Mick Dodson

It’s strange isn’t it? We apologize for taking away the children of the Stolen Generations but we didn’t apologise for anything else … And it made us feel good. You know, we had finally acknowledged we were at fault. We are only on the edge of what we have done to these people. We have ripped away everything, language, culture, land, self-esteem, you name any of the things that make you a human being and they have all been stripped away from Aboriginal people. It’s not that they’re powerless to overcome that, it’s just that it’s unhuman of us to expect them to do it without assistance.1

Official apologies are very important. They are about the need for Indigenous peoples as nation-states to be allowed to have their stories told and let their history be known. Official apologies can change the terms and meaning of the membership of a political community in which they are given. Apologies no doubt help bring history into the conversation, but they also bring other topics into that conversation like racism and bigotry. Any casual glance at a newspaper or televised talk-back show during the lead up to the apology in the Australian Parliament clearly demonstrates this. Apologies can serve to justify political and policy changes and reforms, and this seems to have been the impetus here in Australia, although we must be vigilant in ensuring that those changes and reforms are positive and do not slip back into old bad practices.

The apology here in Australia will accomplish nothing if all it is about is the validation of the experience of the Stolen Generations. For example, where do those Indigenous Australians not part of the Stolen Generations and, therefore, not a subject of the apology now stand? What of their dispossession, marginalization, and exclusion? Can the apology advance societal reconciliation and strengthen democratic consolidation for Australia? There are many bridges to cross to get there, although signs are encouraging. Talk of constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is certainly about fundamental reform, although we need to be clear about what this means and particularly what Indigenous Australians think it means.

Apologies may focus our attention on the past but have implications for the future. We have to be focused on the future post-apology and escape from apology politics to accomplish anything. To get to that point, we must deal with the past here in Australia, and the past is not just about the Stolen Generations. We have to deal with the trans-generational effects as well as with all the other horrible things done to Indigenous Australians for over two centuries; otherwise, the memory and resentment will stay alive for centuries. Dealing with this other stuff was not a feature of the Australian apology, because it was confined to the Stolen Generations and their experiences. Rights and self-determination were not at the heart of the Australian apology. If the current Australian government is to achieve its stated ambition of “closing the gaps,” rights and particularly the right to self-determination for Indigenous Australians must be up front and centre. With the apology there is now a platform for new, just, and fair arrangements that can be established to “make peace with the Aborigines to get the place right.”2

The apology can also be a source of pride for the nation giving it, and I believe that for many Australians this is the case. Feeling pride about what has been done is important in order for us to move forward. Pride is another foundation to help our nation attempt to repair the past. What Australia now needs to decide is whether we intend to continue to have successive generations of Australians, black and white, negotiate the terms of association. Or, do we want to point to the apology and say here is the opportunity where we can now put our relationship on a proper philosophical footing that understands and underpins respect for Aboriginal difference and our status as Original Peoples?

An apology in itself will not deliver appropriate public policy frameworks that will result in self-determination and, in turn, deliver self-government for Indigenous Australians. The point is that the apology ought to allow the government to use it as a platform for the achievement of Indigenous aspirations in this regard and to use this goodwill to generate the policy framework that will allow it to happen. The public must be taken on this policy path.

The apology does make a start in overcoming the public’s general lack of knowledge of Indigenous peoples and its alarming ignorance of national history and the history of the laws and policies that have shaped the landscape that is now present-day Indigenous Australia. This historical experience grounds the grievances and demands for actions, like an apology, in the first place. The problem with trying to manipulate history with so-called “wars”3 is that, in such circumstances, your historical policy base is going to be false. False historical assumptions do not make for good policy.

History is important because the need for apologies arises from history. If you can manipulate history then you can wash out the need for an apology, as Australia’s former prime minister, John Howard, attempted to do with his utterances and encouragement of the so-called history wars.

