Australian Parliament apologizes for 'indignity and degradation' inflicted on Aborigines

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By ROHAN SULLIVAN

Associated Press Writer

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) -- Aborigines organized breakfast barbecues in the Outback, schools held assemblies and giant TV screens went up in state capitals Wednesday as Australians watched a live broadcast of their government apologizing for policies that degraded its indigenous people.

In a historic parliamentary vote that supporters said would open a new chapter in race relations, lawmakers unanimously adopted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's motion on behalf of all Australians.

"We apologize for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians," Rudd said in Parliament, reading from the motion.

Aborigines remain the country's poorest and most disadvantaged group, and Rudd has made improving their lives one of his government's top priorities.

As part of that campaign, Aborigines were invited for the first time to give a traditional welcome Tuesday at the official opening of the Parliament session -- symbolic recognition that the land on which the capital was built was taken from Aborigines without compensation.

The apology is directed at tens of thousands of Aborigines who were forcibly taken from their families as children under now abandoned assimilation policies.

"We apologize for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians," the apology motion says.

"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."

The reading of Australia's apology and the parliamentary vote was broadcast nationally, and people across the country watched, from the Outback breakfasts to the school assemblies.

More than 1,000 people gathered at two giants screens outside Parliament House watched Rudd's speech in silence, many waving Australian and Aboriginal flags. Applause broke out occasionally, but mostly they listened intently.

"It's great to get behind what the government's trying to do; bring black and white Australians together," said William Murray, a non-indigenous 17-year-old student who traveled for four hours by bus from Sydney to witness the occasion.

Aboriginal classmate Cyril Johnson, 17, also welcomed the apology.

"It's really good everyone realizes now they did a bad job in the old days and the apology is really good," Johnson said.

"This is a historic day," said Tom Calma, who was selected by Stolen Generations organizations to give a formal response to the apology. "Today our leaders across the political spectrum have chosen dignity, hope and respect as the guiding principles for the relationship with our nation's first people."

The apology ended years of divisive debate and a decade of refusals by the previous conservative government that lost November's elections.

It places Australia among a handful of nations that have offered official apologies to oppressed minorities, including Canada's 1998 apology to its native peoples, South Africa's 1992 expression of regret for apartheid and the U.S. Congress' 1988 law apologizing to Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II.

In a speech urging lawmakers to support the motion, Rudd also offered an apology on behalf of the government. "As prime minister of Australia, I am sorry," he said. "On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry. ... I offer you this apology without qualification."

Rudd received a standing ovation from lawmakers and from scores of Aborigines and other dignitaries who were invited to Parliament to witness the event. Many wiped away tears as Rudd spoke.

Aborigines lived mostly as hunter-gatherers for tens of thousands of years before British colonial settlers landed at what is now Sydney in 1788.

Today, there are about 450,000 Aborigines in Australia's population of 21 million. They are the country's poorest group, with the highest rates of jailing, unemployment and illiteracy. Their life expectancy is 17 years shorter than other Australians.

The debate about an apology was spurred by a government inquiry into policies that from 1910 until the 1970s resulted in 100,000 mostly mixed-blood Aboriginal children being taken from their parents under state and federal laws based on a premise that Aborigines were dying out.

Most were deeply traumatized by the loss of their families and culture, the inquiry concluded, naming them the "Stolen Generations." Its 1997 report recommended a formal apology and reparations for the victims.

Rudd ruled out compensation -- a stance that helped secure support for the apology among the many Australians who believe they should not be held responsible for past policies, no matter how flawed.

He pledges instead to lift the living standards of all Aborigines, and on Tuesday outlined bold targets for cutting infant mortality, illiteracy and early death rates among indigenous people within a decade.

Aboriginal leaders generally welcomed the apology, though some said it was empty rhetoric without addressing the issue of compensation.

Noel Pearson, a respected Aborigine leader from Queensland state, wrote in The Australian newspaper on Tuesday that offering an apology without compensation meant: "Blackfellas will get the words, the whitefellas keep the money."

Marcia Langton, an Aborigine academic at the University of Melbourne, also said the question of compensation must be addressed, but celebrated the apology as a huge step forward.

"I think that it's impossible to feel any kind of cynicism at all, if you can understand how much it means to people who have lived through these events and been removed from their families," she told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Michael Mansell, spokesman for the rights group the National Aboriginal Alliance, said the word "sorry" was one that "Stolen Generation members will be very relieved is finally being used."

Mansell, who has urged the government to establish an $880 million compensation fund, said he still hoped Rudd would be open to the idea.

Tony Abbott, the indigenous affairs spokesman for the main opposition coalition, said his bloc had reversed its previous objection to the apology in part because Rudd promised there would be no compensation.

"As far as the opposition is concerned, this apology creates no new rights or entitlements. We are guaranteed that by the prime minister," Abbott said.