February 07, 2018

SUBJECT/S: The Apology to the Stolen Generations.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Jenny Macklin is the Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services, she was the Minister for Indigenous Affairs in the first Rudd Government, she was instrumental in getting that apology up and delivered at the beginning of that parliamentary year. She’s written a pretty significant essay about that time, welcome to the program.


KARVELAS: Jenny Macklin I’ve read your essay you were Indigenous Affairs Minister at the time, you told the back story of arriving at that date and arriving at the Apology and tell us the story that it’s more contentious than it seemed, that it was more difficult to deliver. Why was it more difficult?

MACKLIN: I think when you look back over it we had 11 years, as you said in your introduction, of John Howard refusing to apologise - so the hurt and pain that many people that had been stolen had experienced kept gathering. I think with Kevin finally making the apology, saying sorry, saying that word that people had waited so long for and Kevin also told the truth about what had happened to people over the previous hundred years of Australia’s history. This had never really been done before this way in the Australian Parliament, so I think once he said those words that were so significant to people, Aboriginal people responded so generously and so positively and in many ways I think people just wanted to look to the future. So I think that’s why it’s important to write the story of the past and tell how hard it was, particularly for Aboriginal people, and especially for the Stolen Generations.

KARVELAS: Even the date was contentious.

MACKLIN: Yes, very contentious.

KARVELAS: Even within the Government? Why was it contentious?

MACKLIN: It’s a very big thing to have such major statement, a huge national event, as your first item of business in a new parliament. It hadn’t been done before, and it also required a massive amount of organisation, just the practical things that had to be done were very difficult. We didn’t have long to get ready, almost immediately after the election people were saying to me - Lowitja O'Donoghue for example was saying - come on get on with it, don’t delay. The first day of the parliament was already being spoken about in the early days, immediately after the election. I was hopeful we would make that decision because it would send such a strong message to Aboriginal people, how serious we took the issue and I think that’s what was achieved.

KARVELAS: Why were the words ‘sorry’ and ‘stolen’ the right words for the speech?

MACKLIN: The message we got from the Stolen Generations groups and from all the consultations that we undertook, was that the most important word that they wanted Kevin to say was ‘Sorry’. And I think he did it beautifully on the day, they  also wanted to make sure that the Apology was first and foremost to the Stolen Generations but also for the other wrongs of the past and it was very important that he was able to do both in the Apology.

KARVELAS: The Apology was a big step. I was there that day, I’ve never seen a more emotional day in the Parliament. But Kevin Rudd was always quick to rule out any sort of compensation, why was that?

MACKLIN: It was very clear to us that if we wanted the Apology to be bipartisan, which we did and I think most Aboriginal people did too, then compensation was just not possible. That was made clear to us both privately and publicly, and that was a very difficult decision. But I do think that the power of the bipartisan apology was just so important, particularly to those who had been stolen. There was a debate about whether or not the word ‘stolen’ would be used. As I say in the essay, there was a suggestion that we use the phrase ‘forcibly removed’ and I just point blank refused, and said that we wouldn’t contemplate that. One of the things that is so important is to tell the truth, and  so many people who were stolen, or who had somebody from their family who was stolen would say to me, both on the day and still now, just say how important it is to them personally that the truth was told. And you can’t muck around with saying words that wont reflect the truth in such a situation.

KARVELAS: You collected the stories of so many Stolen Generations people. People who were part of these stories, who had basically experienced these horrendous experiences. And then the day itself. Kevin Rudd, as you say, opened up the courtyard and decided to let Indigenous Australians to come through with a different entry point. How big a deal was all of that, I mean, to try and make that day work as it did? Because ultimately I think, it seemed from the outside like it was always just going to happen so smoothly. With so many emotions and so much pain it wasn’t as easy as it looked, right?

MACKLIN: No, it wasn’t. Kevin actually decided right at the last minute that he wanted to honour the specially invited members of the Stolen Generation, to come in through the Prime Ministerial entrance, which is normally reserved for foreign dignitaries for example. So that required a lot of last minute changes. Of course the whole way in which we had to consult about the Stolen Generations groups about who would sit as honoured guests on the floor of the Parliament, all of these issues were extremely sensitive. One of the lovely things, and I tell this story in the article, was just the way in which so many Australians opened themselves, and their hearts, to Aboriginal people. There was a lady from the Northern Territory who wasn’t able to afford to come to Canberra herself. Her story was told and I think she said five or six different people called the ABC to say that they would pay for her trip from Alice Springs so she could be here for the Apology. On the day, the people of Canberra were just wonderful, organised by Reconciliation Australia and GetUp!. Lots and lots of people just opened up their homes and invited people to stay. So there was lots and lots of generosity by so many people.

KARVELAS: Ten years down the road, how do you see things now? How transformative has this been for Indigenous Australians?

MACKLIN: Well of course, saying ‘sorry’ was so important in itself, but it also enabled us to have the discussions and negotiations about the need to close the gap, and how that would be done. Without the respect that was shown through the apology, I think that those discussions would have been so much more difficult, and less successful. I think I would say that to the Government now, is that it’s so important that the Uluru Statement from the Heart is taken seriously. Aboriginal people have taken it very seriously, spent an enormous amount of time talking about what they want from the Government of the day, so I would say to the Government, think again about the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Take it much more seriously than you have, because otherwise it is going to be so hard to get the commitment that’s needed to close the gap. On that, I would just remind everyone who is involved in the discussions about  the need to close the gap, every Aboriginal person has the right to live a lng and healthy life. The commitment to close the  gap in life expectancy should not be taken away or changed. That would be an absolute abrogation of all of our responsibility to Aboriginal people. So I would say that you can’t cut the budget in Aboriginal Affairs. You can’t ignore the Uluru Statement from the Heart. You will not be able to close the gap until you change your approach to both of these issues.

KARVELAS: If we just go to an issue that’s been running hot today. Given Susan Lamb has gone into the Parliament and given this speech, we know that the Government still intends to pursue her. Their argument is essentially, that there have been other MPs who have been in similar situations. In fact, Fiona Nash, the Deputy Leader of the Nationals last year had a similar personal circumstance, and yet she went to the High Court and resigned. Why should Susan Lamb be treated differently?

MACKLIN: Well, first of all I think it’s important on the day when Susan Lamb has delivered such an extraordinary statement to the Parliament that we actually take a little bit of time to listen to what she had to say, and not have a knee jerk reaction. I would really ask the Government to take a little pause and think about it.

KARVELAS: But other people have had difficult family situations too Jenny Macklin, that’s actually a fact. Lot’s of difficult family situations.

MACKLIN: It is a fact, but today’s fact, that’s true, of course a lot of people do. But today is about Susan Lamb, and she felt that she needed to come in to the Parliament today and explain her personal circumstances, and I am just saying I think it would be a good idea for everyone to take a bit of time and think about these issues a little bit more. Take a pause and consider what she’s said.

KARVELAS: Jenny Macklin, thank you for your time.

MACKLIN: Thank you.