STOLEN ABORIGINAL CHILDREN
Order! Pursuant to a resolution adopted earlier today, the House will proceed with the motion to be moved by the Premier and with the address to be given by Nancy de Vries. The Chair notes the presence in the gallery of a number of members of the Aboriginal community who have been in some way affected by the policies involved in this debate. The Chair also acknowledges the presence in the gallery of Carol Kendall, Lola McNaughton, Jean Carter and Barry Duroux, of the Aboriginal community organisation Link-Up; Laurel Williams, Co-commissioner of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families; Linda Burney, of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation; and Aden Ridgeway, of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council. The Chair also acknowledges the presence in the gallery of the teachers and students of St Vincent’s College, Potts Point, who have made a special trip to be here to listen to this debate.
[Ms Nancy de Vries was conducted by the Serjeant-at-Arms onto the floor of the Chamber.
Ms de VRIES
[10.32 a.m.]: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Premier, Leader of the Opposition, honourable members and members of the Aboriginal community. I thank you very much for the honour today to speak here in this House. I might add that this is very emotional for me; it is wonderful.
I was taken away from my mother at the age of 14 months and my journey as a lonely, homeless, unloved child began. Nobody could really understand the loneliness of an Aboriginal child in a non-Aboriginal environment who has nobody whatsoever around them, who is not treated the same as the other children in the home who are not Aboriginal, who is isolated, who is lonely, who cries at night, and who cries during the day. You could not possibly comprehend the life of that child.
Like hundreds and thousands of other Aboriginal children, I was taken away so that I could be given a better life. Believe you me, to put somebody in 22 different places before they are 18 is not giving them a better life.
When I finally reached home I found members of my family who were following the same Page 10526
profession. I was a registered nurse. There were members of my family who were registered nurses. There were members of my family who had been to university and who had become workers in the humanities. So, even though I was outside that family, I still had the same feelings and the same goals as my family. I can see no reason why I was ever taken away.
Growing up I had to live with people always telling me that Aboriginal people were no good, that Aboriginal people were drunks. I had no contact with Aboriginal people. I would see Aboriginal people, and I would want to run up to them and say, "Do you know Ruby?", who was my mother, but I was not allowed to. I used to run away. By the time I was eight or nine I became a real rebel. I was acting out my behaviours because I was angry and I did not know what was going on in my life. I used to run away.
I took myself to Queens Square to the department where the births, deaths and marriages registers were and asked an old man behind the counter, "Can you please help me find my mother?" This continued on all through my life. The authorities thought that it was a behavioural problem. It was not. I was searching for my identity and for my family. I needed my family.
I read my papers later in my life and read what had been written about one of my foster parents. It said, "We feel that this woman has regretted having such a member of such a despised race in her family." The first wonderful thing that happened to me in my life was when my first child was born, my son. Suddenly I had somebody who would love me unconditionally and accept me for what I was.
When I finally got home to meet my mother after 53 years, she could not relate to me. For 53 years she had been blotting out the fact that she had lost her child. I am very much like her to look at. She was a great lady. I just thank God that I got home in time to meet her and to actually speak to her. I am still not properly home yet. Because of my mother’s inability to accept me again into the family, my family is very divided. But I met her.
This not only affected my life; it affected my children’s lives too. They did not have a grandmother and they often used to ask me why. My son, who is 26 now, and a very male person, believe you me - sometimes overly male, I think - was standing in a pub up in Bourke. One of my cousins said to David, "Here, look, this is your uncle." My 26-year-old cried. Thank God it is not affecting my grandchildren. Two of my grandchildren have two grandmothers who were removed, but they are growing up with love, surrounded by a loving family. They are proud of their Aboriginality. They know who they are, and they know where we are going. I will protect their rights to the last breath in my body. I will never allow anything to happen to them.
I want to thank you for this opportunity to come here and share some of these experiences with you. It is very emotional for me. I do thank you.
(Maroubra - Premier, Minister for the Arts, and Minister for Ethnic Affairs) [10.40 a.m.]: I move:
That this House, on behalf of the people of New South Wales -
(1) apologises unreservedly to the Aboriginal people of Australia for the systematic separation of generations of Aboriginal children from their parents, families and communities;
(2) acknowledges and regrets Parliament’s role in enacting laws and endorsing policies of successive governments whereby profound grief and loss have been inflicted upon Aboriginal Australians;
(3) calls upon all Australian Governments to respond with compassion, understanding and justice to the report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission entitled Bringing them home; and
(4) reaffirms its commitment to the goals and processes of reconciliation in New South Wales and throughout Australia.
The unanimous resolution of the House on 14 November last year was a landmark in this country’s move to reconciliation. In moving that resolution, I referred to the national inquiry. I extended on behalf of the Government and people of New South Wales our apology to the Aboriginal people. We became the first Parliament to do that. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has now published its report. It is called "Bringing them home". It is a profoundly moving, deeply disturbing document. It has stirred the conscience of our nation.
The lost generations of the stolen children have been given a voice at long last. We have been privileged to hear their message from Nancy de Vries. No more memorable or moving words have been spoken in this Parliament in the past 150 years. In the introduction to its report the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission quotes from one of more than 500 testimonies that the inquiry heard,
from Link-Up, the organisation devoted to reuniting Aboriginal families in this State and throughout Australia. Link-Up said:
We may go home, but we cannot relive our childhoods. We may reunite with our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunties, uncles, communities but we cannot relive the 20, 30, 40 years that we spent without their love and care, and they cannot undo the grief and mourning they felt when we were separated from them. We can go home to ourselves as Aboriginals, but this does not erase the attacks inflicted on our hearts, minds, bodies and souls, by caretakers who thought their mission was to eliminate us as Aboriginals.
That is what Nancy has put to us today, although in her case the separation is beyond those 40 years, having been 50 years separated from her mother. That Link-Up statement and Nancy’s statement to this House distil the hurt that Aboriginal people feel today about these matters. We are not dealing with some abstraction from the remote past. We are confronted with continuing, contemporary pain, grief and loss, as has been demonstrated in this House this morning.
The Link-Up statement goes directly to the root cause of this immense human tragedy, not only the specific issue of the stolen children, but the wider, complex question of our relationship with the Aboriginal people of this continent, the homeland that we share together. Let me emphasise these words "caretakers who thought their mission was to eliminate us as Aboriginals". What a wealth of meaning, and instruction, that phrase contains. The report acknowledges, and I gladly acknowledge, the many foster and adoptive relationships which grew up in a spirit of love, trust and hope - good, decent Australians also caught up in the web of this tragedy.
But while the report, in line with the terms of reference, focuses on forcible removal, it makes it painfully clear that the whole system of child separation was deeply tainted from the beginning - corrupted at its heart, not so much by the conduct of individuals or institutions acting under the law, but by the law itself and the official attitudes underpinning it, not least the laws and attitudes of this Parliament of New South Wales, acting in the name of the people of New South Wales. This great Parliament was the ultimate caretaker.
We cannot ignore the overwhelming evidence before the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission that for a century this Parliament supported laws which inflicted, and continue to inflict, grief, suffering and humiliation - laws designed, in the words of the Link-Up statement "to eliminate us as Aboriginals". That is why this House must apologise. That is why today, in the presence of members of the stolen generations, I reiterate the words I spoke in this Chamber on November 14 last year:
I reaffirm in this place, formally and solemnly as Premier in behalf of the Government and people of New South Wales, our apology to the Aboriginal people. I invite the House to join me in that apology.
My own Government’s submission to the inquiry in June last year dealt very frankly with this Parliament’s role. A key piece of legislation in the process was the Aborigines Protection Amending Act of 1915. In his second reading speech the then Chief Secretary declared the purpose of the bill:
If we give the Protection Board these powers [that is, to take children from their parents on the sole ground of their Aboriginality] the Aboriginals will soon become a negligible quantity and the young people will merge into the present civilisation and become very worthy citizens.
The House will better understand the bipartisan nature of our responsibility in the eye of history when I recall that the Minister was George Black, a foundation member of the Australian Labor Party in 1891, and that the Government in 1915 was one of the great reforming Labor governments in New South Wales, under Premier W. A. Holman. It is, of course, one example of a wider truth: that the Australian story is many stories; that we can take pride in the achievements of the pioneer generations and celebrate what they did, while at the same time acknowledging the tragedy of Aboriginal dispossession. These co-exist as themes in the Australian story, in our history. But, as I have said, in the case of the stolen generations we are dealing with a living legacy. The testimony of physical and sexual abuse, of economic exploitation and social deprivation, form only one part of the story. The deliberate attempt at psychological elimination - the denial of Aboriginal identity - remains the unhealing wound for many thousands of our fellow Australians. It is not surprising therefore that the inquiry found:
Many witnesses were taught to feel contempt for Aborigines. Those who knew their own heritage transferred that contempt to themselves.
Yet, in truth, the most remarkable characteristic of the Aboriginal community, the brightest hope for the future, is absence of hatred, the faith that, despite everything, justice will prevail. That these people, who suffered such an injustice, can today deal with us without a sense of hatred is a great statement about the nature of our Aboriginal citizens, about the Aboriginal people.
