February 07, 2018

‘Sometime around 1932, when she was about four, she remembers the coming of the welfare men. Her family had feared that day and had dug holes in the creek bank where the children could run and hide…The kids were found; they ran for their mothers screaming but they could not get away…Tears flowing, her mum tried clinging to the sides of the truck as her children were taken away… Nanna Fejo never saw her mother again.’


—Kevin Rudd, National Apology to the Stolen Generations, 13 February 2008

There are high steel gates at the back of Parliament House, usually only opened for the Prime Minister and few others—like presidents. They open on to the Prime Minister’s courtyard, large, cold, and stark with grey stone. At the other end of the courtyard are the heavy doors leading to the Prime Minister’s Office.

That’s where we stood—the PM, Kevin Rudd, his wife Thérèse Rein, and me—on the morning of 13 February, 2008. Across from us, in front of those giant gates, was a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They were mostly members of the Stolen Generations who had traveled a long way to see Australia’s Prime Minister finally apologise for the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. Some were very old. They had thought they would not live to see this day.

The decision to come in through the courtyard had been made by Kevin at the last minute. The original plan had been to bring everyone into Parliament House via the House of Representatives entrance. But he wanted to honour these visitors in this special way.

Everyone was nervous. Many were very shy. We encouraged them to come forward, and as they came slowly across the stone paving, one by one, they were greeted with a hug or a handshake. Some shared a joke and a laugh. Some were already in tears.

So much had gone in to reaching this moment. Looking back on the success of that day, it’s easy to think that it was inevitable. But it wasn’t. The call to deliver an Apology to the Stolen Generations had been resisted for more than a decade. Everything was a battle, especially during the long Howard years, when even the existence of Stolen Generations was often denied.

Even as it seemed within reach, the Apology had to be fought for. In the final hours and days, there was still contention over whether it would take place, when it would happen, what words would be delivered, and even whether those forcibly removed from their homes and families should be described as ‘the Stolen Generations’. It is this story I want to tell. The negotiations and the arguments. The pressure and the panic. What happened behind the scenes. The things you didn’t see.


There had been so much controversy about the Stolen Generations over the many years leading to the Apology. There were those who did not believe that children were ever taken, and those who acknowledged they were but said it had been for the children’s benefit. Some people shared experiences where there had been good outcomes, but for so many, unbearable grief and terrible loss were the ultimate results of removal.

Those who were stolen had shared their stories for generations, giving some voice to what was otherwise a country’s stubborn silence. The telling of these stories caused a lot of pain, especially when they weren’t believed. The report, ‘Us Taken Away Kids’ in 2007[1], told some of those stories again. One was from Alec Kruger:

‘As a child I had no mother’s arms to hold me. No father to lead me into the world. Us taken away kids only had each other. All of us damaged and too young to know what to do. We had strangers standing over us.’[2]

And here with us were many who had been stolen, prepared, one last time, to give us their trust on the day of the Apology and take the risk that we would say what they needed to hear.

The Stolen Generations can be traced back to 1869, where in Victoria, the Governor could order the removal of any Aboriginal child from their family. In Queensland until 1965, the Director of Native Welfare was the legal guardian of all Aboriginal children—whether their parents were living or not. It was a story repeated in all the other parts of the country. In 1937 the first Commonwealth-State conference on ‘native welfare’ adopted assimilation as the national policy, stating ‘the destiny of natives of aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in ultimate absorption.’[3]

Why did this happen? Historian Peter Read describes the justifications as variously being ‘in the children’s own interests’, ‘to protect children from abuse’, ‘the parents had deserted the children’, and ‘we just didn’t know’. But people did know. As Read describes:

‘In the debate in 1916 in the NSW Parliament that gave almost unlimited powers to remove Aboriginal children, one Member of Parliament spoke out and denounced the suggested scheme as slavery. So deep was the idea of the worthlessness of Aboriginal society.’[4]

By 1969 all states had repealed their legislation allowing for the removal of Aboriginal children and set up Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agencies to contest removal applications. During the 1980s and 90s, Link-Up organisations were established to help reunite people with their families and provide support to those who had been forcibly removed.[5]

Peter Read and Oomera (Coral) Edwards founded Link-Up in New South Wales in 1980. Oomera had been removed from her family in 1950 at five-months old, and sent to Cootamundra Girls Home. Her reunion with her family 30 years later motivated her to help others find their families and ‘get home again’.[6] Read wrote ‘The Stolen Generations’ in 1981, one of the first—if not the first—attempts to research the forcible removal of Aboriginal children. Read describes how many non-Indigenous Australians said it couldn’’t have happened, and how those who had been stolen were too ashamed to talk about it. There was still very little public debate or understanding of this part of our history.

By 1991 the Royal Commission into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Deaths in Custody found that of the 99 deaths it investigated, 43 were of people who were separated from their families as children.[7] The National Aboriginal and Islander Legal Services Secretariat’s submission to the Royal Commission told this story:

‘Firstly, Vera Slater loses her children to institutions, and a generation later the situation is compounded, with the institutionalisation of Graham who also loses his children…. Both generations faced the same kind of obstruction and lack of care, but in Graham’s case the situation was made more hopeless by his inability to overcome his institutionalisation. In the second generation, the problems become insurmountable.’[8]

A campaign to have an inquiry into the separation of Indigenous children from their families had started in the early 1990s. It was initiated by various Indigenous agencies, including Link-Up and the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care. The campaign was given impetus following a large ‘Going Home’ Conference in Darwin in 1994. In May 1995, the then Attorney-General, Michael Lavarch, established the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families.

In 1997 the Inquiry’s report, ‘Bringing Them Home’, was released.[9] It found that between one in ten and one in three Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families between 1910 and 1970. It also concluded that welfare officials failed in their duty to protect Indigenous wards from abuse. Of the 54 recommendations, one was that there be an acknowledgement and apology from all Australian governments, police forces and church institutions which had implemented policies of forcible removal. The recommendation was a major impetus for an official apology. The detailed accounts in the report meant that more Australians than ever before knew what had happened to tens of thousands of Aboriginal children and their families over a century.

Mick Dodson, then the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, was characteristically blunt when he launched the Bringing Them Home report on 26 May 1997, at the Australian Reconciliation Convention in Melbourne:

‘This nation has stolen. From parents and families and communities, it has stolen children. From children, it has stolen love, and family; language and culture; land and identity.’[10]

Dodson described hearing people speak the truth of their lives for the first time:

‘They told us it was believed they would be better off. Better off without the loving arms of mothers and fathers. Better off enduring harsh physical punishment, sexual abuse, malnutrition, and little or no education. All for their own good. These stolen children recalled being told that their parents were dead or had given them away because their parents did not love them. And they told us what it was like to be taught to hate Aborigines—to hate your own history, your own family and yourself.’[11]

John Howard was in the audience. Dodson asked him, ‘How much indignity, Mr Howard, how much loss?’[12]

When Howard spoke to the Convention, he said he was ‘personally’ sorry for past injustices experienced by Aboriginal people. Then he went on to say ‘Australians of this generation should not be required to face guilt or blame for past actions and policies over which they have no control.’[13] It was clear Howard would not apologise to the Stolen Generations on behalf of the nation. In a now famous act of anger and protest—an act that would singularly define and shape his future relationship with Indigenous Australians—those attending silently turned their backs on him.

