APOLOGY TO AUSTRALIA’S INDIGENOUS PEOPLES – Speech

Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (3.49 p.m.)—I am pleased to be the final speaker from the Democrats on this motion. All Democrat senators have spoken to it in noting the very significant motion of apology that was passed by this Senate chamber without dissent—as well as, of course, in the House of Representatives—earlier today. It is a very welcome motion. Like all motions that are drafted by others, you could always pick a word or two where you think, ‘I would have expressed it differently,’ but, as the Prime Minister himself has said, this motion is not about politicians; it is about the stolen generations themselves. This motion has clearly been drafted with a lot of consultation with Indigenous people—who all, of course, have their own individual views about this, as with every other issue—and was put forward in a way that seeks to receive unanimity to give it maximum strength and maximum significance. I think it has clearly been put forward in the right spirit. It is a very strong and powerful motion, and it is one that I am very pleased to give support to.

It has often been said that words are not sufficient. Of course, that is true, but words are very important. We would be in a bit of trouble here in this chamber if words did not have importance, because that is about all we do here—speak. We speak of important things, we put important things on the record, we pass laws that are made of words and we, as with all human beings, conduct a large part of our communication using words in various forms. These words are very powerful and they are very important. I know that they will provide real meaning, real comfort and a real and positive sense of relief and thankfulness about the clear recognition that is provided by the words of the motion that the Senate has passed. I would also suggest that, whilst of course passing a motion, any motion, does not in itself provide health care, resources, better education, or the concrete assistance that is needed by so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, I do think it is misleading to say that a motion in itself does not have any practical effect or positive benefit, because it clearly does.

There is no doubt that a significant part of the difficulties faced by so many Indigenous Australians today results in part—not all, but in part—from the unresolved emotional and spiritual trauma which they and so many of their families, of their peoples, have suffered over so many years. There is a real problem with mental health issues and with spiritual health for many Indigenous Australians, in part because that trauma is not acknowledged, has not been fully recognised, has been continually downplayed or dismissed. So it does have a direct positive effect for some people—not for everybody—to adopt resolutions like this if they are done in the right spirit and with genuine intent. I believe that has happened today.

There is no doubt that for some people this will be a significant part of healing. Healing is not imaginary. Just because it is in the heart, in the soul or in the mind does not mean it is imaginary. This does provide direct positive benefit for some individuals and that should not be dismissed. Of course, more needs to be done, as the resolution itself says when it says the time has come for righting the wrongs of the past. This motion, at least as I read it, does not say, ‘Okay, we’ve passed it; all the wrongs are now righted.’ This is part of turning that page. This resolution goes not just to the stolen generations but to the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments and, I would say also, the views of so many in the general community.

Actions across the board—not just stolen generations practice—have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on Indigenous Australians. That is also acknowledged in the general, if not in the specific, in this resolution, but it is not sufficient. That is why I also welcome the fact that the Prime Minister took the opportunity in speaking to this resolution not just to support the words in it but also to set goals of commitments for his government and for this parliament, and I would hope for the wider Australian community, to seek to bridge and remove those gaps and those inequalities. This provides a platform for that. It is up to all of us to make sure we take advantage of that platform. It does not matter which words you put in here; the task is still before us to make sure that we take advantage of the opportunity provided.

I would have to say that one of those tasks is the need to address the significant level of antagonism towards Indigenous Australians which clearly still exists among a significant proportion of the Australian community. You only have to look at letters to the editor and at comments on websites, or listen to talkback radio—quite clearly a significant number of Australians are still very antagonistic towards any sort of recognition of the unique role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I am not saying that everybody who has a problem with a formal apology is antagonistic to Indigenous people—I am not saying that at all—but I am saying that it is quite clear from specific comments, from the bigoted and prejudiced comments made by a number of Australians since this issue has been raised, that there is still a serious problem. It is not un-Australian and it is not unpatriotic to raise that. I think it is actually unpatriotic to continue to ignore it. That means there is a job for all of us as community leaders, not just in the parliament but across the board, to address that antagonism, not just by saying that everybody who does not agree is a bigot or a racist. You need to acknowledge that bigotry exists and to tackle head-on the clear falsehoods put forward by some people to justify that bigotry and to address some of the ignorance that still lies out there in the general community, and the ignorance that still exists in so many of us.

One of the statements of the former Prime Minister which I often agreed with was his comment that we needed to learn more about Australian history. One area where so many of us are woefully ignorant is the reality of the history of Indigenous Australians before British arrival. Before British arrival, other Europeans arrived here and before that others from Asia arrived here. There is history even prior to that. And even more so there is the history since colonisation. There is still a lot of ignorance about that. Of course there are a lot of positives but there are some absolutely appalling atrocities, which we simply refuse to acknowledge. I wish to take the opportunity to repeat my longstanding view, and the Democrats’ longstanding view, that there is still a need to revisit the other recommendations of the Bringing them home report, particularly with regard to compensation. This resolution of an apology is a stand-alone thing, as it should be. I do not believe it should have addressed the issue of compensation. It does not, in itself, open up compensation. There is no doubt about that, despite some of the furphies put around. I believe there is still a linked need to address the issue of compensation. If you go back to the rationale for the apology in recommendation 3 on page 282 of the Bringing them home report, you see that it makes clear, in coming to the rationale of that recommendation, that it is a package. An acknowledgement—an apology—goes hand in hand with guarantees against repetition, measures of restitution, measures of rehabilitation and monetary compensation. That is based upon longstanding, international principles regarding reparation and acknowledgement, known as the van Boven principles, which are detailed in the report. They are intertwined and we should not seek to just slice them apart.

I repeat my call that that issue be re-examined by the Senate, as a Senate committee did after this report came down in the late 1990s. It is unacceptable that the federal government has dismissed that out of hand without even re-examining it. That is what I call for. I will reintroduce my legislation, which seeks to provide one example of how compensation could be provided. That is another issue we can go on with. We should all celebrate this resolution, which was passed here today.

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