When I moved the motion of 14 November I outlined the Government’s specific programs to advance the cause of reconciliation. The Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the National Party spoke in equally positive and constructive terms. I believe we are similarly obliged to respond to the report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. It contains 54 recommendations, which are now being carefully analysed by the New South Wales Government. Today I make some initial comments. The Government already is reviewing child welfare legislation, and an Aboriginal officer has been seconded to the Department of Community Services to ensure that Aboriginal communities are properly consulted in this process. An important part of this review is to ensure child welfare laws provide adequate support for Aboriginal communities to care for their children.
On oral history, more than 535 Aboriginal people told their stories in the course of the national inquiry. For most, it was their first chance to describe to a government official the impact of these policies on their lives. However, due to the limitations of the inquiry, many people are still waiting for the chance to tell their story. This is part of Australia’s history and it should be recorded. I will be asking the State Library to work with the relevant government and Aboriginal organisations to establish an oral history strategy.
In recognition of the important role of the Aboriginal organisation Link-Up, a grant of $100,000 will be allocated to further counselling and family reunion services. I take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank Link-Up for its tireless efforts over many years and its dedication to the immensely important task of reuniting Aboriginal families. The national inquiry documented the immense grief and hurt that still exists within the Aboriginal community. Now that the extent of these policies has been fully revealed, there is a sadness not only among Aboriginal people but also in the broader community. This aspect of Australia’s history is worthy of commemoration, and I extend an invitation to Aboriginal organisations and to communities for their ideas on what may be appropriate as a permanent memorial. While for many the search is over, others are still trying to trace their origins. A significant section of the report of the national inquiry dealt with access to records.
Today I announce that the New South Wales Department of Aboriginal Affairs will convene a working group to analyse these recommendations in detail and develop a strategy for improving access to records in New South Wales. Normally about 90 per cent of all government records are destroyed in accordance with the Archives Act. To ensure that valuable information is not inadvertently discarded, a moratorium on destroying government records relevant to the separation of Aboriginal families will be implemented for one year while the working group develops its strategy. The files of the former Aborigines Welfare Board constitute the most significant body of archival records documenting this area of government policy during the twentieth century, and the Government has already made the preservation of this information a priority. The real advances will come from the community itself. The report has shocked but also galvanised the community throughout New South Wales and Australia. Schools and churches have spontaneously offered their apologies. The Local Government Association of New South Wales adopted a resolution, from which I quote:
That the members of the State Executive of the Local Government Association of NSW unreservedly apologise for the appalling treatment of the Aboriginal people . . .
With that resolution and the one I hope the Parliament will endorse today, two tiers of government have formally apologised to Aboriginal people. We now await the third. The apology of this Parliament extended today is an act of recognition and acceptance - the recognition of deep wrongs, mistaken policies and misguided attitudes, and the acceptance of responsibility where it belongs. It brings to an end the denial of truth and history that has always been the great barrier to reconciliation. No longer can any of us say we did not know or we did not understand. There is a special significance in the title of the report, "Bringing them home". The commission has dedicated this report to "the generations of Aboriginal children taken from their families and communities, those who are still searching for home, and to the memory of the children who will never return".
But, in a deeper sense, the report is dedicated to all Australians who love this land and who believe in its great future - all of us who call Australia home. For, Mr Speaker, the meaning of reconciliation, the purpose of our apology today, the lessons we take from this report, our acceptance of its hard truths, our determination to make amends, all these things can best be understood and fully realised as part of a great national act of bringing us all home. The path home for all Australians lies through the achievement of justice, equality and respect for the Aboriginal people of Australia.
(Willoughby - Leader of the Opposition) [10.54 a.m.]: This morning we have Page 10529
heard one very personal account of the grief and sorrow inflicted on this continent’s first inhabitants. We have heard the very personal story of Nancy de Vries, a woman who has suffered more than any of the speakers who will follow her in the Chamber today - suffered as a result of legislation passed by this Parliament. We have heard first-hand of the hardship and pain inflicted on Aboriginal families by a policy that was conceived and pursued until just 20 years ago by what may have been well-motivated but ill-informed governments of both political persuasions. Today we are talking about an event that is not a remote event shrouded in history; we are talking about an event that has occurred time and time again in our own lifetimes. The people who went through this experience are alive to tell us their story today. They have grown up sometimes alongside us; they are around to tell their story. This is a very personal story for all Australians.
Nancy de Vries has told us about the way in which children like her were taken from their families not because they lacked love, not because they were in danger, not because they were in need, but because they were Aboriginal and just because they were Aboriginal - nothing more and nothing less. The policy saw 100,000 Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their parents. The policy has seen 10 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 25 years and over separated from their families. The policy resulted in many cases of sexual, physical and mental abuse. Put simply, it meant stripping away the honour and dignity in being an Aboriginal and, even more fundamentally, in being human. The dishonour and indignity are expressed on every page of Sir Ronald Wilson’s report, "Bringing them home", and especially in the moving accounts of the men and women who gave evidence to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. One witness expressed the totality of her separation with these haunting words:
I remember this woman saying to me: "Your mother’s dead, you’ve got no mother now. That’s why you’re here with us." Then about two years after that my mother and my mother’s sister came to The Bungalow but they weren’t allowed to visit us because they were black. They had to sneak around onto the hills. Each mother was picking out which they think was their children. And this other girl said: "Your mother up there." And because they told me that she was dead, I said: "No. That’s not my mother. I haven’t got a black mother."
Another witness spoke of the sexual abuse she suffered when she was removed from her mother as a three-year-old. She said:
I led a very lost, confused, sad, empty childhood, as my foster father molested me . . . I remember once having a bath with my clothes on ‘cause I was too scared to take them off. I was scared of the dark ‘cause my foster father would often come at night. I was scared to go to the outside toilet as he would often stop me on the way back from the toilet. So I would often wet the bed cause I didn’t want to get out of the bed . . .
Another stolen child told Sir Ronald Wilson’s hearings about the way in which her Aboriginality, far from entitling her to education she would not have got with her natural mother, actually denied her an education. She said:
I was the best in the class, I came first in all the subjects. I was fifteen when I got into second year and I wanted to . . . continue at school, but I wasn’t allowed to, because they didn’t think I had the brains, so I was taken out of school and that’s when I was sent out to farms just to do housework.
The commission’s report catalogues hundreds of accounts like those, revealing all victims’ feelings of separation; in most cases the primitive living conditions they survived; and, all too frequently, the brutal punishments and sexual abuse they endured and the education and medical attention often denied them. They were miserable lives, led day in and day out, as a result of decisions made and legislation passed by this and other parliaments. If it had occurred under the gaze of today’s international media, this policy would place Australia amongst those in the international community whose odious human rights records rightly attract the opprobrium of all right-thinking nations. If this policy had been inflicted overnight instead of over decades, Australia would be witnessing a humanitarian disaster to rival the great catastrophes of this century. If this policy had occurred visibly rather than being buried under layers of bureaucracy and hidden in remote places, it would doubtless have been stopped much sooner.
Although it is true that the policy was never motivated by malice, it was always inspired by ignorance. Today the Opposition joins in this apology, this recognition of past injustice to all who suffered at the hands of this policy based on ignorance and paternalism. This is the fourth time in the past year that this Parliament has expressed that sentiment and affirmed its commitment to reconciliation with the nation’s first inhabitants. It is to the credit of this Parliament that it has not been dragged into recognition of the injustice which befell the stolen children of Aboriginal families. It is to the credit of this, the mother of Australian parliaments, that we took the initiative.
As we set our eyes on the next millennium we must look forward to working with Aboriginal Australians to deliver real results to overcome their disadvantage. We must remember that Aboriginal men aged between 15 and 24 are nearly three times more likely to die than non-indigenous males, and that the death rate of young Aboriginal women is
3½ times the average. The disparity is even more pronounced in higher age brackets. We must remember that indigenous males die from diabetes-related illness at 12 times the rate of other Australian men, and that the rate for indigenous women is 17 times the average. We must remember that the life expectancy of an Aboriginal child born today is almost 20 years less than that of other Australian babies. Also, we must recognise that infant and perinatal mortality rates for Aborigines are about three times those for the general population.
These statistics fall easily from the lips but we must never forget that the raw figures equate to real suffering, that they equate to death. That is why in the past the coalition made Aboriginal health a priority in this State. I am proud that when I was the Minister for Health the former Government was able to advance Aboriginal health policy. I am pleased also that the current Minister has pursued many of those initiatives and has a similar personal commitment to Aboriginal health. It was the former Government that funded the first ever family health strategy targeting Aboriginal families. It established the first Aboriginal health policy branch of the Department of Health. Those initiatives should have been taken, and they are being continued today.