Kim Beazley was Leader of the Opposition at the time. He moved a motion in the Parliament that acknowledged the immense trauma inflicted on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as a result of the separation of children from their families—and offered an unreserved apology. I remember sitting behind Kim in the House that day, watching that big man with a big heart close to tears. Howard did not allow the Government to even join the debate.

By contrast, State and Territory Parliaments were quick to act. Starting in 1997, Western Australia, South Australia, the ACT, NSW, Tasmania and Victoria all delivered apologies. Queensland followed in 1999. The apologies were delivered by both Labor and Liberal leaders. The Northern Territory was the exception. Maggie Hickey, the then Labor leader in the NT, had moved to offer an apology in 1998 but she was opposed by the Country Liberal Government. Northern Territorians would wait for the election of Labor’s Clare Martin in 2001 for a formal apology from their government.

The Howard Government did not formally respond to the Bringing Them Home report until December 1997. The press release from Senator John Herron, Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, repeated the Howard line almost word for word: ‘We do not believe that our generation should be asked to accept responsibility for the acts of earlier generations.’[14] For the next ten years, Australians would hear this over and over again.

The response from the community to the Government’s refusal to formally apologise was polarised. Many editorials in the major newspapers called for an apology to be made. A poll by the Adelaide Advertiser suggested most people supported an apology, with 58 per cent of those surveyed in support and 38 per cent opposed. Others questioned the accuracy of the Bringing Them Home report and viewed an apology as a superficial gesture.[15]

Howard’s resistance to acts of reconciliation was not new. At the first meeting in the new Parliament House in 1988, the Hawke Government moved a resolution acknowledging the prior occupation of land by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, their dispossession and the denial of their citizenship rights. Howard refused to endorse the resolution, and said: ‘I acknowledge that, in the past, wrongs were done to Aboriginals, but they weren’t done by me.’[16]

By 1997, following the release of Bringing Them Home and the Wik Native Title decision in the High Court, the public debate on Aboriginal Affairs was febrile. Howard took full advantage of public anxiety about land rights. On the ABC’s 7.30 Report, Howard held up an almost entirely brown map of Australia and said, ‘This shows 78 percent of the land mass of Australia coloured brown on this map’.[17] He deliberately sought to frighten Australians, suggesting that native title legislation threatened people’s own backyards. Howard showed again and again how he was prepared to brutally deploy the politics of race to divide the nation.

Pauline Hanson had entered Parliament the year earlier. Over the next few years Hanson would repeatedly accuse Indigenous Australians of getting preferential treatment in government funding and policy. Her commentary on race added to the divisive national debate. Howard offered scant rebuke.

Howard continually used what could have been symbols of national unity against Aboriginal people. Indigenous people, refused respect over generations on the basis of race, were then blamed by Howard for a so-called ‘black armband’ view of history. Aboriginal people had for many years used the black armband as a symbol of both black protest and grieving. Howard used it as a political wedge:

‘Our history as a nation is not written definitively by those who take the view that we should apologise for most of it. This black armband view of our past reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. I take a very different view.’[18]

But momentum for an apology was growing. In 1998, the National Sorry Day Committee was established by Indigenous and non-Indigenous community leaders on the first anniversary of the launch of Bringing Them Home—which had recommended that a National Sorry Day be observed annually. Sorry Day is now a widely commemorated national event.

In 1999, Howard did go into the Parliament to express ‘deep and sincere regret’ for unspecified past injustices. This motion for reconciliation had been jointly sponsored with Australian Democrat Senator Aden Ridgeway, a Gumbayynggir man from New South Wales who had just been elected into the Senate. Kim Beazley at that time moved to include an amendment to replace ‘deep and sincere regret’ with an apology and to include specific reference to the Stolen Generations. This was opposed by Howard.

In May 2000, the People’s Walk for Reconciliation saw hundreds of thousands of Australians walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and in many other parts of the country. ‘Sorry’ was written in the sky above Sydney Harbour.

Later that year in Melbourne, I walked with many friends and hundreds of others to the King’s Domain, where there was a ‘sea of hands’[19] painted in the colours of the Aboriginal, Torres Strait and Australian flags. The gardens near the Shrine of Remembrance shone black, red and yellow, blue, green and white on that day. Peter Costello, the then Treasurer, walked with the crowd, showing that there were those in the Liberal Party who wanted a different approach from Howard’s.

At the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, rock band Midnight Oil played to a global television audience with ‘Sorry’ printed on their shirts. There was hope everywhere that this community movement would bring about an apology. Many people had been signing ‘Sorry books’ all round Australia—a campaign launched in 1998 by Hazel Hawke and writer Bryce Courtenay.

In May 2007, the 10th anniversary of Bringing Them Home was acknowledged in Parliament House. Many Aboriginal people used the day to talk about how they had benefited from the public groundswell of support and compassion for the Stolen Generations. Many had also been reunited with their families with the help of the Link-Up program. But so much pain and anger lingered and remained unresolved.


Kevin Rudd was elected Labor Leader in December 2007. His first opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to an official apology came on the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum—which had resulted in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being counted in the census and gave the Commonwealth Government power to make laws for Indigenous people.

Rudd understood the political wedge that Howard was pursuing to divide voters—between those who wanted an apology and those who were worried it might lead to compensation claims. Rudd was very alert to the dangers that held for Labor.

We needed to bring Australians with us if we were to deliver this apology successfully.

I had just been appointed Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs. My view was that the key to achieving national unity was to link symbolism and substance. Howard had framed Labor as pre-occupied with symbols, unable to make the hard decisions needed in Aboriginal Affairs. We needed to show that we could do both—address the shocking disadvantage suffered by Indigenous Australians, most starkly demonstrated in the 17-year life expectancy gap, and foster relationships with Aboriginal people based on mutual trust and respect.

So, at the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, Rudd laid out our commitment to deliver policies to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

This idea and its expression—Close the Gap—had grown out of efforts led by Indigenous and non-Indigenous health organisations working together with non-government groups like Oxfam. Tom Calma, then the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, had set out the Close the Gap approach in his Social Justice Report.[20] The aim was to close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a generation.

I knew no promise had ever been made before that so comprehensively sought to address the broad agenda needed in Indigenous affairs. I could see that this would provide the beginnings of the evidence-based policy framework so desperately needed. I took up the Close the Gap approach and called for bipartisanship to meet these targets, knowing it would take many parliaments and successive governments to achieve. Bipartisanship was also crucial to counter John Howard’s legacy of destruction and division in Aboriginal affairs.

Howard did not mention the Apology in his official remarks at the 40th anniversary celebrations. But he had made it clear earlier the same week that he had not changed his view that modern-day Australians should not be culpable for actions taken decades ago. Of course, no one was saying they were. This was one of Howard’s oft-used political techniques: if you can’t win the real argument, create a fake one and win that instead.

Even though some community sentiment was with us, both the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian editorialised at the time against the Apology. The SMH argued that ‘an apology trivialises real problems’[21], while The Australian claimed ‘the time for apologies is over’.[22]These editorials reminded me of the underlying insecurities that would make the Apology so hard to deliver. Howard’s position both stoked and responded to these views.

