On February 13, 2008 the country stood still. That morning, Prime Minister Kevin
Rudd delivered an apology in Parliament for Australia’s Indigenous Stolen Generations.
Indigenous people from across the country went to Canberra to witness it. Everywhere
else, people sat in front of TVs and radios. At my workplace, all the staff gathered
around the computer that was set up for the occasion. A block away, people packed out
Melbourne’s Federation Square to watch it on the big screen. People had been waiting
years for this moment. Tears rolled down Indigenous and non-Indigenous faces. There
had been a build-up of anger over the refusal of Rudd’s predecessor, John Howard, to
issue an apology, even though Australia’s history of state-sponsored genocide had been
exposed. When Rudd ended his speech, someone at my workplace said, “What about
From the beginning of the 20th century until the 1970s, police and welfare agencies
raided Indigenous communities throughout the country, on instructions from government-
appointed Chief Protectors to take away “half” and “quarter caste” children. Assimilation
was the official policy by which the Australian State intended to destroy all trace of the
continent’s first nations. Between 1910 and 1970, about 100,000 Indigenous children
were removed to missions, orphanages and children’s homes. Most were under five years
The movie Rabbit Proof Fence awoke many to the
horror of Australia’s stolen generations
Between ten and thirty percent of all Indigenous children were removed. They were
forbidden to speak their languages or practice their ceremonies. Told that they were
orphans and their families unable to trace them, they became separated from their people
and cultures forever. Michael Anderson, whose grandmother was taken away in 1914,
explains: “In 1937, state and federal governments convened a conference in Canberra to
decide on a policy of what to do with ‘the Aborigines’ — the resulting policy objective
was for the complete annihilation of a race of Peoples. The principal method to achieve
this was to remove Indigenous children from their parents and from the influence of
customs, traditions and the Law/Lore. The primary objectives were to de-Indigenise these
children and to expunge their colour, because Australia was working towards an Aryan
Most of the children grew up in church or state institutions, many physically and sexually
abused. With little or no education, they were trained for their role as unpaid or underpaid
labour, mainly for pastoralist and mining companies. The Stolen Generations are lasting
evidence of attempted wholesale genocide at the hands of the Settler State, whose origins
go back to 1788.
A National Inquiry into the Separation of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Children
from Their Families resulted in the 1997 Bringing Them Home report. Among its
proposals were an apology and compensation for the Stolen Generations. Prime Minister
John Howard categorically rejected the recommendations, claiming that he would not
acquiesce to a “black armband view of history.” The real reason was that an apology
would open a door to compensation claims. And who knows where this could lead? They
might want their lands back!
Fast forward to 2007: communities raided again. Ten years after Bringing Them
Home, Howard ordered an armed intervention into the Northern Territory (dubbed
“the Northern Territory invasion”) on the pretext of protecting Indigenous children
from sexual abuse. When the Australian Federal Police and army personnel invaded
the remote Mutitjulu community on July 6, 2007, women grabbed the children and
went into hiding. Since that day, genocidal policy has continued, this time in the form
of government takeovers of communities and “management” of individual welfare
payments — cynically using “child neglect” as the weapon.
Rudd embraced an apology to the Stolen Generations, mainly for the political mileage.
But, like Howard, he rejects compensation. “Money,” he says, “won’t overcome the
problems.” Tell that to someone displaced from their people or to an impoverished
Of course it’s nothing to do with children’s welfare. The intention is to drive
communities off their lands, with their vast mineral reserves. It’s hard to see how stealing
their inheritance will improve Indigenous kids’ wellbeing! Already mining leases on
Indigenous lands mean fat profits for corporations and a pittance in royalties. If the
government gets away with its land grab, the miners will reap a bonanza at the cost of the
genocide of most of the nations of the Top End!
A Labor Party media release, issued in November 2007, points to the modern day rip-
off: “60% of Australia’s mine sites are located next to remote Indigenous communities,
providing real opportunities for local employment.” Read: cheap labour.
Sorry to keep doing this to you. The wealth of the corporate interests that Howard
and Rudd serve comes from theft, starting and continuing with the dispossession of
Australia’s Indigenous nations. The pastoral and mining industries raked in fortunes on
the backs of Indigenous stockmen, divers, miners, cane cutters and agricultural labourers.
Indigenous women serving as maids, cooks and nannies kept the homes of the well-to-
do humming. If wages were paid at all, they went to a “protector,” which was the state
government or the police. The current Stolen Wages campaign, led by Indigenous women
and men in Queensland, has opened another dark secret: in every state, Indigenous
workers were robbed of their pay by authorities who simply used it to bolster their
Compensation now, for everything! The dispossession, stolen generations, stolen
wages, invasions, displacements, incarcerations in missions and prisons, deaths in
custody, deaths from poverty — all this must be stopped and compensation paid.
Here are some immediate steps: recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, a treaty with
Australia’s first nations, Aboriginal control of Aboriginal land, pay the stolen wages,
pay compensation as directed by Indigenous bodies, full government funding to
create opportunities and provide services for Indigenous communities in employment,
education, housing and healthcare. The large corporations, which have benefited most
from racist wrongs, should be responsible for the lion’s share. Slap a compensation tax on
All working people should get behind this. We felt the emotion of the apology, because
we identify with being wronged. We’ve been robbed throughout our working lives for
someone else’s profit. We’re living the savagery of Howard’s WorkChoices, introduced
the same time as the NT invasion and now embraced by Rudd. “Welfare management”
for recipients with children will soon hit all parents on social security payments. This
same profit system uses women to bear and look after its workforce, all for free. The
traditional male-dominated family trains its workers to defer to authority and look after
themselves throughout life. Women’s independence and same-sex marriage would
destabilise this institution, so they are forbidden.
Going beyond “Sorry” to settle the past and present injustices done to our Indigenous
sisters and brothers would lift us all. Imagine the collective power we’d have to
ultimately make this predatory system history, to wipe the word “injustice” from our
language and to make apologies unnecessary.