Remarks at the unveiling of the Stolen Generations Memorial

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Bidjigal people, and pay my respects to elders both past and present.

Last year for Harmony Day I wanted to make a video, so I asked people of different backgrounds to deliver a message of unity, peace and respect in their ancestral language.

 

I wanted the video to begin with the first language of this area, with the language of the Bidjigal people, but I was quite horrified to learn when I made enquiries in the local community that there was no one left that spoke that language.

When I asked Aunty Norma about that she told me that during her years in primary school the children were prohibited from speaking their own language, in fact doing so earnt you wrap over the knuckles with a ruler. What a waste. What an injustice. The most ancient of all languages killed by ignorance and disrespect in Government policy.

The cruellest and harshest of those policies was the forced removal of children from their parents, their families, and their communities because of the colour of their skin. Thankfully, we now recognise the error of those policies, and this important monument symbolises that those policies were unjustified, they were disrespectful, they were ignorant, and importantly they were wrong. They were wrong.

We all teach our children that if you wrong someone you must say sorry, you must utter those words ‘I am sorry’ if you’re going to move on. It’s the most universal human value that transcends culture, religion and geography, it’s the only way we find hope in wrongdoing and injustice, and on the 13th of February 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stood in the Australian Parliament and on behalf of the nation said these words, “to the stolen generations I say the following, as Prime Minister of Australia I am sorry, on behalf of the Government of Australia I am sorry, on behalf of the Parliament of Australia I am sorry, I offer you this apology without qualification”.

That was an incredible day, it was thick with emotion, there was a palpable sense of progress on reconciliation in the Parliament that day, but the most remarkable aspect of that day was certainly the apology itself but also the fact that people like Aunty Norma, the elders that are here today, the people who were taken from their families, that you found it in your heart to put aside the pain, to let go of the bitterness and to accept that apology in the spirit that it was offered.

On behalf of our community I say to you today, thank you. I offer you our praise and respect for demonstrating to us what humility and forgiveness really is.

I said earlier that we teach our kids to say sorry when they do something wrong, but we also teach our kids that those words have to have meaning, you have to mean it when you say sorry.

In that same speech on that day in the Parliament Kevin Rudd later said these words, “let it not become a moment of mere sentimental reflection, let us take it with both hands and allow this day, this day of reconciliation to become one of those rare moments in which we might just be able to transform the way in which the nation thinks about itself, whereby the injustice administered to the stolen generations in the name of these our Parliaments causes us to reappraise at the deepest level of our beliefs the real possibility of reconciliation, reconciliation across all Indigenous Australia”.

Although our first Australians are brave enough to accept that apology, these policies have left a stubborn and often deadly legacy. If you’re a young aboriginal boy growing up in our community you are more likely to leave school and go to Long Bay Jail than to the University of New South Wales as a student.

An Aboriginal Australian on average will die ten years before a non-Aboriginal Australian, there have been recent suicides of young aboriginal people in our community, each one a tragedy, and despite the apology 35 per cent of Aboriginal children are in out of home care, away from country, kin and culture.

It’s not enough to say sorry. Kevin Rudd’s words expressed on behalf of our nation must have meaning, they must mean something.

I want to finish today with the words of Nanna Nungala Fejo, who Kevin Rudd quoted on that day in the Parliament, and Kevin had met with Nanna Fejo two days before he delivered the apology and he asked her a simple question, “is there anything that you would like me to say on your behalf in the Parliament?”

She said these very touching words. “Families. Keeping them together is very important. It’s a good thing that you’re surrounded by love, and that love is passed down the generations. Let this monument not only represent our sorrow for injustice done, let it also represent our determination to truly right a wrong, and restore dignity, respect and better living standards for our first Australians. Thank you.


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