Australia: Labour government apologies to Aboriginal people

Real compensation needed!

Australian’s Federal Labor Government recently said ‘sorry’ to Aboriginal people for the theft of thousands of Indigenous children. These children have been called the ‘Stolen Generations’, which refers to the tens of thousands of Indigenous children who were taken from their parents as part of an official government programme that sought to ‘breed out’ the Aboriginal race. These crimes mainly took place between the years of 1910 and 1970.

The vast majority of Australian people welcomed the apology made by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and sees it as a step towards acknowledging the genocide that has taken place against the Indigenous population, over the past 220 years.

For most Australians, it was an emotional and historical day. For Indigenous people it was a release of intense emotions; few did not shed a tear. Past horrors were at least acknowledged with the word ‘sorry’.

No compensation

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister has made it clear that this apology will not be accompanied by any compensation to the victims and their families. Nor will it be accompanied by any change to the previous Howard government’s policy of military and police intervention into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. This policy is at least partially aimed at gaining access to mineral rich Aboriginal land for mining companies.

While it is widely accepted that all other victims of crime are allegeable to receive compensation through the courts, the Labor Party do not believe this should be the case for Aboriginal people. This is nothing but racism and goes to show Rudd’s actions are mere empty words.

This apology is not so much heartfelt but more a way for Rudd to appear more progressive than the Liberals while costing him nothing. It is also aimed at drawing in a layer of the black community to ensure that the government can continue to carry through its policies, including the Northern Territory ‘intervention’.

The opposition has supported the apology, which was in the form of a resolution to the parliament. It was passed unanimously with only a few conservative MPs being absent. Opposition spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs, Kevin Andrews, admitted that they have supported the apology on the basis that it will build bridges with a layer of the Aboriginal community.

This layer forms the privileged elite of the Aboriginal community, who will be lent on to assist the government to continue their intervention in the Northern Territory and perhaps elsewhere. Labor has said it would consider extending similar measures to other Aboriginal communities throughout Australia.

The ‘intervention’ includes welfare restrictions, alcohol and pornography bans, compulsory medical checks for children, and the Commonwealth takeover of 73 Aboriginal communities under five-year leases. Central to the measures is the land grab that cancels all Native Title holds and suspends local land rights laws and the permit system.

Canberra, Sydney & Melbourne

Thousands of people gathered outside Parliament House in Canberra to hear the government’s apology, although the mood was much more of protest than celebration. Many chanted “stop the intervention” and called for full compensation. Many Aboriginal people were clearly upset as they marked this step forward in the struggle.

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy at the Old Parliament House was turned into a small town during the event, as hundreds traveled from all over the country to attend the protests. This Embassy has been a permanent feature in Canberra since 1972. While it is not recognised by the government, it is a symbol of resistance for Aboriginal people and supporters alike.

About 100 of the black elite were inside parliament house for the event while the rest watched the apology on the big screens erected outside. Rudd’s speech was very carefully worded and checked by legal experts beforehand to ensure he would not open the way for compensation claims. Opposition leader Brendan Nelson’s comments were much more crude and many watching the screens booed and turned their backs when he mentioned he did not support compensation.

Many thousands also gathered at Federation Square in Melbourne, in Redfern and the CBD in Sydney. Big screens were set up and people witnessed the apology live before going to work. Similar moods were reported in the crowds as many welcomed the apology but admitted it did not go far enough.

It should be noted that the current mood of solidarity and sympathy with Aboriginal people should be credited to the brave struggles that Indigenous people have engaged in over many years. Even this apology would not have come without their efforts.

The struggle continues

The reality is that while this apology is to be welcomed, it will mean very little to lives of most Aboriginal people. Indigenous people continue to face conditions comparable to those in the ‘developing’ world. Their life expectancy is more than 20 years less than the average Australian. Aboriginal people suffer from much higher rates of unemployment and make up nearly a quarter of the Australia prison population.

Aboriginal people need more than empty words to address the problems they face. Today, the struggle against the Northern Territory intervention, the struggle for land rights and for an end to police harassment, reflects the struggle by Aboriginal people for the right to control their own lives.

The development of Australian capitalism has meant that Aboriginal people have had their land, their languages, their culture, their wages and their children stolen from them: All because their way of life did not fit in with the profit-driven system.

The Socialist Party (CWI Australia) calls on the ranks of the labour movement to take on the demands of the Aboriginal people, as their own. Likewise, the Aboriginal struggle for control over their own lives will only be successful if linked to the labour movement and the broader struggle for the socialist transformation of society.

We call for:

  • Police and army out of the Northern Territory now!
  • Full compensation for the victims of the Stolen Generations!

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February 2008