Essentials for Social Justice: Sorry

Launch of Us Taken-Away Kids: commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Bringing them home report.

Tom Calma

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and
National Race Discrimination Commissioner, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

11 December 2007

Customs House Library, Sydney.

Essentials for Social Justice

Between December 2007 and April 2008 the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, will deliver a series of key speeches setting out an agenda for change in Indigenous affairs.

Essentials for Social Justice: Sorry

The Hon Jenny Macklin, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs; Professor Mick Dodson, Co-Chair of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples from their Families and Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia; Helen Moran, Chair of the National Sorry Day Committee; Mark Bin Barkar, Deputy Chairperson, National Stolen Generations Alliance; My fellow speakers - Alec Kruger, Jeannie Hayes, Alfred Coolwell and Lena Yarrey;

Contributors to the Us Taken-Away Kids magazine – Lorraine McGee-Sippel, Elaine Turnbull, Robert Stuurman, Bev Lipscombe, Mary Hooker, Emily Bullock and Charles Leon;

Members of the stolen generations; Representatives of Link Up, Sorry Day Committees and Reconciliation groups; My Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters; and Friends.

I begin by paying my respects to the Gadigal peoples of the Eora Nation – the traditional owners of the land where we gather today. I pay my respects to your elders, to the ancestors and to those who have come before us. And thank you, Alan Madden, for your generous welcome for all of us to Gadigal country.

Thank you also to the City of Sydney for your assistance with this launch, and for providing this venue.

On behalf of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), can I welcome you to the launch of Us Taken-Away Kids – a magazine commemorating ten years since the Bringing them home report was released – as well as the updated Bringing them home online educational resources.

The release of these materials brings to a close a year of activities by HREOC for the tenth anniversary of the Bringing them home report.

The timing of the release of these materials could not be better.

Yesterday, we celebrated Human Rights Day. That is a time when we honour the legacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the modern world’s ‘Magna Carta’.

The language of the Universal Declaration encapsulates, in the most poetic and moving way, the aspirations of generations of peoples worldwide for peace and harmony. And it is directly relevant to the continuing circumstances of the stolen generations. The Universal Declaration reads:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world...

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, (and) in the dignity and worth of the human person ...,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,...

The General Assembly, Proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations...

Human Rights Day is also the time where we celebrate the achievements of our fellow Australians in contributing to the realisation of these goals.

I am delighted that joining us here today we have Mark Bin Barkar and Alec Kruger – two men who were honoured at the Human Rights Awards yesterday for their contribution to the promotion of human rights in Australia for work that predominately relates to the stolen generations. Congratulations to both Mark and Alec, and thank you.

The timing of the release of Us Taken-Away Kids could also not be better as it comes at a time of great importance to the future of our nation.

The incoming Prime Minister, the Honorable Kevin Rudd, has indicated that he intends to apologise on behalf of the nation to the stolen generations.

So in the coming months, the Prime Minister and his government will have a historic opportunity to unite Australia by acknowledging the existence and the impact of this dark aspect of our history; by paying respect to the stolen generations for their suffering, their resilience and their dignity; and by laying the foundations for a reconciled Australia, built on respect for human rights and a commitment to social inclusion.

Unfortunately, we are all too aware that this is not a once in a lifetime opportunity. This great challenge has been laid before the federal government once before, and on that occasion, it did not seize the opportunity. So this moment represents a very rare thing - a second chance.

In the words of the Universal Declaration, this moment is a test – for the nation - of how truly we believe in the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.

In reflecting on the Us Taken-Away Kids magazine that is being launched by the Minister for Indigenous Affairs here today, I intend to outline an agenda for addressing the outstanding issues faced by the stolen generations and key elements for the apology.

This speech is the first in a series of six that I will be delivering nationally over the next four and a half months outlining an agenda for change across all areas of Indigenous affairs.

I have termed this series of speeches Essentials for social justice. Subsequent speeches will address issues ranging from the very serious problem of a lack of engagement with Indigenous peoples in policy making and significant failures in the whole of government machinery currently in operation federally; to the Northern Territory intervention and child abuse issues; to a positive vision for our communities such as by closing the gap in life expectancy, and creating an equal life chance for Indigenous children.

