By Kevin Rudd
Ten years seems an eternity.
But compared with 220 years of European settlement, and 50,000 years of continuous indigenous occupation of the land we now call Australia, it is almost the blinking of an eye.
But something significant happened on the 13th of February 2008.
As a nation, we finally decided to change direction. We decided to begin the long, national journey of reconciliation between white and black Australians. Rather than just continue to sweep the ugly story of our centuries of mistreatment of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters under the carpet. Just because we found it all too uncomfortable to deal with. Or else we didn’t think the problem was solvable.
It’s important to remember the National Apology didn’t come out of the blue. We had all seen the “Bringing Them Home Report” detailing the tragic stories of the Stolen Generations. This had led to the “Sorry Day” marches across the country where hundreds of thousands of Australians from all sides of politics said with a single voice it was time to say sorry. And as Leader of the Labor Party going into the 2007 election, I had said I would deliver a formal apology on behalf of the entire nation if I became Prime Minister. And that is what I did. For all of us.
Many still had reservations about the apology that day. The most common argument was about why white Australians should apologise today for the actions of those who came before us. But we only need to ask ourselves one question: how would we feel if it was us, if we were treated like that, as non-citizens in our own land? There’s another point as well: if we are happy appropriating the heroic parts of our history, like ANZAC, although none of us alive today were there, then why should we not also own responsibility for the darker episodes in our national story as well.
The minor miracle of the National Apology was that it was accepted. Some say that symbolic gestures mean nothing: it’s “practical reconciliation” that’s needed. But if we think about our own lives, if someone has radically wronged us, to make it right it’s necessary for them to ask for forgiveness first if the relationship is to be in any way restored. We can’t simply pretend that a wrong hasn’t been done. It’s only then that the “practical” business of reconciliation can begin.
That’s what the national “Closing the Gap” strategy was all about: closing the gap in health, education, housing, employment and life expectancy. We then negotiated the first ever national partnership agreement with the states and territories to start closing the gap in each of these areas over the decade ahead. We also agreed on targets in each of these areas, to collect the data on how we were going, and to report to parliament each year on the anniversary of the Apology. It’s about accountability.
Some say both the Apology and Closing the Gap have failed because most of these targets have not been met. The uncomfortable truth is that governments have flagged in their commitments. Yet despite the fact indigenous disadvantage continues, the truth is the gap has narrowed rather than grown, and there are now tens of thousands of Aboriginal lives transformed for the better. You will hear their stories over the coming week. These are the stories we should be encouraged by, while fully accepting much more remains to be done.
So if you hear next week that it’s “time to move on” from both the Apology and closing the gap, that’s just hauling up the white flag. The Closing the Gap targets were meant to be hard. Are we seriously saying that as a nation we should aspire for anything less than an equal Australia, where everybody gets a fair go, whatever the colour of their skin? I think not. We Australians are a better people than that.