National Sorry Day 2003

Great Hall of Parliament, Canberra, 26 May 2003

I recognise that we are meeting today in the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal, and thank the elders for their welcome.

Sorry Day is a day to pause. A day to grieve together for the harm done, and to commit ourselves afresh to make things different.

It is a community event. The community has a vital role in healing the wounds caused by the removal policies, because those who suffered are in all our suburbs, towns, regions, and acts of neighbourliness, of understanding, of inclusion can do much to overcome their alienation. In Canada, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and other Indigenous organisations have come together with non-Indigenous organisations to launch a Day of Healing and Reconciliation, which will take place each year on 26th May, starting today. They chose that date because they wish to encourage the Canadian community to help in the healing process, as is happening here in Australia.

Sorry Day falls on the eve of Reconciliation Week, giving us the chance to ask whether we are making progress in the wider challenge of reconciling Indigenous and other Australians.

I want to make three points.

First, there have been achievements. We are seeing healing among the stolen generations, and initiatives which are enabling Indigenous people to make their distinctive contribution to our national life.

Second, much remains to be done. We are lagging far behind comparable countries in overcoming the disadvantages Indigenous people face.

And third, the situation can be transformed. In this task, Governments, Indigenous communities, the private sector and the wider Australian community all have a vital role.

First, some achievements. On the first Sorry Day in 1998 close to a million people signed or wrote messages of sorrow and apology in Sorry Books. For the first time, many of the stolen generations felt that the wider community understood what they had endured, and this has helped many find the strength to launch out on a journey of healing.

The journey takes many forms. Last September there was a reunion of men who passed through the Kinchela Boys Home near Kempsey. The home was notorious for its cruelty, and the effect can be seen in the prison terms, substance abuse, and psychiatric problems of many of its former inmates. Last year these men came together in a search for healing. They say that the reunion was a huge step forward because they did it themselves. It was funded largely by one man's retirement savings, though the Commonwealth Department of Health also contributed.

We have seen steps towards commemorating the side of our history which we forget but which Indigenous people remember. In June 2000 a memorial was opened to the Aboriginal people killed in the Myall Creek massacre, in north central New South Wales, on 10 June 1838. The two-year project brought together descendants of those who were killed and descendants of their murderers in an act of personal reconciliation, as well as hundreds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in mutual respect and a commitment to reconciliation. It resulted from hundreds of hours of volunteered time and effort, and funding from Federal, State and local Governments, the Uniting Church and individuals.

We have seen other examples of reconciliation. Moree in northern New South Wales was notorious for ugly relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. In 1996 local people launched the Moree Aboriginal Employment Strategy. As a result, several hundred more Aboriginal people have been employed, and many more are in traineeships and apprenticeships. Now Moree's Aboriginal students see some reason to study, and school attendance has improved.

All of these examples have been made possible by the vision and determination of individuals. They have come through capturing Indigenous aspirations, and developing partnerships - between Indigenous and non-Indigenous, between the public and private sectors – which have turned those aspirations into reality.

Second. If much has been achieved, much remains to be done.

The stark truth we must confront was stated in the 2001 report of the Commonwealth Grants Commission: 'There is a difference of over 19 years in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. In New Zealand the gap is 5 to 6 years; in Canada it is 7 years, in the USA it is 3.5 years.'

Last year an article in the Medical Journal of Australia by Prof Ian Ring and Dr Ngaire Brown stated that the median age at death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is currently 51 years. 'There has been no improvement at all in the last 10 years,' it goes on. 'In this same period, the median age at death for the total Australian population increased by three years, so that the gap in median age between Indigenous people and the rest of the population has now increased to a staggering 26 years.'

There are medical responses to this situation. Health economists have estimated that an injection of $250 million per year in Indigenous clinical care, and $50 million in preventative care, is required to provide services at the same level as for any other group with the health conditions of Indigenous Australians. Professor Ring says that adequately funded health services could reduce the death rate by 30% within a decade, as happened 30 years ago with both the New Zealand Maori and Canadian Indian populations, and even earlier with US Indians.

