The letter, the spirit, and the future: Rudd’s apology to Australia’s Indigenous people

Tony Smith

Notwithstanding controversial arguments posed by revisionist cultural historians, there are some indisputable facts about Australia’s past. The Indigenous peoples lived here for thousands of years prior to the arrival of English settlers in 1788. There was no treaty or agreement allowing occupation of traditional lands but alienation proceeded anyway. The results for Indigenous peoples have been devastating by almost every measure. The seventeen year gap between the life expectancy of Indigenous and other Australians is a gulf that no civilised society should tolerate and is an indictment of government policy failure.

Time will tell whether Prime Minister Rudd’s apology marks a turning point.

As in immigration, the other area of potential racial conflict, bipartisanship has been thought appropriate in the federal portfolio of Indigenous Affairs. There is no doubt that paralysis and despair have been evident in both the Labor Party and its Coalition opponents, but the rhetoric of the major parties has diverged. Labor prime ministers have made encouraging speeches and gestures towards Indigenous people, from Gough Whitlam pouring sand into the hand of Gurindji elder Vincent Lingiari, to Bob Hawke’s Barunga statement suggesting a Treaty might be possible, Paul Keating’s Redfern proclamation acknowledging the ravages of white society and Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations. By contrast, an abiding image of the Coalition’s most recent period in government is that of many delegates at the 1997 Reconciliation Conference turning their backs on a lectern thumping Prime Minister John Howard. Time will tell whether Prime Minister Rudd’s apology marks a turning point in this portfolio and a beginning of positive outcomes for Indigenous peoples.


The apology moved as a parliamentary resolution by Mr Rudd on 13 February 2008 had its genesis in the inquiry into the Stolen Generations conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. The inquiry was authorised by the Labor Government in 1995, but its report Bringing Them Home did not appear until 1997 when the Coalition had taken over government. Keating and Howard who succeeded him in 1996 showed a deal of ‘consistency on economics’ (Megalogenis 2006, p. 1), but clearer differences were evident in matters of identity and cultural policy. Keating had used issues such as the republic and multiculturalism against Howard, who regarded these issues, among others, as being driven mainly by elites. Howard had immediate difficulty in Indigenous affairs and told the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, which worked throughout the 1990s, that its final report must not employ the terms ‘self-determination’ or ‘apology’ (Errington & Van Onselen 2007, p. 289). His approach was always to emphasise the things that unite Australians rather than divide them and he regarded historians who focussed on the destruction of Aboriginal society as ideological adherents to a ‘black armband’ view (See Macintyre & Clark 2003; Manne 2003).

In this context, it was not surprising that the Coalition government gave the Bringing Them Home Report a cool reception. There was a refusal to feel guilty for something which current parliamentarians did not do; there were defences of the supposedly good intentions behind the policies of removal; there were criticisms of the inquiry’s methodology and denial that ‘generations’ provided an accurate description of the extent of the policy’s impact; there were claims that an apology was only words; and there was a stated preference for what the government termed ‘practical reconciliation’. While Howard expressed his personal sorrow at the events described in the Report, perhaps fear of creating opportunities for compensation claims prevented him from issuing a formal government apology. Around the nation, people signed some 400 ‘Sorry’ books and state and territory governments made their own apologies (Dow 2008).

Howard steadfastly refused to contemplate an official apology.

In the 2007 election campaign, the Labor Opposition was accused of failing to differentiate its policies clearly from those of the Government. One specific, distinctive promise was the delivery of an apology to the Stolen Generations, which had been made on the tenth anniversary of the delivery of the Report, but barely mentioned during the campaign (Dow 2008). Howard steadfastly refused to contemplate an official apology but in the last days of the campaign promised a referendum to acknowledge Indigenous people in the Constitution (Lateline 2007). After the defeat of the Coalition Government and Mr Howard’s loss in his own seat, the major Coalition partner, the Liberals needed a new leader. When interviewed about his attitude to Labor’s mandate, front runner Malcolm Turnbull said that he supported an apology and that Howard was beset with semantic difficulties on the question (ABC News 2008a). On the eve of the apology, a smoking ceremony and welcome to country by the Ngambri people was included in the opening of parliament for the first time and newly elected Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson said that the practice should continue (PM 2008).


The apology took the form of a parliamentary resolution in a speech delivered by the new Prime Minister in the House of Representatives (Rudd 2008). Nelson followed with a speech to support the apology and over the next few sitting days, various MPs spoke to the resolution. Within Rudd’s speech appeared the direct words of apology:

To the stolen generations, I say the following: 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. I offer you this apology without qualification (2008).

Mr Rudd apologised for the hurt, pain, suffering, indignity, degradation and humiliation caused by successive parliaments. He referred to ‘the spirit of reconciliation’ in which the apology was offered and noted the importance of going beyond symbolism into substance. Rudd received a standing ovation for his speech.

Nelson’s speech was not received quite so warmly. Perhaps reflecting differences of opinion within Coalition ranks, he made many qualifications. In particular, he did not accept that the policies of removal were disastrous in all cases. Nor did he accept that the policies were devoid of good intentions. He defended the people who carried out the dispossession and took the opportunity to speak in support of the recent ‘interventions’ in Northern Territory remote communities. At the conclusion of Nelson’s speech, Rudd leaned across the party divide and shook his hand. Then the two together took a bipartisan walk to acknowledge applause from the galleries.


