Mr Speaker, 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 nation’s soul and, in a true spirit of
reconciliation, to open a new chapter in the history of this great
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
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
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
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 sisters 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
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
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
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
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
These stories cry out to be heard; they cry out for an
Instead, from the nation’s parliament there has been a
stony and 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
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 per cent 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
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
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
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 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
We, the parliaments of the nation, are ultimately responsible,
not those who gave effect to our laws.
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, and therefore we must also be the bearer of
their burdens as well.
Therefore, for our nation, the course of action is clear, and
therefore, for our people, the course of action is clear: that is,
to deal now with what has become one of the darkest chapters in
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Today’s apology, however inadequate, is aimed at righting
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 now cross that bridge and, in
so doing, to embrace a new partnership between Indigenous and
non-Indigenous Australians—embracing, 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 the closing
of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians on
life expectancy, educational achievement and employment
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
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
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
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 preliteracy and prenumeracy 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 preschool year.
Let us resolve to use this systematic approach to building
future educational opportunities for Indigenous children and
providing proper primary and preventative health care for the same
children, to beginning 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
The nation is calling on us, the politicians, to move beyond our
infantile bickering, our point-scoring and our mindlessly partisan
politics and 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
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
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 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
As I have said before, the time has come for new approaches to
Working constructively together on such defined projects I
believe would meet with the support of the nation.
It is time for fresh ideas to fashion the nation’s
Mr Speaker, today the parliament has come together to right a
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
So let us seize the day. Let it not become a moment of mere
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
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
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. Mr Speaker, I commend the motion to the House.