But this is not just a medical problem. People die because they find living too painful. In a recent Weekend Australian, Nicolas Rothwell asks why Aboriginal communities in central Australia are being devastated by kidney disease. He concludes, 'It's not just because Aborigines in remote Australia live in poverty that they sicken; it's because they feel no mastery over their lives, lost as they are in little islands surrounded by an invasive world. It's how they stand in relation to wider society that's crucial: the disparities, the low self-esteem, are the things that do the psychological harm. Health is … a symptom for the remote Aboriginal plight: relative poverty, changing lifestyles, disempowerment, a sense of spiritual crisis.'

In his book, Why Warriors Lie Down and Die, Richard Trudgen tells of a Yolngu friend, Tom, who had gone through the school system in the 1970s, and came back to his home town equipped to run the town's water, power and sewerage. Then the relevant government department in Darwin gave the contract to a non-Indigenous firm. When Trudgen next met Tom, he had just come off a two year stint on the grog. 'There's no work around this place if you are a Yolngu,' he told Trugden.

This short-sightedness is perpetuated by our distorted view of our history. We deny and excuse the ugly side of that history, focusing instead on the honourable side. This predisposes us to doubt Indigenous ability. And our reluctance to see our history through Indigenous eyes deepens their alienation.

Three years ago the Government announced the creation of Reconciliation Place, and said that it would include a memorial to those removed from their families. However, they refused to include any of those who were removed in the design of their own memorial. Protests erupted, and there was an impasse. The National Sorry Day Committee offered to arrange consultations aimed at developing an inclusive portrayal which would tell why the policies were developed, the motivation of the carers, and the way the children and their families experienced the policies. With the encouragement of Reconciliation Australia, the Government accepted the offer. After nation-wide consultations, a proposal was handed to the Government in October 2002. It is encouraging to hear from the Minister that, it seems, agreement has now been reached.

But we are not yet responding adequately to the needs of the stolen generations. Last year the National Sorry Day Committee consulted with stolen generations people in every State and Territory, and concluded that programmes set up in response to the Bringing Them Home Report are reaching only a small fraction of those they are intended to help.

Partly this is because many of them are inadequately resourced. There are only a handful of Link-Up workers in each State, helping to bring together separated families. Yet there are thousands of Indigenous people searching for family members.

But even some of the programmes that are in place are missing their target, because we have not yet set up a conversation with the stolen generations. If we had, we would have realised sooner that Indigenous organisations are sometimes not the appropriate channel for programmes to help the stolen generations, because many of them play little part in Indigenous associations. The Victorian Government has concluded that a separate association is needed, and is working out how to do this. The grievances of the stolen generations cannot be resolved until they are included in the process.

The Sorry Day Committee's report recommended that to advance healing among the stolen generations:

  • A national apology be offered to the stolen generations. This one step would do so much to establish the trust on which healing and reconciliation can develop.
  • A monitoring body be established to evaluate the present State and Federal responses to Bringing Them Home and propose improvements.
  • A consultation process be developed with stolen generations people speaking for themselves.
  • A survey be conducted to determine the extent to which family reunion services are needed, particularly in rural areas.

The Minister responded positively to most of these proposals. We hope this will lead to a new commitment, at Federal and State level, to supporting the healing process.

The removal policies are not unique to Australia, and we can learn from other countries. In Canada Indigenous children were placed in residential schools, run jointly by the Government and the churches. Now the Canadian Government and churches have developed an alternative dispute resolution process for those who were sexually or physically abused in these schools, whereby Government and churches each pay a proportion of the compensation. Most choose this process, instead of the courts. So far 500 cases have been settled, and another 500 are expected to be settled this year.

This leads on to my third point. The situation can be transformed. Other countries have done it. So can we.

