Yesterday, Labor Leader Anthony Albanese took to Twitter to commemorate what he described as “still my proudest day as an MP”. He was marking the 13th anniversary of the National Apology and followed this up with a second tweet reinforcing his party’s support for the Voice to Parliament.
Like a number of Aboriginal people on social media, I found the display a little absurd. It’s the second time in two weeks a prominent white bloke has publicly expressed his pride at something which should be cause for humble reflection. Perhaps this is the real problem: powerful white men and their general inability to be agents of change because they benefit from systems currently in place. It’s an arrogance many in the community don’t have the privilege to possess.
It was back in about 1993 when my father took me to the opening of an exhibition entitled Between Two Worlds. That was where I heard, for the first time, my own grandmother speaking about her experiences being a stolen generation child. Her story “to Jay Creek and Back” was available as an audio recording and detailed her being taken from family then sleeping on concrete floors at a children’s mission whilst being trained up in domestic skills so she could provide free labour to a Territory family in a related policy which became eventually known as “stolen wages”. Many Australians became wealthy off the back of free Aboriginal labour and that exploitation has impacted successive generations.
Many Australians became wealthy off the back of free Aboriginal labour and that exploitation has impacted successive generations
Her story was there in amongst many other stories from stolen children in the Northern Territory. It strikes me now just how many of the names contained within this exhibition were of people who were/are members of my extended family. So many family lines disrupted, so many children being punished for speaking language and practicing culture. My grandmother had passed away a few years prior to the Apology, but if you watch the footage, you can see many of my extended family members up there in the gallery witnessing it.
I’m not going to gloss over my response on the day. I watched the Apology broadcast with many other Indigenous community members at the Aborigines Advancement League in Melbourne. At the time, I had tears running down my face and so did other members of the audience. My thoughts were with my grandmother and I am sure that had she been alive to hear it, she would have taken the Apology with thanks and grace. As the common epitaph goes though, “sorry means you don’t do it again” and honestly, can Australia say 13 years down the track that they haven’t done it again?
I’ve written this before, but when it comes to the annual anniversary of Rudd’s Apology, there are two things I end up reflecting on. The first is despite its alleged importance when it comes to bridging gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, most Australians still seem to possess not even the remotest clue regarding what the Apology was for, much less why it was necessary. The second is despite all sentiments contained in the Apology, not much has changed.
On Friday in Sydney, Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR) gathered to protest the NSW government’s continued removal of Aboriginal children from family and community, particularly in light of children who had been removed as far as the UK. GMAR have been active for a number of years and have had some successes when it comes to getting governments to recognising the importance of kinship care when it comes to keeping children connected, yet forced adoption laws passed in NSW in 2018 which disproportionately target Aboriginal families have undermined those gains. How on earth can Australia truly claim it has learnt from past wrongs when Aboriginal children continue to make up 40% of those taken into “care” by government authorities?
How on earth can Australia truly claim it has learnt from past wrongs when Aboriginal children continue to make up 40% of those taken into “care” by government authorities?
The other part I mentioned was how many Australians have no clue what the Apology was for. Too many times I have seen this event most could easily watch on YouTube referred to as a coverall for every injustice committed against Indigenous people. It’s not helped by certain members of the Indigenous right who lazily say “we’ve had sorry” without elaboration so their fans remain ignorant. Let’s be clear here: the Apology was specifically to the members of the Stolen Generations, and their families, for the genocidal governmental policies which led to thousands of children being taken over many decades. It was for the pain of disconnection, the forced assimilation, and for the impacts still felt in many families today.
No politician, 13 years down the track, should be claiming pride the Apology happened. The process happened eleven years after it was recommended by the Bringing them Home Report after much community activism. Not much has changed since. What lessons have the Labor Party, who denied compensation following Rudd’s gesture and then continued the Northern Territory Intervention, learnt since? Can we expect a golden age for Indigenous rights should they win the next Federal election? I strongly doubt it.
The Apology is a time to remember, reflect and commit as the subsequent generations that these atrocities will never happen again. It’s a time to recognise a nation’s shame and commit to truth-telling and action going forward. It’s not a time for white politicians to pat themselves on the back for a job well done. They have a lot of real work to do before they’ve earnt that right.
- Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte woman living in Melbourne. She's a unionist, a writer and social commentator.