It has been 14 years since then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered his apology to the Stolen Generations from parliament house. Words which were so longed for from survivors and descendants of horrific government policies, and which echo through to today.
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry. To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
Scott Morrison’s speech today on the anniversary of this momentous day made headlines for a different reason. Many have taken umbrage with this line:
Sorry is not the hardest word to say. The hardest is ‘I forgive you’.
Morrison almost demanding forgiveness belies a false understanding of both how apologies work, and the nature of what it is the government apologised, and is apologising, for.
The policies of the Stolen Generations were acts of government, designed to assimilate us and deprive us of culture. They are also actions which can be remedied by government. To frame the apology in this way is, as Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe tweeted, “outright disrespect”, and “not an apology”.
A stain upon the nation
The Stolen Generations remain a national shame for this country. Over several decades, roughly one in five First Nations children were taken from their families between 1910 and 1970, countless communities broken up, and our cultures forcibly suppressed.
In some jurisdictions such as Western Australia, the figure is over one in three First Nations children removed. Nationally, these generations and their descendants make up close to two in five First Nations people, according to a report from The Healing Foundation.
The apology, which many thought would not come, and many sadly did not live to see, remains an important part of Australian and First Nations history. Finally the wrongs of the Stolen Generations were not only acknowledged by the government, but apologised for. The apology was, and shall remain, in the words of Linda Burney, a “cultural moment shared by the country”.
Apology not without dissent
However, it is easy to remember the apology as a moment of national unity, free from dissent, which is not the case. John Howard, who proceeded Rudd as prime minister from 1996-2007, famously refused such an apology, alongside other measures including a treaty, partly due to the practices of removal being “believed to be in the best interests of the children concerned”.
Howard has continued to defend this failure to issue an apology even decades later, declaring the apology “meaningless” in a January interview.
Howard was of course, not present in the parliament in 2008, having lost his seat at the 2007 landslide election which saw Labor gain government. However, some members of the Liberal and National parties boycotted the event, including controversial former MP Sophie Mirabella, and most notably current Defence Minister Peter Dutton, both of whom have defended their boycott of the apology.
Action needed to write the wrongs of the past
For those survivors of the Stolen Generations, and their descendants, the effects of these policies are ongoing, and not confined merely to the removal of children and the destruction of families.
The trauma and pain of these policies, and of being disconnected from country, culture, and community, extends down to their children, and their children’s children.
According to The Healing Foundation’s Make Healing Happen report from 2021, Stolen Generations survivors are more likely to not own a home, have worse finances, have experienced violence, suffer from a disability, and to have a criminal record.
Additionally, rates of child removal in Australia have continued to rise over the last decade, with First Nations children ten times more likely to be removed, with over 21,000 in out of home care as of December 2021. This number is projected to increase by a further 54% by 2031. We are going in the wrong direction, and worse, we are doing very little about it.
All of these problems are fixable, and by the government. Presuming forgiveness on the part of those you have wronged, is not going to solve any of these issues. Indeed they are likely to have the opposite effect, reducing the ability of the government to engage with these communities, and impacting upon the mental and physical health of Stolen Generations survivors and their families.
What is needed is a national approach to healing, including reparations for survivors and their descendants (something the government has begun to deliver on). However, increased services for ageing survivors and a national strategy addressing intergenerational effects of child removal are also needed.
In addition, there needs to be accountability going forward on current child removal practices, with an effort to reduce the number of First Nations children removed, and greater supports and structures for those who are, and a Voice for First Nations peoples within our political system.
Action is a much greater apology than words. Forgiveness can only truly come when there is action.
Morrison’s comments today show he does not understand that. I’m not sure if he ever will.