Those achievements were part of a new but long-awaited approach to Aboriginal health. It meant treating Aboriginal health as a health issue in its own right, not just one of the many problems facing the system. This applies also to black deaths in custody. I had a strong personal commitment to overcoming the problems leading to black deaths in custody, and we as a Parliament are committed to overcoming those problems today. We must not forget our achievements in the past 30 years. Remembering those achievements will inspire us to do more. Federally, we have witnessed the creation of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. We have seen the passage of landmark Commonwealth legislation, such as the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act 1991. We have seen landmark court cases unfold, such as Brown and Mabo. And, of course, this year we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the great referendum, conceived and delivered by a coalition Government, which for the first time, in 1967, saw full citizenship rights extended to Aboriginal Australians. So it should have, but much, much earlier.
In conclusion, though we always recognise the pain, always share the pain, and are always sorry for it, we must remember the progress that has been made; and this should motivate us to achieve more. Also, though we respect the solemnity of this occasion and acknowledge the importance of our apology, we must never let mere words, even important words like "sorry", overshadow our deeds. Future generations will not measure our success by just listening to our words or reading the record of this Parliament. They will look to see whether we addressed this disadvantage, whether we improved Aboriginal health and whether, in the words of the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, "Aborigine and non-Aborigine went forth together throughout the country as friends and equals, and overcame the injustice and disadvantage" which has flowed from the actions of our ancestors. If future generations realise that we did act and that we were successful, they will remember our words and deeds and regard them as perhaps this generation’s greatest gift to the nation. I commend the motion.
(Marrickville - Deputy Premier, Minister for Health, and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs) [11.07 a.m.]: I support the Premier’s motion and lend my support to the words of the Leader of the Opposition. However, I condemn in the strongest terms any attempt to divide this debate in the community into an apology versus health, education and jobs. The two must go together. It is intellectually dishonest to claim that we can improve the living standards of Australia’s indigenous people without dealing with the past. Those governments that have been the least supportive of Aboriginal self-determination have also been the least supportive of health, education and jobs.
When a doctor diagnoses the poor health of a patient he or she needs to look at the patient’s history to establish the causes leading to the poor health. A government diagnosing poor health in a community should also look at the history of that community to treat all of the factors leading to that poor health. Poor health is a result of many factors. Some of the strongest influences on the health of Aboriginal people are as a direct result of their historical treatment. Grief is one of those factors: grief at dispossession, at attempted genocide, for lost children, for lost parents, for lost language and for lost culture. Grief plays a powerful role in everyone’s health. Every honourable member in this House must have witnessed the debilitating effects of grief on a person who has suffered loss.
Every honourable member would be aware of how important it is to the state of mind and wellbeing of someone who has suffered a loss to deal with his or her grief fully and openly and to be supported through that grieving process. It is totally
counterproductive to suggest that Aboriginal communities should stop that grieving process or that governments should not support them in that process. Healing and good health come from dealing honestly and compassionately with grief and loss. Our apology today says, "We value your culture, we recognise your loss, we support you in your grieving and we wish to begin the process of healing."
Closely associated with grief among Aboriginal communities is another factor in poor health - the abuse of alcohol and other drugs, a problem that is rampant throughout Australia. A list of factors that make children vulnerable to drugs includes family problems, poor self-esteem, the lack of support, and a feeling of isolation. Can any member of this House doubt that the same happens for all children, black or white? Can anyone doubt that the stolen generation and their loss of culture and family support are major factors in vulnerability? If anyone does doubt that, I suggest he visit the service run by Bobby McCloud at Doonooch near Nowra. It has been successful in helping young men with drug and alcohol problems by rebuilding their cultural and spiritual values. No-one can see the powerful effect of returning cultural values and not understand the power of loss.
When this Parliament supported a policy which forcibly separated thousands of Aboriginal children from their families, members claimed to be acting in the best interests of Aboriginal children. They claimed they were offering better education, health care and job prospects than the children would get from their own families. They were wrong then, and those who claim that members should only focus on health, education and jobs now are still wrong. The best chance Aboriginal children have of good health, appropriate education and an opportunity for a job is through the support of their families and communities. Their best chance is to make sure that the healing of that grief occurs in each family in each community. The best chance an Aboriginal community has of being able to support families in their community is to be involved in the delivery of those services.
The best chance the Government has of supporting communities is by building healthy Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, working with them to deliver services, and listening to what communities have to say. Right now communities are asking us to acknowledge and respond to their grief. They are asking us to respect their grief. They are asking that the next time the Government wishes to improve Aboriginal health, education or employment, that it is done in partnership with Aboriginal communities and families and not just by deciding that the bureaucracy knows best. "Bringing them home", the human rights commission report into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, had a positive finding about New South Wales. The report praised Link-Up, the Aboriginal corporation which has provided comprehensive assistance and support to Aborigines in New South Wales who are attempting to reunite with their families.
I am proud of the Government’s support for Link-Up and very grateful to Link-Up for the work it does. I commend to all members the book In the Best Interests of the Child
, which is based on Link-Up’s submission to the national inquiry. It provides insight into and evidence of actual events in New South Wales. Today members have been privileged to hear Nancy de Vries talk to us and explain in her own words her own story - a very moving story, but one of many. Honourable members are thankful that Nancy has taken the time to air her grief publicly to help them understand a little more of what happened and will continue to happen in our lifetime. The Government will continue to work with Aboriginal organisations such as our Aboriginal reference group. Those organisations will form partnerships with the Government to deliver services to Aboriginal communities.
I should like to mention the members of the New South Wales Aboriginal land councils who are present in the Chamber. They are the chief executive, Aden Ridgeway, the chair, Ossie Cruse, Ivern Ardler, Millie Ingram, Ken Foster, Robert Lester, Tom Winters, Tom Briggs, David Clark, Rod Towney, William Murray and Wayne Griffiths. They also have a great task ahead of them and I am pleased that their direction forward is one that the Government certainly supports strongly and which will, I am sure, receive bipartisan support.
In conclusion, I should like to put a different light on this debate. We always talk about the Aboriginal problem. Sometimes it might be better to think about the white problem. Perhaps white Australians share unresolved grief about the destruction of the culture, language, and family ties which are part of our nation. Perhaps some of the poor self-esteem and anxiety which are making all Australian kids vulnerable can be linked to insecurity about our role in this nation, about our collective inability to deal honestly, frankly and openly with our past. All of us are going to be better off by not only making an apology, but by understanding it, meaning it and together going forward. I commend the motion.
(Lachlan - Leader of the National Party) [11.15 a.m.]: I speak on behalf of members of the National Party, some of whom have asked to be named individually, such as the honourable member for Wagga Wagga. This debate has no doubt been accentuated this morning by the presence in the Chamber of Ms Nancy de Vries. I am sorry that this facade will end with an apology and nothing more. I would ask honourable members to dwell on those words. I am sorry for the pain that Aborigines have suffered, but my position at the outset has been clear: an apology is a sham unless it is accompanied by real action. This Parliament is the place of government in New South Wales where action can be taken to ensure from this day forward that incidents that occurred in the past will never again occur. But unless there is action, we may be judged by future generations as having participated in nothing more than a political exercise.
There is no doubt that at that time State and Federal governments, academics and, indeed, churches and many other bodies thought the separation policy was correct. There is no doubt that under Ministers such as Sir Paul Hasluck, who was in office in the 1950s and went on to be one of the most revered Governors-General and academics this nation has had, thought it was right, but hindsight has an amazing capacity to be able to educate us all. There is no doubt that the policies during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s which saw 20,000-plus children taken from their families - some were orphans and some of the parents did not even know that their children had been sent to the United Kingdom - were abusive by today’s standards. There is no doubt that abuses occurred to children, be they Aboriginal children or other children under myriad schemes such as Fairbridge farms, little brothers and big brother movements, et cetera. That is inexcusable.
There is no doubt that when talking about apologies, modern society has much to say sorry about; but unless we look forward it is simply a hollow exercise. How do we say sorry to the veterans of World War II and Vietnam who were not old enough to vote yet were sent away to defend this country? How do we say sorry to their parents? That is a difficult question by any standards and, of course, people in Australia and New South Wales are not the only ones thinking about such questions. This very question is currently being debated in the United States Congress. The debate there is whether America should apologise to black Americans for the slavery of the past. In recent days Ward Connolly, an African American community leader, said of an apology, "It’s absurd. Apologising is dumb. It’s not going to get us anywhere. Let’s move ahead. The nation wants to move ahead."
Jessie Jackson, a noted black civil rights leader, said, "A motion for an apology is distracting the nation from what is most important. There is no substance or value to an apology. There must be a program of substance beyond any apology." Congress Speaker Newt Gingrich said that the motion for an apology is "nothing more than airy-fairy talk, just emotional symbolism that won’t teach one more child to read". That is the point I want to make this morning. If we walk out of here today with a sanctimonious feeling, we will not have achieved one thing for Australians, be they white, black or from the myriad national backgrounds that we have. We have a responsibility to do more than talk. This morning the Premier said that on four occasions in recent times this subject has been discussed here. On four occasions we have talked about it but little action has resulted. That is my objection this morning.
