Yesterday our new government was welcomed into Parliament House by an Aboriginal welcoming ceremony. This has never happened before. Both the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the Opposition Leader, Brendan Nelson have promised that it will become a permanent feature of all future openings of the federal parliament.
Today they finally apologised to the Stolen Generation. It's been a long time coming.
As late as the 1970s, the forcible removal of Indigenous children was still being justified as helping the children. The road to a national apology was paved by former Labor prime minister Paul Keating when he gave his famous Redfern speech 16 years ago.
"It was we who did the dispossessing," he said in his speech.
"We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases and the alcohol. We committed the murders; we took the children from their mothers."It is nearly 11 years since the 'Bringing Them Home' report was tabled in the Federal Parliament. Today many politicians were fighting back tears as they read parts of it to the house. Back in 1997 then-prime minister John Howard and his government refused to accept the report's recommendation to deliver a formal apology on behalf of the Parliament.
The report detailed the horrific stories of hundreds of people taken from their families and placed in institutions, adopted or fostered. Many fell into the hands of the Church and suffered terribly, they were forbidden from speaking their own language and told that Aboriginal culture was "Evil." Girls who tried to protect their younger sister's from beatings were bashed and locked in solitary confinement. Sexual abuse was rife. Many children died. Letters from their parents were burned and the children were told their parents were dead. Just take a minute to imagine how we (white Australians) would feel if the Japanese had taken Australia during World War Two and done that to us...
The inquiry's commissioner, Sir Ronald Wilson, described what happened as genocide. "It's important to answer these undermining comments and statements with the truth. Again it has been stressed today that the truth is the only foundation for reconciliation," he said at the time.
Among the 54 recommendations was a call for a national apology and compensation. But throughout his term, and despite massive popular demonstrations by Australian citizens, John Howard refused to offer a formal apology. It was our National shame, on top of this John Howard persecuted refugees and tried to break the Unions. The very Unions who made this country one of the most egalitarian societys in the World.
During the last 11 years we went through a period known here as "The Culture Wars," where various right wing historians funded directly by the Conservative Government (and promoted to offices far beyond their capabilities) attempted to rewrite our history and blasted anyone who refused to subscribe to their version of events. The ABC came under constant attack because of it's determination to broadcast what was simply the true version of events. These blinkered responses of denial are still widely held by many white Australian's who do not want to acknowledge the more shameful chapters of our Nation's history. This denial has diminished us as a civilized society and Australia as a nation. Today was like waking up in another country. A country we can be proud of.
To those of you reading this in the USA, I hope this feeling is coming for you too. It's unimaginable the weight of a spiteful, negative government being lifted off your shoulders and replaced with leaders who look to the future and inspire you with pride in your Nation. It feels like the end of a war or an escape from prison.