By James Grubel
CANBERRA (Reuters) – Australia apologized on Wednesday for the historic mistreatment of Aborigines in a move indigenous leaders said would help end generations of pain.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told parliament that past policies of assimilation, under which aboriginal children were taken from their families to be brought up in white households, were a stain on the nation’s soul.
“Today, the parliament has come together to right a great wrong,” Rudd said.
“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 parliamentary apology comes 11 years after a major report into past assimilation policies found between one in three and one in 10 aboriginal children had been taken from their families between 1910 and 1970.
The report urged a national apology to those affected, known as the Stolen Generations, but the then conservative government under prime minister John Howard rejected the finding and offered only a statement of regret.
But Rudd made the apology the first item of parliamentary business for his centre-left Labor government, which won power in November last year, ending almost 12 years of conservative rule.
About 100 members of the Stolen Generations were in parliament to hear the government apologize, some wiping away tears as Rudd spoke, while thousands of people gathered on the lawns outside to watch the parliamentary debate on giant television screens.
Others assembled at squares and schools around the country to watch the speech, which Australians expect to open a new era of reconciliation between indigenous and other Australians.
The crowds outside, and about 1,000 people in the public galleries in parliament, gave Rudd a standing ovation for his speech, which was broadcast live around Australia. Rudd hugged members of the Stolen Generations watching from the floor.
Howard, who lost his seat at the last election, was not in parliament for the apology, but all of Australia’s other living former prime ministers, conservative Malcolm Fraser and Labor’s Paul Keating, Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam, were in the galleries.
The issue has divided the conservative Liberal Party, but the apology had bipartisan support with new opposition leader Brendan Nelson offering his backing.
Rudd told lawmakers the apology was part of Australia’s unfinished business.
“As of today the time for denial, the time for delay, has at last come to an end,” he said.
He called for reconciliation “across the entire history of the often bloody encounter between those emerged from the dreamtime 1,000 generations ago and those who, like me, came across the seas only yesterday.”
Australia has about 460,000 indigenous Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, who make up about 2 percent of the 21 million population. There are no aboriginal members in the national parliament.
Aborigines are the most disadvantaged group in Australia, with a life expectancy 17 years less than other Australians, and far higher rates of infant mortality, unemployment, imprisonment, alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence.
Rudd has promised to end the gap in life expectancy within a generation, and to end aboriginal inequality.