Statement - Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples: 13th Anniversary

15 February 2021

The national apology in 2008 was very much overdue. It was delivered years after every other state and territory issued their apologies. When it was finally delivered in this place, it was an important acknowledgement of the suffering and devastation wrought by past government policy, a policy of forcible removal and assimilation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. The national apology was important for healing. But the horrible legacy of those callous policies continues to this day. The harm of being ripped away from family, land and culture passes through generations. An apology was important, but it was only a beginning and not an end.

On many fronts, we are still in the process of making amends. We are yet to close the gap on several health and social determinants, and, until that is done, the apology remains a symbolic act of unfinished business. There are so many adverse health and welfare ills that disproportionately afflict Indigenous people—for instance, rheumatic heart disease. In estimates last year, I asked what was being done nationally about this serious disease. Rheumatic fever and heart disease are rare in Australia unless you're Indigenous. Young children living in remote areas are at particular risk. It is absolutely a preventable condition. It is also a condition brought on by poverty, crowded living conditions and limited medical care. It seems incredible to me that we are battling what is essentially a Third World condition in a First World nation.

While today we commemorate the national apology, we can't simply mark the occasion in our collective calendars and then move on to business as usual. There are things that we can all do, things that we must do, starting with speaking up against casual racism when we see it and holding those in power to account. I'm confident we will eventually close the gap in attitudes, services and prospects. I am hopeful that, in my lifetime, all Indigenous people around Australia will be able to enjoy the same opportunities and life outcomes that many other Australians take for granted. But progress remains way too slow. Good intentions and the symbolism of the national apology are important, but what matters more is the action we take in response.

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