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Reconciliation South Australia: 10th Anniversary of the Apology

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice


Yaningi warangira ngindaji yuwa muwayi ingirranggu, Kaurna yani U. Balangarri wadjirragali jarra ningi – gamali ngindaji yau muwayi nyirrami ngarri thangani. Yaningi miya ngindaji Muwayi ingga winyira ngarragi thangani.  Yathawarra, wilalawarra jalangurru ngarri guda.

Good morning everyone.

I would like to acknowledge the Kaurna people, the traditional custodians of the Adelaide region.


I pay my respects to all those here today elders, past and present, to all the members of the Stolen Generations, and their families who are in this room and beyond. Thank you to the organisers of this event, in particular Mark Waters and his team at Reconciliation South Australia. I would also like to acknowledge the Patrons of Reconciliation SA, Professor Lowitja O’Donoghue and Hon Chris Sumner and the co-chairs of Reconciliation SA, Professor Peter Buckskin and Helen Connolly who is also Commissioner for Children and Young People, and thank you to the Minister Hon. Kyam Maher for your time earlier this morning, there are so many others, and I thank you all. Today and tomorrow we will spend time as a nation recognising and reflecting on past atrocities inflicted upon us, and remember our remarkable tenacity to survive, to continue to love and care for one another in reconstructing the vibrant communities we have always had that in so many instances governmental policies have attempted to dismantle in our lifetimes.

I want to acknowledge our young ones in the room too, the elders of the next generations who also feel the ramifications of the past in the living memories of their parents and grandparents. It is our youth who are the vessels of future lessons, thoughts, actions, and many good and exciting deeds.

When our families nurture our young, it is to build a foundation of strength for them to believe and know their dreams are achievable, while also knowing that who they are as the First Peoples of this land is not only accepted, but embraced and celebrated by this nation. When we live and grow without fear of oppression, discrimination or assimilation, we are free to be all of who we are, and all of who we want to be. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we are Australian, we have many linguistic and cultural heritages, and we are distinctly the First Peoples of this land. This freedom in an individual and collective expression of identity that flourishes in an integrated multicultural society is how greatness in a nation is realised.

In many ways, this speech is for you: our young ones, to remind you to be fearless in all that you are. Reflecting on the past, and understanding how it builds our future, is about igniting hope to set a path ablaze that lights a world of endless possibilities, where fresh growth is nourished by the fertility of the past. I am a firm believer that it is in the recognition of all aspects of our past, of who we are and who we want to be, that opens the door to a wondrous future.

So to fling those doors wide open, we are here on this morning to mark the 10th anniversary where this nation said ‘Sorry’ for past government policies of forced child removals and assimilations.  It was a long awaited ‘Sorry’ that sung out to our courageous forbearers. This sorry was spoken to us all, but importantly directed to our Stolen Generations.

It was a momentous occasion that marked one significant point in a long and continuing journey.

Bringing Them Home

In appreciating what brought us to the national apology, last year also marked the 20th Anniversary of the release of the ‘Bringing Them Home Report’.  It is an inquiry that sets out the haunting truth of our Stolen Generations.

The National Inquiry was conducted by my predecessor, Professor Mick Dodson, at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and among its many findings, concluded that from 1910 to 1970, between 1 in 10 and 1 in 3 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly removed from their families.

The sheer scale of these numbers is hard to comprehend. What they make clear is that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families have been affected by this period of Australia’s history. Whether a child was directly taken from the arms of a family or not, entire communities connected through skin and kinship, intimate relationships with place, country, language and spirituality, felt every single removal. 

The Stolen Generations was a process that systematically attempted to erase both our Indigenous personhood, and nationhood, and in doing so it severely diminished our human rights. The removal of our children was an attack on our very existence.

In opening, the report states that the matters discussed are so personal and intimate, laden in distress, suffering and courage that it is no ordinary report. The report states that we can only address a current reality of devastation if we as a nation, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people commit to reconciliation.

The first step to reconciliation, it recommends, for our Stolen Generations, the victims of gross human rights violations, is the acknowledgement of truth and the delivery of an apology.

The Apology

It is with this redress of justice and the full realisation of our human rights in mind, that I, like many of you are reflecting on the moment the Prime Minster of the time Kevin Rudd delivered the apology to our people 10 years ago tomorrow. It is both a sombre and enlivening reflection. A moment in our Australian history where as a nation we experienced an outpouring of support for our First Nations which drove a collective determination for a renewed spirit of national healing and reconciliation.

I want to set the sentiment of what I will propose today by reiterating a few of Prime Minister Rudd’s lines and helping us all to remember what an apology truly means.

