Apology to the Aborigines

On 26th May, 1998 the first National Sorry Day was held. It was one year since the release of Bringing Them Home, the report from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, and the lasting impact it had on their lives.

This day was marred by the actions and words of the then Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon. John Howard MP who refused, under any circumstances, to say sorry.

Meant to be a public acknowledgement of the pain and suffering endured by the many Indigenous Australians who are part of the Stolen Generations, Sorry Day also recognises the mistreatment of Aboriginal people throughout Australian history:

the word 'sorry' [is] not about monetary compensation or damages, nor about today's Australians taking personal responsibility [for past events], but about acknowledging that wrong was done and expressing sorrow about it.

– Final report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, 2000

Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, 2000, Final report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation to the Prime Minister and the Commonwealth Parliament, viewed April 2011, http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/orgs/car/finalreport/text04.htm .

For over ten years the conservative Howard government consistently rejected the call for an official government apology. Howard had made his position clear in his opening remarks to the 1997 Australian Reconciliation Convention, which repudiated any apology for past actions.

But on 13 February 2008, newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave a formal apology to Indigenous Australians. His historic speech was televised before crowds who congregated at key sites around the nation.

Rudd apologised on behalf of Parliament ‘for indignities and degradation', declaring it was time to start ‘righting the wrongs of the past'. Significantly, the apology recognised the Stolen Generations, and stated that the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families, ‘inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians':

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.

– The Hon. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, 13 February 2008

Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs, 2008, Speech by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the Parliament, viewed April 2011, <http://www.dfat.gov.au/people-to-people/public-diplomacy/programs-activities/pages/speech-by-prime-minister-kevin-rudd-to-the-parliament.aspx>.

Opposition leader Brendan Nelson's speech – which rejected calls for compensation for the stolen generations – was less popular. At Melbourne's Federation Square, onlookers turned their backs on his telecast, just as they did 11 years earlier at the Australian Reconciliation Convention.

Photograph of Kevin Rudd delivering his apology on Sorry Day.
Photograph of crowds watching Sorry Day at Federation Square.
Photograph of members of the crowd refusing to acknowledge the Opposition Leader's speech on Sorry Day.
Senior government officials acknowledging Indigenous elders as a part of the proceedings on Sorry Day.