and on Australia Day a conference and protest were held in the Australian Hall, Sydney. Five days later, the APA led an Aboriginal delegation to meet with the Prime Minister and soon after Australia Day, the Committee for Aboriginal Citizen Rights was formed.

The Aboriginal community’s push for recognition was highlighted by the 1938 official Australia Day celebrations. Due to a refusal to cooperate by city-based Aborigines, the government imported Aborigines from western communities, locking them up in a stable at Redfern Police Barracks. Immediately following the re-enactment, the group featured on a float in the huge parade in Macquarie Street. The following day they were “sent back to their tin sheds on the Darling River”.

Re-enactments of Phillip’s landing continued to be an accepted part of Australia Day ceremonies around the country and it wasn’t until the Bicentennial in 1988 that the New South Wales government refused to condone a re-enactment as part of their official proceedings.

In 1968, the National Australia Day Council announced the first Aboriginal recipient of its Australian of the Year Award – Lionel Rose.

Other Indigenous award recipients since then have included more sporting personalities: Evonne Goolagong in 1971, Galarrwuy Yunupingu (1978) , Mark Ella (1982), Dr. Lowitja O’Donoghue AM, CBE (1984), Cathy Freeman (1990) Mandawuy Yunupingu (1992) and Nova Peris-Kneebone (1997). In 1995, the recipient of the inaugural National Australia Day Council’s Community of the Year Award was the Jawoyn Association, recognising a decade of achievement by the traditional owners of the Katherine region in the Northern Territory.

Australia Day 1972 was marked by Prime Minister William McMahon’s announcement of his government’s Aboriginal policy, against the advice of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. The frustration within the Aboriginal community found expression on the afternoon of Australia Day 1972 when a tent appeared on the lawns in front of Parliament House – to become known as the Aboriginal Tent Embassy – The Aboriginal black, red and yellow flag designed by Luritja artist Harold Thomas was to become a national symbol.

The Aboriginal Flag

The Aboriginal flag was designed by Harold Thomas, a Luritja man from Central Australia. It was created as a symbol of unity and national identity for Aboriginal people during the land rights movement of the early 1970s. Gary Foley took the flag to the East Coast where it was promoted and eventually recognised as the official flag of the Australian Aboriginal people.

The flag was first flown at Victoria Square in Adelaide on National Aborigines Day, 12 July 1971.

The flag was chosen as the official flag for the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and was first flown there in 1972.

In 1995, the Australian Government proclaimed the flag as an official ‘Flag of Australia’ under section 5 of the Flags Act 1953.

In 1997, Harold Thomas was recognised as the author of the artistic work under the Copyright Act 1968.

The symbolic meaning of the flag colours (as stated by Mr Harold Thomas) are:

  • Black: Represents the Aboriginal people of Australia.
  • Red: Represents the red earth, the red ochre and a spiritual relation to the land.
  • Yellow: Represents the Sun, the giver of life and protector.

Torres Strait Islander Flag

The Torres Strait Islander flag has three horizontal stripes with green at the top and bottom and blue in between divided by thin black lines. A white dharri or deri sits in the centre with a five pointed star underneath. The green is said to represent the land and the blue sea, the black line and the dharri head dress the people and the five pointed star the five island groups.

1988 Onwards – A Turning Point

The 1988 Bicentenary Australia Day celebrations in Sydney were marked by a huge and well-organised gathering and protest march by the Aboriginal community, many of whom had travelled to Sydney from all over the country.

Significant numbers of the non-Aboriginal communities joined the gathered Aboriginals to create a crowd of around 40,000 people who marched from Redfern Oval to Hyde Park for a public rally. Aboriginal activist Gary Foley commented about the gathering: black and white Australians together in harmony…… this is what we have always said Australia could be.

Many Aborigines who took part in the Bicentennial marches felt they would like to have an alternative celebration of how their history and culture had survived. The first Survival concert, held in 1992, really began from those early concepts and reflected a major shift away from the traditionally-named Australia Day to Invasion Day.