He said, and I quote,

“The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.
We apologise … For the future we take heart… A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap… A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed”.
End quote.

Our nation said sorry to make amends, to right past wrongs, to stop repeating mistakes, and find innovative solutions and open the doors to the future I’ve spoken of.
The question must be asked, 10 years on, how do we get to this future, how do we listen to the truth, to what works, and then enact it?

The Role of the Commissioner

As the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner of the Australian Human Rights Commission I feel a responsibility in many aspects of my work to consider where we are at as a nation in delivering the reparations that were recommended in Bringing Them Home

These suggested reparations are complete in nature. They include and acknowledge the importance of monetary compensation but at the same time move beyond. They understand that life cannot simply be defined in a figure - no form of financial compensation can rectify the suffering. Instead, these were reparations designed as a legacy to set into motion a process of rehabilitation, recovery and healing across generations that would involve the entire Australian nation in multiple acts of reconciliation.
The apology being one of these acts.

Let’s be clear, reparations have great moments of significance and symbolism which we mark in anniversary as we are doing now, but they cannot and will never be a tick the box exercise. We do not make amends simply by saying sorry, we must act on the words. Achieving justice when grave injustices have been done is complex, challenging and extremely hard work, which can never be left partially complete.

Pivotal to achieving this are the principles of justice and human rights upheld by the Australian Human Rights Commission. Core to my role as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner is advocating for the full realisation and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).

The Declaration is underpinned by four guiding principles: self-determination; participation in decision making and free, prior and informed consent; respect for and protection of culture; and non-discrimination and equality. These principles provide the most comprehensive framework to ‘righting past wrongs’, for changing behaviours and delivering a true and complete apology.

This is what the apology is a part of, it is both the symbolic and the substantive.

National Reparations

That is why we must commit to a national reparation scheme, grounded in and constructed by the principles of the Declaration - a scheme which is both nonpartisan and long-term to guarantee that we never repeat the Stolen Generations and the many resulting manifestations of harm. This was the call made in Bringing Them Home, and I continue to sing it out, loud and clear today.

I applaud organisations such as the Healing Foundation and Reconciliation Australia,  prominent national bodies supporting the work of countless communities across the country to do the healing and reconciling work required to achieve this, and the states and territories who have implemented reparation processes. I acknowledge South Australia as being a forerunner in this act. In ensuring that both members of the Stolen Generations and their children and children’s children receive the monetary compensation owed to them.

I have always said that it is everyone’s responsibility to reconcile from the intimate to the local and regional. However, what we are dealing with here is a national tragedy and a need for nation-wide reconciliation and healing. We cannot move forward with a patchwork approach. We must have a federal approach to settlement that tells a greater narrative of nationhood.

When we speak from a position of nationhood we tell a complete story. The legacy of the Stolen Generations is not a South Australian issue, or a Victorian or New South Wales one, it has left a dark shadow from history across the entire continent. Therefore, it demands national restitution.

It was the structural authority of this nation that delivered injustice. It will be the unifying force and power of our national ethos, and a policy and legislative framework securing our human rights and creating freedoms for all Australian citizens to prosper that will deliver our justice and ongoing reconciliation.

But, where we are at currently is not good enough.

Two weeks ago, the Productivity Commission released figures showing that the number of children in out-of-home care has doubled in the 10 years since the apology.  In 2007-08 there was 9,070 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out of home care. And now, in 2016-17 there were 17,664. This is an 80% increase in the rate of removals.

At the same time Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are the fastest growing prison population in Australia. Currently, they comprise 34% of women behind bars but only 2% of the adult female population in Australia.  A great number of women convicted are committing petty crimes such as fine defaulting or driving without a license. As women move in and out of incarceration it becomes harder to nurture, care and parent children, to build resilience and reconnect. All too often children are taken away leaving women in deeper anguish, and the cycle of imprisonment, removal and trauma is compounded.

And today the Prime Minister is delivering the annual Close the Gap report to parliament. Our abilities to close the gap in health disparities are being blocked at every turn because we are refusing to address the intrinsic interconnection of all social, economic, cultural and spiritual aspects of our life – what policy frameworks term the cultural and social determinants of our health.

I spoke at the Closing the Gap parliamentary breakfast last week insisting that governments set targets that are adequately resourced and implemented so we don’t let unmet targets slip us by time and again. Instead we commit to programs and policies that work to guarantee we close the gap.

Calls by people such as Andrew Jackomos to put Children’s Commissioners in each state and territory for greater governance oversight and accountability of programs and strategies to address harms as well as enhance our health and wellbeing, is essential.  We need these determined measures and structural changes to make peoples voices count and ensure the hauntings of the past are not forever present in our futures, that the gap closes and our aspirations and successes grow.

