Australian Parliament to apologize for 'indignity and degradation' of Aborigines

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Associated Press Writer

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) -- Australia's prime minister proposed Tuesday the text of an unequivocal apology by Parliament to Aborigines, the country's original inhabitants, for "the indignity and degradation" caused by the policies of past governments.

The motion, to be moved by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in Parliament on Wednesday, is directed at thousands of Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families under assimilation policies that lasted for decades.

Aborigines remain the country's poorest and most disadvantaged minority.

"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 motion was to be put to a vote on Wednesday, and was certain to pass because it has the support of the government and the main opposition parties.

The apology is the centerpiece of Rudd's intention to make indigenous issues one of his government's top priorities following his election last November. It would overturn a decade of refusals by the previous government to offer an apology.

In another first, Aborigines were invited to give a traditional welcome Tuesday at the official opening of the parliamentary session -- offering symbolic recognition that the land on which Australia's capital was built was once owned by Aborigines, and was taken away without compensation by European settlers.

Aborigines lived mostly hunter-gatherer lifestyles for thousands of years before British colonial settlers landed in Sydney in 1788.

Today, Aborigines number about 450,000 among Australia's population of 21 million and are the country's poorest group and are most likely to be jailed, unemployed and illiterate. Their life expectancy is 17 years shorter than other Australians.

From 1910 until the 1970s, about 100,000 mostly mixed-blood Aboriginal children were taken from their parents under state and federal laws based on a premise that Aborigines were dying out, and saving the children was a humane alternative.

The issue of apologizing was divisive for years, with many people supporting former Prime Minister John Howard's contention that while the policies were wrong, the present generation should not be made to feel guilty for mistakes of the past.

But an apology steadily gained support, and Howard's party now supports Rudd's proposal.

Rudd's motion makes no mention of paying compensation for past wrongs, as some indigenous leaders have demanded. Rudd has said that instead of offering compensation his government is determined to improve the living standards of all Aborigines.

But Michael Mansell, spokesman for the National Aboriginal Alliance, said the wording of the motion suggested Rudd was leaving open the possibility of discussing compensation.

Mansell, who has called for a $880 million compensation fund, welcomed the apology but said it should have acknowledged that the assimilation policies were an attempt to wipe out the Aboriginal race.

"It was clearly the Australian policy to breed out those Aboriginal children that were grabbed ... it was an attempt at genocide," he told reporters.

In a speech to Parliament on Tuesday, Governor-General Michael Jeffery said the Rudd government had set the bold targets of closing the life expectancy gap between black and white Australians within a generation, halving Aboriginal infant mortality rates within a decade, and halving the differences between reading, writing and arithmetic skills within 10 years.

In Tuesday's ceremony, Aborigines of the Ngunnawal tribe -- their faces and bodies painted white and traditional didgeridoos blowing a deep drone in the background -- called on their ancestor spirits to welcome newcomers to Parliament.

"A welcome to country acknowledges our people and pays respect to our ancestors, the spirits who created the lands," said elder Matilda House, barefoot and draped in a kangaroo pelt cloak. "This allows safe passage to all visitors."

Rudd accepted the gift of a traditional "message stick" of welcome from House.

"Today we begin with one small step to set right the wrongs of the past," Rudd said at the ceremony. "Let this become an important part of our celebration of Australian democracy."

Outside, about 500 Aborigines and supporters protested on a range of causes, though many welcomed Rudd's gestures.

"I think it's fantastic that they've for the first time acknowledged the Ngunnawal traditional owners," local Aborigine Dave Johnston said. "It's a new government, a new era and a spirit of goodwill."