Reflecting on the Apology to the Stolen Generations – An Interview with Kevin Rudd

12 Feb 2016

This week marks the 8th anniversary of Kevin Rudd's Apology to the Stolen Generations. I am hosting @IndigenousX this week and as part of that was fortunate to be able to speak to Mr Rudd in person about his speech and about his National Apology Foundation for Indigenous Australians.

Kristy McMahon

This week marks the 8th anniversary of Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations. I am hosting @IndigenousX this week and as part of that was fortunate to be able to speak to Mr Rudd in person about his speech and about his National Apology Foundation for Indigenous Australians.

On the morning of the apology the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was making the finishing touches on his speech to the Australian Parliament. Mr Rudd was both nervous and emotional as he was about to give his first speech as Prime Minister, the Apology speech that would move the goal posts of national conversation on reconciliation and Closing the Gap.

The Prime Minister was mindful to not be teary in front of the camera when he delivered his speech and didn’t want to take the attention away from the Aboriginal people he was speaking to. Mr Rudd said “I was determined that the focus be on Aboriginal people themselves so I just basically looked down the barrel of that camera and I just didn’t move, for that reason”.

Earlier that day Mr Rudd had personally intervened to ensure that members of the Stolen Generations were provided with access to the ceremonial entrance at Parliament House. As hundreds of Aboriginal people gathered outside the doors of the ceremonial entrance near the Prime Minister’s Office Mr Rudd appeared and to break the ice said ‘oy come on in’.

After he delivered the speech he spent time with his guests who had travelled to Canberra to listen in person. He made reference to an Aboriginal elder from Tennant Creek in his speech called Nana Nungala Fejo who was a member of the Stolen Generations as an example of why he apologised. He met with her after the speech and she gave him a big cuddle and a kiss and said his speech was ‘beaut’.

Mr Rudd says words are important, and it’s important to say sorry if you have wronged someone and to take action to rectify your mistakes. The speech was intended to move the goalposts from a debate on the legitimacy of removing Aboriginal kids from their parents to one which said that’s wrong and how we as a nation could make that right.

After the speech he got down to business towards Closing the Gap. With bipartisan support the Apology speech has started an important continuing national process. Every year on the anniversary of the Apology the Prime Minister at the time stands up to deliver a formal statement and report on the status of Closing The Gap. It was acknowledged that Brendan Nelson’s support was important on the day of the Apology in managing hostility from some within the Coalition.

Mr Rudd said that practical measures were now needed to be ‘fair dinkum about the spirit of the Apology, because it translates it into concrete action’. To do this Mr Rudd called on all levels of government to work together to make a difference in education, in health, in housing, in Indigenous incarceration rates, or “in the practical things which afflict Indigenous peoples today, in small ways and in large ways”.

In his post-political life Kevin Rudd has remained focussed on building something new on the foundations of the national Apology, to look forward and to keep working on ensuring the Apology is not just words. He founded the National Apology Foundation for Indigenous Australians, a not-for-profit Foundation with five core purposes: to perpetuate the spirit and the substance of the National Apology, to sustain the bi-partisan support the Apology has so far into the future, to monitor the progress in ‘Closing the Gap’, to support in particular closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in education and lastly to support where possible and appropriate Indigenous peoples internationally and their efforts to achieve reconciliation in their own countries.

It’s now the eighth anniversary to the Apology to the Stolen Generations and it’s important that we all continue to work together for the future of our First Nations peoples. The Apology was the first step that needed to be to be taken to start the healing for many of our people. There is still more that needs to be done to close the gap and provide a better future for our First Nations people.

The anniversary of the Apology is a time to reflect on the experiences of our Stolen Generations, I hope my family out there who heard the speech were provide with some comfort.


Why did you decide to make the apology?

We’ve been stuffing around for about 200 years and I thought it was about time. Better late then never. I was pretty appalled by John Howard’s refusal to do the right thing in response to the Bringing Them Home Report. He was just stubborn and the sort of bloke who could never admit that he got something wrong. Whereas if you look at the Bringing Them Home Report and the history of the Stolen Generations any fair minded person, whatever their ethnicity, would have to conclude that was wrong. And in national political life when the nation has done something wrong through it’s laws and enacted by it’s parliament both Commonwealth and State over decades then it’s incumbent on the Prime Minister of the day to take responsibility for that and to apologise which is what I did but beyond that to outline a plan of action for reducing the gap in Indigenous disadvantage in Australia. And I did that as well.

Was there any negativity in your government about the apology or pressure not to do the apology?

