By Rohan Sullivan
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
CANBERRA, Australia, Feb. 13 -- In a historic vote that supporters said would open a new chapter in Australian race relations, lawmakers on Wednesday unanimously adopted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's motion to apologize to Aborigines on behalf of all citizens.
"We apologize for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians," Rudd said, reading from the motion.
Aborigines remain the country's poorest and most disadvantaged group, and Rudd has made improving their lives a top priority of his government.
The apology is directed at tens of thousands of Aborigines who were forcibly taken from their families as children under assimilation policies that were not abandoned until the middle of the last century.
"To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry," the apology says. "For the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry."
The apology ends years of divisive debate and a decade of refusals by the conservative government that lost November's elections.
Rudd received a standing ovation from lawmakers and from scores of Aborigines and dignitaries invited to witness the event. Many wiped away tears.
Rudd ruled out compensation, however -- a stance that helped secure support for the apology among the many Australians who believe they should not be held responsible for past policies, no matter how flawed.
He pledges instead to lift the living standards of all Aborigines and on Tuesday outlined targets for cutting infant mortality, illiteracy and early-death rates among indigenous people within a decade.
Aborigines lived mostly as hunter-gatherers for tens of thousands of years before British colonial settlers landed at what is now Sydney in 1788.
Today, there are about 450,000 Aborigines in Australia's population of almost 21 million. They are the country's poorest group, with the highest rates of jailing, unemployment and illiteracy, and their life expectancy is 17 years shorter than other Australians'.
Aboriginal leaders generally welcomed the apology, though some said it was empty rhetoric without addressing the issue of compensation. Noel Pearson, from the state of Queensland, wrote in the Australian newspaper Tuesday that an apology without compensation meant: "Blackfellas will get the words, the whitefellas keep the money."