The Australian government has linked the apology to closing the gaps while dismissing the call to compensate the members of the Stolen Generations. The desire of government and just about every other Australian, including Indigenous Australians, to close the gaps is a given, but the grievance for compensation will not go away. The government needs to have an understanding of the trans-generational carriage of grievances and the fact that they do not just go away if ignored by those most able to accommodate them. In fact, in Australia, we cannot expect to fully close the gaps unless all the gaps are included in the policy and the practical push, which means the unfinished business, like compensation, must be in the mix. What the Rudd government is now doing is using the apology as a justification for its policy approach to Indigenous affairs.

Prime Minister Rudd’s apology will allow us to validly reinterpret our history into what is now Australia’s “new public,” one that is more accepting of including Aboriginal history. The trick is to now make Aboriginal history in this country more accessible to a wider public Australia. The apology goes part of the way in correcting the historical record, as you cannot expect to deal with the present disadvantage of closing the gaps if you try to disconnect it from the historical record. The apology does not change the legal status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but it does serve to emphasize “the moral burden of Aboriginal mistreatment”4 as something we now have to deal with as a nation. The apology does not alter the terms of national membership, but it does provide the emotional dimensions to that membership. What the apology has done is provide a cathartic and positive psychological effect for the peoples who are the subject of the apology and, indeed, for the nation as a whole.

Whatever happens now in Australia, there is one thing we cannot say, and that is: Now that the nation has apologized, the mistakes of the past do not matter. They matter even more now, and, as a nation, we have an obligation to address and to correct those mistakes. The national apology has been a key piece in the jigsaw puzzle that is reconciliation in Australia. It is like the corner piece of the puzzle, the piece that is essential if we wish to complete the picture. I think the apology has been seen as a major change in the reconciliation environment in our country. The change of government at the national level has offered a new sense of possibility. We now believe we can do things differently. We have surmounted a central object blocking the road to reconciliation.

In his speech to Parliament on 13 February 2008, the Prime Minister said, “The mood of the nation is for reconciliation now.” He said the nation was calling on politicians “to move beyond our infantile bickering, our point-scoring and our mindlessly partisan politics and elevate at least this one core area of national responsibility to a rare position beyond the partisan divide … Surely, at least from this day forward, we should give it a go.”5

The apology was a marginally transformative experience for Australia and a fundamental step in building a respectful relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens. It is now fair to say that the majority of Australians feel better knowing that the apology has been made and that they are keen to build on this corner piece of the reconciliation puzzle. They are open to doing things differently to get the results we all want. While the rhetoric around Indigenous affairs has changed for the better, it is not yet clear if this will translate into sound policy, bipartisanship, and cross-jurisdictional cooperation. No single government can carry the task on its own. True bipartisanship would allow us to learn from past mistakes, use the evidence at hand, and make success in Indigenous affairs policy a determined national priority. This is the formula needed for success, and success is the key to securing Australians’ support and engagement.

I think that the parliamentary apology made to members of the Stolen Generations will forever change the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the rest of the population of Australia. The apology has the potential to transform Australia and, once and for all, to put black and white relationships in this country on a proper footing. As stated by Reconciliation Australia in its submission to the Inquiry into the Stolen Generations Compensation Bill:

It was a fundamental step in building a respectful relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens and has generated widespread support for doing things differently – to ensure our actions are the right ones to deliver meaningful, measurable results.6

The apology was about dealing with one aspect of unfinished business in our country: the Stolen Generations. We have now accepted this as a historical truth at the highest political level. It is only us, as Australians, who can heal the wounds of the past, and the first step is to recognize and acknowledge the truths of the past. The apology validates the life experience of those who were taken away; it is their vindication.

While the apology is hugely symbolic for our country, it does and should not end there; we still have to tackle all the unfinished business if we are to obtain a true and lasting reconciliation. We have to deal with the health, housing, education, and life expectancy gaps and a host of other problems of disadvantage, exclusion, and racism if we want lasting reconciliation. But this apology is the start. What is real and important to Aboriginal people is how we feel about ourselves. It is immensely important to us that we can feel that our history and our culture are respected by the rest of the country. This is central in our capacity to face our problems and those that are shared with the rest of the nation. It is also about who we are and where we stand in this country and about our culture, our land, our heritage, and all our peoples. Our spiritual and psychological health is just as important as our physical health.

