Australian Dictionary of Biography

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The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

2008 - Kevin Rudd's Apology
by Kevin Rudd
Parliament stands for a minute's silence after Prime Minister Rudd delivers the Apology (Getty Images).

T here were many reasons why I delivered the Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples on behalf of the Australian government on 13 February 2008.

Importantly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves wanted it done. They wanted to hear the simple word ‘sorry.’

Delivering a formal national apology in Parliament House was part of healing the profound emotional wounds of the past, rather than simply sweeping them under the carpet.

At the time, some asked, why should we apologise today when all these things were done in the distant past?

Remember, this was not exactly ancient history. Children were still being placed forcibly into church and State institutions well into the 1970s.

Three sisters, who were part of the Stolen Generation, listen to the Apology at Parliament House, Canberra (photo by Louise Whelan, NLA).
If we as a people and parliament are happy to own the acclaimed achievements of our more distant past, like the heroism of the Anzacs at Gallipoli in 1915, then, by the same and equal measure, we should also be prepared to own and accept the darker chapters of our nation’s story.

After all, it is the mark of a mature nation when its people can recognise from its past both the good and the bad.

The question I posed to the nation that day was a stark one: what if that which had happened to Indigenous Australians had happened to those of us who are white Australians?

What if the children of white Australians had simply been ripped away from their parents without cause, without any case-specific evidence of maltreatment but simply as a matter of general policy?

Our reaction would have been outrage, anger, and the deepest sense of injustice.

So, too, should it be today if we put ourselves in the shoes of our Indigenous brothers and sisters, our fellow Australians.

It was only later that I found out the speech was broadcast live across the country, that it had been watched in thousands of schools, and that workplaces had come to a halt to watch it.

Large screens showing the Apology had been erected in front of Parliament House in Canberra, Sydney’s Martin Place, and Melbourne’s Federation Square.

Across the country, Indigenous peoples crowded around television screens and—in more remote places—their radios, to watch and listen to the speech.

Outside the chamber, the mood was euphoric.

Many seemed to feel that this marked a new process of reconciliation.

Today, we know, the Apology did not solve everything.

Nor did the national strategy of ‘closing the gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians that I announced the same day.

But they have helped us unite and progress as a nation and, with honesty and courage, we’ll continue to do so.


left arrow 2007: John Howard's Commitment
2017: The Uluru Statement from the Heart right arrow