The Survival Concerts, now one of the biggest Aboriginal cultural events of the year, have been entirely initiated and coordinated by the Aboriginal community. La Perouse hosted the concerts for many years. This, the first place of European contact, has also had continuous Aboriginal occupation for thousands of years before 1788 and played a crucial role in the coming together of the Aboriginal community for the huge 1988 march.

Regionally across New South Wales, an increasing number of Indigenous communities are participating in their local Australia/Survival Day ceremonies and celebrations. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags are raised alongside the Australian flag. High profile Aboriginal people take the role of key-note speakers for the Australia Day Council, as well as local Australia Day Committees.

In 2001 250,000 Sydney-siders marched across the Harbour Bridge to demonstrate their support for Reconciliation. Their message was that we begin to reconcile the past by walking and talking together.

This same spirit is seen in the Sea of Hands ( Over 250,000 people have signed their name to plastic hands, which are displayed to show their support for Native Title and Reconciliation.

In 2003 the Australia Day Council of NSW, in partnership with the Cadigal people, held the Woggan-ma-gule, Farm Cove Morning Ceremony. It is a Shark Dreaming site for the Cadigal people where land and water meet.

All contemporary events that people participated in show change in our society. The change has been slow but it is here. If we do a snapshot from the early 1960s, when texts were saying that Aboriginal people were dying out and paternalism was dominant then we see it.

Garma, the Present and Future

The Woggan-ma-gule ceremony on 26 January 2003, followed by traditional celebrations, reflects the values, beliefs and attitudes of many contemporary Australians, that a commemoration is an appropriate part of the day. It is recognition that the storylines of the past are full of pain because of the dispossession; but it also represents the many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people active in making the present and the future one of respect. Respect for the values and traditions of the 250 Indigenous nations in Australia and 170 other language groups.

The 1990s saw a shift in our shared history. The hurt and anguish of past policies became evident as the decade went on. The decade began with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. This was followed by the release of the report on the Stolen Generations. Both provided damning evidence of the past policies that had been too slowly removed since 1967. They show that the racist policies and practices were not in the distant past but rather in the living memory of many, many Australians and their effects still resonated deeply within many parts of the Australian community. This recognition of the past, again should not be about blame, rather about truth and reconciliation if we as a nation want change: change not only in government policies and practices but also in all levels of society.

Change, after all, was forced on the governments with the historic High Court decisions, Mabo and Wik. These reflected a new approach to the past – they recognised the truth that the land was occupied – it was not terra nullius (land belong to no-one). They removed the legal basis upon which the Europeans had invaded. There was panic, as most people did not, and still do not understand the decision, nor the consequences of the ensuing government legislation. The decade ended with the official Reconciliation ceremonies. But has Reconciliation been a success?

Away from the government level, as always, there has been a swirl of ordinary people mixing, creating a freshness of culture throughout the 90s. And these swirls of different storylines can be seen in many aspects of our society:

More indigenous and non-indigenous Australians are forming partnerships and having children. (Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics)

Most Australians have participated at least one event that symbolises change, for example:

  • Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation events, such as “Sorry Days” and participating in the Sea of Hands
  • The healing ceremonies, such as those at Myall Creek
  • Debated the importance of our past history and present and future directions. Examples of these debates are highlighted by the Barton lectures, The Boyer lectures and Lingiari lectures.

