'We say sorry' — The Apology to The Stolen Generations
On 13th February 2008, Australian PM Kevin Rudd offered a long-awaited apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were taken away from families by successive Australian governments.
There are only five speeches from Australians listed in Wikipedia’s List of Speeches . They’re all up on Speakola and they are:
1949: Prime Minister Ben Chifley’s ‘The Light on the Hill’ speech;
1975: dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s ‘Nothing will save the Governor General’ from the steps of Parliament House; (it’s in our podcast theme!)
1992: Prime Minister Paul Keating’s speech at Redfern Park acknowledging wrongs committed against indigenous people by successive governments;
2012: Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, in reaction to alleged sexism from opposition leader Tony Abbott;
and the one Australians are thinking about today —Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 speech now known simply as ‘The Apology’. Fifteen years ago today.
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It’s a beautiful speech, short and direct. In the years previous, then Prime Minister John Howard dug his heels in on the question of an apology to the Stolen Generations. He could apologise to gun owners at Sale for the necessary and, as it happens, legacy making laws that would take their guns away and stop mass shootings in Australia.
In taking that decision I recognise and my colleagues recognise that many people who previously have been carrying on a lawful pursuit are going to be inconvenienced. I know that, I regret that, I apologise for that.
But he couldn’t or wouldn’t apologise to the Stolen Generations, and it became a catalyst for the turn of the March Across the Bridge, Midnight Oil and their ‘Sorry’ T-shirts at the Olympic Games closing ceremony, and even this magnificent speech by Prime Minister Howard’s namesake, the actor John Howard on ‘The Games’.
Comedian and writer John Clarke wrote ‘The Games’ and was a great supporter of this site. He recommended a few of his favourite speeches to me, but said this is the best speech he ever wrote. The video is no longer on YouTube (removed by ABC) but here is the text. Keep in mind that this was a comedy show, about preparing for the Sydney Olympic Games, and the joke was that overseas audiences wouldn’t know that the actor John Howard wasn’t the prime minister:
'John Howard': 'I am sorry. We are sorry', Apology to aboriginal people, 'The Games' - 2000
3 July, 2000, Sydney, Australia
Good evening. My name is John Howard and I'm speaking to you from Sydney, Australia, host city of the year 2000 Olympic Games.
At this important time, and in an atmosphere of international goodwill and national pride, we here in Australia - all of us - would like to make a statement before all nations.
Australia, like many countries in the new world, is intensely proud of what it has achieved in the past 200 years. We are a vibrant and resourceful people. We share a freedom born in the abundance of nature, the richness of the earth, the bounty of the sea. We are the world's biggest island. We have the world's longest coastline. We have more animal species than any other country. Two thirds of the world's birds are native to Australia. We are one of the few countries on earth with our own sky. We are a fabric woven of many colours and it is this that gives us our strength.
However, these achievements have come at great cost. We have been here for 200 years but before that, there was a people living here. For 40,000 years they lived in a perfect balance with the land. There were many Aboriginal nations, just as there were many Indian nations in North America and across Canada, as there were many Maori tribes in New Zealand and Incan and Mayan peoples in South America. These indigenous Australians lived in areas as different from one another as Scotland is from Ethiopia. They lived in an area the size of Western Europe. They did not even have a common language. Yet they had their own laws, their own beliefs, their own ways of understanding.
We destroyed this world. We often did not mean to do it. Our forebears, fighting to establish themselves in what they saw as a harsh environment, were creating a national economy. But the Aboriginal world was decimated. A pattern of disease and dispossession was established. Alcohol was introduced. Social and racial differences were allowed to become fault-lines. Aboriginal families were broken up. Sadly, Aboriginal health and education are responsibilities we have still yet to address successfully.
I speak for all Australians in expressing a profound sorrow to the Aboriginal people. I am sorry. We are sorry. Let the world know and understand, that it is with this sorrow, that we as a nation will grow and seek a better, a fairer and a wiser future. Thank you.
The real apology, the one delivered on 13th February 2008 is a beautiful speech. Kevin Rudd wrote the speech himself:
a declaration of purpose straight off the top;
the warm-up apologies, ‘we reflect, we reflect in particular’, ‘we apologise, we apologise especially’;
the emotional bit. The section where what we are apologising for is flipped to the start of the sentence, and the all important ‘we say sorry’ rounds out each phrase;
the pivot paragraph, away from the apologies, to ask indigenous people to accept the apology;
future, aspirational, better nation conclusion.
A landmark Australian speech, rightly squeezed into a list of the world’s great speeches:
Mr Speaker, I move:
That today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
We reflect on their past mistreatment.
We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations - this blemished chapter in our nation's history.
The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.
We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.
For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.
We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.
A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.
A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.
A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.
A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.
A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.
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I spoke about John Clarke and Andrew Denton’s note perfect eulogy for him at The Wheeler Centre on this episode of the podcast.
Here is first episode of the podcast for 2023. It’s about Walkley winning crime journalist Andrew Rule’s eulogy for his dad.