The Australian government has ruled out compensation for members of the Aboriginal Stolen Generations despite pleas from Indigenous leaders and the recommendations of an enquiry into the issue. Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin said Labor would not be creating a compensation fund. She said the way forward was to tackle the prevailing problems in the community, such as the massive gap in life expectancy between Aborigines and the rest of Australia. "The point of the national apology really is to provide a bridge of respect between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.” She said.
The government statement runs counter to the view stated by Labor senators on the Stolen Generations enquiry who recommended a tribunal be established to look at reparation and monetary compensation. Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett has asked what has changed their mind in Government and calls Macklin’s statement the most “unequivocal rejection” Labor has made on the issue in recent years. Bartlett said it was counter-productive to issue an apology without considering the other unimplemented recommendations of the enquiry.
Stolen Generations Victoria agrees a fund is needed. Chair Lyn Austin called on victims to consider suing the government if it failed to establish a compensation fund. She compared the Stolen Generations to victims of crime who get paid compensation "You are looking at the gross violation and the act of genocide and all the inhumane things that have happened to our people,” she said. "We are actually thinking that ourselves, myself and another five siblings that were adopted into a family, are considering a class action.”
The controversy occurs as the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd prepares to honour an election commitment by reading out an apology when federal parliament resumes next month. In 1997, the 700 page 'Bringing Them Home' report found the removal of Aboriginal children was a gross violation of human rights and that forcible removal amounted to an act of genocide. The then Howard government refused to consider compensation instead deciding to provide welfare measures to lift health and education standards for Australia's native communities.
Howard also refused to apologise for fear of opening the door to compensation claims. However as formal apologies were read out in various state parliaments, the pressure mounted on Howard to respond. In 1999 he drafted a motion expressing "deep and sincere regret" over the issue and called the stolen generation "the most blemished chapter" in Australia's history. However his government also called into question whether in fact the “stolen generation” actually existed saying there weren’t enough children taken to warrant the description.
This claim was hotly denied by historians and the Indigenous community. Aboriginal leaders had demanded a billion dollars in reparations for at least 100,000 children who were forcibly placed in orphanages or foster care between 1870 and 1967, with the intention of assimilating them into white Australia. The Bringing them Home report stated that almost every Aboriginal family in the country was affected by the policy.
In its address to readers, the report didn’t just expose the abuses of the past. It also asked that “the whole community listens with an open heart and mind to the stories of what has happened in the past and, having listened and understood, commit itself to reconciliation.” In this, the report was calling for an active ethical engagement on the part of its readers to become involved in the justice process by acknowledging the loss and harm that had been done to the Indigenous community. This latest decision from the newly installed Labor government shows Australia remains a long way short of that commitment.