These are a reflection of the swirling storylines of our history. These swirls are articulated in Garma, a Yolgnu (peoples from northern Australia) concept meaning foundation of life. There are many ways of explaining Garma, here is one:

In a meeting arranged for school staff, a Yolgnu elder, consultant to the curriculum, explained to us what garma meant, and we were told of a garma site at a homeland centre a couple of hundred kilometres away, which we knew. Garma is a still lagoon. It may appear smelly and threatening to whitefellas, but it is full of life and very productive as a food source. Water is often taken to represent knowledge in Yolgnu philosophy. In the garma, the water is circulating silently beneath the surface; we can read that from the spiralling lines of foam on top. In the swelling and retreating of the tides, and the wet season floods can be seen in the two bodies of water. Each body of water has its own life. What happens in the processes of knowledge production in a school where two different cultures (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal), is to the Yolgnu elders akin to what they can see happening in the garma lagoon. For education to be genuine, natural and productive, both cultures have to be presented in such a way that each is preserved and respected. What is produced by their interaction is quite different from either. It is deep, inexhaustible, and always changing. But moment by moment we can read the surface.

Garma, Foundation of Life
Christie 1995, unpublished NSW Department of Education and Training paper.

Why are the concepts of two bodies sharing the same pond and producing something new that is inexhaustible, important to our present and future?

The ceremony at Myall creek in 2001 gives us at least part of the answer. The land cries with the voices of the dead; and without proper ceremony the spirits can never rest.

The Myall creek massacre of innocent Kamilaroi children, women and men was an infamous event in colonial Australia.

In 2001 a ceremony close to the massacre site brought together descendants of the slain and the perpetrators. The people had the courage to face this horrific event and each other; through barriers of pain and ignorance they crashed. The voices spoke, and each listened to each other’s pain and guilt. The tears flowed and the ceremonies happened. And each spoke peace for the spirits enveloped the area. Each brave person could see what each could do to add to the swirl of their ‘garma’.

The Woggan-ma-gule ceremony on 26 January as part of the official part of the day, again, offers a model for the present and future. It is saying that the Indigenous ceremony is important and it is an integral part of being a modern Australian. To bring the Indigenous voice back to the sacred grounds once more is about the values held by us all: the values of respect, tolerance and justice, for if asked, all Australians would say that these are central to our identity.

As deeper knowledge is reached through events like those at Myall creek and the Woggan-ma-gule ceremony, our shared histories are positive.
A number of Australians, because of the past are calling for a treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. The Treaty Now organisation reports that a recent AC Nielsen Age poll showed that 53 per cent of Australians are ready to embrace the concept of a treaty. A national treaty here will reflect an Australia that has matured as a nation. This organisation argues that:
A properly negotiated binding treaty will deliver:

  • agreed standards;
  • a framework for settling relationships between Indigenous peoples and governments at local, regional, state, territory and federal levels;
  • legal recognition including constitutional recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have inherent rights which must inform all processes of governments in Australia; and
  • improved services such as health, housing, education and employment in accordance with the legitimate aspirations of Indigenous peoples.

Others argue that Native Title goes far enough and we do not need a treaty. Native title is the recognition in Australian law that Indigenous people had a system of law and ownership of their lands before European settlement. Where that traditional connection to land and waters has been maintained and where government acts have not removed it, the law recognises this as native title.

Source: National Native Title Tribunal 

Democracy means a fair go for all

A democracy has many common threads and integral to these are diversity of views. Gandhi said: Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress. But honest debate can only come through trust and understanding, based on knowledge, not prejudices. Debates such as: Is it Australia Day or Survival Day?; a treaty is a good thing for Australia; or should we have a Bill of Rights? are important to our society, as they are embedded in the meaning and practice of democracy.
Source: ABC Common Threads

And if we call ourselves a democracy, then it is important to reflect on its successes, as well as the areas that need more effort. This can be done through a series of measures including how civil a society is and how minority groups are treated. In other words are all members of our society equal before the law? Do all members of our society have equal access to health and education services? Are identifiable groups in our society over-represented in prisons or below the poverty line? Are people free to walk anywhere at anytime?

Yes, more Australian walk together and talk together. Yes, more Australians participate in debates about the place of Indigenous Australians and events to support Indigenous events. Yes, there is still many wrongs to be righted.