It is appropriate that today’s speech, the first in this series, is simply titled: Sorry.

So let me begin by reflecting on the Us Taken-Away Kids magazine. At the beginning of the magazine is a quote from the autobiography of Alec Kruger called, Alone on the soaks. It reads:

As a child I had no mother’s arms to hold me. No father to lead me into the world. Us Taken-Away Kids only had each other. All of us damaged and too young to know what to do. We had strangers standing over us. Some were nice and did the best they could. But many were just cruel nasty types...

Many of us grew up hard and tough. Others were explosive and angry. A lot grew up just struggling to cope at all. They found their peace in other institutions or alcohol. Most of us learnt how to occupy a small space and avoid anything that looked like trouble. We had few ideas about relationships. (but) No one showed us how to be lovers or parents. How to feel safe loving someone when that risked them being taken away and leaving us alone again.

Everyone and everything we loved was taken away from us kids.

The Us Taken-Away Kids magazine tells the stories of Indigenous Australians removed from their families. It reflects on experiences of being removed and life in foster-care and homes, stories of discovering what had happened, of meeting their family for the first time, piecing together family histories as adults, and of some who have still to re-unite.

The magazine contains the stories, poems, photos and artwork of the stolen generations. For many, it is the first time they have shared their experiences in this way.

This is something that HREOC, and I personally, am extremely grateful for. I think it is both extraordinarily generous and brave. And in my view, it is something that we should all respect as a contribution to reconciliation.

The magazine is a testament to the resilience of the stolen generations. By acknowledging this resilience and the hardship faced, we acknowledge the ongoing impact of our history on the lives of our fellow Australians.

By recognising and paying respect to this, the magazine provides hope that as Australians we can move forward united on a basis of mutual respect, trust and good faith.

As the stories and poems reveal, the experiences of the stolen generations differ significantly. Some people have reconnected with their families and found peace. For others, the passage of time has been too great and they have discovered their family history too late. So the contributions in the magazine range from angry to funny, from deeply upsetting to reflective, and to uplifting.

The magazine vividly demonstrates the ongoing impact of forcible removal policies in the lives of Indigenous families. This is not an abstract debate about the past. It is about Australia, right now.

And the stories in the magazine highlight that this impact is raw and emotional.

Page 13 of the magazine tells the stories of Lena Yarry and Alfred Coolwell – siblings who were reunited later in life. Their stories are accompanied by an extremely poignant photo which shows Alfred meeting members of his family for the very first time.

Page 15 reproduces a poem by Vickie Roach about her friend ‘Jap’ who died in police custody some time ago. The magazine was provided in advance to Jeannie Hayes a contributer to the magazine and who will speak to us shortly about her experiences. Upon reading the magazine she told HREOC that she too had been good friends with Jap and was moved to see her being remembered in this way. She has never met Vickie Roach.

On pages 27-29 Eddie Thomas reflects on his experience of speaking in the Tasmanian Parliament upon the passage of the stolen generations compensation legislation late last year. This is contrasted with Eddie’s story on page 50 of the magazine in which he recounts when he first met his brother as he was about to play AFL, and how he played the game of his life to make his brother proud, and the sadness that ultimately prevailed over his brother’s life.

The magazine is full of moving stories like these. And I repeat how privileged we are to be invited to share in them.

Story telling – such as that in the magazine - is crucial to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is integral to the maintenance of our cultures and It helps us to understand our heritage. And it is critical in defining our identity.

The story-telling tradition of our peoples is one of the great strengths of our cultures. It contributes to our resilience as peoples as it has throughout millenia.

But we don’t tell stories for the sake of it.

For the stolen generations, story telling is an indispensible part of both recognising the suffering of the past and its impact into the present; and of creating the basis for the journey of healing to begin.

And this is the significance of the apology.

What many people have failed to understand over the past decade has been the emotional harm that has been caused by the refusal to say sorry. On the face of it - a simple act – described in denigrating terms by some as merely a ‘symbolic’ action.

For many of the stolen generations, it is so much more than this.

The refusal to apologise has amounted to a denial of the life experiences of many of the stolen generations. They have not been able to tell their story in order to heal.