At the Sydney Institute in October 2007, just three days before the election date was announced, Howard once again rejected an apology: ‘Just as the responsibility agenda is gaining ground it would, I believe, only reinforce a culture of victimhood and take us backward.’[23]

All through these months, Rudd had carefully emphasised Labor’s practical measures under our Closing the Gap framework—as a response to the attack on symbolism, and a way to strengthen our commitment to the Apology. On election eve, in an interview with Neil Mitchell on 3AW, he fumbled over whether or not he would say ‘sorry’, by not immediately answering. Mitchell asked him four times before Rudd finally said he would, but this showed how sensitive he—and how sensitive we all were—to Howard’s attacks. There were still many people who were worried that an apology could be politically damaging and open a floodgate of compensation claims. But as journalist and author Paul Kelly wrote, ‘the apology for the Stolen Generations rarely touched the surface of the election’.[24]

Howard’s attacks failed. Labor won the election, and Kevin was Prime Minister. I was appointed Minister for Indigenous Affairs. Labor leaders had promised an apology before. Now it was up to Rudd to make good.


The delivery of the Apology was already being discussed a few days after the election. I thought it should be given on the first day of the new Parliament as a powerful way to begin a new chapter, and I wasn’t on my own. Professor Lowitja O’Donoghue said a firm apology would be ‘much more powerful if it was made as soon as Parliament resumed in February’.[25]

The major newspapers were giving the Apology considerable focus. The Age editorial, on 28 November, called for ‘sorry’ to be said on the first day of the new Parliament. The SMH editorial—which had previously argued against the Apology altogether—reflected the enormity of the task:

‘Wrongly handled it could end up like one of the numerous apologies uttered by Japanese politicians for their countries depredations in Asia. Hiding a lack of true historical consensus and contrition on the one hand and seen as insincere and lacking practical consequences on the other.’[26]

Meanwhile, in the Herald Sun, Andrew Bolt continued to prosecute the case that the Stolen Generations did not exist.

Brendan Nelson was elected as Liberal leader on 29 November, 2007, and immediately took up Howard’s position: ‘In my view we have no responsibility to apologise or take ownership for what was done by earlier generations.’[27] But as Mick Dodson later said, ‘I know of no Indigenous person who told their story to the Inquiry who wanted non-Indigenous Australians to feel guilty—they just wanted people to know the truth.’[28]

There was speculation that the issue of the Apology influenced the Liberal leadership outcome—with some supposedly deserting Malcolm Turnbull after he voiced his support. Turnbull had indicated he would support Labor in saying ‘sorry’, and made his views clear about Howard’s refusal to apologise: ‘That was an error clearly, we should have said “sorry” then.’[29]

I started the detailed discussions about the Apology at the beginning of December. The first person I spoke with was Mick Dodson. He emphasised the importance of our Closing the Gap framework:

‘Close the gap is the beacon. Everything else has to fit this objective. Make this the mantra, how does the Apology help to close the gap? He emphasised that we needed a national plan to close the gap. Closing the gap will give force to the Apology.’[30]

This became a strong theme in Rudd’s speech.

I had early meetings with Tom Calma and Lowitja O’Donoghue. There were two national organisations representing members of the Stolen Generations—the National Stolen Generations Alliance and the National Sorry Day Committee. Reconciliation Australia is an independent national organisation promoting reconciliation and was also heavily involved. When I met with representatives of these three groups in the middle of December to start the detailed consultations, I told them I wanted to have as many people as possible take part in the planning of the Apology, and to get as much input as I could into the form it would take.

Richard Wynne was the Victorian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs at the time, and a good friend. He privately raised with me early in December the desire for the States to be involved in the Apology. Involving the States was important and helped show that the Apology was bipartisan and widely supported.

I started to think in detail about the option of having the Apology at the beginning of Parliament, and who I would need advice from—especially on protocol. The opening of Parliament is steeped in centuries of history, arcane rituals and conventions. It is not a process owned by the government of the day.

Linda Burney at that time was a Minister in the NSW Government and one of the few Aboriginal people in any of our parliaments. Linda has been a great guide and help to me as a friend and colleague in the Labor Party. Right at the beginning of our thinking about how the event would unfold, Linda suggested that we invite elders who were stolen to sit on the floor of the chamber. This is a very significant honour in the House of Representatives, generally reserved for visiting dignitaries such as foreign leaders. It is now one of the most identifiable images from the day. This was one special way to show that the Apology was, first and foremost, for the Stolen Generations.

On 11 December I launched the book of stories, Us Taken Away Kids, in Sydney at Old Customs House. At the launch, facing many Aboriginal people who had been taken away, I announced that the Prime Minister would make an apology and there would be a proper and respectful consultation about what would be said, where and when, and the type of event. Some cried when I announced this. Although we had promised an apology many times before, they just could not believe it was actually, finally happening.

Tom Calma responded at the launch, and reminded me that so much harm had been done by refusing to apologise:

‘For many of the Stolen Generations the refusal to apologise has amounted to a denial of their life experiences. This has been reflected in vicious debates about whether children were stolen or saved. And this is the importance of the Apology. By acknowledging and paying respect, those who have suffered can move forward, to heal and ultimately to belong.’[31]

The consultations started in earnest after this launch. The two national Stolen Generations organisations made clear to me that, first and foremost, people wanted the Prime Minister to say ‘sorry’. They wanted reparation and compensation to be addressed. Many also took on the issue which Howard had used so effectively against an apology—acknowledging that Aboriginal people were not saying that each Australian was responsible for all the terrible things that had been done in the past.

‘Apologise and forgive’ was the theme from all of those early discussions. They also emphasised that the words of the Apology needed to show an understanding of the importance of identity and self-esteem for those who had been stolen. Many said that ‘sorry’ would be the start of a new relationship and was an opportunity to ‘put the train back on the track’. Everyone knew how important it was to secure broad support—bipartisan support if possible—as it was understood how much more powerful the Apology would be if it came from the whole Parliament. This would also enable the Apology to unify the nation, not divide it. I was determined to do what I could to get bipartisan agreement.

Some people initially suggested to me that the event be on 26 May—Sorry Day, and the anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report. Others wanted it on the first day of the new Parliament. Though the date wasn’t settled, there was agreement that the Apology should be delivered in Parliament House in Canberra. The different organisations proposed that I consult widely and also get advice about the event and on who should be invited from the different groups. I agreed. The Stolen Generations groups organised many discussions in towns, suburbs and small communities in many parts of Australia during December and the first few weeks of January 2008.

I had a wonderful young woman, Rita Markwell, on my staff. She developed very close relationships with many men and women who had been stolen and was responsible for making sure we involved as many people as possible and heard the views of both the representative groups and those who rang and wrote to tell their stories. People would call my office at any time of the day and have an elder on the phone, some of them very old, recounting what happened when they were little and vulnerable. It was a privilege to be told these stories.

Rita developed a series of questions that were used by the two Stolen Generations organisations to consult with those affected. The questions included whether the Apology should be to the broader Indigenous population, what historical events should be acknowledged in the Apology, what they would like the Prime Minister to say, and what they would like to happen on the day of the Apology.