What is reconciliation? Reconciliation means two groups settling their differences and coming to terms with the past so that they can move forward into the future together. Reconciliation is about Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians learning from each other and dealing with some of the hurt endured by Indigenous peoples in the colonization process. When Europeans came to our country they did not respect our land rights. We were dispossessed of our lands without treaty or agreement. Many of our people were killed, others were treated very harshly, and our kids were taken away. Reconciliation is important because, as Australians, we all now share this history and this land. Reconciliation is not about guilt or blame, it is about learning, understanding, and working together. We have yet to come to terms with how we are to share this land in a just and fair way that acknowledges the past and seeks to repair the damage of that past. This is the heart of reconciliation, and it can come closer to being achieved on the back of the apology.

For too long some Australians have denied the past as having an impact on the present. This is a denial of what makes this country what it is. Governments inherit from previous governments, sins and all. The laws and practices of the past get handed on to the next generations, so too does the responsibility for past actions. The pain and hurt endured by Indigenous peoples are also part of that history and what has been inherited. The apology demonstrates our preparedness to face up to and accept the mistakes of the past. This is about healing and reconciliation for the benefit of all. We have to look at the past. You do not have to be Sigmund Freud to know that past experiences shape the present life of an individual person. The same principle can be applied to the collective experience of a people. You cannot even begin to understand, let alone address or change the present, and address the future unless you understand the past.

We Aboriginal peoples want honest recognition of the truths about Australia’s past, because the scars from the past are inscribed in the lives of the present. Prime Minister Rudd has embraced that honesty by getting Parliament to apologize to the Stolen Generations. At least we now have acceptance at the highest official level that it happened, even though there are some in Australian society who are still denying that it did. It is the history of the Stolen Generations that bears directly on the lives of Indigenous children and families today. These are the policies and practices of assimilation and, in particular, of the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.

I spent two years of my life as a commissioner sitting at hearings of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families.7 I spent hundreds of hours pouring over reams of files that documented in clinical detail the lives of children transported from one abusive institution to the next. I have read official documents outlining the repugnant scientific motivations and justifications for removal. I have sat with Indigenous women and men as they have spoken about their lives, about being taken away from their own families, or about having their own children or relatives removed. I cannot begin to describe the inhuman treatment that was inflicted on thousands of Indigenous families.

These children were denied the right to grow up knowing and being cared for by their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, and grandparents. Those families were, in turn, denied the right to grow up and experience the joy of their own children. Children who were removed were denied the right to learn about their culture or to learn and speak their own language. They were denied the right to live in and be a part of their indigenous environment—their lands, their totems, their inherited memories, and their communities. They were denied the most basic right of a child: to grow up and to belong to a loving environment. The repercussions are immeasurable. The taking of Aboriginal children, to this day, has produced the background for many years of horrific memories, distress, and mental health problems.

The devastating experiences of Aboriginal parents and their families brought on by the removal of their children—the loss of control of their lives, powerlessness, prejudice, and hopelessness—have left many problems for us to deal with today. These problems are not limited to the people who were themselves removed. There are trans-generational effects of removal. This means that separation not only affects the many adults and their families and communities who experienced separation themselves, but also affects the children of those who were separated. This, in turn, affects the children of the children, which result in a continuous cycle of effects.

The evidence presented during the inquiry was not just the narrative of individual abuse, it was the story of the endeavour to destroy a people. The result was not simply thousands of fractured lives, but of sustained policies of removal that have fractured the skeleton of Indigenous families and people. It is into this type of fractured family and cultural system that the Aboriginal children of today are born. It is dangerous to speak about Aboriginal families or cultures as dysfunctional, but the fact cannot be denied that many of yesterday’s damaged children do not have the resources today to provide their own children with a healthy or nurturing family environment. Much of the instability of Indigenous families today can be directly attributed to the past practices of separating Indigenous children from their families. The official apology will begin the process of healing these people.