But many communities through events like those of 26 January are the agents of change. The Australia Day Council will continue to foster these debates and recognise Indigenous peoples for their values, beliefs and attitudes. For these are integral to a healthy society.

Ask yourself is it:
Is it Survival Day or Australia Day or both?
Is it a commemoration or celebration or both?
Was it settlement or invasion?


From Little Things Big Things Grow

Some Signposts From Daguragu – Speech by the Governor General August 1996

Reconciliation and Social Justice Library

Message Stick – ABC Indigenous Online

The Draft Declaration on the rights of Indigenous People

Reconciliation and Social Justice Library


Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs

NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs


Other references

Journey into the Dreamtime


New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council

ABC Online – Indigenous

Koori Mail

One World


Whose Land

Aboriginal Australia


Wednesday February 13, 2008

I move:

That 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.

A future where this parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, indigenous and non-indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.
A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

There comes a time in the history of nations when their peoples must become fully reconciled to their past if they are to go forward with confidence to embrace their future.

Our nation, Australia, has reached such a time.

That is why the Parliament is today here assembled: to deal with this unfinished business of the nation, to remove a great stain from the nations soul and, in a true spirit of reconciliation, to open a new chapter in the history of this great land, Australia.

Last year I made a commitment to the Australian people that if we formed the next government of the Commonwealth we would in Parliament say sorry to the stolen generations.

Today I honour that commitment.

I said we would do so early in the life of the new Parliament.
Again, today I honour that commitment by doing so at the commencement of this the 42nd parliament of the Commonwealth.

Because the time has come, well and truly come, for all peoples of our great country, for all citizens of our great commonwealth, for all Australians – those who are indigenous and those who are not – to come together to reconcile and together build a new future for our nation.

Some have asked, Why apologise?

Let me begin to answer by telling the Parliament just a little of one person’s story – an elegant, eloquent and wonderful woman in her 80s, full of life, full of funny stories, despite what has happened in her life’s journey, a woman who has travelled a long way to be with us today, a member of the stolen generation who shared some of her story with me when
I called around to see her just a few days ago.

Nanna Nungala Fejo, as she prefers to be called, was born in the late 1920s.

She remembers her earliest childhood days living with her family and her community in a bush camp just outside Tennant Creek.

She remembers the love and the warmth and the kinship of those days long ago, including traditional dancing around the camp fire at night.

She loved the dancing. She remembers once getting into strife when, as a four-year-old girl, she insisted on dancing with the male tribal elders rather than just sitting and watching the men, as the girls were supposed to do.

But then, sometime around 1932, when she was about four, she remembers the coming of the welfare men.

Her family had feared that day and had dug holes in the creek bank where the children could run and hide.

What they had not expected was that the white welfare men did not come alone. They brought a truck, two white men and an Aboriginal stockman on horseback cracking his stockwhip.

The kids were found; they ran for their mothers, screaming, but they could not get away. They were herded and piled onto the back of the truck.

Tears flowing, her mum tried clinging to the sides of the truck as her children were taken away to the Bungalow in Alice, all in the name of protection.

A few years later, government policy changed. Now the children would be handed over to the missions to be cared for by the churches. But which church would care for them?

The kids were simply told to line up in three lines. Nanna Fejo and her sister stood in the middle line, her older brother and cousin on her left. Those on the left were told that they had become Catholics, those in the middle Methodists and those on the right Church of England.

That is how the complex questions of post-reformation theology were resolved in the Australian outback in the 1930s. It was as crude as that.

She and her sister were sent to a Methodist mission on Goulburn Island and then Croker Island. Her Catholic brother was sent to work at a cattle station and her cousin to a Catholic mission.

Nanna Fejo’s family had been broken up for a second time. She stayed at the mission until after the war, when she was allowed to leave for a prearranged job as a domestic in Darwin. She was 16. Nanna Fejo never saw her mum again.