As to the making of an apology, I ask the following questions. Will it wipe away despair? Will it create jobs? Will it give hope? Will it provide education? Will it stop petrol sniffing? Will it reduce domestic violence in black and white communities? Will it reduce the high level of sexually transmitted diseases in Aboriginal communities? Will it reduce the level of Aboriginal incarcerations in this country? If we are serious today we will look at the issues of jobs, education, health and one Australia and not go through this sanctimonious exercise. The Premier referred to a motion in this House last year when I joined with him and the Leader of the Opposition in talking about reconciliation. I am pleased that he made reference to my remarks. At that time I said:
That is not to say that these hurdles cannot be overcome, but attitudinal difficulties that exist throughout all sections of the community can be simplified and softened only by education, explanation and encouragement within rational debate. It could be argued that the progress of reconciliation is made more difficult by the recent robust debate on immigration and racism, which has been mainly directed towards Asian migration to this country. I have no doubt that the process of reconciliation will survive and endure the more emotive debate over Asian immigration. My personal wish is quite simple: I long for all Australians to be as one, observing one Constitution and one set of laws, and recognising one flag. I want our indigenous people to have the same desire and opportunity as non-indigenous people in bringing about a partnership founded on equality, justice, fairness and respect.
Further on I said:
Starting at ground level means identifying and acknowledging what changes must take place in our minds, our homes and our schools, and in the way we approach housing, employment, education, health, law and order, and welfare.
This should not be a one-way concern. It should be an attitude shared by indigenous and non-indigenous Australians . . .
I am pleased that in his presentation this morning the Premier acknowledged the statements that I made last year. I suggest that those statements are unarguable. The fact is that we are one Australia and an apology can only be meaningful if it leads to positive action to address the problems I mentioned. I am on record as having said that I will apologise to the Aboriginal people, but my heart will not be in it. The Government has manufactured this theatre today but not one Aboriginal person will necessarily benefit from it. It is convenient to vilify past generations in order to conform with today’s correctness. How will our generation be judged in the future? Will our churches be vilified for extending their care and protection to children, the homeless and the battered?
Whilst I have the opportunity I indicate that I am sorry. I am sorry for the homeless kids in Kings Cross this morning who can buy drugs in the streets. I am sorry for the people who slept in the streets of this city last night. I am sorry for the women who were bashed in their homes last night. When I turned on the radio at 3.15 this morning I listened to a university student say on 2GB that he cannot get a job and is on the dole at the age of 24. I am sorry for him. I apologise to them all. But the bottom line is that they are no better off unless we do something meaningful to redress the problems of our society. Sanctimonious, hypocritical words will not do it. In speaking to this debate I have the benefit of being from a older generation; I lived through most of the events we are discussing. Many of us understand about love in homes and about respect.
All I ask is that equality of value be extended throughout our New South Wales and Australian societies. All I ask is that we recognise that we cannot change history but can learn from it. I ask that the Parliament announce this morning as its main statement the following aims: that it is prepared to redress in real terms drug abuse in our Aboriginal and white communities and in our high schools; that it is prepared to work towards getting real jobs for Aboriginal people, whether they be at, say, Wilcannia, Bourke or Kempsey; that it is prepared to assist in the process of ensuring that all New South Wales people have fair and reasonable access to housing; and that it will address today’s imbalances where children are taken from their homes without just cause. A serious examination needs to be undertaken of the Department of Community Services and its treatment of both black and white children.
This is an historic day from which, through the experience of Aboriginal Australians, we can learn to understand the many problems in Australian society today. History should not be used for rhetoric and for feel-good purposes; it should be used to benefit future Australians, irrespective of colour, religion or background, and to help us become a society that looks after the disadvantaged and remedies inequalities. Right now, within five minutes walk of this place, people are suffering in a way that none here has ever dreamt of, and while we sit here very little, if anything, is being done about it. It is hypocrisy that last week one of the leading publications of this city identified the sale of drugs on a street within 10 minutes of here in the middle of the day.
The press can uncover this crime but we as law-makers in control of law enforcement agencies cannot stop it. The reason is quite simple. We can talk about policies, but we must make a decision to fix the problem. I have had enough of talk; it is time to get serious. If the press can locate the crime, so should the police be able to. It has been a privilege to participate in this debate this morning and I thank the Parliament for the opportunity. I hope that this day becomes a landmark from which we set out to rectify for all people in New South Wales many of the inequalities, injustices and sufferings that occur today. If we do not we all stand condemned.
(Keira) [11.28 a.m.]: I apologise to the Aboriginal people in the gallery today for that statement by the Leader of the National Party. I am absolutely disgusted at his conduct and I apologise to you on his behalf. We are here today as a result of a convention held in Melbourne on 26, 27 and 28 May. Eight resolutions of that convention were incorporated in a document entitled "A Call to the Nation". Resolution 5 states:
We note that leaders across the social spectrum promised their own personal apologies and sorrow for the treatment of indigenous peoples; this was itself an historic moment. We call on all parliaments, local governments, organisations and institutions to follow this lead with their own form of apology so that we can all move forward together to share the responsibility for the future.
Let me talk about that historic convention in Melbourne and express the feelings that I experienced over those three days at the end of May. I know that my colleague the honourable member for Wakehurst would agree totally with my comments, because he was there with me at that convention, each of us representing this Parliament and our respective political parties. I will never forget the incredible changes of emotion at that
convention, from anger on the first day when the Prime Minister lost his cool and screamed hysterically at the 2,000 delegates, to feelings of humility and sadness.
During his summing up of the conference, Father Frank Brennan asked Patrick Dodson to come to the platform. He then suggested that every non-indigenous person should turn around or lean over and shake the hand of an indigenous person and apologise to him. I took that opportunity, and I did it with humility, but I was deeply saddened at having to do so because of what happened in this country over the last 209 years. And we should not kid ourselves that similar things are not happening today. Father Brennan also asked the non-indigenous delegates to that conference to stand and give a pledge. I shall repeat that pledge to this House and I believe that all of us should do likewise in the near future. We all stood and we made this pledge:
We who are recent migrants who have come to this land, having attended the Australian Reconciliation Convention, thank you, the Indigenous people gathered at this conference, for your tolerance of us, our cultures and aspirations.
Also, we apologise for the hurt done to you, your ancestors and your lands by our ancestors and our presence and our actions on this land over the last 209 years.
I cannot believe what was said by the Leader of the National Party. The invaders abused not only the children of this country - this very land is still being abused. The very mother of the indigenous people of this country is still being abused. Go and look at our river systems, go out and look at the land, go and look at what we have really done. We have decimated the very soul of the indigenous people of this country. After making that pledge, all 2,000 delegates were asked by Patrick Dodson to stand and complete their apology with the following words. Again I was proud as an Australian to be able to make a commitment to reconciliation, and I continued with my pledge:
[We are] committed to walk together on this land, we commit ourselves to reconciliation and building better relationships so that we can constitute a united Australia, respecting the land, valuing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and providing justice and equity to all.
I assure every member of this House, every person in the gallery and every citizen of New South Wales that I do not feel guilty for what happened - it was not of my doing - but for me not to recognise the past would make me feel guilty. It is all right for Australians to celebrate great achievements of this country, recognise great sports people, recognise national days and recognise what happened in the past in time of peace and of war, but we should flip the coin and also recognise past injustices. We must recognise what we have done. We cannot have it all one way.
I should like now to quote from some information that is available to anybody wishing to seek the truth about what happened to the indigenous people of this country. Three international speakers who attended the conference all referred in their speeches during that week to what had happened on the previous Monday. One of the most stirring speeches was from Mililani B. Trask, a native Hawaiian attorney who has walked the international stage fighting for the rights of her people. The convention heard also from Dr Alexander Boraine, Vice Chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa; Professor S. James Anaya, Professor of Law at the University of Iowa; and Grand Chief Ted Moses, a long-committed activist for Aboriginal human rights. These people gave the conference first-hand experiences of what they have suffered as indigenous people in their own lands. It should not be forgotten that indigenous people throughout this world suffer at the hands of the so-called superior race.
I congratulate the Premier on his comments in this House today. Some weeks ago I spoke to the Premier about this very debate and suggested that one thing this House should do is to make sure that the first recommendation of "Bringing them home" is implemented: that all governments make sure that indigenous people in this country have the right to be able to tell their story. Sir Ronald Wilson told the conference that he sat opposite an Aboriginal woman who spoke to him for about an hour and a half about her experiences as a stolen child, and that he was moved to tears. His important final comments were, "That woman said to me, ‘Thanks for the opportunity to be able to tell my story. I feel as though the healing has already started’."
Counselling is about people being able to tell their stories unfettered. I shall conclude my remarks by referring to the Link-Up report to the human rights commission. I recommend that everyone obtain a copy of this report because it is a great book; it tells some tragic stories, and it has been one of the driving forces in bringing the children home. I recite a poem entitled Coming home
, which was written by Bill Hennessy in January:
Finding our people
and coming home
Is like lighting a fire
and catching the smoke.
So much is hidden
living memory our fire
has been silently smothered
by indifference and time.