Given this history, it is hardly surprising that Indigenous families are loathe to trust any person identified as part of the welfare system or, sadly, for that matter, any person who wishes to help. When you begin to think about advocating for Aboriginal children you must understand that your intentions and attempts will automatically provoke suspicion and fear, unless you make it very clear that your interventions will empower Indigenous people and not take over for them, which is what Indigenous Australians know and experienced in the past. You will only make the problem worse if this past is the starting point for learning about the problems faced by our children.

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which recognizes that Indigenous families and their communities retain the right to the upbringing, training, education, and well-being of their children consistent with the rights of the child. The past Howard government had, at that time, voted against the resolution to endorse the Declaration. The present Rudd government promised to reverse this position and endorse the resolution supporting it, which they did on 3 April 2009.8 We now look forward to the implementation of a plan, developed in conjunction with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, within the context of the provisions of the Declaration at a domestic level.


Mick Dodson , born in Katherine, Northern Territory, is a member of the Yawuru peoples, the traditional Aboriginal owners of land and waters in the Broome area of the southern Kimberley region of Western Australia. Mick completed a Bachelor of Jurisprudence and a Bachelor of Laws at Monash University in Victoria. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Technology in Sydney and an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of New South Wales, also in Sydney.

Mick has been a prominent advocate on land rights and other issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including Indigenous peoples around the world. He was Australia’s first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, serving from 1993 to 1998. Previously, he has worked extensively on matters mostly relating to Aboriginal legal issues, notably as counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Mick has sat on many boards, commissions, and advisory panels on Indigenous matters; of note, he is a board member and co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, and he was a founding member and chairman of the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre. He is now the current director for the National Centre for Indigenous Studies and a professor of law, both at the Australian National University. He also has his own legal and anthropological consulting firm. In 2005, Mick accepted a three-year appointment as a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. He was recently reappointed for a further three years. Mick had participated in the crafting of the text of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted overwhelmingly in 2007 by the United Nations General Assembly.

  1. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (2008). Transcript of “Germaine Greer joins Lateline.” Broadcast: 13/08/2008. Reporter: Leigh Sales. Retrieved 2 October 2008 from: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2008/s2334393.htm
  2. Cited in Independent Monthly (1993:14). Tales of the True Believers: Exclusive Authentic Keating. Transcript of address to staff by the Prime Minister, The Hon. P.J. Keating MP. Imperial Peking Restaurant, Sydney, March 12, 1993.
  3. This is a reference to the so-called “culture wars” in Australia encouraged by the previous conservative prime minister and largely conducted publically by non-Aboriginal historians. The “war” is of competing narratives; on the one hand, there are those who say Australia was peacefully settled and, on the other hand, there are those who say it was invaded and Aboriginal resistance brutally put down. The war is pretty much over now and it is impossible to declare a winner.
  4. Nobles, Melissa (2008:146). The Politics of Official Apologies. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Rudd, The Honourable Kevin (2008). Prime Minister of Australia Speech – Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples. House of Representatives, Parliament House, 13 February 2008. Canberra, AU: Prime Minister of Australia (see Appendix 6). Retrieved 2 October 2008 from: http://www.pm.gov.au/media/Speech/2008/speech_0073.cfm
  6. Reconciliation Australia (2008). Submission to the Inquiry into the Stolen Generations Compensation Bill, 11 April 2008. Retrieved 1 October 2008 from: http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/legcon_ctte/stolen_generation_compenation/submissions/sub76.pdf
  7. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1997). Bringing Them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. Sydney, AU: Commonwealth of Australia.
  8. See United Nations (2008). United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (retrieved 2 March 2009 from: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf); and Macklin, Jenny (2009). Statement on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Statement made by the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indgenous Affairs to Parliament House Canberra, 3 April 2009 (retrieved 16 April 2009 from:?http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/internet/jennymacklin.nsf/content/un_declaration_03apr09.htm