CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia’s government on Monday rejected demands for a A$1 billion (443 million pound) compensation fund for aboriginal children taken from their families, but said it would apologise for last century’s assimilation policies.
As Prime Minister Kevin Rudd prepares an official apology from his new centre-left Labor government when parliament resumes next month, overturning a decade of conservative opposition, aboriginal leaders demanded a billion dollar reparation fund.
“People get paid crimes compensation. You are looking at the gross violation and the act of genocide and all the inhumane things that have happened to our people,” Lyn Austin, head of Stolen Generations in the state of Victoria, told local radio.
Stolen Generations is an advocacy group for aborigines removed in their youth from their families in various assimilation efforts.
Aborigines are Australia’s most disadvantaged group. Many live in third world conditions in remote outback settlements.
The 1997 “Bringing Them Home” report found Stolen Generation children, as depicted in the 2002 film “Rabbit-Proof Fence”, were forcibly taken and placed in orphanages run by churches or charities, or fostered out to socialise them to European culture.
Some were brutalised or abused, with harsh punishment for speaking in indigenous languages instead of English.
The Stolen Generations report recommended reparations, but Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin backed the previous conservative preference for practical measures to lift health and education standards for Aborigines.
“We think the way forward is to tackle today’s problems of indigenous disadvantage, to focus on closing the 17-year life expectancy gap,” she told Sky News Australia television.
“The point of the national apology really is to provide a bridge of respect between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.”
Until 1967 Aborigines were governed under flora and fauna laws. A referendum in that year saw Australians vote to include Aborigines in the national census and be granted citizenship.
Former conservative Prime Minister John Howard rejected an apology because the removal of aboriginal children between the 1870s and 1960s was done by past governments and could open the door to compensation claims.
Under public pressure, Howard in 1999 drafted a motion expressing “deep and sincere regret” over the removal of aboriginal children from their parents and called the Stolen Generation “the most blemished chapter” in Australia’s history.
Stolen Generation lawyer Michael Schaeffer said indigenous children should take the fight for compensation from the government to the courts.
“I would urge any prospective litigant who feels that they have a complaint to make in relation to removal as a child to seek legal advice,” he said.
Editing by Michael Perry and Jerry Norton
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.