New leaders for new times

Mr Rudd’s Apology

February 13, 2008 was a proud day for Australia. Today, on the first full meeting of 42nd Parliament and the first in his term as Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd opened the proceedings with a touching, heartfelt apology to the nation’s ‘stolen generation’. This term refers to the tens of thousands of Indigenous Australians who were taken from their families, stripped of their culture, and left desolate in a country that then rejected them. For 70 years, it was the policy of the Australian government to remove children of ‘mixed-blood’ and place them with white families or in white institutions. The scars of this policy have haunted the nation for decades.

Cheers from the Crowd

Rudd gave an apology free of qualification. He acknowledged the agony past governments have caused and expressed deep remorse that this should have happened in a free and proud nation like Australia. While those in attendance within the halls of Parliament were solemn, outside, crowds of people—Australians of all backgrounds—were emotional, crying, hugging one another, and cheering in turn. He challenged the government to move forward on Indigenous issues in a bipartisan manner and called for Indigenous leaders to look to the future instead of the past. When he finished, Rudd received a well-deserved standing ovation.

Tangled Politics

Although there have been calls from the Indigenous community to do so, no other prime minister has stepped up in this way. Ever. Partisanship, political in-fighting, fear of compensation payments, lack of empathy, sheer stubbornness have all played a part in preventing past governments from making such an apology.

From the other side of the bench, the opposition leader, Brendan Nelson spoke after Rudd. Admittedly, it was a hard act to follow, but although Nelson acquitted himself with dignity, his speech was much of what we’ve been hearing from Australian governments for the past few decades. Nelson represents the status quo, focusing more on the problems within these communities—many of which have come about as a direct result of governmental policies—and less on the real issue: that Indigenous Australians were damaged by misguided government policies. What they’ve lost can never be regained.

The Path to Healing

A formal apology is a significant first step. The unwillingness of previous governments to issue one has been seen by many as a roadblock for progress. Indigenous leaders have therefore welcomed Rudd’s gesture towards reconciliation and applauded his words.

True healing cannot occur unless the victims believe that the government and the people of Australia truly understand the extent of the injury. The acknowledgement of this wrong, the expression of unqualified remorse spoken with understanding and empathy are only part of what’s necessary. The real work lies ahead in actions, initiatives and new policies designed to remedy the situation.

Raising the Standard for Leadership in the 21st Century

Rudd raised the bar. His apology opens a new chapter in the lives of Indigenous peoples. The Australian Prime Minister is an example of a new breed of leader, one suited to a new century, one willing to step up, face the past and look ahead to a better future for all. Not only has Rudd raised the standard in Australia, but he also is one of the few leaders in the world who’s had the courage to stand up and take this first important step towards healing a divided nation. Other nations with a history of troubled relations with their Indigenous populations take heed. This is a proud and courageous direction.

Article first published in Suite 101 in 2008.


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