Bringing Them Home said that the testimonies of the Stolen Generation make blatant that the past remains with us today. The Stolen Generations do remain with us today, and the consequences of present policies are all too familiar. If we don’t act today, the devastation of removal will remain with us into the future.

Listening to Truth

To act, we must listen and respond to the truth of people’s experiences.

At the launch of the Commissions educational resource and website for the Bringing Them Home Report late last year we heard a deeply moving and honest account of the personal impact of the Stolen Generation from Uncle Michael Welsh, a survivor of the Kinchela Boys Home in New South Wales.

Uncle Michael was and remains incredibly courageous, as are all of those who tell their stories. Uncle Michael talked of how the anger built within him while abuses persisted, and he was blamed without justification for the inhumane punishments he received from the adults who were entrusted with his care. Fighting, aggression and humour were the complex behaviours he displayed which helped him to survive, and protect himself. As a child, he had no way out, nor did he have any option to leave. He had to survive.

As he spoke, he touched his chest and his head and explained how he only learnt recently that the two are connected, that when our heart hurts so does our brain, the brain experiences wounds too. That the anger he has shown, and the crimes committed in his life are the wounds he couldn’t see that haven’t healed, they have been the acts of survival. Trauma leaves a biological, mental and emotional imprint. When left unresolved and unrecognised it can be a driver of many damaging and at times criminal actions.

In telling his story, Uncle Michael leaves us with a reality that we and the Australian Government cannot fail to ignore. Our contemporary harms are intrinsically linked to past policies and resulting traumas. Little of what happens today occurs in historical isolation. Harmful substance use, domestic and family violence, and one of the most devastating - the ongoing removal of our children at ever increasing rates, are all consequences of a perpetuating cycle of intergenerational trauma. The truth is that our national policy and legislative response has not been designed to deal with this complex reality. 

Just as achievement builds a legacy of hope, aspiration and success; grief and unrecognised and unresolved trauma can build anger, sadness and harm, leading to unjust social, economic and structural inequalities which persist from one generation to the next.

For the future that builds on strengths and success to prevail we must continue to unveil the truth. Because it is the process of truth-telling that reconciles families, communities and nations.

The Uluru Statement

Of course, the rejection, at this stage, of the Uluru Statement,  and more specifically a constitutionally-enshrined voice to Parliament, can seem like there is no political will to hear our voice, our truths and the solutions we have which can substantially improve our lives. The citizens of this country, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, all want a strong, just and equal nation and because of this, we can and should continue to call for the Parliament to work with us.

There are other critical points in the Uluru Statement. I feel it is necessary to draw these points out now when considering the ongoing importance of our voice in recognising injustice and determining our future of this nation that does not stop and never falters with a constitutional roadblock.

One, is the need for structural reform so none of us are condemned to a life trajectory of intergenerational trauma – the removal of our children, incarceration and criminality, and then silencing the pain of our powerlessness with alcohol, and other substances.

The second, and fundamentally important to this speech today is the Makarrata Commission, a Commission to enable the building of just and self-determining relationships with an Australian Government driven by a process of truth-telling. This truth-telling would allow an honest and full understanding of our entire Indigenous history, colonisation, the building of this nation, Stolen Generations and intergenerational trauma. The process would be healing, restorative and reconciling.

A Commission such as this can set our governance agendas. By encouraging truth to be told, at every table, we will be better placed to respond to people’s traumas, and needs, identify and overcome structural barriers with solutions grown from the lived experience of people who experience those structural barriers first hand, while truthfully living out our dynamic and enlivening contemporary realities.

This truth-telling is as exciting and real in what it can achieve, as it is hard, painful, and disturbing. It forces us to look at all dimensions of our strengths as well as all our powerlessness.

Without truth, our voices are not heard in our entirety, our strength and resilience is not fully appreciated and the deep well of resources we have as Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people for survival, health, wellbeing and vibrancy, demonstrated powerfully by the survivors of the Stolen Generations, will not be integrated effectively into the policy, institutional and legislative structures which affect our day to day lives and the future that is on its way.

With the rates of child removal and incarceration of women increasing as I have spoken about, this dialogue of national truth-telling could not come fast enough.

In many ways, the work of the Social Justice Commissioner is designed to sow these seeds of truth. I and my team are beginning a fundamental part of this process over the course of this year.

The Women’s Voices Project

We have launched the Wiyi Yani U Thangani, Women’s Voices, national engagement process.  This year we are travelling this continent to talk to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls about the truth of their lived reality. To say to them that nothing that you feel or dream is unspeakable. That whatever structural barrier or inequality that has stood in your way, we can confront. Your strengths must be recognised by others and by yourself. Most importantly your strength must be recognised by the Australian nation and incorporated into legislation and policy that responds to your needs and enables you, your families and communities to achieve your aspirations, while also always having the security and knowledge that your home is yours, that you can stay and return home whenever you want or need.

