Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Apology & a Bitter History of Stolen Generations

Australia's prime minister delivered an historic apology to the Aboriginal people in a gesture of reconciliation for injustices committed over two centuries of white settlement.

"We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians," Kevin Rudd told the Australian parliament.

His speech focused in particular on the suffering of what have become known as the "Stolen Generations" - mostly mixed-race children, who were taken from their families up until the 1970s in a bid to assimilate them into white society.

But Rudd's address also took in a broader apology over what he called "a great wrong" committed against Australia's indigenous peoples, repeatedly using the crucial word "sorry".

"As prime minister of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the parliament of Australia, I am sorry," Rudd said.

Use of the word "sorry" carries major symbolism for Aborigines after Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's conservative predecessor, John Howard, refused to utter it when he was in power. Howard was the only one of Australia's five surviving prime ministers who was not in parliament on February 13, 2008 to hear Rudd's speech, although his Liberal party, now in opposition, backed the motion of apology.

Howard lost his parliamentary seat in last November's national elections which saw a landslide victory for Rudd's Labor party.

The full text of the speech is available at:

A Bitter History

Aboriginal population of Australia estimated between 750,000 to two million prior to arrival of first white settlers in 1788.

Combination of disease, loss of land and violence reduced numbers by 80 per cent over the following century. Smallpox wiped out more than half the population.

Between 1900 and early 1970s estimated 100,000 Aborigines were taken from their natural parents as part of an assimilation programme, now dubbed the Stolen Generation.

Aborigines not granted vote in federal elections until 1962.

Aboriginal population was not counted in national census until 1967, prior to which Aboriginal affairs were governed under Australian flora and fauna laws.

According to 2006 census, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders population stood at 455,031, out of total Australian population of 20,061,646.

Many aboriginal communities are plagued by high unemployment, juvenile delinquency, school dropouts, drugs, crime, domestic and sexual problems, and alcoholism.

Government statistics show an indigenous Australian is 11 times more likely to be in prison than a non-indigenous Australian, while indigenous Australians are twice as likely to be a victim of violence.

A 2007 study found standards of healthcare for Aborigines 100 years behind rest of Australia, with Aboriginal men having life expectancy 18 years below national average.

On 21 June 2007 then Prime Minister, John Howard, and the Minister
for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough announced 'national emergency
measures to protect Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory from
abuse and give them a better, safer future'. This initiative was bi-
partisan and endorsed by then opposition leader Kevin Rudd. Although the intervention is presented as a broad based social welfare initiative, it has a significant public health component.

The paper available at http://phmoz.org/wiki/index.php?title=Northern_Territory_Emergency_Response_-_Public_Health_Implications_Commentary briefly analyses the public health implications and the overall context of the intervention.

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