It was a powerful act of bipartisanship and one of the biggest symbolic gestures of reconciliation in Australian history, but on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the apology, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd reveals many were against it.
In an exclusive sit down interview with NITV's Living Black program which airs tonight, Rudd recalls internal and external pressure to avoid the Apology as the new government's first act right up until it was delivered.
"Within the Australian Labor Party, of course, there are a bunch of people who have a conservative view of Indigenous policy. I remember being cautioned by some of the right-wing bovver boys of the Australian Labor Party after I’d become Prime Minister, saying, ‘Whoa, I don’t know if you should be doing this first up — the apology that is. And I said, ‘we committed to doing it. I intend to honour my word, and because it’s so symbolically significant, we should make it the first act of the Parliament”, he told Living Black.
"So, for me, it was kind of an elemental question of social justice, and we couldn’t get to the business of closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians until you’d actually had the guts on the part of white Australia to say sorry for the appalling treatment over a couple of hundred years. Just appalling.
"It just was an elemental response as a human being, knowing how deeply we had wronged this country’s First People".
Many opposed a symbolic gesture to Indigenous Australians, and some conservative commentators continued to argue the Stolen Generation had never happened despite all the available evidence.
This was backed up by the then Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin who revealed in an essay for Meanjin today that there was significant internal pressure on Rudd not to deliver the Apology as his first act in Parliament.
“I realised what a big risk we were taking, and what a big decision it was to have the Apology on the first day of the new parliament,” she said.
“Kevin was understandably worried something could go wrong," she said. "He was also receiving advice from others against the apology occurring on the first day of his prime ministership in the parliament."
Macklin also revealed the role played in the Apology by Linda Burney, then a NSW government MP.
"Linda Burney at that time was a Minister in the NSW Government and one of the few Aboriginal people in any of our parliaments," she said.
"Linda has been a great guide and help to me as a friend and colleague in the Labor Party. Right at the beginning of our thinking about how the event would unfold, Linda suggested that we invite elders who were stolen to sit on the floor of the chamber. This is a very significant honour in the House of Representatives, generally reserved for visiting dignitaries such as foreign leaders. It is now one of the most identifiable images from the day."
The impetus for an official Apology was the 1997 National Inquiry’s report, ‘Bringing Them Home’. The report concluded that somewhere between one in ten and one in three Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families up until the early 1970s. It found they were subjected to abuse and were not protected by the system supposedly designed to do just that. Of the more than 50 recommendations, there was a call that there be an apology from all Australian governments responsible for policies of forced removal.
It was an emotional moment for many, but for Rudd, it was almost overwhelming.
"It was like being transported to a different reality," he recalled.
“We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and Governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these, our fellow Australians,” excerpt from Kevin Rudd's Apology speech.
"I couldn’t look at any of the Indigenous faces when I delivered the apology. I didn’t want to cry… ‘Cause that’s the natural thing to do, and then it becomes about you and your tears, rather than them and their tears."
Rudd also revealed he was writing the Apology right up to the time he was due to deliver it.
“Well, you know something, on that day, a slightly crazy day. I finished writing it 12 mins before 9:00 am, after we'd finished greeting all the Aboriginal families, representatives of the stolen generations at the main entrance, Therese and I," he said.
"I remember Albo [Anthony Albanese] coming in saying, "Okay, mate, time to go in," then he looked at me, and he said, "Bugger me, you haven't finished it yet." So I was just doing a last sentence or two. I couldn't quite get the language right. And so off we went. And then it was like being transported to a different reality.
"And the miracle is that I expected this racist reaction that didn’t come. Quite the reverse, we sort of brought the country with us."