Michael McLeod was “in a daze, in tears” after he heard the then-prime minister Kevin Rudd say sorry for the lifetime of trauma suffered by Aboriginal children who had been removed from their families.
“I never thought I would hear the apology being given by a prime minister, in my lifetime. That was just so intense, to be there and witness it,” said the Ngarrindjeri Monaro businessman.
Tuesday marks 16 years since Mr Rudd delivered a motion in parliament offering an apology on behalf of the nation:
“For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for 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. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.”
Every year on the anniversary of that speech, telecommunications entrepreneur Michael McLeod holds a breakfast so that Stolen Generations survivors and leaders of community organisations can sit side-by-side with politicians.
“When it comes to Indigenous affairs, a simple apology is not enough,” he said. “My hope is that the government announces some sweeping changes to change the dynamic.”
Michael was a one-year-old when he was separated from his family, a deeply damaging experience that would lead in later life to homelessness and alcoholism. Many years passed before he would see his mother and siblings again.
Despite this, he describes himself as “one of the lucky ones” and plans to set up a foundation to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.
There are around 33,000 survivors today who identify as members of the Stolen Generations. As children they were removed from their families and placed into missions, institutions and foster homes with the intention to assimilate them into the non-Indigenous population. While all states repealed these laws by 1969, survivors hold concerns for young people in out-of-home care today.
“My view is … if we’re not careful, we’re going to have another generation of youth, children, who are part of the Stolen Generations. The statistics [on child removals] are horrific,” Michael McLeod told the ABC.
In 2008 Aunty Lorraine Peeters, a Wailwan and Gamilaroi woman from north-west New South Wales presented the prime minister and leader of the opposition a symbolic gift of gratitude.
“I felt so proud to represent the Stolen Generations. I had the privilege of handing over the coolamon with the message of hope,” she told the ABC.
“We are still here. We’re not going anywhere. We just need help to get things done for the next generation, because our load of trauma is automatically passed on to the future generations.”
Reflecting on the apology 16 years ago, there is a hint of disappointment in her voice.
“The apology was one thing, but not a great deal has happened since,” she said.
“We’ve had all the goodwill and what they propose to do, but we really need to see some action out there and evidence of that action.”
The road ahead post-Voice referendum
On Tuesday Prime Minister Anthony Albanese addressed the survivors for the first time since the Voice to Parliament referendum, promising to do better to close the health, education and employment gaps between First Nations people and the rest of the population.
“It does not diminish one bit our determination to listen to First Nations peoples about how to close the gap – it was never the end, it was the means to the end,” Mr Albanese said of the Voice.
“We will keep tackling these challenges. We will continue to work each and every day with our commitment to First Nations people and reconciliation.”
According to the latest data, only four out of 19 Closing the Gap targets are on track to be met.
A dark chapter in Australia’s history
The apology was a recommendation from the Bringing them Home Report, conducted by the Human Rights Commission in the mid-nineties.
The findings in relation to the numbers of children removed, indicated between 1910 to 1970 that as many as one in three to one in 10 Indigenous children were separated from their families.
Since that report, all states have apologised and created reparations schemes for survivors; the only exceptions Western Australia and Queensland.
Met with loud applause from the audience, the Healing Foundation’s Ian Hamm, a Yorta Yorta man called on parliamentarians to “lobby, hustle and hassle” state premiers to revisit or establish a Stolen Generations redress scheme.
Looking to the schemes that were established in New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania, Mr Hamm described them as “tight fisted and mean.”
Mr Hamm was instrumental in setting up the Commonwealth and Victorian redress schemes, offering his assistance to the other states.
“I’ll even do it for free if that’s what it takes to get it done,” he said.
“This is not a deficit reduction or a Closing the Gap measure. It is so we can look at ourselves in the mirror of truth and see the better angels of our nature. It is the right thing to do, it is the decent thing to do.”
Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue honoured
The legacy and tireless work of one of Australia’s giants — Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue, who died earlier this month aged 91 — was also remembered today for her contribution to the apology.
Described as a “trailblazer ahead of her time”, Dr O’Donoghue was commemorated with a minute’s silence.
Joining from the United States, Mr Rudd acknowledged Dr O’Donoghue’s pivotal role in delivering the apology in 2008.
“She was central to the campaign for the apology over many years, even when it seemed Canberra had shut its ears and all hope was lost.”
Reflecting on the hurt caused by the rejection of the Voice to Parliament referendum, Mr Rudd said, “I have no doubt that if today Lowitja was still with us, she would be urging us to again put our shoulder to the wheel, just as she had done over a lifetime to keep working on the hard business of reconciliation.”