My desire to believe there is progress in human history is strong. Clearly, there is change: more people, more stuff, more (or at least different) dangers, more (or at least different) pleasures. But can anything be said with certainty, anything more than “Things change”?
Yes, amidst all of the terrible suffering and soaring hopes of our species, contrary to the despairing words of the noble Ecclesiastes twenty-two centuries ago, there is something new under the sun, and that is the expression of apology and forgiveness as conscious acts of history. To inspire us to public policies of honesty and compassion, we have seen the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, our own government’s apology to citizens of Japanese descent (however late and reluctant in coming), and now, a remarkable apology by the Australian Prime Minister to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of his nation.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stood before Parliament and spoke the following words:
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.
Thousands of people gathered to hear the apology, including Aboriginal elders. Here’s a snippet of response:
At the Aboriginal community of Cherbourg in southern Queensland, elders were moved to tears after hearing the Prime Minister’s apology.
Elder Beryl Gambrill said Mr Rudd was sincere and respectful.
“It brought back memories of what happened to our people when Kevin Rudd was talking about saying sorry to families,” she said.
“I didn’t think it was going to be that powerful. But I thank Kevin Rudd for what he said in his speech and thank him for all Aboriginal people.”
May we live to see our own chief executive speak in like manner to the native people of this land, and may it be soon.