Rita had based the questions on the book On Apology, by Aaron Lazare[32], which traced apologies from around the world and what made them a success. The two groups did an extraordinary job consulting about what people expected and hoped for.

The Stolen Generations Alliance recommended to me an acknowledgement of the impact on individuals by using personal stories, an acceptance of responsibility for the harm done, a willingness to make reparation, and that a small group be established to look afresh at the Bringing Them Home recommendations. They also called for a commitment that these policies never again be done. The National Sorry Day Committee was very forceful that the Bringing Them Home recommendations be adopted. More than anything, they wanted the Prime Minister to say ‘sorry’. And they continued to raise the importance of compensation.

We held a number of meetings in Canberra where people were brought together to tell me directly and personally about the consultations they had undertaken, and to make sure I could hear what people wanted to be said. This was a very emotional period, with people telling me their stories of removal. I needed to be open to hear all of this and focussed on getting this huge event organised.

It was at these meetings that it was proposed that the Apology be to ‘Stolen Generations, their families and communities’.

Tony Abbott, as the new Liberal spokesperson on Indigenous Affairs, kept attempting to undermine our momentum:

‘The former Government passed a resolution of deep regret. But we did not apologise because of the sorts of issues which I think the new Government is going to impale itself on. If compensation comes into play, any quantum that satisfies the hardline Indigenous groups will again absolutely outrage the mainstream of the population.’[33]

Even as late as the week before the Apology, Abbott was dismissing it as ‘a sop to the left and off the main game of addressing Indigenous disadvantage’.[34]

Many people raised compensation and reparation both publicly and privately. One suggestion was the establishment of a fund with compensation paid from the interest. Reparation is different from compensation. In the Bringing Them Home report, reparation was about trying to repair the damage caused by removal, and attempting to remedy the hurt. As Mick Dodson said:

‘We must understand what people have lost and how those things might be returned. For example, helping people to return to country, to reunite with family and to learn about the culture and heritage that was taken away from them.’[35]

We did make some progress in addressing some of these needs through expanding the wonderful work of Link-Up Family Reunion Services and funding the establishment of the Healing Foundation. This recognised the pernicious impact of trauma, including intergenerational trauma, on both members of the Stolen Generations and their families. But this was not compensation.

It was very clear how divisive the issue of compensation would be. Right up to the day of the Apology, this debate continued. Many felt it was only fair that compensation be paid. Others knew that this was the issue that could kill the Apology.

There were many Aboriginal people who were very angry and upset, especially people in the Northern Territory, who argued the Commonwealth had a particular responsibility for those who were stolen as it had been under Commonwealth control at the time. Marion Scrymgour was then the Indigenous Policy Minister in the Northern Territory Government and a very strong Labor representative for Indigenous people. She supported the general position that compensation was the responsibility of the States or the institutions that had perpetrated abuse. However, she argued that because the removal of children in the Northern Territory occurred before self-government and was based on a Commonwealth ordinance the Commonwealth should assume liability or provide additional assistance measures.

Fred Chaney, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Fraser Government and on the Board of Reconciliation Australia, Father Frank Brennan and others impressed upon me the need to continue to pursue bipartisan support for the Apology. Frank Brennan went so far as to say ‘if Indigenous people want it to be bipartisan then compensation can’t be part of it.’[36]

Chaney asked that we renew the offer of bipartisanship that Rudd had offered on the anniversary of the 1967 referendum. Mark Leibler, then co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, was also helpful in keeping the lines of communication open with the Liberals, including Brendan Nelson, right up to the day of the Apology. He put the view that any funding available should go to our Closing the Gap agenda and not compensation. Barry O’Farrell, the then Liberal Leader in NSW, also offered to speak to Nelson.

At the same time as I was talking with many people about the Apology, I knew we had to start to repair the relationship with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. There were very strong feelings against the Northern Territory Emergency Response, both about the way in which it had been announced with absolutely no consultation, and with some of the radical changes that were put in place. There was very strong opposition to the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act by Howard, which enabled the introduction of discriminatory measures such as income management that only applied to Aboriginal people. Labor opposed the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act but very few people had heard this in the heat of the debate.

For the Apology to be successful, I knew we had to address people’s very real anger. We organised a meeting between Northern Territory Indigenous leaders and Kevin Rudd for the middle of December, just three weeks after the election. I knew that the Commonwealth had an extra responsibility for actions that had been taken in the Northern Territory—both in the past and with the emergency response. No one missed the connections between the Apology to the Stolen Generations and the emergency response, both of which, in their very different ways, were about the treatment of Aboriginal children.

The Council of Australian Governments met for the first time after the election on 20 December in Melbourne. This was our first opportunity to put our Close the Gap targets on the table. Here was the new Labor Government, less than a month after the election, getting agreement from all the States and Territories that the 17-year life expectancy gap must be closed. The agreement meant that all governments would work together to halve the mortality gap for children under five within a decade, and halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy within a decade. This agreement was critical to enable us to put the much-needed detailed commitments alongside the Apology.


During January, people were publicly and privately putting forward suggestions for particular words to be used.

I talked with Sir William Deane, Governor General from 1996 to 2001, who had shown his deep regard for, and connection with, Indigenous people over many years. He provided wise counsel: that the Apology needed to be to both ‘stolen generations, their families and communities and also be extremely general’[37]. It was very important to talk to him. He recalled the bloodshed and dispossession of Aboriginal people by the early European settlers, the Aboriginal workers who were underpaid, and the story of Vincent Lingiari—who had led the walk off at Wave Hill for better pay and for the return of his tribal lands. I include this because of its importance in understanding the call for the Apology to be ‘an express acknowledgement of the past injustice and oppression’ as well as saying sorry to the Stolen Generations.

Others were also suggesting that the Apology be to all Indigenous people for, as Ted Wilkes, a Nyungar man and Associate Professor put it, ‘all the wrongs inflicted on them throughout history’[38]. Wayne Bergmann, then CEO of the Kimberley Land Council, took a similar approach, saying, ‘the Apology is a fundamental acknowledgement that an injustice occurred and that wrongs were committed. It is a crucial first step towards forging a positive relationship’. He went on to highlight the need to focus on economic development.[39]

Although no decision had been made at this point about the timing of the Apology, my thinking was that the first day of the new Parliament would be the clearest way our new Government could show the Australian people how serious we were about saying sorry. Early in the new year, I started the discussions with my own Department about all that would need to be done if this was to happen. I also started to quietly raise the possibility with Aboriginal leaders.

Many continued to emphasise the importance of involving those people directly affected. Patrick Dodson—known then and now as the Father of Reconciliation—asked me to make sure that the hurt that had been caused was recognised. He also suggested that we put the Apology in a broader context, including that we announce that we would pursue recognition of Aboriginal people in the Constitution.

All through January I was collecting ideas for the speech that Kevin would ultimately give. Of course, the words he finally said were his own, but so many people contributed—some formally in writing, some by public comments, and some privately both to Kevin and to me.

There continued to be speculation on the date. No decision had been made but I ruled out Australia Day. For Aboriginal people and many other Australians, this day represents the dispossession of their land and culture. I did not think reconciliation would be furthered if the Apology was made on this day.

