Australia Sorry for 'Mistreatment' of Aborigines

Aboriginal man

An Aboriginal man arrives on the Parliament lawns to hear Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd deliver an apology to the Aboriginal people. Getty Images hide caption

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Australia's new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is apologizing to the nation's indigenous people for decades of mistreatment. Patti O'Brien, a professor at Georgetown University, discusses the apology and why some Aborigines feel the act deserves reparations.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Just ahead on this Valentine's Day, we'll talk about the challenge of loving across international lines. We'll meet an American woman who went so far as to move to Albania after her fiance's visa application was rejected. But first, we are going to go to the southern hemisphere to Australia, where newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made history this week.

As the first act of his new government, he issued a formal apology for the mistreatment of Australia's indigenous people, especially for policies that forcibly removed children from their families to place in institutions or with white families.

Prime Minister KEVIN RUDD (Australia): 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. And I offer you this apology without qualification.

MARTIN: To learn more about this, we're joined by Patty O'Brien. She's a visiting associate professor at the Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies at Georgetown University here in Washington. She's here with me in the studio. She's also from Australia. Welcome.

Professor PATTY O'BRIEN (Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies, Georgetown University): Thank you.

MARTIN: A number of states here in the U.S. have begun to apologize for slavery or for complicity with the slave trade, but I'm not sure that those debates here convey the weight of this for Australia. So how significant is this step by the prime minister?

Prof. O'BRIEN: It's an extremely significant step. All around Australia, people gathered in major cities, small towns, remote communities, Aboriginal people, (unintelligible) islanders, to watch this telecast. And people were extremely emotional. It's an extremely emotional, painful story in Australian history, and it's been made more painful because of the policies and the attitude of the previous government.

MARTIN: The previous government, as I understand, of Prime Minister John Howard issued statements of regret, but he refused to apologize. Why, and what is the significance of the difference?

Prof. O'BRIEN: Okay, well John Howard refused to apologize, refused to say the word sorry. He made statements of regret, and then in the next breath he would go on to justify these policies and justify the actions of people who were involved in those policies as being people who thought they were doing the right thing. He never really acknowledged the extent of the pain, the extent of the suffering and the deliberate policies to disrupt Aboriginal society.

And I think that that was something that really hurt Aboriginal people and appalled a large section of the Awada community. I mean, it was a very serious matter, but it also became quite a platform for comedy, too, that Howard could never say sorry to Aboriginal people, but he could always apologize very quickly and say sorry for other much more minor matters.

MARTIN: This apology follows a study about the thousands of Aboriginal children who were removed, something like 50,000 children were taken from their homes. Why did this happen, and what was the effect of this removal on them and on their families?

Prof. O'BRIEN: Okay, well, there aren't definite numbers of the children who were taken away. It's believed that between 10 percent to 30 percent of children were taken away. And these children were taken away - the stolen generations that Kevin Rudd was talking about, apologizing for yesterday - they were taken away under legislation that was passed in every state called the Protection Acts. And these acts were designed to control Aboriginal people. All Aboriginal people were essentially wards of the state.

And the idea of these acts was to control Aboriginal people. The policy was very much about eugenic ideas, that they wanted to get rid of Aboriginal people, particularly children of mixed parentage. They wanted those children removed from Aboriginal communities so that they wouldn't perhaps know that they were Aboriginal and the hope was that they would be trained to have a revulsion for Aboriginal…

MARTIN: So it was tied to notions of racial superiority, racial hierarchy.

Prof. O'BRIEN: Oh absolutely. And…

MARTIN: And that this was a culture that needed to be essentially eliminated.

Prof. O'BRIEN: Yes and there was a particular concern about the third race, this rights of children with mixed parentage. And they wanted to - they didn't want that population to grow. They wanted them to be eliminated and to become part of white society and to "breed out the color," is one of the quotes.

MARTIN: Now that this apology has taken place and it seems to have been an occasion of kind of great feeling and consequence in the country, what happens now? Are there requests for reparations as a consequence of the removal of the children? And are there - and as I think many people probably know, that Aboriginal people do remain among the poorest of Australian society, is there a discussion about how those disparities can be bridged? What are the next steps that are being discussed?

Prof. O'BRIEN: Mm-hmm. When Kevin Rudd announced he was going to apologize, he said this was not going to come with the provision for individuals to take lump sums of money for compensation. But what he's done instead is he has set up a joint policy commission headed by himself and the leader of the opposition, and the government has earmarked funds to try and redress the huge disparities in the way Aboriginal people live in Australia. And, for instance, the infant mortality is four times the national average. Incarceration rates of Aboriginal people are well beyond the national average. Education, employment opportunities, housing, all those issues that need to be addressed are on Rudd's agenda.

And he believes that by working together and having a new attitude and relationship with Aboriginal people which has been formed by this apology that he will be able to make greater strides in trying to redress some extremely serious problems with Aboriginal communities.

MARTIN: PattY O'Brien is a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University Center for Australia and New Zealand Studies. She was here with me in the studio. Thank you so much for speaking with us, and perhaps you'll keep us up to date as these programs and discussions go forward.

Prof. O'BRIEN: I'd be happy to. Thank you.

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