January 31, 2008
Australia to Apologize to Aborigines for Past Mistreatment
By TIM JOHNSTON
SYDNEY, Australia — The new government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says it will apologize for past mistreatment of Australia’s Aboriginal minority when Parliament convenes next month, addressing an issue that has blighted race relations in the country for years.
In a measure of the importance Mr. Rudd attaches to the issue, the apology will be the first item of business for the new government when Parliament meets on Feb. 13, Jenny Macklin, the federal minister for indigenous affairs, said Wednesday.
She said that it was not clear what form the apology would take but that the government would not bow to demands for a fund to compensate those damaged by the policies of past governments.
But a policy of placing Aboriginal children with white families or in state institutions to assimilate them is blamed for the most lasting damage.
A comprehensive government-mandated 1997 report estimates that 10 percent to 33 percent of Aboriginal children, the so-called stolen generations, were taken from their homes and families in the century before the policy was formally abandoned in 1969.
“A national apology to the stolen generations and their families is a first, necessary step to move forward from the past,” Ms. Macklin said. “The apology will be made on behalf of the Australian government and does not attribute guilt to the current generation of Australian people.”
Marcia Langton, a professor of Australian indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne, praised the move but said it was hard to see where the government’s program would go from there. “There can’t be any next step without a compensation fund,” Ms. Langton, one of Australia’s most prominent Aboriginal advocates, said Wednesday.
She said she suspected that the apology was aimed more at pleasing the core voter base of Mr. Rudd’s Labor Party than the Aboriginal people. “It’s difficult not to be cynical,” she said.
The previous government of Prime Minister John Howard, which was convincingly beaten in elections in November, was unwilling to apologize to the Aboriginal population for past wrongs.
“There are millions of Australians who will never entertain an apology because they don’t believe that there is anything to apologize for,” Mr. Howard told a local radio station last year. “They are sorry for past mistreatment, but that is different from assuming responsibility for it.”
Many of Mr. Howard’s critics said he refused to apologize because it would have opened the flood gates to potentially huge claims for compensation.
Aborigines constitute about 2.7 percent of Australia’s 20.4 million people. Life expectancy for Aboriginal people is 17 years lower than for other Australians; they are 13 times more likely to be incarcerated and three times more likely to be unemployed.