Reparations… more than just a word


 Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd before he delivered the apology to the Stolen Generations.

NATIONAL: Four years ago, he uttered the word that our people had waited too long to hear. On February 13, 2008, Kevin Rudd created history by saying “sorry” to members of the Stolen Generations, not once, but three times.

However it was his refusal to utter another word that cast a shadow over proceedings.

A week before his apology speech, Mr Rudd ruled out offering full reparations to victims.

“We will not, under any circumstances, be establishing any compensation arrangements or any compensation fund. Absolutely blunt on that,” Mr Rudd told media at the time.

Mr Rudd was also adamant that the apology would not form a basis for legal challenges for monetary compensation.

His stance came as a blow to many Aboriginal leaders across the political divide, including conservative lawyer Noel Pearson, who stated the apology needed to be the occasion to push for compensation.

“Blackfellas will get the words, the whitefellas will keep the money. And by Thursday the Stolen Generations and their apology will be over as a political issue,” he said.

Nevertheless, despite refusing to offer full reparations, Mr Rudd was feted for his apology. On the fourth anniversary last month, he was the keynote speaker at the National Apology breakfast at Government House in Sydney.

He was welcomed with fanfare, and spoke of the need to move on from words and onto practical outcomes.

“…The real hard business of reconciliation does not lie in high sounding speeches like the apology,” Mr Rudd told the breakfast.

“It lies in genuine, heartfelt, continuing commitment that stays the course – consistency on the part of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians because the process of reconciliation is a partnership and it is gradual.”

And for the most part, it seems Mr Pearson was right.

The word “sorry” has cancelled out the word “compensation” on the political agenda.

Today, politicians no longer talk about compensation and members of the Stolen Generations, with the exception of Tasmanians, have had to turn to the courts to receive monetary compensation for harms committed against them.

That’s not to say that some members of Parliament have not tried to push the case for full reparations.

Andrew Bartlett was a Democrats Senator from 1997 to 2008 and is currently involved with the Australian Greens.

One of his last acts as Senator was to push a bill aiming to provide a mechanism for compensation for members of the Stolen Generations.

The bill, which aimed to establish a Reparations Tribunal for Stolen Generations to claim ex gratia payments, was referred to a Senate Committee and ultimately rejected.

Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert re-worked it and introduced a new private members bill in 2010 around a similar model, with slight changes. But that bill was not supported by the major parties.

Mr Bartlett believes that while members of the Stolen Generations still have full reparations on their agenda, it has very much fallen off the political radar.

He says while the apology was important, it was frustrating that other recommendations of the Bringing Them Home report were not fulfilled.

“I don’t want to sound churlish because clearly a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people find a lot of value in the apology, which is important,” Mr Bartlett told Tracker.

“It’s nice the wider community has still taken something positive from it and the main thing is that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people directly affected take something positive out of it.

“But it still needs to be acknowledged that the fact it was done at the same time when (the Rudd government) explicitly rejected the recommendations of the Bringing Them Home report was disappointing.

“The other point that frustrates me is that the apology has been used by some in the commentariat to basically say ‘we’ve done that now’, and it’s sort of been re-defined as a de-facto acknowledgement and apology for a wider array of wrongdoings and crimes committed against Aboriginal people.”

It didn’t look like the Greens bill was receiving political traction, Mr Bartlett said.

“Reparations is still being pushed by a number of Stolen Generations groups and whilst ever they believe its an avenue to continue agitating for I believe it’s good for the Greens to keep it on the agenda.

“There’s hope that it possibly may be an avenue that could be adopted (the reparations tribunal) as addressing an area of unfinished business.”

Helen Moran is co-chair of the National Sorry Day Committee (NSDC) and a member of the Stolen Generations.

This year the group presented Parliament with seven historical documents to ensure governments remember the issues Aboriginal people have been crying out for for decades.

Ms Moran is still infuriated members of the Stolen Generations are still fighting for compensation.

“It’s infuriating and frustrating, enough to make you want to throw in the towel,” Ms Moran told Tracker.

“We continually have to keep reaching for strength to fight for it, even though it’s easy to feel that Stolen Generations members will be resigned to never seeing compensation. We are running out of time.

“The majority of members, over 50 percent, are in their 70s, and we are lucky to even get to those ages given the statistics. So it is unfair to us. It took us 11 years to get an apology, and it will take even longer to get compensation.”

But Ms Moran believes Mr Rudd has done a good job in his dealings with members of the Stolen Generations.

You can’t blame Mr Rudd for not offering compensation because it is a stance backed by Labor and the Parliament, she says. But she says there are other areas that Stolen Generations can keep fighting for.

“We can throw in the towel and say ‘we’re not going to get compensation, so what’s the point’, and end up with nothing, or we can keep fighting and working forward, looking at what we can do that is achievable now,” Ms Moran said.

“There are other avenues we can work towards. We’ve got the Healing Foundation, and sure it didn’t look the way we wanted it to, but it has done a lot of good work focusing on delivering specialised needs for Stolen Generations members.

“… This means we’re not competing with the rest of the Indigenous community for these services, so that was a very good progression.”

Ms Moran says the focus is also on educating the younger generation. The NSDC has signed up about 400 to 500 schools to participate in Sorry Day events around the country and this year are hoping to organise memorial services.

“If we look at the (Bringing Them Home) recommendations, and work towards the ones that are achievable now, focusing on what the government will be willing to work with us on, we’re going to be standing with what’s left – and that’s monetary compensation.

“We’ll focus on it at the state and federal level but also concentrate on other areas we know will make an impact. We are achieving and I feel we are making some contribution to bettering the lives of the Stolen Generations.”

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