By TIM JOHNSTON
Published: January 31, 2008
SYDNEY, Australia — The new Australian government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will apologize for past mistreatment of the country’s Aboriginal minority when Parliament convenes next month, addressing an issue that has blighted race relations in Australia 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 first convenes on Feb. 13, Jenny Macklin, the federal minister for indigenous affairs, said Wednesday.
Ms. Macklin said she had consulted widely with Aboriginal leaders, but it was still not clear what form the apology would take. However, she said the government would not bow to longstanding demands for a fund to compensate those damaged by the policies of past governments.
The history of relations between Australia’s Aboriginal population and the broader population is one of brutality and neglect. Tens of thousands of Aboriginals died from disease, warfare and dispossession in the years after European settlement, and it was not until 1962 that they were able to vote in national elections.
But the most lasting damage was done by the policy of removing Aboriginal children and placing them either with white families or in state institutions as part of a drive to assimilate them with the white population.
A comprehensive 1997 report estimates that between one in three and one in 10 Aboriginal children, the so-called stolen generations, were taken from their homes and families in the century until 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,” she said.
Marcia Langton, professor of Australian indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne, said the apology was a good first step, but she added that 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, who is also 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 Aboriginal people themselves.
“It’s difficult not to be cynical,” said Ms. Langton.
The previous government of Prime Minister John Howard, which was convincingly beaten in elections last November, had refused to apologize to the Aboriginal community 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,” he said.
Many of Mr. Howard’s critics believed that he was unwilling to apologize because it would open the flood gates to potentially massive claims for compensation.
Ms. Langton estimated that some 13,000 members of the stolen generations still survive.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up some 2.5 percent of the overall population, but many eke out an existence on the margins of society.
Life expectancy for Aboriginal people is 17 years lower than the rest of the country; they are 13 times more likely to be incarcerated; three times more likely to be unemployed; and twice as likely to be victims of violence or threatened violence.
Successive governments have been wary of intervening in Aboriginal affairs, and many blame policies implemented in the 1970s as part of a drive to empower indigenous Australians for further marginalizing them.
The permit system, which bars outsiders from visiting Aboriginal communities without the permission of community leaders, has come in for particular criticism. It was designed to preserve indigenous culture, but critics say it has created ghettos and is partially responsible for an environment in many communities where alcoholism, violence and child abuse have become endemic.
A report issued by the government of the Northern Territory last year uncovered widespread evidence of child neglect and sexual abuse. The report triggered a wide-ranging and controversial intervention by the Howard government in the territory, which included removing the permit system from the Northern Territory and mandating that half of welfare payments could only be spent on food.
The Rudd government has committed itself to reviewing the intervention, but it has yet to come up with a comprehensive plan. Many indigenous Australians are distrustful of government interference in their lives, and although the plan for an apology has been broadly welcomed as an important symbolic step, designing acceptable practical measures will be more difficult.