Australia Marks 10 Years Since Apology To Indigenous Peoples

But has much changed?

Australia has marked 10 years since the Parliament apologized to its indigenous peoples for the decades-long policy of forced removal of children, known as the stolen generations.

But a recent update to the government’s strategy to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders shows the country is still lagging in key areas. 

On Feb. 13, 2008, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a historic apology to the stolen generations for the “profound suffering and loss” experienced under a decades-long government policy to remove indigenous children from their parents.

Between 1910 and 1970, Australia had a policy of forcing the indigenous children into state care. It was a policy of racial discrimination, and the decades of damage turned into painful memories that existed like a wound. Australia’s politicians had battled for years over whether an apology should be made.

In Parliament on Tuesday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said what Australia had failed to understand was that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were proud people.

“We did not see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and peoples as the gift they are, a gift which should have been honored but which was cast aside, disparaged and ridiculed,” he said. “On the 10th anniversary of the national apology to the Stolen Generations, I extend my respect and on behalf of all honorable members to all those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who despite immeasurable pain have survived.”

For some, Rudd’s national apology was a sign of profound change.

“It was a magical moment for me,” Michael Welsh told Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC. Welsh was taken from his mother and siblings when he was 8.

“It’s made a big difference to me in my life, through my life, where I’ve journeyed, it’s made a difference to my children, and my brother and sisters,” he said.

But there are signs the country is losing momentum for change, with this week’s update to the federal government’s decade-long Closing the Gap Strategy showing a lack of progress toward some goals toward equality. 

Announced shortly after Rudd’s apology, the policy for improving outcomes for indigenous Australians is on track to hit just three of its seven targets. 

Targets such as closing the gap in life expectancy by 2031 are no longer on track, the report said. Nor are other goals, such as halving the gaps in employment, reading and math, as well as school attendance, by 2018.

Other statistics, beyond the Closing the Gap update, paint a grim picture.

In 2017, life expectancy for indigenous Australians was estimated to be 10.6 years lower than that of the non-Indigenous population for males and 9.5 years for females.

“This is a national shame,” said June Oscar, the Close the Gap campaign co-chair and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner. 

“In 2018, it is still a fact that our people live nearly a decade less than non-Indigenous peoples in this country,” she said in a statement. “After 10 years of closing-the-gap work, we all expected to be further ahead than just managing to meet 3 out of 7 targets.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people also account for just over one-quarter of Australia’s prison population, with a 7 percent increase in indigenous prisoners in a year.

Labor Sen. Pat Dodson, who is indigenous, told The Guardian Australia on Monday that momentum for positive change had “crumbled away” in the years since the apology.

“Instead of actually building on that and transforming the social paradigm and the political paradigm and the economic paradigm for Indigenous peoples, we have gone backwards,” he said.

Reflecting on the national apology he delivered a decade ago, Rudd defended the Closing the Gap strategy and told journalists a reconciled Australia is “eminently achievable,”

“It is not the stuff of idle dreamers,” he said. “We’ve actually made progress on this road. We are actually bending the arc of history together. Change is possible. And on this, we should be encouraged.”

The federal government announced last year that the state and the federal government agreed that the Closing the Gap strategy would go through a “refresh” process.

Rod Little, a Close the Gap co-chair, said a refresh process could be the last chance to get government policy right in order to achieve health equality by 2030.