In New Zealand as in Australia, the Indigenous people lost almost all of their land through the process of colonization. They were decreasing in numbers and disheartened. In 1975, as a result of Maori protests the Conservative Government established the Waitangi Tribunal to hear their grievances. By 1990 there were 700 claims. At that point the Government decided that they would try to address all the claims. Since then they have settled claims which cover over half the land area of New Zealand. It has cost the tax-payer about $700 million, and this is about half the expected total cost. These funds are giving Maori people an economic base. Maoris now own over half the commercial fishing industry in New Zealand. The tribal groups have invested funds, and are using them for scholarships, for improving health care, for historical research and much else that is strengthening their society. They have developed programmes such as Kohanga Reo, the network of kindergartens which nurtures children in Maori culture, and further programmes through school and university. We have seen the regeneration of that culture, which is now a source of pride to all New Zealanders. The effect, in terms of Maori well-being, can be seen in the steadily increasing life-expectancy of Maoris.

New Zealand is not alone. In North America, numerous Indigenous communities which 30 years ago were mired in poverty, today are prospering. Last year Professor Stephen Cornell of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development spoke in Canberra at a conference hosted by Reconciliation Australia. He told of Indigenous communities in the United States which are major regional employers, with enterprises in mining, forestry, tourism, agriculture. They have established their own forms of governance, developed out of their traditions. The Harvard Project explored the factors which made for success, and concluded that self-rule is a necessary precondition for development. Self-rule puts the development agenda and resources in Indigenous hands; it links decisions and their consequences; and it supports accountability. There was wide evidence, he said, to show that Indigenous communities who do not control their own affairs are unlikely to develop.

At present we are going in the opposite direction. The use of the funds that went to Indigenous communities through ATSIC will now be decided by non-Indigenous people. There are problems with ATSIC's leadership. Reforms are needed. But ATSIC is not a failure. It has a regional structure and, as The Australian pointed out recently, 'regional decision makers are far more in touch with the needs of specific communities than nationally focused politicians and bureaucrats can ever be, whatever their race.'

There is good Indigenous leadership in many places, but often we do not support it adequately. Over 120 Aboriginal communities run their own health services – some have been doing so for 30 years. They struggle with difficult medical problems. They also try to deal with counselling, stolen generations issues, family relationships, violence, suicide prevention. Yet less than half of them have enough staff to dedicate one person to work in this critical area, even though the Aboriginal suicide rate is much higher than that of the general population. Only a third of these health services have visiting psychologists, psychiatrists or social workers.

Given the right support, they will work out how to overcome the tragic situations their communities face. Take substance abuse. In Alberta, Canada, in the 1970s, nearly 70% of Indian community leaders drank excessively. Some community leaders, with Government support, established an institute to train drug and alcohol workers using an Indigenous approach. More than 4,000 have been trained in the past 20 years, and today 80% of their leaders are non-drinkers. Here in Australia, in places like Aurukun, alcohol restrictions have been imposed by community elders through their Community Justice Group, backed by Queensland Government legislation. They started early this year, and are already showing impressive results in the reduction of violence, and in the increase in children attending school.

Another area of immense concern is the rate of imprisonment of Indigenous people. Jackie Huggins has reminded us that Indigenous people are imprisoned at 16 times the rate of non-Indigenous people. Here again, we see people working out solutions. In Western Australia, Hammersley Iron with the help of the Polly Farmer Foundation has developed a training and employment program for Aboriginal young people in the Pilbara. Of the seventy people involved, not one has been in trouble with the law.

There are no quick fixes to Indigenous poverty and social disaster. Solutions will be found when the non-Indigenous people respect the insights of Indigenous people, and listen to them. Solutions will not be found while Indigenous people are treated as victims for whom someone else must find solutions. They will be active partners in any solution.

Solutions will be found through cooperation between governments and the private and voluntary sectors. This will require a degree of humility and trust which has not always characterised relations between these sectors. Each has a particular contribution.

Sometimes the solutions will require acknowledgement of past mistakes, and acceptance of insights for which none of our learning has prepared us. Reconciliation requires changes of heart and spirit, as well as social and economic change. It requires symbolic as well as practical action.

In the last twelve years, we have come some distance towards reconciliation and the breaking down of disadvantage. Let us take encouragement from what has been achieved and set our minds and hearts to end the remaining roadblocks.