Speech: Remarks to the UN Indigenous Issues Forum

30 April 2015 – New York, USA

RUDD: Thank you Chair. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the many lands we have come from across the world. I acknowledge the First Peoples of the land on which we gather today. They are welcoming people and we pay our respects to the elders past, present and future for their roles as custodians of memories, cultures and traditions of the indigenous peoples of the world.

It is good to be among you. I regard it as an honour and a privilege to be among you leaders and representatives of the indigenous peoples of the world. You are in so many essential respects the heart and soul of our planet earth and we have much indeed as the civilisations and the cultures of the world to learn from the traditional knowledge which you have.

I’ve been asked by my Australian colleague, who you have wisely selected as chair, to speak briefly about the process of reconciliation in Australia and the role in particular of our Apology to the First Australians.

For those of you familiar with the history of our country, Australia, will know that Indigenous peoples were treated savagely and brutally by the white settler community of which I am personally representative. The view that we had in Australia is that there was no point after 200 years of European Settlement, to pretend that this brutality had not occurred when it had occurred. And in fact it represented for us a deep stain on the national soul. It didn’t matter where we looked. What part of Indigenous Australia we examined, the many different tribes and clans, who make up the Indigenous peoples of Australia, we saw evidence, evidence and evidence again of the brutal mistreatment of the First Peoples of our lands.

Therefore we faced a very simple question, in our own national journey: whether we were to simply put this uncomfortable history to one side or whether we were to recognise its reality, and acknowledge the great damage we had done to our people and to our culture.

This process did not happen easily. As you know one of the hardest things you can do in life is to say you’re sorry. It requires an act of humility. It requires the decision that you will act differently in the future – that is what an apology is about.

The role played in Australia by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in its report, Bringing Them Home, the report on the Stolen Generations of Australian Aboriginal people. Aboriginal young people who were literally stolen from their parents over nearly a century of our history and given to the custodianship of the state or religious institutions. This report by our Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission had a profound effect on the Australian public’s view of these matters. It did not happen immediately. It took time.

But as of when I was elected as Prime Minister in 2007, the commitment that I had given to the Australian people was that we would not ignore this report, which had been completed 5 years before, that we would act on it. That we would act on it in the form of an apology by the government to the Indigenous peoples of Australia.

The first benefit was simply to recognise facts and not to try and pretend that these facts did not exist. The second benefit as I saw it was, if we were to achieve anything substantial in the business of reconciliation, including the Indigenous peoples in Australia and those that had come later, then a spiritual bridge had to be built. A recognition that I as a white man had treated Aboriginal Australians and Indigenous Australians as second and third class citizens.

That was necessary in order to build a basic level of trust. Healing is a strange thing. We can say that healing can occur if I make physically amends for the things that I have done wrong, that is true. But unless you actually decide that it is important to make my relationship with the other right again by saying I have fundamentally wronged you then the process of reconciliation will never be complete. And will never, ever really begin. That is the decision that I took as Prime Minister and I’m proud to say that the Government that I led did so on the first day of the Parliament newly convened by the Government of Australia.

At this stage, this was still a divisive issue in our country but it is a strange thing when you take a decision which you believe to be right. Suddenly something almost spiritual can happen. I think we began to see the melting of hearts, of the hardest hearts, across the Australian continent. As a consequence attitudes began to change.

I apologised to Indigenous Australians on behalf of Governments past and present, of Governments Federal and State, and on behalf of the European Settler community in Australia.

At that point I sensed it was if we had begun to cross a bridge towards the destination point of reconciliation but that was only the first part.

The second part, the practical business, is to look at the consequences of the displacement of Indigenous peoples and their cultures over many centuries in our continent Australia and to see the social and economic devastation that has occurred, and to people’s individual well-being as well. Then to reach a decision about how we could make wrong, right in practical ways.

And so as part of my Apology to the First Australians, I also announced our strategy of ‘Closing the Gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Closing the gap in education. Closing the gap in health. Closing the gap in housing. Closing the gap in employment and closing the appalling gap, which existed then, and still to this day, of life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

The other thing that I did in having presented this Apology and announced this strategy of Closing The Gap, was convene the Governments of Australia, national and state, into a national Closing The Gap strategy. Putting money where our mouth was and bringing about practical programs to reduce the differences.

The third thing I did was this, and that was in the Apology in Parliament – I included that every year on the anniversary of this Apology in February we would have a formal national report to our nation’s Parliament on how we are succeeding or failing in Closing The Gap. The purpose of that is to keep our national conscience honest about what we are doing right and about what we are doing wrong.

I can report to you seven years later that against the six different measures, which I established in Closing The Gap, that we’ve achieved improvements in some, some have not improved and one has actually gone backwards. But I would much rather as a nation that we have the maturity to recognise, and the courage to accept the facts of whether or not we are making a difference. I’m pleased to note that this practice has been continued under my successor of an annual report to the national Parliament.

So my concluding words of encouragement to you, the indigenous peoples of the world, and as someone who knows only a little, a small amount about your own national circumstances and your own national experiences, is that there is a pathway to reconciliation if there is political worth. It does require acknowledging fearlessly, parts of history and not pretending that you can gloss over them. It does require having to stand up and have the courage to say I am sorry. And then it requires a practical commitment and long-term dedication to making a material difference against the standards of living and life expectancy of Indigenous peoples. As affected by those of us who come from certain communities.

To conclude, I do not know how valid this message is for the rest of the world’s Indigenous peoples. I modestly offer it as our one national experience. I see our friends here from Australia and you’ll hear from them the extent to which this has been successful or otherwise in part or in whole. I do believe however, it has been one solid step in the right direction in the process of reconciling the people of the world, most particularly between settler communities and the Indigenous peoples of the world. And as a human being I offer you my deepest words of encouragement in the struggles in which you are engaged. I thank you for your attention.