I said publicly on 15 January that the word ‘sorry’ would be said. The fact that I had to make this announcement was a stark reminder to me of the very low level of trust that many Aboriginal people had towards government after the Howard years. They just could not believe it would happen.

My first detailed meeting with Kevin Rudd was the day before. We went through the outcomes of my consultations, and I suggested then that the date be set for the first day of Parliament. We discussed many of the arrangements, who would need to be invited, and consultations with Brendan Nelson. We then talked about the policy announcements that could also be made to demonstrate our commitment to Closing the Gap.

I also took Kevin through the proposal for a Welcome to Country ceremony. The acknowledgement of the prior ownership of the land by Aboriginal people and the paying of respect to elders had become an increasing feature of public events. Where possible, local Aboriginal elders formally ‘welcome’ visitors to their land. But there had never been a formal welcome at the start of a new Parliament.

Although there was still no decision, I proceeded towards the start of Parliament as the likely time. I realised what a big risk we were taking, and what a big decision it was to have the Apology on the first day of the new Parliament. Kevin was understandably worried something could go wrong. He was also receiving advice from others against the Apology occurring on the first day of his Prime Ministership in the Parliament. This was not shared with me, though I found out about it much later.

There was a concern—which I came up against regularly—that the prevailing politics of the time did not lend itself to generous symbolic gestures to Aboriginal people. This argument reappeared every year throughout our time in Government as I argued for the Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap address to the Parliament to be on the anniversary of the Apology. I didn’t always win this debate. This was a regular reminder that it was not inevitable that the Apology would take place, or that it would be on the first day of the Parliament. The Apology had to be fought for every step of the way.

The meetings with the National Sorry Day Committee and the Stolen Generations Alliance were intense in the following week with much feedback coming from their consultations. I met with Lowitja O’Donoghue and Malcolm Fraser who were the patrons of the Stolen Generations Alliance. By this stage they were reasonably relaxed that the arrangements were proceeding well. So many people gave so much of themselves to help make sure I understood what needed to be said.

Of course, there were still many who were challenging us. Kevin went on the morning television show, Sunrise, on 29 January. Melissa Doyle asked, ‘what do you say to people out there saying, “mate, we have got nothing to apologise for, it happened a long time ago.” Why do you need to say it?’

This was a strong sentiment and one we constantly confronted. Kevin answered that we would be speaking for the Government. Individuals can have their own opinions. Doyle also raised compensation and Kevin ruled it out again.

On that same day, after his Sunrise interview, I recommended to Kevin that he deliver the Apology at the start of the new Parliament—on 13 February 2008. He agreed. It was such a powerful way for our new Government to say to Aboriginal people that this would be our first item of business, that we would put them first. I emphasised how much preparation was involved. I did not want to delay. I was worried that opposition to an apology would grow if we let it linger. And on a more emotional level, many people for whom we were doing this were quite old. Frankly, I was worried more would die before they heard ‘sorry’ being said.

I took Kevin through the feedback we had received and told him the things that people wanted so much to hear. First and foremost, ‘sorry’, for what had been done to the Stolen Generations and their families and communities—as well as a more general apology for past injustices. Kevin wanted bipartisan commitment and emphasised the need to consult with Brendan Nelson. We discussed what could happen if there was no agreement, what the response might be from the Independents and others who might break away. It was my job to talk with them to get them onside—or for me to get other Aboriginal leaders to lobby them.

I also took Kevin through the legal advice we had received which confirmed that, as with the apologies from state leaders in their parliaments, the Commonwealth would not face financial claims as a result of our Apology. Compensation was a very sensitive matter as Kevin had ruled it out. I also took him through the arrangements for the Welcome to Country that would be held before the opening of the Parliament. It was now only 14 days away, so we had an enormous amount to get organised. I was very relieved to get the decisions I needed.

The next day I announced that the Apology would be on 13 February and would be the first item of business for the new Parliament. The Apology would be in the form of a motion by the House of Representatives. I called on all Members of Parliament to support the Apology.

Most Aboriginal Leaders immediately agreed to the date. Christine King, Indigenous Co-Chair of the Stolen Generations Alliance said, ‘This apology is the beginning of our healing process. It’s wonderful.’[40] Some initial fears were expressed by the National Sorry Day Committee and Reconciliation Australia that the date was too soon and did not allow enough time for preparations, but they were reassured that we would be able to get everything done in time.

I also announced there would be a Welcome to Country at the opening of the new Parliament on 12 February. The formal opening of the Parliament by the Governor General takes place the day before the business of the Parliament starts. The Welcome would be delivered by local Aboriginal elder Matilda House, a much-loved person at Parliament House events.

The Welcome needed to be designed alongside the traditional ceremonies for the opening of the Parliament, including gun salutes. One anxiety of the officials who look after the formal opening was that there may be a smoking ceremony inside. I was worried this could derail negotiations, but the Aboriginal leaders were understanding. We addressed this the following year by having the Welcome and the smoking ceremony outside Parliament House instead of inside.

Ausdance National Director, Julie Dyson, suggested Indigenous dancer, director and choreographer Marilyn Miller to bring the welcome together artistically. Marilyn worked closely with Matilda House. John Stanwell, an experienced arts administrator, helped enormously with the organisation.

Kevin Rudd had called Brendan Nelson on the same day I announced the date of the Apology, asking for bipartisan support. But Nelson refused to change his position. Instead, he went on the attack, saying the Apology would reinforce a victim mentality. He also said other issues were more important—like interest rates and petrol prices. Abbott said, as he had said before, the Government would ‘almost certainly fail to get a form of words sufficiently abject to satisfy the more radical Aboriginal groups but sufficiently statesmanlike to satisfy the wider community’.

Rudd said publicly to Nelson: ‘you either support an apology or you don’t’. Then, Nelson wanted to see the words before he made a decision. While he prevaricated, the hard right of the Liberals were putting pressure on him. Western Australian MP Wilson Tuckey said, ‘it won’t take one Aborigine off booze or petrol’.[41] People thought they had license to speak this way. Rudd did make things more difficult by first promising to give Nelson the words then delaying. He was still anxious about the final text, and sensitive to any risk this could be derailed.

It was becoming clearer that the issue of compensation would be put to one side, even though many Aboriginal people emphasised that there would be no final resolution without compensation. Helen Moran from the National Sorry Day Committee continued to stress this with me. One of the reasons our position was finally accepted was because many wanted to make sure that very elderly members of the Stolen Generation would hear the Apology before they died. Many of the leaders also understood the nasty politics that would result if compensation was included.

Around this time, I also announced that there would be a budget to help bring some members of the Stolen Generations to Canberra. The State and Territory Governments, private companies and Reconciliation Australia also helped pay for flights for members of the Stolen Generations to come to witness the Apology.

Then there was the kindness of complete strangers. In an interview on ABC radio, Zita Wallace—an Aboriginal woman from Central Australia and removed from her family as a girl—she said she would like to go to the Apology but couldn’t afford the fare. Soon after there were five callers to the ABC switchboard offering to pay. Zita said:

‘Well, I really didn’t know how to thank them because, you know, like, they’re total strangers, they don’t know me from a bar of soap, or any of our people up here, and they heard me on the radio and I think they’re just being true spirited Aussies, and coming out in them their generosity to help another human being.’[42]

We worked with the two national Stolen Generation organisations and Reconciliation Australia to get this right. It was enormously sensitive, choosing who would be invited and who would have their expenses paid.