We stand in the ashes
and sift through the dust
Searching for traces
of what we have lost.
I say to all indigenous Australians: I am very sorry for what happened in the past and I will do whatever I can to make the future better for all of us.
(Wakehurst) [11.40 a.m.]: I fail to understand how any Australian could not be moved by what occurred to 100,000 - perhaps more - of our first Australians. I fail to understand how any Australian could not be moved, with great sadness, by the destruction of many Aboriginal families - a destruction that continues today. This issue is part of Australia’s history, but it is just as relevant today. Families still suffer high levels of stress because their children were taken away, because mothers have not seen their sons and daughters, and because Aboriginal children have not been able to learn about their culture, their history, their family and their place in the world. No reasonable-minded Australian should fail to be moved by that.
On behalf of the New South Wales coalition, I reach out to every Australian and say: you should listen to what Aboriginal people are saying, to what the first Australians are saying, and you should understand that an apology makes a difference. Aboriginal people need to know that we care about what happened to them and what is happening to them. I will not accept, under any circumstances, the proposition that we simply have to look after the material aspects of the lives of Aboriginal people. Certainly we want to see improved education, improved health, lower incarceration rates and a lot of such things. However, many of those things will follow if Aboriginal people understand that non-indigenous Australians feel sorry about what happened to them.
When we live in a country we are in a marriage with the other people who live in that country. We should be in a marriage with the indigenous Australians, the people who cared for this country for at least 60,000 years before the coming of Europeans. We should be prepared to say to the indigenous Australians that we, as a community, are sorry for the hurt that has occurred to them and to their families in the past 208 years. I have no hesitation in saying that; that is where we should be. Aboriginal people should know that the House supports this motion as strongly as possible.
Some people may not know this history, which may excuse their ignorance. I encourage all Australians to make the effort to at least get the summary version of "Bringing them home" and to learn a little bit about what happened to families and individuals in our community. The volumes of "Bringing them home", prepared by the human rights commission, outline a litany of injustice, the horror and the unbelievable tales of sadness that most non-indigenous Australians would probably not know about. We tend to live our lives in little cocoons and to not hear what is happening to other people.
As the honourable member for Keira indicated, I attended the Australian Reconciliation Convention on behalf of the Opposition. People who attended that convention could not fail to be moved by the agony, the concern and the sadness that were exhibited. There is hope of moving forward by sharing our history, by acknowledging past mistakes. If we are to get to the stage where we can acknowledge the way forward, we have to acknowledge what has happened in the past. We cannot avoid that. As I said, it is like a marriage: we talk about the problems of the past and we try to work out the way of the future.
No-one can tell me that this policy was in the interests of indigenous Australians. I do not accept that. I accept that on many occasions there were good motivations; that people thought they were doing the right thing. However, does that make it right? With the benefit of hindsight, clearly it was not right. We should apologise for the people who thought they were doing the right thing but got it wrong. It gets worse. Some policies were not motivated by good deeds or thoughts, and there was a lot of that. The human rights commission report, brought together so ably by Sir Ronald Wilson, outlines that the motivations were not always good, and there are plenty of examples of that. For example, I refer to "Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation: Sharing History: A Sense for All Australians of a Shared Ownership of Their History, Key Issues Paper No. 4", in which the chief protector - what a strange word - of Aborigines in Western Australia is quoted as saying in 1909:
I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-caste from its -
note the use of the word "its" -
Aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief might be at the time. They soon forget their offspring.
I cannot believe that any human being could say that; I cannot believe that any human being could ever justify those sorts of statements. On behalf of
the New South Wales Opposition, I reject any suggestion that we should ever accept those sorts of words when dealing with indigenous Australians. Those words need to be thought about and we should realise what they are: they are not words of great kindness, they are not words motivated by trying to achieve an increase in education or health or to lower incarceration. There was one simple fact: if people were Aboriginal or half-caste - as people liked to refer to them in those days - if they were the product of an Aboriginal parent and a non-Aboriginal parent, they were taken away and removed from their families, in all sorts of horrific circumstances. They were told to forget about love, affection and human relationships; to forget about an encouraging, nurturing family background in which to grow up. They were told, "We will give you another family or a home or just enough education to get you a job as a domestic."
People cannot tell me that that is acceptable to this Parliament or to Australians generally. It should not be. The simple fact is that those sorts of justifications existed. Fortuitously the first volumes of the report became available during the Australian Reconciliation Convention, which I attended. I am sure that all the 1,800 convention delegates thought it deeply appropriate that the "Bringing them home" report should have its public viewing at a convention looking towards the future, looking towards Australia’s reconciliation and towards the pathway that Australians can take for reconciliation - the way forward. But the report also emphasised the great sadness of what had occurred. More than 500 people presented their stories to Sir Ronald Wilson. I am not the slightest bit surprised that Sir Ronald Wilson has been moved by the highest level of compassion.
When one hears him speak one understands that he has been touched by the horrors that occurred to indigenous Australians: and so he should have been, and so should every Australian, because it was an horrific past. Today, in pockets around Australia, the approach to the difficulties experienced by indigenous Australians is not much better. The examples given by those 500 people were just horrific. They were examples of a complete lack of compassion, a complete lack of care. The report contains many examples, but I will quote from one that explains how a family was separated:
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 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 policemen 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 Perth.
That is but one example. As shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs I have a fairly knowledgable position. I have been around a while; I would like to say that I am young, but I am not. I have heard these sorts of stories, but I did not know just how uncaring, dispassionate and horrific these sorts of separations were. So let us get it right today. Our history is not necessarily a good history, although it has many good parts. Many times non-indigenous Australians have tried to do the right thing for indigenous Australians. But, regrettably, until we as a community acknowledge the horror and the incredibly intensive psychological anguish and pain inside many Aboriginal people, and are big enough to say, "We are sorry that this happened to you", why should Aboriginal people feel that we are one community?
Why should they feel that we have a sense of one shared history and direction forward, until we Australians as a community acknowledge what happened. We should do that not with a sense of guilt - we were not there, we did not do it - but it is our country, and it is part of our history that these wrongs were done to Aboriginal people. I heard recently that some people are saying that similar events still happen on occasions in various parts of Australia. Hopefully, they do not occur with the frequency or natural inevitability of such happenings during the late 1950s and early 1960s. But in order for us to go forward, we non-indigenous Australians need to acknowledge what happened in the past. We need to say that we are really sorry that this happened, we are really sorry that their lives were in turmoil, we are sorry that they suffered such anguish and were not able to get on with their lives in the way that they should have been able to.
I encourage all Australians to read the executive summary in "Bringing them home" and to read books on similar topics. At the moment I am halfway through If Everyone Cared
, the autobiography of Margaret Tucker. It is a story about an Aboriginal child who was separated from her family. She was a member of a normal Aboriginal family working on the station and she attended the station school. But along came the police. They took her and her elder sister away, but left the younger sister. The police threatened the mother with handcuffs because the mother did not want the two girls to go. After that Margaret Tucker did not see her mother for a long time. She was left
in a training centre for Aboriginal girls and became a domestic.
Her story is told not with hatred, not with a contempt for other Australians, but with humour, intellect, objectivity and, most importantly, in a way to inform other Australians about what happened to Aboriginal people. I encourage all my parliamentary colleagues to borrow this book and read it. I also encourage all Australians to read it and try to come to grips with what Australian history is all about. The Liberal Party recognises that many Aboriginal people are still locked on this island, Australia, with lost identities. We want Aboriginal people to have their identities, we want them to be able to share their identities and our collective histories. We want to go forward with Aboriginal people because it enriches all of us to do so. To achieve that aim I ask Aboriginal people to understand that we are sorry about what happened to them and their families in the history of Australia.
(Upper Hunter - Deputy Leader of the National Party) [11.58 a.m.]: I am pleased to have this opportunity to make my personal contribution to this motion. In the 1950s and 1960s I was a child, and my contemporaries included children of the lost generation. I grew up with this issue. This is not an issue of the past; it is not strictly about 1788, it is not about distant history. It is about our contemporary history of the 1950s and 1960s. I am a member of that contemporary society of the 1950s and 1960s. I believe society should apologise, and I add my apology. That is not to say that a mere apology resolves anything, but it is an expression of our humanity. I am equally concerned about the tragic issues of homelessness, education, health, social tragedy and suicide that still pervade the Aboriginal community. We need to address drug and alcohol abuse and the often seen lack of direction or motivation towards a better future.
As an Australian I want something done about those problems. Equally, I want something done about a whole raft of social issues facing Australia, including the tragedy of drought in rural Australia and the debilitating social dislocation caused by an overall loss of economy, depopulation and job opportunities to the bush. I am concerned about the desperate community problems faced in the cities, regional centres and rural communities as a result of our lost youth. Anyone who thinks the National Party might be less sensitive to the problems caused by the stolen generation would not be aware of the relationship National Party members of Parliament have with the Aboriginal communities in their electorates. I am proud of the Aboriginal community, which is predominantly from the Kamilaroi, in my electorate of Upper Hunter. I am particularly proud of the achievements of the Walhallow community near Quirindi.