All women and girls have the right to live a life free of violence, exercise their voice and cultural expression, own initiatives to improve their law and justice outcomes, and live the full respect and dignity of personhood that their human rights bring.

All our mothers and grandmothers have a right to keep their children in their arms and at home, while being able to ensure their safety. For our systems to be responsive in enabling this to happen, to dramatically reverse the rate of children in out of home care, and for services to be driven by outcomes which achieve generational health and wellbeing, the need to hear the voices of our women and girls becomes even more pivotal and urgent. The realisation of their rights, and being able to live them, are fundamental to keeping our children with families and kin, in stable and safe environments so they can be nurtured into strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and men who carry the flame of intergenerational responsibility, knowledge and care on into a future that burns bright with their light.

I know firsthand the remarkable strength of women to survive against the odds to protect their children with a love that never ceases. In Bringing Them Home we recorded some of these stories, and it is all too necessary today to keep recording and telling those stories to respond with new insights to fresh and old challenges. In the Kimberley when I was the Deputy Director of the Kimberley Land Council, I assisted in collecting testimonials for the Bringing Them Home inquiry. I listened to old women, on country, pointing to the remnants of institutions they had been removed to and telling stories of their treatment. There was both sadness and laughter. Together as children without the support of their families, they gave the nurture and care to one another that they no longer received from their mothers. They mended the broken chains of familial ties as best they could.

There is nothing easy about hearing these stories, nothing easy about what people have felt and the damage that has been inflicted on families, but what always triumphed in the truth of these stories was a fierce spirit of resistance, resilience, love and care. In the Kimberley, we found that 1 in 4 children were removed. I like all of you know the survivors of the Stolen Generation, because they are us, or they come from our families. We must celebrate them and never forget their stories, they are all our stories, we live and learn with them in mind and heart, and we survive and thrive together.

In continuing to search out the truth, we honour the profound courage and strength of the Stolen Generation to never let silence settle on injustice. We continue to hear your truth and through your voice and the voices of others, no matter how long it takes, together we will heal, and together as a nation we will deliver justice.

1. Kevin Rudd, Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples (2008). At… (viewed 30 January 2018).
2. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing them Home: National Inquiry into the Forced Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (1997).
3. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing them Home: National Inquiry into the Forced Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (1997) p37.
4. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing them Home: National Inquiry into the Forced Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (1997) p3.
5. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing them Home: National Inquiry into the Forced Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (1997) p 246.
6. Kevin Rudd, Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples (2008). At… (viewed 30 January 2018).
7. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing them Home: National Inquiry into the Forced Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families (1997) p 245.
8. United Nations General Assembly, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: resolution / adopted by the General Assembly, 2 October 2007, A/RES/61/295. At (viewed 15 November 2017).
9. For more information on the healing foundation and the work they do across the country in understanding trauma through healing see their website at (viewed 7 February 2018);  and for more information on Reconciliation Australia please see (viewed 7 February 2018).
10. The Productivity Commission, The Australian Government, Report on Government Services 2018 16.1 – 16.38.
11. Calla Wahlquist, ‘Indigenous children in care doubled since stolen generation’s apology’, The Guardian Australia (online), 25 January 2018. At… (viewed 31 January 2018). 
12. Adriane Walters and Shannon Longhurst, “Over-represented and overlooked: the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s growing over-imprisonment”, (Human Rights Law Centre, 1st, 2017); and Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, End of mission Statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on her visit to Australia, 20 March – 3 April 2017. At… (viewed 31 January).
13. June Oscar, ‘Close the Gap 2018 Report Launch’ (Speech delivered at the Close the Gap Annual hosted by the Close the Gap Campaign, Canberra, 8 February 2018). At… (viewed 8 February 2018).
14. Bridget Brennan, ‘Removing children from Indigenous Communities ‘a national disaster’’, ABC News (online) 31 January 2018. At… (viewed 31 January 2018).
15. Ardino, Vittoria. “Offending Behaviour: The Role of Trauma and PTSD.” European Journal of Psychotraumatology 3 (2012): 10.3402/ejpt.v3i0.18968. PMC. Web. 9 Feb. 2018.
16. Referendum Council 2017, Uluru Statement from the Heart, (26 May 2017), National Convention, Uluru. At… (viewed 17 November 2017).
17. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Team, Wiyi Yani U Thangani Women’s Voices, The Australian Human Rights Commission. At… (viewed 31 January 2018).


Ms June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner