We were deeply moved and relieved when on February 13, 2008 the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr Kevin Rudd, on behalf of the nation, officially apologised for the misguided actions of Government over many decades in the treatment of our indigenous Australians. The official apology was an inspiring model for reconciliation and a conflict resolution roadmap that we can look to in planning future initiatives. Our co-worker, Don Palmer, was in Parliament on that auspicious day. Below is his report.
THE NATION SAYS SORRY
Classic Conflict Resolution approach yields important results
It happened on February 13th, 2008. It was a sight few people had ever witnessed: the Prime Minister of Australia reaching across the dispatch box in Federal Parliament to shake hands with the Leader of the Opposition. Normally the floor of the House of Representatives is the scene of a "take no prisoners" style of debating with no quarter given.
The reason for this rare example of reconciliation and conflict resolution was because the incoming Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, decided that there was an important piece of healing that deserved primacy in the life of the nation. And so the first item of business in this first session of Parliament began with the Prime Minister saying "I move that today we honour the Indigenous people of this land, the oldest continuing culture in human history. We reflect on their past mistreatment".
The Prime Minister, on behalf of the nation, reached out to the Indigenous people of Australia to apologise for the actions of previous Governments who had instituted a policy to remove children from their parents over a period of decades. The deep trauma and hurt this caused echoed for generations across Indigenous communities.
The hoped for words "Sorry" punctuated the speech and every time they were spoken it seemed that a wall was being dismantled piece by piece.
The atmosphere in the chamber was heavy with expectation and also great sadness that this moment had been so long in coming. For too long many Indigenous, and many non-Indigenous Australians, had longed in their spirits to deal with the grief and anger which had been sliding towards despair.
Across the nation groups met in parks, high rise offices, community halls and even in even in the red dust of the outback to watch the apology delivered live on television as people had once done for the moon landing. They witnessed the gathering of politicians in the company of previous prime ministers, their partners, an honoured past Governor General and most importantly a large number of respected Indigenous elders who had led the struggle to deliver this moment to their people.
A few who watched that day, like those in remote Kintore - five hundred kilometres west of Alice Springs - reacted jubilantly. Others responded with a deep sigh of gratitude, but knowing all to well that there was a great deal of practical work that now needed to be done.
One outstanding and encouraging thing about the process is how closely the Government had consciously or unconsciously followed the conflict resolution roadmap which has been drawn over decades by experienced peace makers across the world. The simple steps came into sharp focus: a willingness to fix a problem, identifying and naming exactly what the problem is from the perspective of both parties, attacking the problem and not any of the individuals involved and importantly, finding answers so everyone has a path to get what they need.
The sigh of relief that came from those fortunate enough to be in Canberra for this momentous event was palpable. Tears flowed for some, for others they chocked down memories and held onto their sense of release.
The apology remained a problem for some in the Parliament, as it remains for some in the wider community. There are those who shied at, or rejected, several of the conflict resolving hurdles. They are the only ones who didn't get what they needed because they chose not to engage in the process. But it was difficult to fail to be impressed by the poignancy of that moment when non-Indigenous Australians reached out their hand to Indigenous Australians not only to express sincere regret at the past but to commit to doing better, much better, from this time forward.