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Rudd apology to the Australian aborigines – historic evening in Caux

Thursday, 12. July 2012

(Photo: Louisa Meury)Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia and two leading Aboriginals spoke last night about the processes of healing springing from Rudd’s public apology presented at the opening of parliament in 2008 to the ‘stolen generations’ of children forcibly removed from their families. Speaking with Rudd were Jackie Huggins, an Aboriginal spokesperson and historian and Daryle Rigney, the Dean of Indigenous Strategy and Engagement at Flinders University. The historic evening was part of the 5th Caux Forum for Human Security at the Caux conference centre in Switzerland.

The evening was presented by John Bond, for ten years Secretary of the National Sorry Day Committee. The large audience rose in spontaneous applause after watching a short film clip of Rudd’s apology, presented to the Aboriginal people at the opening of the Australian parliament in February 2008.

Kevin Rudd, MP, Prime Minister of Australia from 2007-2010 and Foreign Minister from 2010-2012, said the applause should not be for him and his apology, ‘but it should be for the indigenous people of Australia, so please acknowledge here their strength and dignity, they who kept the faith over all those years’. Four generations of Aboriginal leaders had fought on these issues, he said, whereas ‘we whites are perhaps slow learners’. ‘There comes a time in the life of a people or a culture when telling the truth is not a bad strategy,’ Rudd went on. Referring to the history of other healing processes in which Caux had played a part, he said, ‘Everything is possible if we have the heart to do it. We should be inspired by this place. Never underestimate your power as civil society. You can knock down walls over time.’

The former Prime Minister gave a seven-point outline for the genuine apology. ‘It must be authentic; people can tell.’ He had written his speech alone and by hand, and only after a three-hour meeting with an senior woman of the Stolen Generation who had told him her story. ‘It’s difficult for a politician to shut up for three hours and just listen,’ he said. ‘To be effective, the apology has to be received. There is a risk in all this.’ Then ‘it can be fundamentally transformational’. There was no National Ministry for Human Feelings, but he described apology as ‘a secular sacrament that could have a deep spiritual and emotional impact’. Next an apology should be factually based, and his had been, founded on a committee report that had heard real evidence.

Civil society had played a critical role over ten years in preparing the ground for his apology, he noted. And then ‘an apology without actions is meaningless’ and he had proposed a plan of action, a ‘closing the gap strategy with specific measures and specific time-lines’. And finally, ‘it must be sustained into the long-term future’. The Prime Minister now has to report to parliament every year to measure the progress. ‘There’s a massive national effort, billions of dollars. It’s words and deeds, it’s both,’ he concluded.

Audience after the speach ‘It gave me great pleasure to be part of this process,’ Jackie Huggins, an Aboriginal spokesperson and histoirian, said, ‘but I never thought that this could happen.’ The act of recognition, justice and healing ‘was very important for our people, but also for all Australians’. It had been hard to watch the video of the apology again, ‘the emotions are still raw around the magnificence of that gesture,’ she said. Now she wanted for her people to reach parity, to see real changes, she said, before embracing Rudd with the words, ‘Thank you so much for giving us our dignity back.’

Professor Daryle Rigney told how he had not been interested in the process around the public apology, and had only watched it on TV because he had to stay at home to look after a sick daughter. He had wept while in front of the TV, to his own surprise. ‘It touched me. I can’t explain why or how,’ he said, ‘but “sorry” actually does mean something.’ There has been ‘a commitment not to go the way of re-offending and not to repeat those mistakes again’. But he asked, ‘What else does Australia need to apologize to the indigenous people for? There’s a long list perhaps,’ and he started on his own list with land rights, water rights, and respect for the Aboriginal cultural heritage.Professor Rigney is the Dean of Indigenous Strategy and Engagement at Flinders University.

John Bond, who has been decorated with the Medal of the Order of Australia for his work, closed the evening by thanking the Caux conference centre and IofC. Every year during this long process, he said, Aboriginal leaders had come to Caux and found inspiration and encouragement in their struggle. The speakers all spent a long time afterwards in the hall, discussing with eager participants, and they were then interviewed late into the night by a journalist from Swiss public service radio.


Listen to Kevin Rudd's speech and to Jackie Huggins' speech.