Yeah I think within my own political party, the good old Australian Labor Party, there was some just the usual bunch of folks who said ‘argh this is just all going to be too hard and do you really want to symbolise the centrality of Indigenous affairs at the very beginning of the government?’ You may recall this was the first thing we did in Parliament of the new government and the first thing I did in Parliament as a new prime minister but and so a lot of the ‘Nervous Nellys’ in the show were pretty anxious. Mind you, their political anxiety was nothing compared to the political hostility on part of a number of those opposite which they could barely contain and Brendan Nelson, the leader of the opposition, I think had a very difficult job at managing the hostiles in the conservative party at the time. But we got there in the end and I delivered the apology and I think I gave the opposition a copy of it about half an hour before hand and there was a practical reason for that. I hadn’t finished writing it until I walked into the chamber. I wrote it myself and I couldn’t quite get the conclusion right so I was just sitting there in the Prime Minister’s office literally with a pen in hand and then dictating in a member of my staff but I think my judgement was in the dynamics of the day with the Liberal Party and the National Party staring in the faces of a public gallery full of Aboriginal Australians who themselves had been so fundamentally wronged in their lives that you’d have to be a narc to say no and so, at the end of the day they voted for the resolution of the house and that was my intention to make this bipartisan, and it is. The other mob may wobble a bit from time to time, sometimes with more of a wobble than any of us would like but since then we’ve had each conservative Prime Minister of Australia stand up on the anniversary of the apology and, to deliver a formal statement and report on the status of closing the gap. I think that’s an important continuing national process.

What was going through your mind the morning you were set to give this speech?

Was I nervous, you know, that’s the first time I’ve been asked that? I think I was nervous about the fact it was my first actual statement in the Parliament as Prime Minister. But beyond that there’s a strange thing that happens when you are speaking, so long as you are confident of the authenticity of what you’re saying, then you’re ok. Then you’re ok. The only thing I was mindful of was not staring in the eyeballs of Indigenous people, ’cause then I would have cracked up. And the reason I chose not to look in the eyes of Aboriginal people when I delivered the speech was because the day was about them. Not about me sort of reading that speech, and so I was conscious of the fact that the Prime Minister having a teary in the middle of a national apology speech that would’ve made interesting television for the country and the world at large. I was determined that the focus be on Aboriginal people themselves so I just basically looked down the barrel of that camera and I just didn’t move, for that reason.

Do you believe that other politicians should give a similar speech?

Well actually I had no idea how it had been received I expected a full blown racist reaction in Australia because it was a bit out there in terms of what had been said in the past on it before. Most previous statements about Aboriginal Affairs in Australia with some notable exceptions in terms of Paul Keating who I think was a great hero of Indigenous people and prior to him Gough Whitlam, a lot of the statements in Parliament particularly by the conservatives have been full of sort of mealy mouthed stuff, because I chose not to be mealy mouthed and to be blunt about it and to not use the usual weasel words, no, I really did expect a racist reaction and you could have knocked me over with a feather when there really wasn’t one. I think even those who had racist sentiments at the time were kind of put back in their corner a fair bit and it’s part of changing the goal posts of the national conversation. And the goalposts that I sought to change were ones which still had an active debate on the legitimacy or otherwise of removing Aboriginal kids from their parents to one which said ‘that’s wrong and how do we make that right?’ and I think we achieved that. And afterwards it was great to spend time to Aboriginal people themselves, in the speech I referred to an ancient Aboriginal lady called Nana Nungala Fejo, who is still alive and in her early 90s I understand in Tennant Creek, or just outside Tennant Creek, so it was great to catch up with her I think she was 82 at the time and she gave me a big cuddle and a big kiss.

What did she say?

She said ‘beaut’, and that meant a lot to me. As it did actually meeting the stolen generations as they walked through the door that morning. The special arrangements had been made for the arrival of the representatives of the stolen generations on the day of the national apology, and so life’s busy there’s a lot going on at the time, and I think if the chronology is right we had just had an attempt at military coup in East Timor about the same time so the old head was working, but I did find out that we hadn’t made any special arrangements so I then intervened to make sure that all the Aboriginal leaders were brought through the ceremonial entrance where the Prime Minister’s Office is, and they were and it was a very awkward moment as no one knew what to do. I attempted to break the ice by, there’s this large group of people there must have been hundreds I think, started to move towards the door, I said oy come on in. That’s how it began I’m sure the formal ceremonial for the British royal family was of much greater diplomatic appropriateness. I didn’t ‘Oy come on in’!

Do you think other politicians should have a similar apology?

Look what I sought to do as Prime Minister at the time was to apologise on behalf of all of us. Living in debt as white Australians for what we had done. And I did this as a white Australian man ok, and so I apologised on behalf of the nation and on behalf of the Parliament. Not just the Government, not just my political party but the Parliament and the nation. And so because no-one since has repudiated the apology I think it holds. I think it was important based on your question is what do we now do to ensure that everyone active in political life takes as their core mission statement, what can they do to close the gap? See the apology is one thing, words are important. If I’ve been bad to you in the past, done something I can’t have a normal relationship until the day I’ve had the guts to admit I’ve done wrong to you and apologised. And that you accepted the apology. Then you get onto the practical business of what you’re going to do together in the future, and so that for me was the bridge necessary towards closing the gap. So I believe the practical call for the nation today, for politicians at a national, state and local level, is how do we make that difference in education, in health, in housing, in Indigenous incarceration rates, in the practical things which afflict Indigenous peoples today, in small ways and in large ways, corporates making opportunities available for Indigenous people to work, the schools of the nation who in part I and others have sought to subscribe to the Aboriginal Education Foundation, the Clontarf Academy I mentioned before for people in remote areas, these practical things right across the country. I think that is being fair dinkum about the spirit of the apology, because it translates it into concrete action.



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