John Howard has criticised Kevin Rudd's 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations

Former prime minister John Howard says he didn’t support a formal apology to the Stolen Generations, which Kevin Rudd delivered in 2008, as it was an “empty gesture” and "meaningless".

John Howard and an inset of Kevin Rudd delivering the National Apology

Kevin Rudd delivered the historic apology on 13 February 2008. Source: AAP

This article contains images of Indigenous people who may have died.

Former prime minister John Howard says the national apology to the Stolen Generations was "meaningless" and he stands by his decision not to consider a treaty with Indigenous Australians.

Kevin Rudd delivered the formal apology as prime minister on 13 February 2008 to Australia’s Indigenous peoples and particularly to the Stolen Generations who were impacted by previous government policies of forced child removal and Indigenous assimilation.

The 2001 Cabinet records, released on Saturday, reveal there was “clearly expressed opposition” to a treaty and a formal apology to the Stolen Generations was judged “not appropriate” because the practices were “believed to be in the best interests of the children concerned”.

But 20 years on from the cabinet discussions, Australia is no closer to a treaty with its Indigenous peoples. 

A member of Australia's Stolen Generation wipes tears away as they listen to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd deliver his apology.
A member of Australia's Stolen Generation wipes tears away as they listen to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd deliver his apology in 2008. Source: AP Photo

In an interview marking the release of the 2001 Cabinet papers, Mr Howard said he stood by that decision.

"I think it's very simple; a country doesn't make a treaty with itself," he said.

He also defended his decision not to apologise to the Stolen Generations when he was prime minister.

"I was not in favour of an apology for a couple of reasons. The first one was that the idea of one generation apologising for the acts of another is an empty gesture," he said.

"If you apologise for your own behaviour, that has meaning, but I think it's a very empty thing for one generation to say 'well, we apologise for something that was done by other people'. That's meaningless."

A formal apology to the Stolen Generations was one of the 54 recommendations in the 1997 “Bringing them Home” report, which investigated the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families.

The Cabinet document submission from March 2001, shows Phillip Ruddock, the then Minister for Reconciliation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, was concerned about the public backlash of not adopting the advice.

“I am proposing that we support as many of the rest of the recommendations as possible,”

“Separated children issues are politically sensitive, and we can anticipate criticism from indigenous representatives and some measure of public criticism no matter how we respond,

“But if we can highlight issues on which we support the committee’s views, we can deflect some of this criticism,” the Cabinet submission reads.

Treasurer Peter Costello & PM John Howard during Question Time in the House of Representatives in August 2001.
Treasurer Peter Costello and Prime Minister John Howard during Question Time in August 2001. Source: AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Historian Dr Chris Wallace said the 2001 Cabinet papers showed there was a missed opportunity to make progress on Indigenous recognition and reconciliation in Australia.

"There is an interesting difference of opinion, in the year 2000 we know through Peter Costello’s memoirs, that he was very strongly pro-reconciliation. The government in that year was very concerned that the government not be visibly walking down that track,” she said.

"So, there was a Cabinet discussion where Peter Costello said he was determined to walk in a Reconciliation march, so that was very unpopular with his colleagues, but he ended up doing that."

Dr Wallace said the 2001 papers showed there was a "continuing resistance" to positive engagement with Indigenous Australians over a treaty or an apology.

"There's papers that show concern with spending on Indigenous health and some on Indigenous employment, but not to the extent you'd hope would have happened given the degree of disadvantage that the minister's concern was showing in their submissions to Cabinet," she said.

Tom Calma served as Senior Adviser to Indigenous Affairs Minister Philip Ruddock in 2003.
Tom Calma was a Senior Adviser to Indigenous Affairs Minister Philip Ruddock in 2003. Source: AAP

Tom Calma, the co-chair of the Indigenous voice to parliament design panel acknowledged the implementation of a treaty “was a complex situation when looking at it from a national level”.

Professor Calma, an elder from the Kungarakan tribal group and the Iwaidja tribal group, said that wasn’t an excuse for it still not being progressed.

“We had these discussions back when [Bob] Hawke was prime minister, various prime ministers have talked about it since then, but none have ever bit the bullet and set up a treaty commission.”

Professor Calma, who also served as senior adviser to then Indigenous Affairs Minister Philip Ruddock in 2003, said the states and territories are leading the way, but the Commonwealth is lagging behind.

“A number of states and territories have started to go ahead with treaties, and some have made encouraging progress.”

“Like the Western Australian government and the Noongar nations. In essence, that’s considered a treaty, with a number of Noongar clans coming together to have a single native title claim,” he said.


Professor Calma said it was a complicated space, and an added element of complication was the need to have “constitutional recognition before we start talking about a treaty”.

“In essence, a treaty is an agreement between two sovereign entities. So who would the federal government be negotiating with? They would have to have several treaties ... we’re talking in the hundreds.”

“But if you keep kicking the can down the road you get nowhere.”

5 min read
Published 1 January 2022 at 6:52am
By Shuba Krishnan
Source: SBS News