National Sorry Day: Journey of Healing

Sydney Opera House - 26 May 2004

I am delighted to be here with you to launch this evening. I thank the traditional owners of the land on which we stand for their welcome, and the management of the Opera House for making this evening possible.

As Lowitja O’Donoghue said recently, we need to celebrate success. On Friday a memorial, built by the Federal Government, will be dedicated in Canberra. It tells of the impact of the removal policies on the lives of those affected, both the children who were removed, and those who staffed the institutions, or fostered or adopted removed children. Its text has come out of consultation with hundreds of people. Some are here in this hall.

I know that the stolen generations have been greatly disappointed by the Federal Government’s response to the Bringing Them Home report. I cannot justify actions such as spending $12 million to defeat Peter Gunner and Lorna Cubillo in the courts. But we can be grateful for this memorial because, as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has shown us, the truth about what happened is vital to the healing process. Let us celebrate it.

And there are other reasons to celebrate. At present a series of workshops is taking place, in every State and Territory, bringing together Link-Up workers, Bringing Them Home counsellors and stolen generations representatives, with the aim of improving cooperation. At last the stolen generations are being consulted about the steps needed for healing. That is also vital. These steps may be slow in coming, but at least they are in the right direction.

But not all is going in the right direction. At present Indigenous people die 20 years younger than non-Indigenous, and the gap is widening. In every other comparable country it is narrowing. Forty years ago in New Zealand, Canada and the USA, the gap was about 15 years, while in Australia it was 20 years. Today in New Zealand it is 5 years; in Canada it is 7 years, in the USA it is 3.5 years. But in Australia the gap is still 20 years or more.

Professor Ian Ring, a pre-eminent authority on Aboriginal health, says that there is nothing unique in the disease pattern and history of Aboriginal Australians. ‘Australia has the competence, resources and good will to make the health improvements seen elsewhere,’ he says. ‘But we have become the home of unfunded policies – which are worse than useless because they give the illusion of action without the substance.’ He and other health experts say that an extra $300 million per year in Aboriginal health would reduce the death rate by 30% within a decade. But neither Labor nor Coalition Governments have been prepared to commit these resources. Yet we have just had a Federal Budget which gave several billion dollars to middle-class and wealthy Australians.

This situation shames us all. But there is no sign that either party is taking it seriously. Both say they will abolish ATSIC, but neither seems to have any idea what they will replace it with, if anything. Government policy seems to be to mainstream services to Aboriginal communities. That is a return to ways that failed many years ago. We have heard nothing which suggests that this time it will work better, and there has been little discussion and debate on finding a better way.

The AMA national president, Bill Glasson, says the AMA will mount a vigorous campaign to ensure Aboriginal health is on the political agenda in the lead-up to the federal election. ‘We’re at risk of destroying a whole civilisation,’ he said.

We all need to support this campaign. It is vital that Aboriginal culture is enabled to flourish.

Firstly, for the welfare of Aboriginal people themselves. It is extraordinarily difficult for a minority to thrive if it feels resented by the majority.

Second, for the security and safety of all our communities. In too many countries, disaffected groups have turned to violence to be heard. The recent riot in Redfern suggests that time is running out and that we all need to work much harder at these problems. At the end of the day, the only way to defeat violence is to overcome entrenched disaffection.

Thirdly, for the well-being of our own society. Many of us have failed to learn as we could have from Aboriginal practices about the management of land in a fragile continent. The dismissal of Aboriginal culture by too many has closed our minds to much of what they have learnt over the generations.

Fourthly, for our regional relationships. We will be a more powerful and effective voice in regional affairs when we can demonstrate clearly that all groups, especially Aboriginal Australians, can find their free and open place within Australian society, with their culture thriving alongside our own. That will help us to relate to diverse cultures throughout our whole region.

Fifthly, because Australia should be doing more to persuade other countries to improve their human rights record. There is little strength in our argument when we treat Indigenous Australians as we do, and put refugee children in detention centres which are only a polite term for jails, denying them the Rule of Law. We need to put our own house in order to be a more effective voice internationally.

How will this change in attitude to our Aboriginal heritage come about? There are some urgent tasks. I hope that which ever party wins this year’s election will address the crisis in Aboriginal health. We cannot expect Aboriginal communities to get on top of problems like domestic violence while the health of those in leadership is so precarious.

But Government programmes alone will not bring the needed growth in Aboriginal self-confidence and well-being. Community action is needed. Probably many of you in the audience this evening were among those who walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, as I did. Nearly a million people took part in bridge walks that year. We should all take great encouragement from this. It showed in the clearest terms that a very large number of Australians, from all States, want change, want improvements. Those aspirations have not yet been fulfilled, but they can be. A million people can prod our Governments into action, and take action themselves to overcome the daily discrimination which Aboriginal Australians face.

Tomorrow, here in the Opera House, Reconciliation Australia will launch its programme, ‘Pathways to Reconciliation’. I hope it enlists hundreds of thousands of people in creative action towards reconciliation. Properly directed and resourced, we could see local initiatives transforming Aboriginal health, employment, housing conditions, and much else.

An article in this month’s Medical Journal of Australia argued that Australia has become an uncaring society, and racism is the inevitable result. The way we are treating children in our detention camps suggests they are right. We need to become far more compassionate.

This is where the stolen generations can help us. Those who have suffered can understand the suffering of others. You can help compassion to grow among us.

Already you are doing it. Last month the ABC TV programme Compass reported on the work of men – some of whom we will hear from tonight – who, as children, were removed to the Kinchela Boys' Home, but who today are helping people in need, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, in the Redfern area.

I also respect your readiness to ensure that the memorial in Canberra honour not just the stolen generations but ‘all those, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, whose genuine care softened the impact of cruel and misguided policies’.

We need that generosity of spirit. You can help us become a nation which respects all our cultures and creeds, shares our resources fairly, and can contribute to building trust and co-operation on the international scene.

We play above our weight in so many fields, sport, film, aspects of science. We are potentially a country of enormous skill and capacity. We are one of the healthiest countries in the world - normally 2nd - 5th, depending on the year and the measure. There is nothing absolutely unique about the history of Aboriginal people nor the disease pattern. There is absolutely no basis whatever for thinking we could not make the gains here that have been achieved in NZ, USA and Canada. We know what to do and have known for some decades. Instead of both parties pursuing populist policies, why don´t we have the ambition, as I think Canada may have, of leading the world in our relations with and appropriate services for Indigenous people. No one is asking for any special deals for Aboriginal people, just the level of services appropriate to need - as we do for other groups such as the elderly.