Professor Larissa Behrendt, reflecting on the two 1967 referenda on Indigenous affairs that secured huge ‘Yes’ majorities, has noted the very specific and limited wording of the questions (Behrendt 2008). While the success of the referenda allowed the counting of Indigenous people in the Census and gave the Commonwealth Government power to make laws about them, it is popularly assumed that Indigenous people secured citizenship and the right to vote. The rhetoric of the campaigners created this expectation and also aroused hope that the Commonwealth power would be understood as a responsibility to legislate for the benefit of Indigenous people, whose welfare had been hitherto neglected. In the Hindmarsh Bridge Case, the High Court ruled that the Constitution cannot be read in this way, regardless of any intention behind the 1967 referenda.

Australia’s Indigenous peoples are not sticklers for the letter of the law.

Australia’s Indigenous peoples are not sticklers for the letter of the law. They have always emphasised the spirit that lies behind their customs and traditions. They have found it difficult to deal with the English invaders who have exploited the distinction between written, black letter law and oral, spiritual lore. But the parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generations was offered in a strong and sensitive spirit and should stimulate a positive period in race relations.

Prime Minister Rudd’s resolution was carefully worded. While he addressed specifically members of the stolen generations and their families, the speech is headed ‘Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples’ and his promises about closing the gap of disadvantage obviously pertained to all Indigenous peoples. The apology received tremendous support. The apology was not ‘merely’ symbolic but has been accepted widely as a statement of historic national significance. The broader community has greeted the apology with relief, pride, gratitude and pleasure. Some people consider that 13 February 2008 was our finest day since the 26 January 1788 and there have been suggestions that we should move Australia Day celebrations to this date which all of us can embrace.

The gap between the letter and the spirit of the 1967 Constitution amendments possibly added to the disappointment that most Australians have felt by the slow progress towards equality. The spirit of the time and the goodwill in the community was broader and more generous than the referenda could ever legislate. Much the same can be said of the apology. Indeed, Mr Rudd referred in his speech to the ‘unfulfilled spirit of the 1967 referendum’. People of good will around Australia saw the apology as a step in the recognition of the dispossession of the Indigenous people, an acknowledgement that white settlement was illegal and had devastating consequences, an expression of regret and a determination that the damage must be repaired. The apology to the Stolen Generations has had such a deep impact because it is broadly understood as an admission of the broader, indisputable fact that the Indigenous people have been the victims in the building of the Australian state and society. This is why the few carping dissenters within parliament have been generally ignored as mean-spirited, bitter and irrelevant men.


Mr Rudd has grown immensely in stature as a result of the apology. It is interesting however, that while the Prime Minister tendered the apology on his own behalf, for the Labor Government and the Parliament, he stopped short of claiming to speak on behalf of the people. The reaction to the apology makes it clear that most Australians wanted to be associated with the apology. However, bearing in mind that the Constitution belongs to the people and begins ‘We the people’, the prime ministerial, government, parliamentary and community apologies invite consideration of the Constitution.

The apology must influence how Australians think of the Constitution. Soon perhaps, a Constitutional referendum will be demanded to incorporate the spirit of the apology and the ‘unfinished business’ of 1967 (Davis 2007). Those Australians who spent the last decade deploring the lack of political leadership must greet Prime Minister Rudd’s lead as just that—it is not the role of government alone to right the injustices of the past and present. Australians now have the opportunity to follow this strong act of leadership and to implement the spirit of the apology.

It is now indisputable that an ‘Australian spirit’ really exists.

The warm reception given the apology suggests that the Australian people understand the difference between its spirit and letter. To make that distinction requires some understanding of the idea of ‘spirit’ and it is now indisputable that an ‘Australian spirit’ really exists. Observers wondering about that elusive concept of ‘Australian values’ need look no further than 13 February to find the best of them, especially egalitarianism (Edwards 2008). The Prime Minister referred to an ‘opportunity to craft a new future for this great land’. Serious actions are needed to close the gap in life expectancy, infant mortality rates, incarceration, education, employment and living standards. The apology was so important because it creates the opportunity for Australians to determine our own history as a just, friendly, proud and strong society. As Bruce Pascoe (2006, p. 167) says, we can all fall in love with Australia. At last, we have begun to pay the ‘Tanderrum’, the visiting price which will allow all Australians to belong to this country by right.

Despite the warm reception given the government on 13 February, impatience began to show within a few weeks. The Bringing Them Home report made some 54 recommendations, which included recognition of responsibility and a formal apology (Dow 2008). The Minister responsible for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, has faced some hard questioning over two aspects of policy. The first concerns compensation for the survivors of the Stolen Generations. Making ‘closing the gap’ the best response to the Report is reminiscent of Howard’s ‘practical reconciliation’ (McAusland 2008). Practical measures might address the broader spirit encouraged by the apology, it does not target specifically the Stolen Generations.

The second area of concern is the Rudd Government’s continuation of the Coalition Government’s ‘intervention’ policies and especially the so-called quarantining of welfare payments. On arrival in Tasmania, Macklin was greeted with the kind of protest hostility endured previously by Coalition spokespersons (ABC News 2008b). For Indigenous peoples more generally, much of the ‘unfinished business’ involves acknowledgement of basic human rights such as self-determination, constitutional recognition and recovery of stolen wages (Davis 2007). The previous government’s intervention was criticised as paternalistic because it was not based on adequate consultation and the quarantining of welfare payments was seen as discriminatory. The goodwill of 13 February must not be allowed to dissipate.


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Dr Tony Smith is a Bathurst writer and frequent contributor to the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

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