I have taken people, including the Governor of New South Wales, to Walhallow to meet Mr Terry Allan and other leaders in the area, as well as the community. I have received the debs at the Walhallow debutante ball. The Aboriginal artwork presented to me hangs on my wall. The Aboriginal community is part of our whole community, especially in country New South Wales, and we all want to work together to solve the totality of the social, economic and environmental issues confronting rural Australia. The trap is to apply the political correctness and morality of this contemporary society to the morality of more than 40 years ago, when the process was endorsed by and participated in by governments at all levels, academics, social experts, educational experts and the churches. Likewise, 40 years from now the trap will be in applying the morality of the future to today’s actions.
The test in the current era is whether we can successfully use our existing resources to deal with and advance solutions to the problems of the Aboriginal community contemporaneously with other issues affecting the whole community. I ask the Aboriginal community to accept this heartfelt apology and to respond with goodwill and a commitment to a better future. The future is in your hands and only you can fulfil your destiny. With a sense of human equality and an equitable share of resources, the Aboriginal community will be faced with the problem of finding a contribution that both black and white can make to a greater Australia.
(Manly) [12.02 p.m.]: I support the motion. I also support what has been said by those who have already spoken in the debate, with the exception of the Leader of the National Party; I found his words both confusing and uncertain. An apology is an important gesture and an important part of the repair process. However, an apology will only have significance if the ills of past policies of assimilation are genuinely recognised. I have read the report "Bringing them home", and I should like to quote from what was written about Millicent. The report states:
At the age of four, I was taken away from my family and placed in Sister Kate’s Home - Western Australia where I was kept as a ward of the state until I was eighteen years old. I was forbidden to see any of my family or know of their whereabouts. Five of us D. children were all taken and placed in different institutions in WA. The Protector of Aborigines and the Child Welfare Department in their "Almighty Wisdom" said we would have a better life and future brought up as whitefellas away from our parents in a good religious
environment. All they contributed to our upbringing and future was an unrepairable scar of loneliness, mistrust, hatred and bitterness. Fears that have been with me all of life. The empty dark and lonely existence was so full of many hurtful and unforgivable events, that I cannot escape from no matter how hard I try. Being deprived of the most cherished and valuable thing in life as an Aboriginal Child - love and family bonds.
The policy was evil; Aborigines were not even regarded as human beings. The report reveals a great deal about the impact of removal policies on present Aboriginal communities. The Sydney Aboriginal Mental Health Unit advised the inquiry of its experience with patients presenting with emotional distress. It is worth recording what the inquiry was told, because it puts the ramifications of past policies in a contemporary light. The inquiry was told:
This tragic experience, across several generations, has resulted in incalculable trauma, depression and major health problems for Aboriginal people. Careful history taking during the assessment of most individuals and families identifies separation by one means or another - initially the systematic forced removal of children and now the continuing removal by Community Services or the magistracy for detention of children.
Incidentally, I advise the honourable member for Wakehurst that the policies continued into the 1970s, and the report contains many reports of it occurring perhaps even into the 1980s. The report continues:
This process has been tantamount to a continuing cultural and spiritual genocide both as an individual and a community experience and we believe it has been the single most significant factor in emotional and mental health problems which in turn have impacted on physical health.
The report then states:
The Unit identified the risk of "major depressive disorder and use of alcohol and other drugs to ease feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, marginalisation, discrimination and dispossession, leading to breakdown in relationships, domestic violence and abuse" among its clients. The forcible removal policies are seen as the principal cause of these "presenting issues".
An apology is an acknowledgment of past wrongs. Those wrongs have given me feelings of great regret, shame and sorrow. The past cannot be undone, but we can attempt to right some of the wrongs. Opportunities for reparation are available. The greatest gesture that could follow an apology would be finding a way through the problem of native title rights and providing Aboriginal communities with the opportunity to celebrate their culture and to share the same access to resources that other Australians enjoy. Respect for those who have suffered under past policies is best shown by an unwillingness to entertain any current policy that perpetuates dispossession. By that I mean that nothing should be done to undermine the landmark decisions of the last few years, including those in Mabo and Wik.
On 6 June I organised a luncheon in Parliament House to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of one of the major development agencies, Plan International. The guest speaker at that luncheon was Noel Pearson. Aboriginal communities can be proud of him. He talked about the Mabo judgment. He said that the white judges of the High Court had made a unilateral offer of peace to Australia’s indigenous people with the Mabo and Wik decisions. He went on to say:
It is the only real chance we have to forge a peace plan, not on the basis of war, not on the basis of struggle, but on the basis of our democratic institutions delivering on this peace proposal.
The High Court said that in 1788 when this glorious vista here [he gestured over to the domain] was occupied by the Eora peoples, at that moment when the Crown declared sovereignty over Australia, Aboriginal people were supposed to be recognised as citizens of the British Crown.
They were entitled to the recognition of their humanity and their traditional connection to their homeland.
Noel Pearson went on to say that of all the miserable baggage that came out of England, three things were of value: Earl Grey tea, the sublime game of cricket and the common law. He said the common law came upon the shoulders of those who held the sword of imperialism. That troubling imperialism for indigenous people had the redemptive prospect within it that the imperialists carried within them a law on their shoulders that was capable of civilised conduct. That civilisation came to the surface very late in the day but it came to redeem us all. His reference to redemption was a reference to the decisions of Mabo and Wik. The current attempts, particularly by the Federal Government, to undo the wisdom of Wik are a perpetuation of the dispossession and disadvantage imposed on the Aboriginal people that has been recorded in the report "Bringing them home".
An apology is of paramount importance, but as politicians we must not tolerate any perpetuation of policies that further disadvantage our indigenous people. I have a deep interest in Aboriginal health, and I am appalled by the shocking statistics relating to the plight of the Aboriginal people in that regard. In the past six months I have taken the opportunity to travel twice into remote Aboriginal communities to try to come to grips with the problem. As a member of Parliament based in the Sydney Page 10539
metropolitan area I have no significant Aboriginal community in my electorate but as a member of this House I consider it my responsibility to familiarise myself with the problems that exist in Aboriginal communities, particularly those relating to health.
I was saddened by the stories I heard and the conditions I witnessed in those remote regions. I have absolutely no doubt that resources to those areas must be increased. We also need to consider carefully and review the way services are delivered to those areas. Most importantly, those remote Aboriginal communities must be given a much greater role in decision making relating to housing, employment, culture, health and welfare services. Too many of those communities are still marginalised in disadvantaged conditions and lack proper services. In Brewarrina I had a most moving discussion with an 87-year-old Aboriginal woman who described the history of her displacement over the years. She was born in tribal conditions in a remote area and suffered what she called three displacements.
The first displacement was when she was moved with her tribe into a reserve. Some years later, I believe it was before the war, the second displacement involved the tribe being moved off the reservation and into a mission. After the war she was moved out of the Brewarrina mission and into the reserve on the outskirts of Brewarrina. That was the third displacement. Each time the members of the tribe were accorded no respect: they were moved in cattle trucks. My conversation with that woman has left me with a lasting impression and I personally pledge that for the balance of my political life I will work for the benefit of the indigenous people.
(Miranda - Deputy Leader of the Opposition) [12.13 p.m.]: First I thank Nancy de Vries for her courage in sharing her story with members of this House today. We listened to what she had to say and felt her anguish, but it is difficult to believe that we all truly understood her lifelong pain and the lifelong pain that is felt by so many members of the community she so ably represented in this House today. As the history of this tragedy has unfolded over many months, the real shock to me was the realisation that this problem occurred in my generation. The honourable member for Clarence is sitting on the other side of the Chamber. We went to school together and it happened in our time. It is not a part of the history we were taught at school of atrocities in some far-distant country. We are talking about something that happened in our time and in our own backyard. At school we were taught by the wonderful Christian Brothers that our nation was a land of milk and honey - it was the land of the Anzacs, a land of sweeping golden plains, the lucky country. But it was not lucky for everyone. In Sydney we lived in wonderful times of growth, development and education.
And insularity - very much so. While I was attending a Christian Brothers school, well-meaning religious people of the same order were separating children from their parents. I am not referring to the occasional disadvantaged or abused child; I am referring to the taking away of more than 100,000 children in our lifetime, in our generation, from their parents to live somewhere else. Their lives were changed. Their dignity was stolen. I wonder what our response would have been if while we were growing up we knew or lived next door to children who were stolen or taken away for no reason other than their race. That is the great tragedy of this story. At that time some members of this House were attending schools run by other religious orders such as the Methodists. Those religious orders were also taking children away and placing them in other homes in far distant parts of Australia.
While other honourable members were attending public schools the Government of this State was also separating children from their families and placing them all over the State and in other parts of the country. While we were living in ignorance and absorbing the bounties of this land, this tragedy was happening here in Australia, in our own land. I have no hesitation in joining with all of my colleagues in this Parliament to support this important motion. As members of Parliament we are not expected to know everything about every issue; I do not believe the community expects us to be experts on all issues. We are not expected to have experienced all life can offer or to have experienced all the pains of life. That would be unrealistic.