After she left the mission, her brother let her know that her mum had died years before, a broken woman fretting for the children that had literally been ripped away from her.

I asked Nanna Fejo what she would have me say today about her story. She thought for a few moments then said that what I should say today was that ”all mothers are important”.

And she added: ”Families – keeping them together is very important. It’s a good thing that you are surrounded by love and that love is passed down the generations. That’s what gives you happiness.”

As I left, later on, Nanna Fejo took one of my staff aside, wanting to make sure that I was not too hard on the Aboriginal stockman who had hunted those kids down all those years ago.

The stockman had found her again decades later, this time himself to say, sorry. And remarkably, extraordinarily, she had forgiven him.

Nanna Fejo’s is just one story. There are thousands, tens of thousands of them: stories of forced separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their mums and dads over the better part of a century.

Some of these stories are graphically told in Bringing Them Home, the report commissioned in 1995 by Prime Minister Keating and received in 1997 by Prime Minister Howard.

There is something terribly primal about these firsthand accounts. The pain is searing; it screams from the pages. The hurt, the humiliation, the degradation and the sheer brutality of the act of physically separating a mother from her children is a deep assault on our senses and on our most elemental humanity.

These stories cry out to be heard; they cry out for an apology.

Instead, from the nation’s Parliament there has been a stony, stubborn and deafening silence for more than a decade; a view that somehow we, the Parliament, should suspend our most basic instincts of what is right and what is wrong; a view that, instead, we should look for any pretext to push this great wrong to one side, to leave it languishing with the
historians, the academics and the cultural warriors, as if the stolen generations are little more than an interesting sociological phenomenon.

But the stolen generations are not intellectual curiosities. They are human beings, human beings who have been damaged deeply by the decisions of parliaments and governments. But, as of today, the time for denial, the time for delay, has at last come to an end.

The nation is demanding of its political leadership to take us forward.
Decency, human decency, universal human decency, demands that the nation now step forward to right an historical wrong. That is what we are doing in this place today.

But should there still be doubts as to why we must now act, let the Parliament reflect for a moment on the following facts: that, between 1910 and 1970, between 10 and 30% of indigenous children were forcibly taken from their mothers and fathers; that, as a result, up to 50,000 children were forcibly taken from their families; that this was the product
of the deliberate, calculated policies of the state as reflected in the explicit powers given to them under statute; that this policy was taken to such extremes by some in administrative authority that the forced extractions of children of so-called mixed lineage were seen as part of a broader policy of dealing with the problem of the Aboriginal population.

One of the most notorious examples of this approach was from the Northern Territory Protector of Natives, who stated: ”Generally by the fifth and invariably by the sixth generation, all native characteristics of the Australian Aborigine are eradicated. The problem of our half-castes” – to quote the protector – ”will quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race, and the swift submergence of their progeny in the white”.

The Western Australian Protector of Natives expressed not dissimilar views, expounding them at length in Canberra in 1937 at the first national conference on indigenous affairs that brought together the Commonwealth and state protectors of natives.

These are uncomfortable things to be brought out into the light. They are not pleasant. They are profoundly disturbing.

But we must acknowledge these facts if we are to deal once and for all with the argument that the policy of generic forced separation was somehow well motivated, justified by its historical context and, as a result, unworthy of any apology today.

Then we come to the argument of intergenerational responsibility, also used by some to argue against giving an apology today.

But let us remember the fact that the forced removal of Aboriginal children was happening as late as the early 1970s.

The 1970s is not exactly a point in remote antiquity. There are still serving members of this Parliament who were first elected to this place in the early 1970s.

It is well within the adult memory span of many of us.

The uncomfortable truth for us all is that the parliaments of the nation, individually and collectively, enacted statutes and delegated authority under those statutes that made the forced removal of children on racial grounds fully lawful.

There is a further reason for an apology as well: it is that reconciliation is in fact an expression of a core value of our nation – and that value is a fair go for all.