The two Stolen Generations groups also gave me advice about who should sit on the floor of the House of Representatives chamber to hear the Apology. The Patron of the Stolen Generations Alliance, Lowitja O’Donoghue, and Brian Butler, who had played such a leading role as the former Chair of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, and Helen Moran from the National Sorry Day Committee, were just some of the Aboriginal people seated on the floor of the Chamber.

Right up until the day before the Apology, people were voicing their concerns about the Northern Territory Emergency Response. A demonstration was organised for the day before the Apology. It was an opportunity for people opposed to the Emergency Response to ‘converge’ on Parliament House. No one wanted it on the day of the Apology as there was complete respect for those who had been stolen. It was—as they put it—about ‘turning a new page’, and was very peaceful.

However, organisers of the official opening of Parliament had to act quickly when they realised that the artillery lined up for the 19-gun salute were pointing directly at the protestors. Barely half an hour before the salute took place, the guns were moved.[43]

Looking back, it would seem that everyone was supportive of the Apology. But this was not so. Even as late as 2 February, comments in the media emphasised the risks of the Apology and the cynicism of many. The Sydney Morning Herald editorialised again: ‘the apology we believe is meaningless…It is certainly not an expression of national unity.’[44]

Even though early in February Nelson had floated the idea of allowing a conscience vote, by 6 February he finally decided to support the Apology. Rudd had met Nelson over breakfast. Rudd’s feedback to me was that Nelson would ‘be okay’. Nelson had pointed to the internal political pressures on him. He had sought assurances on the words that would be used that would help him support the Apology. He kept calling for the release of the words and the release of the legal advice. Like Rudd, he did not want the Apology to lead to compensation claims. He wanted us to say ‘forcibly removed’, not stolen. I made it clear publicly we would use stolen and that this was non-negotiable. The Commonwealth had a standard practice not to release legal advice, so it wasn’t made available, but this made discussions with Nelson more difficult.

Now that the Liberals had announced their support, the Apology could be on behalf of the Parliament. Without Liberal support, we would have said it just on behalf of the Government.


The organisational effort to deliver the events surrounding the Apology was enormous. Credit for the success of these arrangements goes to my Department—especially Kerrie Tim and her team, and my personal staff. Rita Markwell from my office oversaw the mass of arrangements, along with Helen Hambling, who was on loan from the Department of Health and was at her organisational best. Reconciliation Australia and the two Stolen Generations Groups were outstanding.

There were the invitations—of course for members of the Stolen Generations, some of whom lived in very remote places, as well Indigenous leaders and previous Prime Ministers, Premiers, and State Ministers. There were sensitive seating arrangements, accommodation and flights to book, special arrangements for very elderly people, TV screens in the Great Hall to set up, and outside so that the thousands of people expected to attend could watch. There were the food and entertainment and events following the Apology on the lawns outside Parliament. We had to set up counselling services and quiet places inside Parliament, recognising that this day could bring up pain and upset for many people. Reconciliation Australia and GetUp! did a great job working with the people of Canberra who opened their homes and offered places for people to stay.

Events were organised in every capital city, and large screens were put up so that the broadcast could be seen. Many country towns and remote communities, schools and workplaces also organised their own events, gathered around their televisions. Everyone was able to be part of this historic occasion because of the broadcast. The advertising company Saatchi and Saatchi produced a TV ad urging Australians to ‘Be Part of It’, which they had created without charge—and media space for the advertisement was donated.


On the Saturday morning before the Apology, the Prime Minister’s car—‘C1’—parked out the front of the home of Christine King in suburban Canberra. Many members of her family were there, including young children, all lined up on the couch to meet their special guest. Kevin wanted to bring a personal element to his speech. Christine’s mother Lorna—Nanna Nungala Fejo—was there to do just that.

Before our visit, my staff member Rita had asked Christine what gift we could bring. Christine replied that Nanna Fejo loved oranges. So that’s what Kevin brought with him to a suburban home in Canberra on a Saturday morning. A bag of oranges. Christine returned the favour, giving Kevin some Iced VoVos.

We all sat down to listen to Nanna Fejo’s story. We were all quiet while she spoke, sometimes laughing, and sometimes wiping away tears. From memory, she spoke for more than an hour.

Nanna Fejo’s story became the centrepiece of Kevin’s speech. She was born in the late 1920s in a bush camp outside Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. Kevin said in his Apology speech:

‘She remembers the love and the warmth and the kinship of those days long ago, including the dancing around the campfire at night. She loved the dancing…. Sometime around 1932, when she was about four, she remembers the coming of the welfare men. Her family had feared that day and had dug holes in the creek bank where the children could run and hide. What they had not expected was that the white welfare men would not come alone. They brought a truck, two white men and an Aboriginal stockman on horseback cracking his stockwhip. The kids were found; they ran for their mothers screaming but they could not get away. They were herded and piled onto the back of the truck. Tears flowing, her mum tried clinging to the sides of the truck as her children were taken away to the Bungalow in Alice, all in the name of protection.’[45]

Nanna Fejo never saw her mother again after she was taken.

During their meeting, Kevin and Nanna Fejo had a lovely laugh together as she told the origins of her religious upbringing. Again, Kevin told this story in his speech:

‘A few years later, government policy changed. Now the children would be handed over to the missions to be cared for by the churches. But which church would care for them? The kids were simply told to line up in three lines. Nanna Fejo and her sister stood in the middle line, her older brother and cousin on her left. Those on the left were told they had become Catholics, those in the middle Methodists and those on the right Church of England. That is how the complex questions of post reformation theology were resolved in the Australian outback in the 1930s. It was as crude as that.’

Kevin had grown up as a Catholic and then chose to practice as an Anglican as an adult. I think the contrast with Nanna Fejo being arbitrarily assigned a faith helped him understand her story.

In late 2008 I was in Tennant Creek and met up again with Nanna Fejo. She had wanted to go back to the place she had been taken from to do a healing ceremony. I think she called it a forgiveness ceremony. She had written a note for Kevin and for me thanking us for saying ‘sorry’. She was shy about giving me the notes and gently put a necklace made of monkey beans over my head, as well as Rita Markwell’s. Rita had done so much to make the Apology a success and Nanna Fejo acknowledged her in the loveliest way.

On 11 February I did a final read through of the motion of Apology with Tom Calma. He had been so helpful all the way through. The drafting of the Motion was faithful to all the incredible input we had received from around the country. We had decided to include an apology for damage done by laws and policies of successive parliaments, as well as the Apology to the Stolen Generations. It was very hard for me to read out loud as I was so emotional. Tom was very happy with the words.

As Dr. Jackie Huggins, Indigenous leader and at that time Reconciliation Australia Board Member, said:

‘The words…talk about all the stuff that the Stolen Generations have wanted to talk about…grievances of the past, the righting of wrong, of moving forward but to acknowledge their grief and their pain and their suffering.’[46]

On the same day, Marcia Langton, Professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, said:

‘As you know, I was quite cynical up until recently about the apology. But I think it’s impossible to feel any kind of cynicism at all, if you can understand how much it means to people who have lived through these events and have been removed from their families.’[47]

That night, on the lawns at the front of Parliament House, GetUp! organised a very special gesture—with hundreds of lanterns that said, ‘Sorry, the first step’.