However, the community expects us to listen, to try to understand issues and to respond in a positive manner. That is all that is expected of us: no more and no less. There is only one response for anyone who has considered this issue in any way, who has read about it or spoken about it to members of the Aboriginal community. That response is an unreserved apology to the Aboriginal people of Australia for "the systematic separation of generations of Aboriginal children from their parents, families and communities". We all know that apologising, as heartfelt as it may be, is not enough. We must make amends, as other speakers have said. We have apologised in this House on four
Page 10540occasions in the past and, generally, those apologies have gone unrecognised. On 14 November the Premier made a substantial apology in this House. He said when debating a motion that he had moved, "They are the stolen children of lost generations." Later in debate on the motion he said:
I reaffirm in this place, formally and solemnly as Premier on behalf of the Government and people of New South Wales, our apology to the Aboriginal people. I invite the House to join with me in that apology.
We did and we will do so again today. We know that those words will turn into hollow rhetoric if, in the longer term, we do not take positive action. We must reaffirm our commitment to the goals and processes of Aboriginal reconciliation. We must be committed to addressing issues concerning the disadvantaged and we must take account of the aspirations of indigenous people in Australia. If we are genuine about this issue it should be constantly on our minds; it should not be placed on the agenda to which we return occasionally. We should try to correct some of the significant errors of the past.
For me, today is not about protecting our international reputation; it is not about the economic stability of our pastoralists; it is not about salving our consciences; and it is not about what we should do or could be doing physically for Aborigines. For me, today is purely and simply about being caring human beings, struggling to find meaningful ways in which to end the hurt of fellow Australians. That is our simple agenda today. We cannot heal the body unless we first heal the heart - a matter which must be stressed in debate today. We must not be distracted from our goal. This motion is an important step towards healing the heart and correcting the hurt that has been suffered by the Aboriginal community. I apologise unreservedly to the Aboriginal community. I make a commitment to do all that I can to ensure that members of that community have a better lifestyle.
(Bligh) [12.22 p.m.]: I strongly support the motion moved by the Premier, namely, that this House, on behalf of the people of New South Wales apologises unreservedly to the Aboriginal people of Australia for the systematic separation of generations of Aboriginal children from their parents, families and communities. I join with all other honourable members in supporting this motion. We must recognise and acknowledge what has happened and give support to members of the Aboriginal community as they grieve and attempt to heal the hurt of the past. We must work with the Government and members of the Australian community to overcome the disadvantages confronting those people. I will refer to a few matters which I believe are important. It is obvious that all members of Parliament support this motion. It has been pointed out in debate today that this policy of separation, which was pursued up until 20 years ago - it was based on ignorance and paternalism - emanated from this very Chamber. Laws were enacted that led to the action that caused such shocking dislocation of and destruction to the original inhabitants of this country.
As so many other members have done, I draw attention to the fact that the majority of people in Australia did not know that this policy was being enacted. They did not know what its consequences would be. They, like members of this Parliament, are truly shocked and saddened by the revelations that have come to light over recent months about the effects that this policy had on the Aboriginal community. I draw to the attention of honourable members the obvious: history can repeat itself. We study history because we know that it can repeat itself. Today I say to the Parliament, as I said yesterday, that we must have proper questioning, scrutiny and accountability in this place. Decisions must not be made and rubber-stamped behind closed doors. Legislation should not be rushed through this House. The community must not be kept in ignorance about what is happening in this place. Without proper questioning, debate and accountability, terrible policies such as this will again be enacted.
I call upon the Premier and members of the Australian Labor Party not to support what is happening at present, that is, a departure from democratic parliamentary processes. As I said earlier, the policy that has been so destructive of the Aboriginal community was enacted in this place. The majority of the Australian community who live in our cities had no knowledge about what was happening to the Aboriginal community. If they did I do not believe that they would have supported or endorsed that policy. Notwithstanding the mores, morality and policies of various churches of the day, I do not believe that the majority of fair-minded and right-minded Australians would have gone along with that. History must not repeat itself. This Parliament should be a proper place of scrutiny, accountability and questioning.
Paternalistic, unjust policies should not be allowed to develop again. We all say that these things will not happen again, but we know that history repeats itself. We must put this issue to rest and say that we require an accountable Parliament that will not allow such laws to emerge again. In conclusion, I support all the sentiments expressed by other honourable members in debate on this matter. Page 10541
Today has been an incredibly moving experience; it is something that had to happen. I echo the words of the honourable member for Keira, who has been so impressive in the work that he has done in this area over many years. I am sorry for what has happened in the past. I will do everything I can, as a legislator, to make things better for the Aboriginal community in the future.
(Monaro) [12.27 p.m.]: I have probably had as much experience in relation to this issue as any other honourable member. However, I have not had as much experience as those who were in the gallery earlier.
The honourable member for Swansea might view this matter flippantly. However, some honourable members are aware of the anguish that many members of the Aboriginal community have suffered. It might do the honourable member a world of good to rest her bottom jaw. I had the good fortune of being able to spend some of the period of my youth in the Alice Springs area. When I was 17 or 18 I worked with surveyors and on cattle stations in that area. I witnessed first-hand the lifestyle of Aboriginal people. During that time I developed a great affinity for them and an understanding of the problems they faced. As members of Parliament, we are here today to apologise to the Aboriginal people for our past mistakes. We should not detract in any way from the heartfelt concerns of churches, institutions and Aboriginal people. We, as a society, undertook to protect Aboriginal children from a number of traumatic experiences; we tried to drag a stone-age people into a modern society, which was an impossible task. It was a task that the people did not understand; Aboriginal people certainly did not understand, and monumental problems had to be faced.
We are here to apologise for the sins of those who, with the best of intentions, instigated legislation which would provide for children to be removed from their parents, forcibly in some cases. But the sins continue. It was not only in 1962 that children were removed from their parents; it still happens today in Sydney and across New South Wales. The faces, places and names have changed, but it still goes on under the auspices of government - I refer to the Aboriginal Children’s Service and the Department of Community Services. But first I wish to provide a background to my understanding of what has occurred.
In 1963, in Alice Springs, camps were set up at Amoonganah, Jay Creek and, for those who were less lucky, Todd River. I was a young fellow, a stranger in a strange land; I came from the Snowy Mountains, in the south of New South Wales. There were few people my age in Alice Springs. I became friendly with Harry Wilson, an Aboriginal from the Top End. He had been taken from his parents at Daly River to Melville Island, where he was raised at a Catholic mission. Today Harry Wilson is Chairman of the Peppimenarti Aboriginal Land Council, south-west of Alice Springs. I hope to see him in a couple of months. I befriended Harry because he was about my age. In those days people were not allowed to drink until they were 21 years of age. I had other friends in the Aboriginal community: the Bray family, Robert in particular; the Perkins family, of which one member, Charlie, has become famous in recent times; the Taylors, a white couple who owned Elkira Court, and their son and daughter, Betty and Richard. We were all great mates.
When the prohibition on alcohol was lifted Bill Wentworth was the member for Mackellar and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. He did everything in his power to prevent the lifting of the prohibition on alcohol consumption by Aborigines, not because he wanted to discriminate against them but because he saw great pitfalls for the race if the prohibition was lifted. I was amazed that he was labelled as a racist by the media. I did not understand what a racist was, because there was no such thing as black and white to me - they were all people. I have known Barbara Wentworth since I was a child. The Wentworths do not need to apologise.
Drunkenness became a major problem from the time prohibition was lifted, and as a consequence many Aboriginal children were neglected, as white children are neglected today when alcohol is involved. An Aboriginal woman by the name of Mrs Flynn - I have never known her first name - was respected by the members of our gang. Her humble home became a haven for the neglected children on the street, because there was no other place in Alice Springs which could take care of the children or young people. Because we were not allowed to drink we played football barefoot on the adjoining football field, in the dust and the bindi burrs. Mrs Flynn became ill, and I realise today that would have been because of undernourishment; she shared her food with all the children. She died and was buried a pauper. Her funeral was attended by 10 people, three Page 10542
of whom were white - Richard and Betty Taylor and me. When she died the children for whom she had cared were placed in the care of missionaries and the gang broke up.
Churches and missionaries in Alice Springs took care of Aboriginal children and their mothers. On one occasion I was camped with friends at a bore near Mount Ebenezer, a tourist centre on the way to Ayers Rock, and a young Aboriginal woman came to our camp in the middle of the night with half her cheek hanging off and a cut on the arm. She had been attacked by one of the elders of the Aboriginal tribe because she was bearing the child of a white man and was looking for a safe haven. Ted and Val Kunoth, who owned Mount Ebenezer station, took her in, cared for her and arranged for her to be taken to Alice Springs for treatment. That made me aware of the dire circumstances in which people such as that young woman - weeis as they were known - lived, and explained their failings or the failings of the white people with whom they associated, and the consequent costs to the children. Those children face great difficulties today. Many of them were placed in homes, as was the child of that young woman, The Aboriginal Children’s Service today plays the role of Mrs Flynn and the Alice Springs churches and missionaries. I am sorry to say that the Aboriginal Children’s Service and the Department of Community Services are not doing it very well.
