Eight years ago this week Kevin Rudd spoke to and for the Australian people about what he termed “this blemished chapter in our national history”.
It was his first act as prime minister – opening federal parliament with the word Aboriginal and Islander people and a legion of non-Indigenous Australians had longed to hear: sorry.
It was an apology for “the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians”.
The words of the speech – searing, challenging, cathartic and healing – spoke to the pain deep inside all Indigenous people and especially those for whom this apology was intended: the members and survivors of the stolen generations.
As Rudd pointed out in his speech, between 1910 and 1970, between 10% and 30% of Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families. Now was the time to offer amends.
“For the pain suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and 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,” he said.
It was a moment in time when Australia was being asked to reconcile with its past. It was an apology that sought forgiveness in return. It was a speech handwritten in a long night in the study of the Lodge inspired, Rudd says, by the ghosts of leaders past – Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam – from the prime minister’s pen to the hearts and minds of the Australian people.
Ahead lay days of triumph and failure, of bitterness and treachery, of tears and redemption but even Kevin Rudd’s most trenchant critics would allow him this moment of history.
Each year Rudd revisits the apology with a speech to mark its anniversary. It coincides with the annual Closing the Gap report – a fact check on the state of Indigenous affairs conceived to add practical measure to the symbolism of “sorry”. Instead it has become a sobering and shaming reminder of the seeming intractability of the malaise that sits at the heart of too many black lives and communities.
I spoke to Rudd as he passed through Geneva in Switzerland on his way to Australia to deliver his annual address.
“I believe it was absolutely the right thing to do as the first act in my prime ministership in parliament. This had been unfinished business for the nation for a very long time and it was time to bring that chapter to a close,” Rudd said.
He told me that there were those even in his own party who were cautious. Some were worried that he was defining his government around such a red hot issue.
“The bottom line is many professional politicians had the view that saying anything on the issue of race was politically dangerous, if not suicidal,” he said.
Rudd admitted to being prepared for a backlash.
“I fully prepared for day two for there to be a firestorm of negative reaction. You could have knocked me over with a feather when we brought the nation with us.”
Rudd conceded that he probably misjudged the Australian people, underestimating the level of goodwill in the community. In any case, he said this wasn’t a speech for white Australians but for, as he put it, “our Indigenous brothers and sisters”.
But whatever the risks, this was about more than politics, this was personal. Kevin Rudd grew up regional Queensland, saw racism and had a mother who was determined her children have contact with black kids.
“She always arranged for us to play with Aboriginal children. She didn’t have a racist bone in her body and when you think of rural Queensland in the 1960s that was quite remarkable. So mindful of that, and mindful of what then happened to those Aboriginal kids with whom we played – most of whom are not alive to this day – it haunted me as well.”
It wasn’t enough to say sorry, Rudd said. It had to be genuine and heartfelt as well. He was aware of the profound emotional and spiritual pain inflicted on Indigenous people.
“This was a hearts and minds, guts, flesh and blood understanding that we have wronged Aboriginal people, and that as a representative of a nation and myself as a white Australian I had a particular responsibility – as a white male – to spell it in black and white in words that I meant as to why I was sorry,” he said.
But there was no point apologising he says, unless it was accepted by Indigenous people and the nation could begin to heal this relationship.
Apology itself was not enough. State and federal governments established closing the gap targets built around six core areas: life expectancy, infant mortality, access to early childhood education, reading writing and numeracy, high school completion, and employment outcomes.
Rudd said it is crucial that we actually have reliable data and while it can make for despair it is important to focus on the achievements.
“If you go to areas in the Closing the Gap statement you will find that in just over half of those there is measurable improvement.”
But I point out to him, the measurable improvement is still failing to hit the targets, especially in key areas of improving life expectancy.
“No, and what I said in 2008 [is that] we can be held to account for our successes and failures and this is my point, we should be able to celebrate where successes are occurring and be frank enough to know when we have to change course.” he said.
Indigenous leaders are calling for greater input into policy. There is frustration with the political process and a lack of will to engage with key issues like a treaty.
Rudd says Indigenous buy-in to the political process is crucial, but complex.
“It is always going to be horses for courses, we are going to have different programs in different areas depending on the needs of communities and the level of community buy-in and support. We should be smart enough, flexible enough, and intelligent enough to recognise it is going to be a series of diverse approaches, not all of them involving the government. Some will involve businesses, some NGOs, some local partnerships on the ground. But they key to success is where you have a local Indigenous leadership.”
Rudd, like prime ministers before and since, left his office with great hopes dashed by harsh realities. Many Indigenous people have criticised his decision to continue the previous Howard coalition government’s Northern Territory intervention – initially a military presence and harsh community controls in response to allegations of endemic abuse.
Indigenous communities complained of being shut out of any consultation as the government seized control of their lives. Rudd now concedes that the results of the intervention have been, in his words, “mixed”.
He looks at Australia now from afar. Long gone from the prime ministership – the years of rancour, betrayal, the plotting and scheming of Canberra behind him – Rudd is now president of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York (some say aspiring United Nations secretary general, but Rudd tells me it is not formally our region’s turn). He travels the globe, and he is mindful of how Australia is seen internationally and how race issues are crucial in shaping foreign opinions.
He says he is still stunned at the number of national leaders who tell him that they watched the apology live, all those years ago when he hoped that sorry would bring healing and change.
Eight years later, the country is still waiting.
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