National Apology Breakfast 2011

Three years ago, I delivered an apology in the Australian parliament on behalf of all Australians to the Indigenous peoples of our vast continent.

Three years later, I’ve asked myself the question — what has it all meant?

Have there been changes in the material conditions of our first Australians?

Have there been changes in the way in which we see each other — Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike?

Has there been a change in the way in which the world sees us — this motley collection of peoples from all over the world who have come to this ancient land to make their home.

But a home which, since the Dreamtime, has been the earthly womb of our Indigenous peoples, peoples who cared for the land, peoples who nurtured it’s spirituality.

Or, if we strip away the emotions of the day, and look starkly at the words printed on the page, has it all added up to be no more than a clanging symbol and a sounding gong?

Like so many fine sounding speeches before it.

In seeking to answer these questions, my mind is often tempered by the habits of history.

Or as the Bard has pungently reminded us, “we all strut and fret our hour upon the stage, and are heard no more.”

We should therefore ask ourselves some fundamental questions.

For in the end, we are all judged by the truth of what we say and do.

I’ve often been asked what it was like to write the Apology.

The truthful response is that it was hard.

How could a white-fella begin to plumb the depths of Indigenous suffering over hundreds of years?

And then, with any confidence proclaim any real empathy with the physical, emotional and spiritual experience of degradation and indignity?

Because as the eighth generation descent of Anglo Celtic convicts and settlers, empathy was never the first or best of our human faculties.

Put simply, I experienced the most aggravating case of writer’s block.

The words did not come.

And most of the words put to me by others meant little to me.

So that is why I sought out Nanna Fejo — the octogenarian Aboriginal lady who gently explained to the white-fella what it was like to be ripped from your mother’s arms.

It was only then that I began to understand: the acres of academic texts on reconciliation finally assumed human form, the flesh, the blood, the viscera of the desecration of human families.

And it was only then that the words began to flow.

I wrote into the early hours of the morning of the Apology itself.

If you’ll pardon one passing theological reflection, I also remember praying a lot.

Above all, the words had to be real.

Because if this sacrament of reconciliation, albeit a secular one, was to have any effect, it had to be real, not imagined.

For those of you who’ve studied their Catholic catechisms, the definition of a sacrament is an outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual event.

By the morning, the text had been almost done — but I did not know how to end it.

I went early to the office and tried to finish it, but once again the words would not come.

By then it was time for Therese and Jenny and I to greet our Aboriginal brothers and sisters — the representatives of the Stolen Generation themselves.

I’d asked the day before how they would be arriving on the day of the Apology.

I was told that like everyone else, they would be coming in the side entrance of Parliament House.

For me that just didn’t seem right.

So I asked if arrangements could be made for the representatives of the Stolen Generation to come in the ceremonial entrance — through the Prime Minister’s Office where we could greet them. Where we could greet them personally — and with appropriate ceremonial respect.

And then they came.

Hundreds of them. They came through the outer gates, but then they stopped.

I felt as if something had started to go horribly wrong. That these first Australians, the Stolen Generations, feared they would once again be delivered a false hope. That what had been promised of this day would be taken from them — as so many things that had been taken from them before.

The truth is I didn’t know what to do.

So in the most eloquent form of Queensland English I said: “Oi, come on in”.

And so they did.

For those of us who were there that morning, there were many tears.

There were many hugs.

And in embracing some of these battered bodies and souls, they simply shook and shook and shook.

This was real. Elemental, visceral humanity at work.

I was confronted by the words of one old lady who said to me after we had embraced, that that in all her life she had never been kissed by a white-fella.

What terrible, wrenching words were these.

That the silent obscenity that had been the racial divide in this country had rendered it impossible for this beautiful old lady to be simply embraced as one of us.

The rest is now history.

The speech was completed.

And the Apology delivered.

And on my part, without the faintest idea as to how it would be received either in the Chamber, across the country let alone across the world.

Not a clue.

For me, all this was a completely blank page.

Three years later, as I’d done with Nanna Fejo back then, I rang another member of the Stolen Generation yesterday — a man this time — to ask what if anything the Apology had meant to him.

He said to me that over the years “he’d never felt like an Australian”.

He said he “felt like an outsider in his own country.”

He didn’t have any aspirations beyond being on the welfare.

He told me that for him the Apology was intensely personal.

He said that for the first time he felt like both an Australian and an Aboriginal.

And the first time he felt very proud of being both.

He felt that he needed to take responsibility for his own life.

He said that the young people he knew were now questioning if they should simply stay in remote communities, as many now wanted to get their way through school.

They were beginning to have aspirations and dreams about what they could make of themselves.

They wanted to start building up Indigenous businesses.

He said “things are changing so don’t give up hope.”

He also said that we needed to think clearly about the alternative: that if nothing happened; then if nothing had brought about change; that the alternative was simply dragging your way through from one day to the next, struggling to survive.

He told me this wasn’t just a “feel good factor.”

Though he went on to assure me that it did in fact feel very good.

In his experience, he said “the Apology had begun to change the identity of the Aboriginal community — how they saw themselves and how others saw them.”

I hope I’ve done his words justice in the way in which I have rendered them here today.

Knowing him well, I’m sure he’ll tell me if I haven’t.

What this member of the Stolen Generation tried to explain to this poor white-fella was that words indeed mattered.