This has been reflected in vicious debates about whether children were stolen or saved. In debates about whether an ‘X’ on a page amounts to ‘consent’ to removal and therefore invalidates a person’s claim to being forcibly removed.

And it is reflected in legal actions that have demonstrated the manifest inadequacy of addressing these issues through litigation. Such litigation, at great cost and emotional toll, has found that the legal system under which children were removed was so broad and sweeping in its scope, that there are hardly any circumstances in which a child’s removal would be considered ‘unlawful’. No duty of care has been found to be owed to a child removed – something that is also quite extraordinary.

The apology issue has led to a denial of the experiences of the stolen generations, and of peoples’ identity. And it has played a real role in perpetuating the harm of the past.

An analogy to the harm this has created is how, as a nation, we treated our Vietnam veterans. Because of the divisiveness of the war, it took almost a generation before the Australian public as a whole was able to embrace our veterans as heroes who had sacrificed much in the name of our country.

The mental anguish caused to Vietnam veterans from their treatment is well documented. And the consequent feeling of belonging that they have felt when such recognition did finally flow is also well known. There was also a broader feeling of healing and pride that was felt by Australian society, as a whole, once we had faced up to this and finally embraced our war heroes.

And this is the importance of the apology. By acknowledging and paying respect, those who have suffered can move forward, to heal and ultimately to belong.

The apology will directly benefit members of the stolen generations by validating their experiences. And it will also benefit Australian society as a whole by building a bridge for a reconciled Australia, where we can all feel proud that our national story and aspirations are shared, and that we are prepared to face difficult and dark experiences from our past.

It is not about black armbands and guilt. It is about inclusion and learning from the past. And ultimately, it is about providing space in the telling of our national story for the stolen generations.

I must say I was deeply concerned when I saw the Guide to the teaching of Australian History in Years 9 and 10 released a few months ago under the auspices of the former Prime Minister as part of his push for national education curricula. This guide identifies the importance of considering Indigenous perspectives on dispossession and European settlement up to 1850, and also encourages students to consider ‘missionary and colonial activity directed to the ‘protection’ of Indigenous Australians’, up to 1900. But it makes no direct reference to considering the experiences of the stolen generations over the course of the 20th century nor does it refer to Bringing them home.

This is quite simply a denial of history – leaving the issues unspoken. This must cease, And The apology will go a long way to setting us on a course for this to occur.

On page 65 of the magazine there is a poem by Yveane Fallon called “I am to be” which reflects the dangers if we continued such denial. In parts it reads:

I am to be

Your history’s ghost returned

Haunting every moment

Despite your concerns.........


I am

The offspring of my ancestors

Bearing truth’s memory

Despite all of yours.

So to conclude, let me outline six key challenges for saying sorry and moving forward together.

First, the apology must be done in a consultative and respectful manner.

For the government, this requires that the views of the stolen generations should be given prominence in determining the key elements of the apology.

We know that there is certain wording – or at least, a certain word - that must be included in the apology for it to have meaning for the stolen generations. It requires more than this one word though. There is a challenge to get the balance right between saying sorry for the practices of past governments and taking responsibility, as the present government, to address ongoing impacts and lead the nation to a better, shared future.

For the stolen generations, ultimately the apology must be written by the government for it to have any meaning. So there is a limit to how far this consultation should stretch.

Second, the apology should be specifically about forcible removals.

The purpose of the recommendation in Bringing them home is to apologise for policies of forcible removal and consequent harm, as well as to provide guarantees against repetition in the future.

This is a very specific purpose. I note, even in the past fortnight, that some of the far right commentators who seem to dominate the opinion pages of our newspapers have presented this issue as about anything that has ever happened in Australia since colonisation, or as providing a shield against any child being removed from circumstances of neglect or abuse, into the future. This is in my view, mischievous, misleading and disrespectful.

It is timely for people to return to the exact wording of the Bringing them home report to remind ourselves of the exact purpose of saying sorry. It is not a catch all, and it is not intended to overcome the need for other action.

Third, the apology should be done in such a way that it unifies the nation, rather than divides it.

I have great faith that leadership from the highest levels of both sides of politics can ensure that this will occur.