There is a deep and abiding belief in the Australian community that, for the stolen generations, there was no fair go at all.

There is a pretty basic Aussie belief that says that it is time to put right this most outrageous of wrongs.

It is for these reasons, quite apart from concerns of fundamental human decency, that the governments and parliaments of this nation must make this apology – because, put simply, the laws that our parliaments enacted made the stolen generations possible.

We, the parliaments of the nation, are ultimately responsible, not those who gave effect to our laws. And the problem lay with the laws themselves.

As has been said of settler societies elsewhere, we are the bearers of many blessings from our ancestors; therefore we must also be the bearer of their burdens as well.

Therefore, for our nation, the course of action is clear: that is, to deal now with what has become one of the darkest chapters in Australia’s history.

In doing so, we are doing more than contending with the facts, the evidence and the often rancorous public debate.

In doing so, we are also wrestling with our own soul.

This is not, as some would argue, a black-armband view of history; it is just the truth: the cold, confronting, uncomfortable truth – facing it, dealing with it, moving on from it.

Until we fully confront that truth, there will always be a shadow hanging over us and our future as a fully united and fully reconciled people.

It is time to reconcile. It is time to recognise the injustices of the past. It is time to say sorry. It is time to move forward together.

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.

I offer you this apology without qualification.

We apologise for the hurt, the pain and suffering that 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.

In making this apology, I would also like to speak personally to the members of the stolen generations and their families: to those here today, so many of you; to those listening across the nation – from Yuendumu, in the central west of the Northern Territory, to Yabara, in North Queensland, and to Pitjantjatjara in South Australia.

I know that, in offering this apology on behalf of the Government and the Parliament, there is nothing I can say today that can take away the pain you have suffered personally.

Whatever words I speak today, I cannot undo that.

Words alone are not that powerful; grief is a very personal thing.
I ask those non-indigenous Australians listening today who may not fully understand why what we are doing is so important to imagine for a moment that this had happened to you.

I say to honourable members here present: imagine if this had happened to us. Imagine the crippling effect. Imagine how hard it would be to forgive.

My proposal is this: if the apology we extend today is accepted in the spirit of reconciliation, in which it is offered, we can today resolve together that there be a new beginning for Australia.

And it is to such a new beginning that I believe the nation is now calling us.
Australians are a passionate lot. We are also a very practical lot.

For us, symbolism is important but, unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong.

It is not sentiment that makes history; it is our actions that make history.
Today’s apology, however inadequate, is aimed at righting past wrongs.
It is also aimed at building a bridge between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians – a bridge based on a real respect rather than a thinly veiled contempt.

Our challenge for the future is to cross that bridge and, in so doing, to embrace a new partnership between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians – to embrace, as part of that partnership, expanded Link-up and other critical services to help the stolen generations to trace their families if at all possible and to provide dignity to their lives.

But the core of this partnership for the future is to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians on life expectancy, educational achievement and employment opportunities.

This new partnership on closing the gap will set concrete targets for the future: within a decade to halve the widening gap in literacy, numeracy and employment outcomes and opportunities for indigenous Australians, within a decade to halve the appalling gap in infant mortality rates between indigenous and non-indigenous children and, within a generation,
to close the equally appalling 17-year life gap between indigenous and non-indigenous in overall life expectancy.

The truth is: a business as usual approach towards indigenous Australians is not working.

Most old approaches are not working.

We need a new beginning, a new beginning which contains real measures of policy success or policy failure; a new beginning, a new partnership, on closing the gap with sufficient flexibility not to insist on a one-size-fits-all approach for each of the hundreds of remote and regional indigenous communities across the country but instead allowing flexible,
tailored, local approaches to achieve commonly-agreed national objectives that lie at the core of our proposed new partnership; a new beginning that draws intelligently on the experiences of new policy settings across the nation.

However, unless we as a Parliament set a destination for the nation, we have no clear point to guide our policy, our programs or our purpose; we have no centralised organising principle.