That the act of “saying sorry”, if genuinely meant, can help to set relationships right.

That whatever a person’s religious views might be, there is something inherently sacred, something inherently spiritual, about human beings truthfully acknowledging that a great wrong had been done.

That if this acknowledgment is received in the same spirit in which it is given, there is in fact a transformative quality to this most raw of human experiences.

We all know from our own lives that it is hard to say that you’re sorry.

Just as we know that it can be equally hard to accept such an apology if great wrongs have been committed.

But if two peoples can solemnly share such an experience, then the transformational capacity is great indeed.

And so I believe it has been with the Apology of February 2008.

I could at this point reflect on the report card of practical achievements over the last three years: has “closing the gap” succeeded or failed against the measurable targets that I set?

But this has been addressed in full through the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Statement on Wednesday.

So I will not go through our successes, our frustrations or failures here. Because I could not do it proper justice.

Instead I want to reflect on the spirit of the Apology, the spirit of reconciliation, the spirit of new beginnings, that we have seen unfold over these last few years.

Because the essential truth is this: how we see each other shapes our behaviours towards each other.

What we feel about each other shapes our actions towards one another.

What we think about each other affects that which we do with one another.

And it is here that the hard work, and hopefully the enduring work, of the Apology is done.

Or else it simply fades away.

Revolutions of the soul are hard to engineer.

They are difficult to come by, but when they happen, and when they are based in truth, the change can be both enduring and profound.

In the Apology, I spoke of this act of reconciliation as a bridge — a bridge that had to be crossed before the practical work of reconciliation could begin.

We all know from our own lives that old wounds cannot simply be hidden.

They need to be treated if they are to be healed, and only then can we get on with it.

So what progress has been reached in the way in which we see each other?

When our eyes meet in the street, do we acknowledge one another for who we are?

Do we respect one another for who we are?

Do we see one another’s intrinsic human dignity?

Or do we physically or spiritually still walk to the other side of the street?

On this question, I believe there has been real progress.

I sense a new lightness in the bearing of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters.

I sense a new confidence in their eyes.

I sense more and more that we are now meeting as equals.

Of course none of this is perfect and none of it is complete.

It’s a hard slog and it’s a long slog.

Attitudes which have taken centuries to form, and too often have become frozen in time, can take quite a while to undo.

But I believe the progress has been real in the emancipation of our spirits and the embrace of a new reality.

The psychological and the sociological impact of this sense of liberation has been almost palpable — although not for all.

That is why this spirit of the Apology, this spirit of reconciliation, must be carefully nurtured into the future.

I’ve recently been reading Dr Martin Luther King.

As you may recall, Dr King had a few things to say about reconciliation between the races.

Mind you Gandhi has something to say about equality as well.

Gandhi said “I believe in equality for everyone: except reporters and photographers.”

Half a century ago, Martin Luther King addressed a freedom rally, portentously titled: “A realist look at the question of progress in the area of race relations.”

Speaking in St Louis, King brought his audience greetings from Montgomery, Alabama — which he described as “ the cradle of the Confederacy.”

King said he brought special greetings from the 50 000 people from that city “who came to see a little more than a year ago that it is ultimately more honourable to walk in dignity than to ride in humiliation.”

King continued: “I bring you greetings from 50,000 people who decided one day to substitute tired feet for tired souls and walk the streets of Montgomery until the sagging walls of segregation were finally crushed by the battering rams of surging justice.”

Of course America’s conditions at that time were different to Australia’s.

But in reflecting on the progress that had been achieved through the civil rights movement, King then went on to say: “but if we stopped here we would be victims of an illusion wrapped in superficiality. If we stopped here, we would be the victims of an optimism which makes for deadening complacency and stagnant passivity. In order to tell the truth we must move on. Not only have we come a long long way, truth impels us to admit that we have a long long way to go.”

While spoken in a different time and in a different context, and a different continent, it is worth reflecting on Dr King’s observations for us today.

Because the truth is, our own journey of reconciliation between the first Australians and we later Australians has only just begun.

We cannot allow our spirits to flag.

We cannot allow our efforts to fail.

We cannot allow our vision to dim.

Because the energies of the Apology, the spirit of the Apology must be captured, harnessed and deployed for the purposes of our common future.

For our future together lies in the simple things like how our eyes meet in the street.

But it also lies in the great things.

Realising the dream of Aboriginal Australians being among our leading entrepreneurs, our trade unionists, our public servants, our diplomats, our military commanders, our educators, our scientists and our artists.

Of course this work has already begun and we see new examples everyday being written right across the social canvas of modern Australia.

But as Dr King would remind us, there is much much more still to be done.

For when we succeed, not if we succeed, we will also transform the face of Australia’s future.

A future where the Dreamtime rests comfortably with modernity.

In a country which is truly at peace with its past and confident in its future.

And a country also enriched by traditions we have inherited from abroad — traditions that embrace the diversity that peoples from around the world have brought to our shores.

This has always been my vision of Australia’s future — a vision I believe which lies within the grasp of both our intelligence and our enterprise.

It took more than half a century following Dr King’s freedom rally address in St Louis for his fellow countrymen to elect their first African-American President.

I hope, I pray and I believe that we will elect our first Indigenous Prime Minister well before that time.

And the test of reconciliation complete will be for such an election to be seen as entirely unremarkable.

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