World News

Tears, dances as Aborigines make history in parliament

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Aborigines playing didgeridoos and smeared with white body paint overturned hundreds of years of British tradition in Australia on Tuesday by taking part in the official opening of the nation’s new parliamentary session.

Aboriginal performers conduct an Aboriginal welcoming ceremony at Parliament House in Canberra February 12, 2008. REUTERS/Mick Tsikas

The indigenous ceremony came a day before Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivers an historic apology to Aborigines for past assimilation policies, in which aboriginal children were taken from their families to be raised in white households.

Aboriginal elder Matilda House, standing barefoot and wearing a coat of animal skins, delivered a traditional message stick to Rudd to mark the first sitting of parliament since Rudd’s Labor Party won power in last November’s elections.

“With this welcome comes a great symbolism, the hope of a united nation through reconciliation,” House told the politicians and guests in a crowded Members Hall.

The welcome was followed by traditional dances from Aborigines, some carrying boomerangs, and indigenous Torres Strait Islanders, with some of the performers wiping away tears over the symbolism of the event.

Australia gained independence from Britain in 1901, but retained Britain’s Westminster parliamentary traditions that date back hundreds of years.

Governor-General Michael Jeffery, who represents Britain’s Queen Elizabeth under Australia’s constitution, later opened the 42nd parliamentary session with a speech outlining Rudd’s agenda for the next three years.

Slideshow ( 5 images )

Jeffery said the Rudd Government would work to end indigenous disadvantage and halve the 17-year gap in life expectancy between Aborigines and other Australians within a generation, as well as help heal racial divisions.


Rudd on Wednesday will end an 11-year wait for members of the so-called “stolen generation” of Aborigines when he leads a parliamentary apology for the assimilation policies.

A landmark 1997 report found between one in three and one in 10 aboriginal children were removed from their families between 1910 and 1970, and recommended a government apology.

But the former conservative government under prime minister John Howard refused, offering only a statement of regret, saying present generations should not be held responsible for past government actions.

The text of Rudd’s apology, released on Tuesday, says “sorry” three times to the Stolen Generation and apologies for “profound grief, suffering and loss” to those affected by the policies.

“For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry,” it says.

“And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted upon a proud people and proud culture, we say sorry.”

The apology will be debated in parliament on Wednesday and has the support of the conservative opposition parties.

Australia has no Aboriginal members in the national parliament, but 100 Aboriginal leaders and members of the Stolen Generation will be present for the apology, which will be broadcast to giant screens to crowds outside.

Australia’s 460,000 Aborigines make up 2 percent of the 21 million population, but are the most disadvantaged group, with far higher rates of infant mortality, unemployment, imprisonment, alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence.

Editing by Sanjeev Miglani