Shorten: we need to be as strong as the Stolen Generations

By The Mandarin

February 13, 2018

The 10th anniversary of the Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples today was commemorated with a breakfast in the Great Hall of Parliament House. Here is Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s address to that gathering:

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders, both past and present.

I’d also like to acknowledge in particular, the survivors. All of the survivors of the Stolen Generations here today.

In amongst what we do in parliament, can I just say to the survivors of the Stolen Generations, you do us great honour by being here today. Thank you very much.

I’d like to acknowledge all the Members of Parliament if you will excuse a little bit of partisan politics, I think just about every Member of the Parliamentary Labor Party is here today.

I acknowledge the presence of the Greens  and of course members of the Government.

I’d like to acknowledge the presence of Kevin Rudd and Thérèse Rein.

Kevin, ten years ago you did a great thing for this nation. It’s fantastic to see you here.

They say that the word sorry can be a hard word to say, but when we recall when the Prime Minister of Australia said sorry, there were some in the community that said the sky would fall in on us. It would be the end of the way we were.

It did actually change the way we were, but for the better. It was simple, but it was extraordinary.

And those words of healing and justice and forgiveness from the Stolen Generations made Australia a better place.

This morning I want to share Paul’s story with you.

In 1964, when Paul was five and a half months old, he and his Mum both fell ill.

His Mum took him to the Royal Children’s Hospital, in Melbourne.

Paul recovered more quickly than his mother and the authorities recommended to her that she place him in St Gabriel’s Babies Home, in Balwyn, until she was recovered.

Soon after though, Paul was made a ward of the State and transferred to another institution.

When his Mum came to visit him, she found only an empty cot.

How shocking.

At the age of three, Paul was placed with a family for adoption. That placement lasted seven months.

His adoptive mother complained to officials that this boy – who was barely three years old –was ‘dull, unresponsive and an embarrassment at coffee parties’.

So Paul was sent to the Gables Orphanage in Kew.

He remembers being put in line-ups when prospective foster parents would come and view the children.

The staff at the orphanage would tell foster parents not to worry about Paul’s dark complexion saying:

‘He could easily be mistaken for Southern European’.

When he turned six, Paul was taken-in by another foster family.He lived with them until he was 18.

Shunned by the older siblings as ‘not their real brother’, bullied at school because of his skin colour.

Then one day, soon after his 18th birthday, Paul was called to the Welfare Offices at Sunshine, to be discharged from his wardship.

It was one, twenty-minute conversation.

He discovered:

  • That he was of Aboriginal descent
  • That he had a mother, a father, three brothers and a sister

And he was given a file full of letters, photos and 18 birthday cards from his Mother.

Paul found his mother, working in a hostel for Aboriginal children.

She was looking after 20 kids.

They had six years together, before she died – aged 45.

That’s two pages from The Bringing them Home Report.

It is one story, amongst thousands.

At Redfern, Paul Keating said that the greatest failing of non-Aboriginal Australians was that we did not stop to ask:

How would I feel if this were done to me?

But, I don’t know if I could honestly answer that question.

I don’t know if I can imagine myself, growing up as boy, adrift, isolated, bullied and ridiculed. Just not sure where you fit in and wondering why no-one loves me, not knowing if anyone cared.

I’m a parent. I could not imagine as a parent going to a cot and finding the cot empty. I do not know how I would carry on.

I don’t know if I could have even written the 18 years of birthday cards and unanswered letters and dealing with cruel indifferent bureaucracy.

What I do know and what we know is that these practices were injustices, they were cruel, they were wrong.

What I do know is that saying sorry was the absolutely right thing to do. And really the people that count, we had that remarkable film we’ve just seen, or the story I just told you, sorry really doesn’t do enough.

I’ll tell you something else I don’t know if I could have done.

I don’t know if I could have done what the surviving members of the Stolen Generations have done, found it in their hearts to forgive the rest of us. That’s a generosity and a humanity and a forgiveness which they were never shown.

But I do know that for all of us who are privileged to serve in this position of power, we call it the people’s house but it’s a very powerful place, I do know that saying sorry isn’t enough, it needs to be followed-up.

It needs to be followed-up with compensation. I hate the debates about compensation – not that we should do it, because I believe in that. But as soon as you say it, the cynics, the sneerers say: ‘Oh it’s the money’.

I’ve never known a person in the Stolen Generations who would rather have the experience and go through all of that, for compensation. It’s insulting.

But what I do know and why I’m so pleased to have announced on behalf of Labor is, and we announced this yesterday: we would create a Stolen Generations Compensation Fund, for the survivors of the Stolen Generation from the Northern Territory and the ACT – the Commonwealth jurisdictions.

We will provide $10 million in funding for the Healing Foundation, to help descendants – because we know that the trauma of forced removal ricochets through generations.

We will also establish and convene a national gathering, a National Summit on First Nations Children – because we cannot have another generation of Aboriginal kids growing up in out-of-home care away from country and culture and connection.

I don’t know about you but I actually think most Australians would be shocked to discover, shocked, that we have 17,500 kids living in out of home care.

That’s double the number it was 20 years ago.

And I think most Australians would be shocked to know that the proportion of kids in out-of-home care who are Aboriginal has increased from 20 per cent to 35 per cent.

Why should Aboriginal mothers across Australia and Aboriginal grandparents live in fear that their children and grandchildren can still be taken off them? That is not a fear I would wish upon my worst enemy.

The fact that we have some of our fellow Australians living with that anxiety is not acceptable.

Australia has said sorry for the mistakes of the past. And unlike a lot of what we do here, the significance of that Apology will never fade.

We should provide compensation for the pain and trauma and we must work with the First Australians to make sure this never happens again.

Yesterday was the tabling of the Closing the Gap report, there was some progress there and we welcome that.

But some progress on some fronts is not enough.

Reconciliation cannot be about one day of the year, one report of the year, it is every day.

And we as a parliament need to make a decision if we really want to do this if we’re serious about it.

Geoffrey used the word bipartisanship. I love the word bipartisanship, it’s a splendid word, it’s multi-consonant – it’s a fantastic word.

But it is a meaningless word if it is an excuse to do nothing. Bipartisanship can never be an alibi for inaction.

I say to the Government: we will work with you, but Australia should not wait for you. We cannot fall into the trap of replacing paternalism with indifference.

Doing enough to be seen to do enough on matters like these, just doesn’t cut it.

We shouldn’t be a parliament who rules out ideas because they weren’t our ideas.

If we believe in empowerment it means sometimes adjusting your agenda to go with the agenda of people you are genuine about empowering. And I talk, of course, about the Statement from the Heart.

It wasn’t anticipated by the parliament. But do you know what? If the people say that this is what they want, it is not up to us to just indifferently rule it out.

We need to make sure that the next generation of Aboriginal kids grow up with a better deal than their parents and grandparents had – and we start by rejecting the politics of indifference, the politics of paternalism.

And what I would also ask everyone here today is we must fight against the creeping cynicism which is always present.

When we hear people talking about the ‘black armband’ view of history, or the ‘Aboriginal industry’ it is the powerful people in this parliament who must stand up for those without a voice.

We need to be as strong as the Stolen Generations.

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