The Hon Dr Brendan Nelson MP, Leader of the Opposition
Mr Speaker, members of this 42nd Parliament of Australia,
visitors and all Australians.
In rising to speak in support of this motion, I recognise the
Ngunnawal, first peoples of this Canberra land.
Today our nation crosses a threshold.
We formally offer an apology to those Aboriginal people forcibly
removed from their families through the first seven decades of the
In doing so, we reach from within ourselves to our past, those
whose lives connect us to it and in deep understanding of its
importance to our future.
We will be at our best today - and every day - if we pause to
place ourselves in the shoes of others, imbued with the imaginative
capacity to see this issue through their eyes with decency and
This chapter in our nation’s history is emblematic of much
of the relationship between indigenous and non indigenous
Australians from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.
It is one of two cultures; one ancient, proud and celebrating
its deep bond with this land for some 50,000 years. The other, no
less proud, arrived here with little more than visionary hope
deeply rooted in gritty determination to build an Australian
nation; not only for its early settlers and indigenous peoples, but
those who would increasingly come from all parts of the world.
Whether Australian by birth or immigration, each one of us has a
duty to understand and respect what has been done in our name. In
most cases we do so with great pride, but occasionally shame.
In brutally harsh conditions, from the small number of early
British settlers our non indigenous ancestors have given us a
nation the envy of any in the world. But Aboriginal Australians
made involuntary sacrifices, different but no less important, to
make possible the economic and social development of our modern
None of this was easy. We cannot from the comfort of the twenty
first century begin to imagine what they overcame - indigenous and
non indigenous - to give us what we have and make us who we are. We
do know though that language, disease, ignorance, good intentions,
basic human prejudices, and a cultural and technological chasm
combined to deliver a harshness exceeded only by the land over
which each sought to prevail.
And as our young nation celebrated its federation, formality
emerged in arrangements and laws that would govern the lives of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The new
nation’s constitution though, would not allow for the
counting of “natives” or for the Commonwealth to pass
laws in relation to Aborigines.
Protection Boards and Reserves were established. Aborigines in
some jurisdictions were excluded from public schools, episodic
violence in race relations continued, assimilation underwrote
emerging policies and churches heeded their Christian doctrine to
reach out to people whom they saw in desperate need.
Though disputed in motive and detail and with varying
recollections of events by others, the removal of Aboriginal
In some cases government policies evolved from the belief that
the Aboriginal race would not survive and should be assimilated. In
others, the conviction was that “half caste” children
in particular should, for their own protection, be removed to
government and church run institutions where conditions reflected
the standards of the day. Others were placed with white families
whose kindness motivated them to the belief that rescued children
deserved a better life.
Our responsibility, every one of us, is to understand what
happened here, why it happened, the impact it had not only on those
who were removed, but also those who did the removing and supported
Our generation does not own these actions, nor should it feel
guilt for what was done in many, but not all cases, with the best
of intentions. But in saying we are sorry - and deeply so - we
remind ourselves that each generation lives in ignorance of the
long term consequences of its decisions and actions. Even when
motivated by inherent humanity and decency to reach out to the
dispossessed in extreme adversity, our actions can have unintended
outcomes. As such, many decent Australians are hurt by accusations
of theft in relation to their good intentions.
The stories are well documented. Two are worth repeating:
“I was at the Post Office with my mum and auntie (and
cousin). They put us in the police Ute and said they were taking us
to Broome. They put the mums in there as well. But when we’d
been gone about ten miles they stopped, and threw the mothers out
of the car. We jumped on our mothers’ backs, crying, trying
not to be left behind. But the policeman pulled us off and threw us
back in the car. They pushed the mothers away and drove off, while
our mothers were chasing the car, running and crying after us. We
were screaming in the back of that car. When we got to Broome they
put me and my cousin in the Broome lock-up. We were only ten years
old. We were in the lock-up for two days waiting for the boat to
Confidential evidence 821 to National Inquiry into the
Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from
In his Black oral history, The Wailing, Stuart Rintoul
records the thin pain of an Aboriginal woman from Walgett;
“Something else that never left my mind, my memory was of
a family of children being taken away and this little girl, she
must have been about the same age as myself, I suppose she might
have been about six. But I can still see that little person on the
back of the mission truck with a little rag hat on, and she went
away and we never seen her anymore. She was crying. Everyone was
crying. Things like that never leave your memory.”
It is reasonably argued that removal from squalor led to better
lives – children fed, housed and educated for an adult world
of which they could not have imagined.
However, from my life as a family doctor and knowing the impact
of my own father’s removal from his unmarried teenaged
mother, not knowing who you are is the source of deep, scarring
sorrows the real meaning of which can be known only to those who
have endured it.
No one should bring a sense of moral superiority to this debate
in seeking to diminish the view that good was being sought to be
This is a complex issue. Faye Lyman’s life is one of the Many Voices oral history at the National Library of
Australia. Faye left her father when she was eight;
“Personally I don’t want people to say,
‘I’m sorry Faye’, I just want them to
It was very hurtful to leave Dad. Oh it broke my heart. Dad said to
me, ‘It’s hard for daddy and the authorities
won’t let you stay with me in a tent on the riverbank.
You’re a little girl and you need someone to look after
you.’ I remember him telling us that, and I cried. I said,
‘No, but Dad, you look after us’ … But they kept
telling us it wasn’t the right thing. I don’t want
people to say sorry. I just want them to understand the hurt, what
happened when we were initially separated, and just understand the
society, what they’ve done….You don’t belong in
either world. I can’t explain it. It hurts so
There is no compensation fund, nor should there be. How can any
sum of money replace a life deprived of knowing your family?