I note, for example, comments by the Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mr Tony Abbott at Sorry Day commemorations in May this year. He stated:

The forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families is an episode in our history of which we are rightly ashamed... There were some good intentions, if misguided, behind the policy. Still, the fundamental premise on which it was based - that children were better off away from their black families - was wrong, indeed repugnant. It was a policy based on race not reason. We should have known it then. We certainly know it now, and we do have to atone for it.  

Similarly, the incoming Leader of the Opposition Dr Nelson has stated that we all have a responsibility ‘to understand what happened in the past’ and that we ‘should feel immense sorrow, in some cases shame’.

Dr Nelson has expressed concerns about the apology, in terms of not being personally responsible for events of the past, but he has also stated he will wait and see before deciding whether bi-partisan support can be provided for the apology.

There is not too much of a distance to travel to obtain bipartisan support for the apology. However, Respectful dialogue will be necessary to achieve this.

The apology will be all the more powerful for being from the Australian Parliament. As it stands, our national parliament is the only one across the country that has not formally apologised to date.

Fourth, the apology should also be forward looking and set out an aspiration for a united future for all Australians.

While the apology should be specific to stolen generations, it should also affirm the commitment of the federal Parliament to partnerships with Indigenous peoples and to continuing to work to address the legacy of the stolen generations.

While the apology will have a significant transformative and healing effect of itself, it will be necessary for it to be accompanied by other measures that implement the full scope of the recommendations of Bringing Them Home.

We can expect, for example, that the apology will enable many of the stolen generations to break the cycle of grief that dominates their current situation. They will then be ready, and will need the support to heal. As was noted with the 10th anniversary celebrations for Bringing them home in May, there are many aspects of the report that remain to be implemented and provide a holistic address to the needs of the stolen generations.

Fifth, the apology should not be rushed.

An artificial deadline should not be set for the timing of the apology. The timing should reflect that the elements discussed above have been met: that is, respectful dialogue has taken place; and the process has aimed to build consensus and unify the nation.

The stakes are too high to get it wrong by rushing it through, or not allowing the conversation for reconciliation to take place. Without being prescriptive, it may be that Sorry Day in May 2008 provides the ideal timing.

The apology should, in my view, occur separate to discussions regarding Constitutional reform – including a new preamble to the Constitution. But it is clearly a necessary precursor to that broader discussion. The impact of a new preamble would also be to provide a sense of inclusion for all Indigenous peoples that is missing from the framework of our legal system at present.

Sixth, and finally, the apology should provide a catalyst for the states and territories to be held accountable for their responsibilities in implementing Bringing them home.

The absence of an apology from the federal Parliament has left the federal government without authority to drive the implementation of the Bringing them home report.

The apology should therefore form the basis for a renewed partnership between the federal government and state and territory governments to fully implement the report.

For example, only Tasmania has introduced a scheme to compensate for the impact of its forcible removal policies.

It is interesting to note by comparison that at present the Queensland government has introduced the Redress Scheme to provide ex gratia payments to people who experienced abuse and neglect as children in Queensland institutions. Up to $100 million is being made available for payments, for legal and financial services to applicants, and for practical assistance in completing applications.

It is not inconceivable to see how such a scheme could become a model to address the experiences of the stolen generations.

All governments are responsible for the report’s implementation. It is timely for the federal government to take a leadership role in developing a national reparations process to be co-funded by the states and territories. And this should be a priority for COAG to build on the work that is already under consideration by the ministerial council for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs.

So let me conclude by returning to Us taken-away kids. I want to finish by quoting a contributor to the magazine: George Toongerie. George said:

When societies or cultures collide it is often the children who suffer most... The past cannot be changed but some of the wounds can be healed. The process of reconciliation must start with a candid recognition of what took place – the forcible removal of many Aboriginal children from their parents and communities.

The apology has the potential to be a landmark event in ‘righting’ relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in this country, by setting us on a new shared path to the future and by laying the platform to take the reconciliation agenda to the next level.

Please remember, from self respect comes dignity, and from dignity comes hope.

Thank you.

Note: This is the first in a series of six speeches outlining an agenda for change in Indigenous Affairs. The “Essentials for Social Justice” series will be presented between December 2007 and April 2008, and will be available online at