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11 July, 2008

‘To the stolen generations, I say the following: as Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry.

On behalf of the Government of Australia, I am sorry.

On behalf of the Parliament of Australia, I am sorry.

I offer you this apology without qualification.’

When Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, stood up in Parliament three months ago to face up to the shameful past policies towards Indigenous Australians and to offer a formal apology, John Bond knew more than most about the decade-long journey of campaigning it had taken to get there.

Positioned at the heart of the ‘Sorry Day’ movement, Bond offered the forum at the London Centre for Initiatives of Change a ‘behind-the-scenes’ insight into the inspiring chain of events that led to Rudd’s historic apology. How did such an uncomfortable issue for those in power manage to stay on the national agenda? What does Australia’s ‘sorry’ offer to other countries that need to face up to a painful past?

For Bond, Rudd’s words were ‘10 years in the making.’ In 1995, the Australian Government took the bold step of commissioning a national inquiry into the policies that led to the removal of tens of thousands of Aboriginal children from their families. The policies, designed to ‘assimilate’ Indigenous Australians into white society, had resulted in horrific cases of child abuse and the inquiry’s report, titled ‘Bringing Them Home’, catalogued the tragic stories of hundreds of those affected.

But before the inquiry reported, a new Government was elected, and the new Prime Minister, John Howard, was unmoved by its findings. The report, however, horrified ordinary Australians and proved a catalyst for a ‘Sorry’ campaign.

John Bond

John Bond

For Bond, Australia wasn’t alone in having an uncomfortable history. ‘Every nation has aspects of its history which it distorts. I spent eight years in Africa, and as I listened to Africans my eyes opened to distortions of history I had been taught at school in Britain. For Australia the greatest distortion is in the encounter between the Aboriginal people and the white settlers.’

The struggle to right the wrongs inflicted on the Aboriginal families forcibly separated – the ‘Stolen Generations’ – was, for Bond, ‘a contest between power and conscience. It became an issue of conscience, and it remained so. That was its strength.’

One organisation critical in stirring the nation’s conscience was the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Hundreds of local groups formed in universities, churches and schools, enabling tens of thousands to hear the painful experiences of Aboriginal people face-to-face, often for the first time.

Former High Court judge Sir Ronald Wilson headed up the inquiry. A self-professed ‘hardboiled lawyer’, he was deeply affected by the stories he heard and called on all parties involved to follow his example and formally apologise.

According to Bond, ‘His actions struck a chord. In the following months, most of Australia’s State parliaments and churches held ceremonies to hear from representatives of the stolen generations, and to apologise for their role in this tragedy.’

The idea for a national Sorry Day was a key report recommendation, but the Government ignored it. So Sir Ronald brought together community leaders, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, to discuss whether a Sorry Day could happen without Government involvement. Bond was at the meeting. A date was set. Without any government involvement, May 26th, exactly a year after the report was tabled, was chosen for the nation’s first Sorry Day.

The response was overwhelming. ‘As the Secretary of the Sorry Day Committee, I was soon getting many phone calls a day from people organising events’, said Bond. ‘Artists painted, musicians composed, writers and playwrights wrote.’ Special Sorry Books, where people could express their regret and share their experiences, were soon in great demand from public libraries, town councils and schools and several thousand books recorded the messages of nearly a million people.

Bond recalled the hundreds of events that took place on that inaugural day. ‘There were theatrical presentations, cultural displays, town barbecues…The churches…rang their bells. The Lord Mayor gave the keys of the city to representatives of the Stolen Generations. Over half of the 30-minute national TV news that evening was devoted to Sorry Day events.’

Despite the government’s silence, the Stolen Generations were deeply touched and responded with a ‘Journey of Healing’. Thousands joined, meetings were organised and memorials started to go up.

But the campaign’s success in engaging so many Australians angered those in power – something Bond experienced first-hand. ‘The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs saw me at a reception and came striding across. ‘It’s not a Journey of Healing at all,’ he said. ‘You are just scratching the wounds.’’

Yet, spurred on by the Sorry Day success, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation organised a symbolic walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It was the largest demonstration in Australian history. A walk across a bridge in Melbourne soon followed and the idea rippled out to cities and towns nationwide, involving nearly a million people.

Aborigine and white Australians meet at Greencoat Forum

Aborigine and white Australians meet at Greencoat Forum

For Bond, organising scores of face-to-face meetings between individuals from the Stolen Generations and government officials was to prove critical. Bond recalled the words of Brendan Nelson, now Leader of the Opposition, after one such encounter. “[Nelson] stopped me in a corridor of Parliament. ‘We have arguments in the Party room as to whether the Stolen Generations are exaggerating their story,’ he said. ‘But when you hear a story like hers, you just know it is the truth,’” Bond said.

Keeping the movement united wasn’t easy. ‘When two peoples, one of whom has suffered grievously at the hands of the other, try to work together, there is conflict. Resolving these conflicts was the biggest challenge we faced.’

The groundswell of support left the government little option but to acknowledge the Sorry Day campaign, and it announced the building of a reconciliation memorial in Canberra. Yet no consultation with the Stolen Generations was planned and there were immediate protests. Bond and others saw the healing potential of a properly-executed memorial and offered to take on the seemingly insurmountable task of a nationwide consultation to reach a consensus on what it should say.

‘We arranged teams in every State and Territory, who consulted hundreds of people. Then we met for three days, which included much passionate discussion. By the end we had consensus on a powerful statement about the removal policies.’

Government attempts to ‘tone down’ the proposed wording for the memorial were rejected by the committee and, on the very morning of Sorry Day 2003, they grudgingly agreed to the full text, unedited.

Bond shared an extract with the forum: ‘We the removed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children of Australia would urge you to look through our eyes and walk in our footsteps, to be able to understand our pain. We call on all Australians to acknowledge the truth of our history, to enable us to move forward together on our journey on healing, because it is only the truth that will set us all free.’

The election of a new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, marks a new beginning for Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations. Bond underlined the transformation already evident in the country’s media. ‘Whereas last year stories portrayed Aboriginal people as hopeless addicts and worse, now there is vigorous debate on how best to make progress.’

For Bond, the words of Labour Minister Kim Beazley Sr offer a lesson to other nations that need to face up to their past; ‘The key to social advance is not power but conscience.’ While Australia’s journey of healing is far from complete, Rudd’s formal apology is convincing evidence of what can happen when that conscience is roused.

John Bond was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his work with the Sorry Day Committee. Following his forum, Bond took part in an hour-long studio discussion about Australia's Sorry Day campaign and the journey of healing, on Premier Radio, a London-based Christian radio station, on 18 May.

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