www ISR
For ISR updates, send us your Email Address

Back to home page

ISR Issue 58, March–April 2008


“Sorry is the first step”

Australia’s new labor government issues an apology to the aboriginal population


IN 1990 a popular Aboriginal performer in Australia, Archie Roach, wrote a heartrending song “Took the Children Away.” It told the story of how, from the beginning of the twentieth century until the late 1970s, indigenous children (called the Stolen Generations) were removed from their families, usually for the crime of being “half-caste” in the racist jargon of the times.

Almost twenty years later, on February 13, 2008, thousands of indigenous people and their supporters gathered in emotional and celebratory gatherings around the country to hear the prime minister say “sorry.” This has all the potential to be a turning point, not because the newly elected Labor government can be trusted to build on this first step toward justice for indigenous people, but because activists everywhere can take heart from our victory. Candles on the lawns of the national parliament expressed the widespread sentiment of “Sorry is just the first step.”

Now indigenous people and their supporters want compensation for the Stolen Generations. And opposition is building to a racist takeover (of Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory (NT) initiated by the previous conservative government) and a return to many of the paternalistic policies of the past.

How did Australia arrive at this juncture? In 1997 an inquiry into the Stolen Generations produced an earth-shattering report, Bringing Them Home, which named the government policies of the first seven decades of the twentieth century toward the Aboriginal people attempted genocide. It recommended that the Stolen Generations receive an official apology in the national parliament, to be backed up by compensation.

Archives were opened and databases created to enable people to find their lost loved ones.

The stories they tell are absolutely heartbreaking: where children were painted all over with charcoal every morning for fear the “welfare” would turn up and take them; mothers who were told their children died immediately after birth, only to find they were alive many years later; and children who were told their mothers didn’t want them, only to find they’d stood every day, often for months, outside the fences of institutions trying to see their lost children. Some of the Stolen Generation were taught to despise Aboriginal people and their culture by the racist families that adopted them, only to find as they grew up that they themselves were Aboriginal.

And racists like the leader of the parliamentary Opposition still assert that the children were better off, rescued from desperate conditions of neglect. But those children, now adults, tell how for the first time in their lives, incarcerated in Christian institutions, or farmed out to middle-class families as chattel, they suffered physical and sexual abuse. One woman told the 1997 inquiry that she had to walk barefoot through the frost on the ground for lack of shoes.

After 1997, the campaign for an apology gathered momentum. In 1998, 65 percent of Australians already supported an apology. In 2000, 250,000 out of a city of four million walked across the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge. Hundreds of thousands walked down avenues and streets around the country demanding “reconciliation.”

The Stolen Generations report opened the hearts and minds of thousands who had never heard the truth before. Racists were transformed into antiracists, especially in country towns. Some involved in this process later founded Rural Australians for Refugees. And once they understood the truth, ordinary people demanded justice for past wrongs.

However, they and the Stolen Generations and their families were vilified, and the lies heaped upon them. From whom? Mining companies who want all the land opened up to their rapacious practices, backed up by the rest of Australia’s capitalist class, who detest the Aborigines’ idea of collective ownership of property. They were defended by first the Labor governments from 1983 to 1996, followed by an ever-more stridently racist conservative government led by John Howard, fervent friend and admirer of George W. Bush.

But the campaign for Aboriginal rights and recognition of the wrongs done in the past could not be silenced. How could we be silent when indigenous people are locked in Third World conditions and racist discrimination? How could we ignore the massive social imbalance in government spending on the Aboriginal population—for every dollar spent on health for a white person, just 70 cents is spent on an indigenous person.

An Aboriginal child has a life expectancy of seventeen years less than non-indigenous babies. While they make up 2.4 percent of the population, Aboriginal men are up to 22 percent of the prison population. Anyone in the U.S. who understands the racist injustice system there will know why: because police arrest and jail Aboriginal men for things that would not even draw attention to whites.

On January 26, the day official Australia celebrates (but others protest) the white invasion that started this process, just weeks before the much-awaited apology from the new Labor government, we were confronted with the realities of Aboriginal life. An Aboriginal man was arrested for drunk driving in northwest Australia. He was driven 990 kilometers (615 miles) to a jail in over 104-degree heat in the back of a van. He collapsed and died. And the private security guards, contracted by the government for this appalling abuse of human rights, will never be charged with anything, let alone murder.

But the victory of the apology campaign, which has been celebrated with overwhelming emotion, may be what is needed to give a boost to the struggle for indigenous rights. We will need every ounce of strength the campaign can muster if Labor insists on continuing the paternalistic NT intervention referred to earlier, which could only be enacted by suspending the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act that made racial discrimination in Australia unlawful.

The army and police have occupied remote Aboriginal communities, and social security payments have been “quarantined” to force people to spend their money in stores and on products deemed permissible. Alcohol and tobacco are banned, supposedly to prevent domestic violence toward women and children.

Indigenous people summed up the consequences: “This…is going back to the old welfare days just like when old Vestey [a racist pastoralist] was holding onto our money. This is a big problem for people who are looking after lots of kids. What about them?”
“If you want to use the money in town, you can’t get any cheap things like secondhand clothes—you can only go to [designated supermarkets]. Some old people haven’t got their [welfare] money. They are starving while that money is building up somewhere but they can’t find it.”

One man asked “What about our human rights?” Others, “You are treating us like convicts. But we are people, Yapa people.” And, “It’s a tornado hitting central Australia.” “Government just taking over.”

Hopefully the Labor government’s apology has opened the way to another tornado—a whirlwind of protest—which will not let up until they pay just compensation and overturn the very laws they voted for a year ago that deny Australia’s indigenous people their human rights.

The word “sorry” never had so much meaning or so much hanging on it as in Australia today.

Sandra Bloodworth is a member of Socialist Alternative in Australia
Back to top