Separation was then, and remains today, a painful but necessary
part of public policy in the protection of children. Our
restitution for this lies in our determination to address
today’s injustices, learning from what was done and healing
those who suffered.
The period within which these events occurred was one that
defined and shaped Australia.
The governments that oversaw this and those who elected them,
emerged from federating the nation to a century characterised for
Australia as triumph in the face of extraordinary adversities
unknown to our generation.
In offering this apology, let us not create one injustice in our
attempt to address another.
Let no one forget that they sent their sons to war, shaping our
identity and place in the world. One hundred thousand in two wars
alone gave their lives in our name and our uniform, lying forever
in distant lands; silent witnesses to the future they have given
us. Aboriginal and non Aboriginal Australians lie alongside one
These generations considered their responsibilities to their
country and one another more important than their rights.
They did not buy something until they had saved up for it and
values were always more important than value.
Living in considerably more difficult times, they had dreams for
our nation but little money.
Theirs was a mesh of values enshrined in God, King and Country
and the belief in something greater than yourself. Neglectful
indifference to all they achieved while seeing their actions in the
separations only, through the values of our comfortable, modern
Australia, will be to diminish ourselves.
Today our nation pauses to reflect on this chapter of relations
between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia. In doing so
however, spare a thought for the real, immediate, seemingly
intractable and disgraceful circumstances in which many indigenous
Australians find themselves today.
As we meet and speak in this parliament, Aboriginal Australians
continue to die long before the rest of us.
Alcohol, welfare without responsibilities, isolation from the
economic mainstream, corrupt management of resources, nepotism,
political buck-passing between governments with divided
responsibilities, lack of home ownership, under-policing and
tolerance by authorities of neglect and abuse of children that
violates all we stand for, all combine to still see too many
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living lives of
Indigenous life expectancy is 17 years less than their
non-indigenous counterparts. An indigenous baby born while we speak
still has only a one in three chance of seeing age 65. Diabetes,
kidney disease, hospitalisation of women from assault,
imprisonment, overcrowding, educational underperformance and
unemployment remain appallingly high despite gains in some areas
over the past decade. Annual indigenous specific spending by the
Commonwealth has increased by 38 per cent in real terms to $3.5
billion, plus, $500 million this year on the Northern Territory
Sexual abuse of Aboriginal children was found in every one of
the 45 Northern Territory communities surveyed for the Little
Children are Sacred report. It was the straw breaking the
camel’s back, driving the Howard Government’s decision
to intervene with a suite of dramatically radical welfare, health
and policing initiatives.
The Alice Springs Crown Prosecutor, Nanette Rogers with great
courage revealed to the nation in 2006 the case of a four year old
girl drowned while being raped by a teenager who had been sniffing
petrol. She told us of the two children - one a baby - sexually
assaulted by two men while their mothers were off drinking alcohol.
Another baby was stabbed by a man trying to kill her mother.
So too, a ten year old girl is gang raped in Aurukun; the
offenders going free, barely punished. A boy is raped in another
community by other children.
Is this not an emergency, the most disturbing part of it being
its endemic nature and Australia’s apparent desensitisation
Yet state governments responsible for delivering services and
security resist the extension of a Northern Territory style
I ask the Prime Minister to report to this Parliament regularly
on what his government is doing to save this generation of
Aboriginal Australians from these appalling conditions.
Our generation has, over 35 years, overseen a system of welfare,
alcohol delivery, administration of programmes, episodic
preoccupation with symbolism and excusing the inexcusable in the
name of cultural sensitivity, to create what we now see in remote
Aboriginal Australia. With good intentions - perhaps like earlier
generations - we have under successive governments, created lives
of misery for which we might apologise; I certainly do. The best
way we can show it is to act and act now, as we did last year.
I challenge anyone who thinks Aboriginal people get a good deal
to come to any of these communities and tell me you wish
you’d been born there.
The first Aboriginal Australian who came to this parliament was
Neville Bonner. A Junggera man abandoned by his non-Aboriginal
father before his birth on Ukerebagh Island in the mouth of the
Tweed River, Neville was born into a life hardship known only to
some who are here today.
Neville grew up in a hollow carved by his grandfather under
Lantana bushes. The year before his mother’s death when he
was nine, she sent him to a school near Lismore. He lasted two days
before the non Aboriginal parents forced his exclusion.
It was to his grandmother, Ida, he attributed his final success.
Arguing at 14 that the boy must go to school, she had said to him,
“Neville, if you learn to read, write, express yourself well
and treat people with decency and courtesy, it will take you a long
It did. Through a life as a scrub clearer, ringer, stockman,
bridge carpenter and eleven years on Palm Island, it brought him to
this Parliament in 1971, as the events of this motion were nearing
He said in prophetic words to the Liberal Party members who
selected him, “In my experience of this world, two qualities
are always in greater need – human understanding and
When asked by Robin Hughes in 1992 to reflect on his life,
Neville observed that the unjust hardships he had endured
“can only be changed when people of non-Aboriginal extraction
are prepared to listen, to hear what Aboriginal people are saying
and then work with us to achieve those ends.”
Asked to nominate his greatest achievement, he replied,
“It is that I was there. They no longer spoke of boongs or
blacks. They spoke instead of Aboriginal people.”
Today is about “being there” as a nation and as
individual Australians. It is about Neville Bonner’s
understanding of one another and the compassion that shaped his
life in literally reaching out to those whom he considered had
suffered more than him.
We honour those in our past who have suffered and all who have
made sacrifices for us by the way we live our lives and shape our
nation. Today we recommit to do so - as one people.
We are sorry.