The Apology Motion was tabled in House of Representatives late in the afternoon of 12 February. I had organised for Nelson to get a copy a few hours earlier. Nelson had been pressing me for a ‘sneak peek’, but he was given very little time as we were very worried that it would leak. He confirmed his party’s backing for the Apology despite misgivings about the term ‘stolen’.


The first Welcome to Country for a new Parliament took place on 12 February, 2008.

In an acknowledgement of protocol, the President of the Senate started proceedings. The event was held in the Members Hall, the formal meeting place between the two Houses of Parliament. There is a marble floor and portraits of Speakers of the House and Presidents of the Senate around the walls. It has a square pond in the middle above which there is a vast space rising to a glass roof through which you can see the flag flying. The pond had become a watering hole, a place of meeting between the Aboriginal people, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and me.

Ngambri[48] elder, Matilda House came in, dressed in a possum cloak down to the ground with bare feet, ‘just like Billy Clements’. Matilda told the story of Billy Clements, an Aboriginal man who had come to the opening of the old Parliament House dressed in an old suit, barefoot and dogs at his side. Matilda told the crowd, ‘the welcome to country ceremony allowed safe passage to visitors. For thousands of years, our people have observed this protocol. It is a good and honest and a decent and human act to reach out and make sure everyone has a place and is welcome.’

Tony Wright is a veteran press gallery journalist and a renowned story teller. He expanded on the story of Jimmy ‘King Billy’ Clements.

‘Clements and another Aborigine, John Noble, walked over the mountains from Brungle Mission in NSW to become the only Indigenous people to attend the first opening of Parliament in Canberra. Police took exception to Clements and told him to clear off. The crowd took the side of the old Aborigine. Clements won his prized spot on the parliamentary steps and was presented to the Duke and Duchess of Kent… The ordinary folk of Canberra recognised in Clements’ courage: that Australia’s Indigenous people were here first.’[49]

Two of Matilda’s grandchildren, Bella and Bo House, gave Kevin Rudd and Brendan Nelson a message stick, as Matilda described it, ‘a means of communication used by our peoples for thousands of years. They tell the story of our coming together.’

Rudd and Nelson both spoke, although Nelson had been given no warning that he would be invited to speak. Rudd leant over to Nelson during the proceedings and asked him if he would mind saying a few words. As it happened, Nelson spoke well and said he didn’t think the opening of the Parliament would ever be the same again. He was right.

Each and every one of the symbols had been so carefully thought through. The dancers were both traditional and contemporary, from Yirrkala in North East Arnhem Land: Water, Wind and White Cockatoo, the Baiwa Dancers, Torres Strait Islanders: Bow and Arrow, Star, Rhythm. But we could not control the weather, and as Matilda highlighted in her speech, all houses leak. On that day Parliament House was no exception. The rain came down and through the roof onto the marble floor. This made it very slippery for the dancers and big black mats had to be found to cover the marble.

The night before the Apology, Senator Bob Brown, the then leader of the Greens, gave notice that he would seek to amend the Apology Motion to include a commitment to offering just compensation. The amendment did not get any traction on the day. Senator Lyn Allison, the then Leader of the Australian Democrats indicated that she was, ‘disappointed that the Rudd Government has so far rejected compensation. However, we will not support Senator Bob Brown’s amendment to the Apology. An apology is a distinct action and we consider that it should be there to stand on its own.’[50]


Early on the morning of the Apology, the anticipation was intense. This is best summed up by the panic that one of my staff members went into when, driving to work along Commonwealth Avenue, she saw that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Australian flags weren’t flying. It turned out she was too early—they were raised at 7am.

Kevin was still changing his speech around 7.30 on the morning of the Apology when he called me to his office. I had been through a few drafts of parts of the speech with my staff and his, and many people—especially Aboriginal people—had told us what they wanted him to say.

Kevin told me that he had been up until late in the night writing. He had decided he wanted a sort of ‘war cabinet’ to tackle Indigenous disadvantage, to be chaired by himself and the Leader of the Opposition. Kevin had announced this idea while we were still in Opposition back in June 2007 on the Sunday program with Laurie Oakes. As he wanted to flesh it out in the Apology speech, I suggested it focus on remote housing.

I knew the overcrowding was horrific and addressing this need would be one very practical way to make sure we started to close the gap. This was agreed. Kevin also announced that work would progress on constitutional recognition of the First Australians. The Close the Gap targets that had been announced before the election and agreed by COAG just after the election, were given force by their inclusion in the Apology speech.

Rudd wanted Nelson to agree to the ‘war cabinet’ and for it to be a bipartisan group. But Nelson had no time to consider this proposal as he wasn’t told about it until Rudd announced it. Although Nelson responded positively on the day, when he formally got back to us a week later, he had decided not to participate.


After welcoming members of the Stolen Generation members who would witness the Apology in the Prime Minister’s courtyard with Thérèse Rein, Kevin and I walked from his office into the House of Representatives together. Everyone else was seated when we arrived. There were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in all the galleries and on chairs on the floor of the Chamber. They were sitting with all living past Prime Ministers except John Howard. He had decided not to attend.

Kevin began:

‘We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.’[51]

And then, that word. ‘Sorry’.

The single word that so many people had waited so long to hear. There was complete silence as Kevin said ‘sorry’ again to the mothers and fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families. And then, ‘for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry’.

People were quietly weeping in the public galleries and on the floor of the House of Representatives. Outside, people were cheering. There was loud applause in the chamber as he finished.


Nelson spoke after Rudd and, sadly, entirely misjudged what needed to be said. He offended people by talking about violence and abuse. While we had been speaking with hundreds of people who had been stolen, and Kevin had personally listened to Nanna Fejo’s story, Nelson was not able to convey that he understood the loss and hurt that these people experienced.

Fortunately, people focussed on the words that Kevin had delivered, the words that so many wanted to hear. Rudd and Nelson then walked together to the Aboriginal people on the floor of the Parliament. I was with them, partly as a participant, partly still anxious that something could go wrong.

Following the Apology, Aunty Lorraine Peeters, Aboriginal elder and a member of the Stolen Generations, presented a glass coolamon to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, with a message that said:

‘On behalf of our people thank you for saying sorry. In return we give you this gift on behalf of us affected by being taken away from our families. This is our way of saying thank you. The gift is a glass coolamon, fragile yet strong. Coolamons have carried our children. The gift is a symbol of the hope we place in the new relationship you wish to forge with our people. A relationship that itself is fragile yet strong. We have a new covenant between our peoples, that we will do all we can to make sure our children are carried forward, loved and nurtured and able to live a full life.’

The coolamon was made by Balgo artist Bai Bai Napangardi, and following the ceremony, it was given to the Speaker of the House of Representatives as a gift to the Parliament.

The response to Rudd’s speech from the Aboriginal people present was overwhelming—so too from the 800 people in the Great Hall, and the thousands on the lawns outside and the other places around the country.