For the past three months I have been dealing with the case of Tracey Fardell. I raised the matter with the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, the Minister for Community Services and his staff, the media, and in this House. Tracey Fardell was separated from her children in 1991 when they were taken into the care of the Aboriginal Children’s Service. The Aboriginal Children’s Service has failed the children and failed Tracey Fardell. A report has been provided to me, which I will not read to the House because it would expose the identities of innocent people.
I appeal to this House and to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs on this day, which has been set aside as a day of some significance, to consider the case of Tracey Fardell, a white woman who was married to an Aboriginal man. After her children were removed from her care they were placed in the care of the Aboriginal Children’s Service and subsequently placed into foster care. It has been alleged that one of those children has been sexually abused, and I have documentation to support that allegation. Tracey Fardell is not able to see her children despite the fact that there have been opportunities for negotiations to take place between the Aboriginal Children’s Service, Tracey Fardell and others, and directions have been given that access should be granted to the children.
Tracey’s husband, the father of the children, has not been able to see them. In fact, he has reached such a point of frustration that he is prepared to relinquish his Aboriginality in order to have access to his children. The situation is intolerable. The Aboriginal Children’s Service needs to take account of the fact that if it accepts responsibility for the custody of these children, whether it be in foster care or through its own administration, it must also accept responsibility for the welfare of the parents. The reunification of the family unit is the responsibility of the service. Tracey Fardell faces a desperate situation. Apart from my appeal to the Parliament today, all avenues have been exhausted, and it seems that no-one is interested in taking up her case.
There would be little doubt in anyone’s mind about the sincerity and depth of feeling that most people have for the future of Aboriginal people. Much of today’s debate has demonstrated the existence of that sincerity. The Leader of the National Party made the point that an apology is fruitless, worthless and hollow unless there is some follow-up so that people such as Tracey Fardell, her four children and her husband receive some benefit from the remarks that have been made by members of this House. We should not encourage divided and bigoted debate about the issue of who owns Australia or who owns the children; rather, we should strive to achieve what is best for Australia.
(Northern Tablelands) [12.41 p.m.]: On behalf of many people in my electorate I join with those honourable members who have contributed to today’s debate to say that I, too, feel heartfelt sympathy for the Aboriginal people of this country. I apologise for the great disservice that was done to them by a system that simply did not understand. We all have our stories to tell, and many of those stories have been recounted today. I was raised on an orphanage property - not in the orphanage, but my father ran the property. I shared a good deal of time with people who were supposedly orphans. Most of them had mums or dads of one form or another somewhere around the place, so they were not all necessarily orphans. They were there because they had been taken into care and were being looked after.
I have great empathy with those people who, as children, were raised outside a normal home
Page 10543environment with loving parents such as I enjoyed. We know that many Aboriginal kids were taken into care for their own welfare and protection. Today’s debate is not about those kids, as much as their stories are profound and regardless of how many suffered the same sorts of trauma. Today we are simply talking about a policy that was wrong. The genesis of the policy was wrong: the implementation of the policy was wrong, and the pain and the trauma that was visited upon so many people - over 100,000 children, their parents, brothers and sisters, and the communities they lived in - were wrong. For that I apologise.
I am not personally guilty; I was not there, in the sense of making that decision and implementing it. But that does not stop me from joining with the many people in this country who share a sense of grief for what the system has done to some Australians, simply on the basis that they were born Aboriginal. That policy can never be accepted and can never in any way be explained away. The policy was simply wrong. As a consequence of that policy many people grieved then, many people grieve now, and many will continue to grieve for the rest of their days.
Many honourable members on both sides of this House - in fact, I would say every member who contributed to this debate - have said that in some way or other we are all grappling with the consequences of a policy that was wrong. Until the spirit has healed we will never be able to attend to all the current day-by-day issues that have emerged from the dispossession, the trauma and the wrongs that have occurred between people over the years. Today is a step in the right direction towards that healing process. Today’s debate will not solve the problems of homelessness, ill-health, lack of education, poverty and all of those things that we know about and in some way try to deal with on a day-bay-day basis. However, the debate provides an opportunity for us to recommit ourselves to continue to deal with those issues and to continue to chip away, as quickly as we can and as genuinely as we can, at all those problems until we get it right. In so doing, as policymakers we might better inform ourselves about improving relationships between black and white Australians, between older residents and new immigrant families, and so on, according to the best human values we can possibly attain. Nevertheless, we will not have apologised as well as we might have done.
In a sense, it is true that words are cheap. But unless each of us, in the individual roles that we play, backs up those words with action, commitment and determination to try to improve the situation, to ensure that wrong policies dealing with human relationships are abolished, and that better policies replace them, we really will not have apologised as well as we ought to have done. I am proud to be part of this Parliament, in almost every way one could possibly imagine. But I am ashamed that this Parliament, along with many other parliaments in Australia and around the world, has from time to time got it very, very wrong. We did get it wrong, and I apologise.
(Cronulla) [12.47 p.m.]: Kurnell, which is situated in my electorate, is the birthplace of modern Australia. There was a meeting in Kurnell between two cultures. I place on record the words spoken by Sir John Carrick on Thursday, 14 November 1996, Aboriginal Reconciliation Day. Sir John Carrick said:
The Report of the Committee of Review of NSW schools, adopted by the NSW Liberal Government in 1989 and subsequently implemented, contained these memorable words:
"Very few Australians understand the immense differences between the environment of the western world and the traditional culture, religion, family and tribal structures, divisions of labour and methods of learning and communication of the Aborigines. Fewer still know of the rich and complex history of the Aboriginal People, their achievements in survival, conservation of natural resources, their development of skills and creative arts. To know is to appreciate the present sense of alienation and loss of dignity, and sense of purpose of many Aborigines. To spread a sympathetic understanding throughout the community is an essential step in the healing and uniting process."
And these sentiments and understanding, reinforced by a series of sensitive and imaginative policies approved by Aboriginal educators, have been implemented throughout NSW schools to the great benefit of both Aborigines and non-aborigines. In these policies lies the great hope for the genuine fellowship of future generations.
Simply to advocate and implement equality of opportunity for all Australians according to Western values was not and is not enough. The abolition of the White Australia Policy . . . [and] the successful 1967 Referendum . . . gave Aboriginals equal citizenship with others.
The referendum mentioned by Sir John Carrick was referred to earlier by the Leader of the National Party. The greatest disservice one can do to an individual is to treat that individual as a non-person. That is what happened before 1967. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition spoke about his generation. The speech of the present Governor-General is worthy of examination because this achievement occurred in 1967, in part of the baby boom generation of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. Sir William Deane said:
From the wider social and political point of view, the significance of the carriage of the 1967 referendum is beyond
measure. It marked the first great turning point in the relationship between Australia’s indigenous people and the nation of which they formed such an important part.
Laws in themselves cannot confer equality, dignity and respect. It is individual attitudes which will determine a division or unification of a community. That is the message in the motion expressing apology. It is genuine understanding which will remove so many of the artificial causes and prejudices of division. Australian Aborigines have been, and remain, disadvantaged in spite of great efforts and public expenditure to mitigate hardships. The greatest invasion of Aboriginal traditional lifestyle was not by weapons but by the inevitable spread of western communicable diseases - including upper respiratory tract infections, smallpox, measles, and sexually transmitted diseases - to which they were and remain very vulnerable. The western diet too, so different from the foodstuffs of their hunting and foraging, has added its toll of diabetes and alcoholism.
Better dwelling conditions and improved health and hygiene are vital. But if Aborigines are to have equal dignity and friendship alongside other Australians, their problems will not be resolved simply by government patronage and handouts. Social security, health and housing supports are important but unless Aborigines, as others, can have access to worthwhile and satisfactory employment - not just the wholly unskilled jobs that others will not do - they cannot achieve that spirit of independence and achievement that is vital to their wellbeing. In true and genuine reconciliation there is no place for second-class citizenship. Neither Aboriginal children nor adults must be de facto wards of the State through permanent dependence on handouts.
Aborigines have achieved much in war and peace, in sport, in tertiary education, in the professions and in commerce and industry. They will achieve so much more and add significantly to the culture and way of life of all Australians if we break down those unconscious barriers that somehow divide us. Let us not wait for them to take the steps towards us. Many of us are naturally shy and may have memories, real or imagined, of past rejection. The bonds within the Aboriginal extended family have valuable lessons for us all. Above all, they, like us, are vital human beings, with so many of the same hopes, fears and strivings, and the hunger for spiritual values. They are different, yes, in many ways. But so are so many of our newer migrant arrivals. However, as with all human beings, the things that unite us are greater than those which divide us. Fine words, high-sounding pledges or even strong laws will not achieve reconciliation. Reconciliation is a positive and spontaneous expression of the human spirit, the natural "fair go" of the Australian philosophy.
Motion agreed to.