Volume 17 Number 4
Australia Continues Her Journey of Healing
01 August 2004

John Bond describes the struggle that lies behind a new memorial in Canberra to Australia’s indigenous ‘stolen’ generations.

It is hard for a country to admit its mistakes. It is harder to proclaim those mistakes in a place visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year.

The Australian Government has done both these things. It has created a national memorial which recognizes as ‘cruel and misguided’ the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families in an attempt to assimilate them into Western culture. The memorial is situated between the National Library and the High Court in Canberra.

Many have been astonished that the government would take this step. When an inquiry into the removal policies reported in 1997, the Prime Minister, John Howard, was reluctant to accept its revelations, or to do anything substantial towards healing the wounds. Several of his Ministers attempted to discredit the report. When two of the ‘stolen generations’—as they have become known—went to court, the government spent over $10 million to defeat them, and won on a technicality.

The response of the Australian community was very different. Community organizations came together and organized a Sorry Day in 1998. A million people wrote messages in specially-created ‘Sorry Books’. Two years later, a million people took part in walks calling for reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, and many carried placards calling for a national apology to the stolen generations.

The Government could not ignore so many voices. The Prime Minister, John Howard, announced that a central area in Canberra would be set aside ‘to perpetuate in the minds of the Australian public the importance of the reconciliation process, and will include a memorial and depiction of the removal of children from their families’.

But the government’s ambivalence was apparent when they refused to include those who had been removed in developing the memorial’s design. This provoked demonstrations, and criticism even from former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, under whom John Howard had served as Treasurer. The project was at an impasse.

Meanwhile, the National Sorry Day Committee—which had been set up to organize the 1998 Sorry Day, and of which I am Secretary—was still at work, enlisting the Australian community in initiatives to help stolen generations people under the banner, ‘Journey of Healing’. We went to see the then Minister for Indigenous Affairs.

‘This memorial could be immensely healing if it comes out of genuine consultation,’ we told him. ‘We are prepared to consult the stolen generations, former staff of the institutions, and those who fostered or adopted children, with the aim of reaching consensus on the design of the memorial.’

Some months later the Minister accepted our proposal. Quickly we organized consultation teams in every state and territory, who met with several hundred people, bursting with ideas.

These ideas were brought together in three days of passionate meetings in Sydney. But through the heartache, people listened to each other, and shifted from hard-held points of view. By the end, we had a provisional text. Further consultation refined the text, and we presented it to the Government.

For five months the Government did nothing. So we let them know that Malcolm Fraser had accepted our invitation to give the 2003 Sorry Day address in the Great Hall of Parliament. Immediately we were invited to discuss the text of the memorial. These discussions enhanced the wording. But since we had reached consensus, we were able to resist attempts to remove words which the Government found awkward.

Eventually, a proposal went to the Prime Minister. His response reached us just two hours before Malcolm Fraser gave his address. Our wording had been accepted.

Then the memorial had to be approved by a Parliamentary Committee and both Houses of Parliament. Parliamentary Committees can work slowly. When the last official day of Parliamentary sitting for 2003 finished, the Committee had still not approved the memorial.

Fortunately the Parliament extended the sitting by one day to deal with urgent legislation. Some people in the bureaucracy, who felt deeply the importance of this memorial, urged the Committee to call an emergency meeting. A quorum was gathered, which approved the memorial. It was quickly submitted to both Houses of Parliament. Three hours before Parliament broke up for the year, the process was complete. The builders could get to work.

By May this year the memorial was ready. Stolen generations people came from across the country for the dedication ceremony. Though grateful for the memorial, many felt deeply hurt by the Government’s hostility. Would the dedication ceremony increase the bitterness, or help towards healing it?
The Government invited our committee to develop the ceremony. We proposed that a stolen generations woman speak first, and that the churches and the Government respond.

When the moment came, Audrey Ngingali Kinnear told of the pain of the stolen generations, and of their longing for healing.

Then James Haire, President of the National Council of Churches, spoke of ‘the profound hurt experienced by many of the children removed from their families into the care of church-run homes’. He honoured those who worked in these homes. ‘Many people, indigenous and non-indigenous, gave their lives to the care of Aboriginal children.’ But, he concluded, ‘some of the stolen generations were abused by those who should have protected them. In many cases, these wrongs have still to be dealt with.’

Finally the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Amanda Vanstone, spoke. She acknowledged the depth of sadness and hurt in indigenous communities, and described the memorial as ‘an honest interpretation of a tragic part of our history. That story needs to be told and needs to be understood.’
It was enough. Wiping away tears, a number of stolen generations people went and greeted the Minister. A fragile bridge had been built.

Our committee released a media statement: ‘As South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has shown, a public acknowledgement of shameful past practices is a crucial first step in healing the wounds caused by those practices. This memorial will inform Australians from all over the country and, we hope, will inspire a new determination to overcome the continuing harmful effects of the removal policies.’

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