I found out later that some people had turned their backs on Nelson in the Great Hall and at public events. Some Liberal Members and Senators either walked out of Rudd’s speech or didn’t attend, boycotting the event entirely. They were Peter Dutton, Don Randall, Luke Simpkins, Sophie Mirabella, Dennis Jensen, Wilson Tuckey, Alby Schultz and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. All Australians should know these names.

Morning tea with members of the Stolen Generations was in the Marble Foyer, located between the House and the Senate. Helen Moran had designed a ceremonial display with pictures of children who had been forcibly taken, held up by local children who were descendants of Stolen Generation members. Her aim was to represent the continuing intergenerational effects of the removal of children. The children stood next to members of the Stolen Generations who had just listened to the Apology.

Tom Calma had been nominated by the Stolen Generations Alliance and the National Sorry Day Committee to give the response to the Apology. He gave his thanks and said, ‘It is far more difficult to try and unite people than to divide them.’

The emotion was high. One of the most wonderful things was the sight of Aboriginal people all over Parliament House—in the private areas, the courtyards, the cafés and out on the lawns. They were relaxed and happy—having coffee, a smoke, laughing. Some were still wiping away tears. Many people were wearing black t-shirts that said ‘Sorry’ and ‘Thanks’.

And that’s the word I heard most that day—’thanks’. As so many said to me, it was so important that the Apology was given and accepted. Dr Marika, a wonderful Yolngu woman from North East Arnhem land who has sadly passed away far too young, said, ‘saying sorry is an act of forgiveness and forgiveness is an act of love.’

Then the day outside took over with food, music and people enjoying the moment together. There was a ‘Sorry’ concert on the grass out the front of Parliament House with Aboriginal entertainer Leah Purcell as the MC. The Parliament resumed sitting so I didn’t get out until quite late in the afternoon, and this was the first time I was able to absorb what we had achieved. Even so, it was still hard to comprehend. It was a great relief that all had gone smoothly and that the truth about what had been done to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was now accepted. I could see the impact that had on the faces of the Indigenous people all around. Years later, those who had been stolen still tell me of the significance of that day to them.

Patrick Dodson reflected on the feelings of the Stolen Generations: ‘Many will, at last, feel the relief that there has been an acknowledgement, an owning up, to what happened to them as children.’[52]

Michael McLeod, Chief Executive Officer of the company Message Stick, and a member of the Stolen Generations, wrote to me:

‘For many of those directly affected by the removal policies of previous generations, the recent Federal Government apology to the stolen generation has unearthed an enormous range of emotions…Many are struggling to deal with this…. Despite these difficulties, many of those affected, including myself, are deeply moved and genuinely grateful for the apology. It is impossible to convey in words how cathartic the recent days have been.’[53]

This response continues. Michael organises an Apology anniversary breakfast each year in Sydney.

As Michael said, the Apology was welcome but painful. Many survivors had to deal with their own memories as well as dealing with the inevitable criticisms that were often harsh. Wounds were reopened and there was a significant increase in the demand for Bringing Them Home counselling services.

On the day of the Apology, Mick Dodson wrote,

‘People talk about the false divide between so called symbolic aspects of reconciliation and practical issues like health and education. The reality is that how you feel about yourself, and whether you feel your culture and your history is acknowledged and respected is a key part of facing your problems and being able to turn things around’.[54]

This insight is so important in Aboriginal affairs, in fact in all areas of policy that are not to do with the dominant culture.

The Apology was turned into a beautiful calligraphic manuscript on vellum by artist Gemma Black. It was unveiled by Kevin Rudd on Sorry Day in 2008, and donated to the Parliament.


Peter Read wrote in 1999 in his book A Rape of the Soul So Profound,

‘We must insist that Aboriginal children are never again separated from their families and those who are grieving are allowed to heal, whatever the cost. National reconciliation requires it, common humanity demands it.’[55]

As a nation, we do have to face the fact that the numbers of Aboriginal children being removed from their parents continue to rise. Plainly none of us have found the policy solutions. The ongoing removal of children remains a matter of utmost importance and urgency.

On the first anniversary of the Apology I announced we would support the establishment of a Healing Foundation to ‘provide practical and innovative healing services as well as education, training and research on Indigenous healing’.[56] The Foundation has been one of the initiatives that has survived the change of Government with funding continuing. The Healing Foundation has a Stolen Generations Reference Committee to advise on the best way to target support. One of the priorities that the Healing Foundation decided on was child protection. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are being removed from their families at rates higher than at any time in the Stolen Generation era.[57] Charles Passi, the then Chair of the Healing Foundation wrote,

‘It is imperative that in order for intergenerational trauma initiatives to be sustainable, community healing must work on a par with our youth…We as parents and extended family members can’t forget the responsibility each of us has to our children. Protecting our children is up to all of us. We’ve got to make our communities safer places. This is within our power to be there for our children right now.’[58]

He is right.

The Stolen Generation organisations continued to press for the full implementation of the Bringing Them Home report recommendations. They wanted compensation addressed and to see health and wellbeing services improved—as it should be.

Tasmania introduced a compensation scheme in 2006 for members of the Stolen Generations and in 2015 the South Australian Government announced a new reparations scheme with a fund of $11million, some of which will be spent on ex gratia payments for those members of the state’s Aboriginal communities removed from their families.[59] In 2016, the New South Wales Government announced that it would establish a $73 million compensation fund.[60] Queensland and Western Australia both established redress schemes for children who had been in State care for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children in 2007.[61]

The Commonwealth will also need to take its share of responsibility. Reparation and compensation should be paid.

Having the truth recognised is no small thing. People who were stolen were finally believed and this opened the way for us to work together to Close the Gap. The Closing the Gap targets have now become a pivotal element of Indigenous Affairs in Australia. The Abbott and Turnbull Governments did recommit to achieving the targets, and the Prime Minister of the day’s Closing the Gap address to the Parliament is now an annual event, where he or she outlines progress in meeting the targets. Rudd started this reporting in 2009 and as he said then, it’s how the Parliament and all of us can be regularly held to account.

Unfortunately, however, the Abbott Government imposed significant budget cuts to Indigenous programs including services to improve Indigenous health, and now the Turnbull Government is refusing to recommit to the much-needed investment in housing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living in remote Australia. Progress to close the gap is being derailed as a result.


With ten years behind us, delivering the Apology now looks like it was always inevitable—almost easy. Of course, it was anything but.

The entire process was complex and deeply sensitive. There were plenty of false starts and near misses, much division and rancour. Everyone had to compromise on something at some point. Most of all, it required the extraordinary generosity of the Stolen Generations, who were prepared to accept the Apology in the same spirit in which it was given.

The Apology now has a special place in our national story—as day of reckoning, of repentance, of forgiveness. It was never going to erase the pain and trauma experienced by the Stolen Generations—but to acknowledge it and confront it. It was never going to Close the Gap—but was necessary to enable us all to take responsibility and work together.

It stands on its own as a special moment in Australia’s story.

A decade on, I hope we can reignite the spirit of the Apology to take these next big steps—to recommit to Close the Gap, and to respond positively to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Let’s learn from the Apology, and draw strength from it. Let’s re-commit to dealing honestly with our past. Let’s tell the truth.

And let’s remember that what at first seems difficult seems much easier once it’s done.



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This essay was first published on Meanjin.