Australia will issue its first formal apology to its indigenous people next month, the government announced on Wednesday, a milestone that could ease tensions with a minority whose mixed-blood children were once taken away on the premise that their race was doomed.
The Feb. 13 apology to the so-called "stolen generations" of Aborigines will be the first item of business for the new Parliament, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose Labor Party won November elections, had promised to push for an apology, an issue that has divided Australians for a decade,
"The apology will be made on behalf of the Australian government and does not attribute guilt to the current generation of Australian people," Macklin said in a statement.
Rudd has refused demands from some Aboriginal leaders to pay compensation for the suffering of broken families. Activist Michael Mansell, who is legal director of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Center, has urged the government to set up an $882 million compensation fund.
Macklin did not mention compensation Wednesday. But she said she sought broad input on the wording of the apology, which she hoped would signal the beginning of a new relationship between Australia and its original inhabitants, who number about 450,000 among a population of 21 million. Aborigines are the poorest ethnic group in Australia and are most likely to be jailed, unemployed and illiterate.
"Once we establish this respect, the government can work with indigenous communities to improve services aimed at closing the 17-year life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians," she said.
Christine King of the Stolen Generations Alliance, one of the key indigenous groups the government has consulted in crafting the apology, said she was "overwhelmed" that a date had finally been set.
"Older people thought they would never live to see this day," King said through tears. "It's very emotional for me and it's very important."
Australia has had a decade-long debate about how best to acknowledge Aborigines who were affected by a string of 20th century policies that separated mixed-blood Aboriginal children from their families — the cohort frequently referred to as Australia's stolen generation.
From 1910 until the 1970s, around 100,000 mostly mixed-blood Aboriginal children were taken from their parents under state and federal laws based on a premise that Aborigines were a doomed race and saving the children was a humane alternative.
A national inquiry in 1997 found that many children taken from their families suffered long-term psychological effects stemming from the loss of family and culture.
The inquiry recommended that state and federal authorities apologize and compensate those removed from their families. But then-Prime Minister John Howard steadfastly refused to do either, saying his government should not be held responsible for the policies of former officials.
Barbara Livesey, chief executive of Reconciliation Australia, a government-commissioned agency tasked with bringing black and white Australians together, said the apology on the day after Parliament resumes for the first time since the November elections would be historic.
"It's a moment that all Australians should feel incredibly proud of, that we're recognizing the mistakes of the past," she said.
But opposition leader Brendan Nelson, whose conservative Liberal Party was thrown out of office in November after almost 12 years in power, questioned whether the apology deserved to be the new government's first item of business.