Let us resolve today to begin with the little children, a fitting place to start on this day of apology for the stolen generations.

Let us resolve over the next five years to have every indigenous four-year-old in a remote Aboriginal community enrolled in and attending a proper early childhood education centre or opportunity and engaged in proper pre-literacy and pre-numeracy programs.

Let us resolve to build new educational opportunities for these little ones, year by year, step by step, following the completion of their crucial pre-school year.

Let us resolve to use this systematic approach to build future educational opportunities for indigenous children to provide proper primary and preventive health care for the same children, to begin the task of rolling back the obscenity that we find today in infant mortality rates in remote indigenous communities up to four times higher than in other

None of this will be easy. Most of it will be hard, very hard. But none of it is impossible, and all of it is achievable with clear goals, clear thinking, and by placing an absolute premium on respect, cooperation and mutual responsibility as the guiding principles of this new partnership on closing the gap.

The mood of the nation is for reconciliation now, between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. The mood of the nation on indigenous policy and politics is now very simple.

The nation is calling on us, the politicians, to move beyond our infantile bickering, our point-scoring and our mindlessly partisan politics and to elevate this one core area of national responsibility to a rare position beyond the partisan divide.

Surely this is the unfulfilled spirit of the 1967 referendum. Surely, at least from this day forward, we should give it a go.

Let me take this one step further and take what some may see as a piece of political posturing and make a practical proposal to the opposition on this day, the first full sitting day of the new Parliament.

I said before the election that the nation needed a kind of war cabinet on parts of indigenous policy, because the challenges are too great and the consequences are too great to allow it all to become a political football, as it has been so often in the past.

I therefore propose a joint policy commission, to be led by the Leader of the Opposition and me, with a mandate to develop and implement, to begin with, an effective housing strategy for remote communities over the next five years.

It will be consistent with the Government’s policy framework, a new partnership for closing the gap. If this commission operates well, I then propose that it work on the further task of constitutional recognition of the first Australians, consistent with the longstanding platform commitments of my party and the pre-election position of the opposition.

This would probably be desirable in any event because, unless such a proposition were absolutely bipartisan, it would fail at a referendum. As I have said before, the time has come for new approaches to enduring problems.

Working constructively together on such defined projects would, I believe, meet with the support of the nation. It is time for fresh ideas to fashion the nation’s future.

Mr Speaker, today the Parliament has come together to right a great wrong. We have come together to deal with the past so that we might fully embrace the future. We have had sufficient audacity of faith to advance a pathway to that future, with arms extended rather than with fists still clenched.

So let us seize the day. Let it not become a moment of mere sentimental reflection.

Let us take it with both hands and allow this day, this day of national reconciliation, to become one of those rare moments in which we might just be able to transform the way in which the nation thinks about itself, whereby the injustice administered to the stolen generations in the name of these, our parliaments, causes all of us to reappraise, at the deepest
level of our beliefs, the real possibility of reconciliation writ large: reconciliation across all indigenous Australia; reconciliation across the entire history of the often bloody encounter between those who emerged from the Dreamtime a thousand generations ago and those who, like me, came across the seas only yesterday; reconciliation which opens up whole new possibilities for the future.

It is for the nation to bring the first two centuries of our settled history to a close, as we begin a new chapter. We embrace with pride, admiration and awe these great and ancient cultures we are truly blessed to have among us cultures that provide a unique, uninterrupted human thread linking our Australian continent to the most ancient prehistory of our planet.

Growing from this new respect, we see our indigenous brothers and sisters with fresh eyes, with new eyes, and we have our minds wide open as to how we might tackle, together, the great practical challenges that indigenous Australia faces in the future.

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.

First Australians, First Fleeters, and those who first took the oath of allegiance just a few weeks ago. Let’s grasp this opportunity to craft a new future for this great land: Australia. I commend the motion to the House.