National Apology Breakfast, Government House Sydney

Release Date: 
7 February 2014

Thank you Mr McMullen for your warm welcome.

I would like to pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet: the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

Thank you Mr Allen Madden for your warm welcome to country.

And I thank you, Your Excellency Professor Marie Bashir, and Sir Nicholas Shehadie AC OBE, for hosting this breakfast.

I acknowledge our distinguished guests:

  • The Honourable Kevin Rudd – Former Prime Minister of Australia.
  • Senator the Hon Marise Payne – Minister for Human Services
  • The Honourable Jenny Macklin – Shadow Minister for Families and Payments, Shadow Minister for Disability Reform
  • The Honourable Richard Marles – Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection
  • Mr Michael McLeod – Member of the Stolen Generations, Chief Executive Officer, Message Stick

It is a privilege to represent the Prime Minister here today and read his message and make some further remarks.

Message from the Prime Minister, Anniversary of the National Apology

The National Apology was a historic day in our nation’s life.

Ancient wrongs were recognised.

Ancient injustices were acknowledged.

The former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made a resonant declaration on that day:

“…unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong.”

This was right then and it is right now.

We must ensure that in Indigenous communities the children are at school, the adults are in work and the ordinary rule of law operates.

This is what we must live up to.

The work to overcome two centuries of Indigenous disadvantage continues. Later this year we will begin a national conversation about amending our Constitution to recognise Aboriginal peoples as the first Australians. This should be another unifying moment in the history of our country.

I honour all who gather today to remember. May the spirit of the National Apology continue to animate us.

The Hon Tony Abbott MP
Prime Minister of Australia
7 February 2014

Please allow me to add a few personal reflections to the PM’s message.

I vividly recall the day of the Apology. I was in Cape York at the time, working as Noel Pearson’s Deputy Director. People were visibly moved by the Apology – many with tears running down their faces. This included friends of mine who had never mentioned before then the importance of saying sorry.

On that day Prime Minister Rudd apologised particularly to the Stolen Generations.

He apologised on behalf of all Australians for the forcible removal of children from their families, communities, cultures and languages and for the mistreatment that many of the removed children suffered.

He also apologised for those laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on our fellow Australians.

The Apology carried great significance; in particular for people affected by those policies, some of whom are with us today.

I cannot begin to imagine the trauma of being uprooted at a tender age from family and people.

To members of the Stolen Generation, your life histories and those of other removed Indigenous Australians are acknowledged not only at this breakfast, but at over 80 events in every state and territory.

However, we are not merely commemorating a past event.

I believe we are renewing the Apology and recommitting to healing the wounds.

I think we are also here to renew our commitment to the idea that the Apology and the work to heal the wounds of those who have suffered are part of a longer journey of recognition of the Indigenous peoples and the Indigenous heritage which is part of our nation.

The first significant milestone of that journey was perhaps the referendum in 1967 when the two provisions referring to Aboriginal peoples were repealed.

However, the amendments of 1967 created a constitutional silence on Indigenous peoples’ place in the Commonwealth.

We need to take the next step by recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia.

As Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said, we would not be changing the Constitution, we would be completing it.

Being the first peoples of this land, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do have a special place in the sovereign state of the Commonwealth of Australia.

This should be reflected in the Constitution. Over the years our recognition of our Indigenous history and Indigenous peoples’ contribution to our nation has grown into bipartisan political support for constitutional recognition and a high level of public engagement.

The Government and the Opposition will preserve and build upon this momentum.

I shall not outline the whole referendum plan, but I want to mention that the Government re-established the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

For the first time a Parliamentary committee is both chaired and deputy chaired by Indigenous Australians: Mr Ken Wyatt MP and Senator Nova Peris.

A draft form of words will be presented later this year for public discussion.

The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia is hard to change.

That’s probably the way it should be, but it underscores how heavy the responsibility falls on all of us this year and the next few years.

We must succeed, and we need to do it in a fashion worthy of comparison with the dignified and solemn moods that surrounded the first referendum and the Apology.

Finally I want to say that reconciliation is necessary for the sake of non-Indigenous Australians as much as Indigenous Australians.

We cannot be completely as one as long as Indigenous Australians aren’t fully included in this sovereign state, symbolically as well as socially and economically.

Consequently, as well as constitutional recognition, the Prime Minister Abbott is leading an equally unwavering effort to improve the life prospects of indigenous citizens, particularly children, with clear priorities of education, employment and community safety.

All Australians increasingly appreciate both parts of reconciliation: on the one hand acknowledgement of Indigenous histories and identities; on the other hand, the need to close the gap.

I’m confident that together – government, indigenous and corporate leaders along with the broader community – we will make a difference in both domains of reconciliation during the term of this Parliament.
This would be a true honouring of the National Apology.

Thank you again for welcoming me this morning.