Day of atonement arrives for Stolen Generation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 February, 2008, 12:00am

When Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stands up in Parliament today, Debra Hocking will be one of hundreds of thousands of Aborigines who will be glued to their television.

For Mrs Hocking, a Tasmanian of Aboriginal and European descent, Mr Rudd's apology for the decades-long practice of removing mixed-race Aboriginal children from their families as part of a policy of forced racial assimilation, is long overdue.

According to a text of today's motion, parliamentarians would apologise to Aborigines for 'the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these, our fellow Australians'.

Mrs Hocking says the apology, which Mr Rudd promised during November's election campaign, will help her move on.

A member of the so-called 'Stolen Generation', she was removed from her parents as a baby, along with her four siblings.

The children were split up and Mrs Hocking, 49, was sent to a foster home where she suffered 15 years of ill-treatment.

'I was 18 months old when I was taken away. There was terrible abuse in my foster home and a stripping away of identity. It was very cruel.'

When she turned 18, Mrs Hocking resolved to find her family. With no help from the authorities, it took her two years to track down her mother.

'My mother was dying. I only had two weeks with her before she passed away.'

Mrs Hocking, a member of the Stolen Generations Alliance lobby group, said there was no evidence of neglect in her family and remains baffled as to why she was taken away. Her story is repeated many times.

'Perhaps it was a deliberate attempt to breed out the Aboriginal race. I've worked through the anger, otherwise it consumes you. But I still feel a great sense of loss.' She believes the government's apology is of great symbolic importance.

'It's a really good first step. It will help a lot of us on our way to healing and it will open the eyes of a lot of Australians.'

Based on the premise that 'full-blood' Aborigines were a doomed race headed for extinction, as many as 100,000 mixed-race children were taken from their parents between 1910 and 1970.

Around 13,000 people now identify themselves as members of the Stolen Generation or relatives who were affected by the removals.

The Aboriginal flag - a golden sun on a background of black and red - will fly from landmarks, including the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Children who were taken from their families were placed in the care of white foster parents or sent to institutions. Many have spent years struggling to recover from the sexual abuse, neglect and cruelty they encountered.

'The apology represents an honesty about where we've come from as a country that we haven't seen before,' said Jason Glanville of Reconciliation Australia, an agency set up to improve community relations.

'It's a sign of the maturing of Australia as a nation. I think it will go down as one of the most significant moments in this country's history.'

Not all Aborigines agree, arguing that the apology will do nothing to improve their lives.

Leo Abbott, of the Aranda tribe from the desert settlement of Wallace Rockhole in the Northern Territory, believes it will be a largely meaningless gesture.

'Saying sorry won't do anything. People are sick of listening to empty words. The proper way to say sorry is to fix up health, education, employment and housing. That's what we really need,' says Mr Abbott.

Australia's politicians are also divided over the apology, with some conservative MPs uncomfortable with the label Stolen Generation.

They maintain that many mixed-race children were removed for their safety from neglectful families.

The opposition's spokesman on Aboriginal affairs, Tony Abbott, insists that many of the removals were carried out with the best of intentions. 'Yes, some kids were stolen and this is shameful but many were helped and some were rescued, and I think we need to be honest about that,' he said.

The issue of compensation is also contentious. Some Aboriginal leaders have called for the setting up of a compensation fund to the tune of A$1 billion (HK$7.03 billion) or more, but the government has so far refused.

Reconciliation Australia hopes that the government will eventually come round to the idea of pay-outs, as some Australian states have done.

'These people were done a grave injustice. Compensation is considered to be part of any reparations process,' says Mr Glanville.