Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Speech to the Indigenous Healing Forum

Location: Canberra

First I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we are gathered.

When the Australian Parliament apologised to Indigenous Australians in February, the Prime Minister described it as dealing with unfinished business; removing a great stain from the nation’s soul to open a new chapter in our country’s history.

He also acknowledged that nothing he could say could take away the personal pain from the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters, the families whose lives were ripped apart.

Words alone, he said, are not that powerful. Grief is a very powerful thing.

Grief is a very powerful thing … but I’m convinced it’s not as powerful as healing.

Back then on the 13th of February there were mixed and raw emotions on the faces of those in the Parliament and in the galleries. We saw it in the faces of the thousands on the lawns outside.

Deep sorrow and grief of course – but also the wonderful healing emotions.

Relief, joy and a great and deserved pride in the Indigenous people of Australia.

On that day, many Indigenous Australians set out on their own individual healing journeys.

They did it against the backdrop of a nation that was ready to confront the cold truth of its past.

All of us here know that the road to healing is not without its rough patches.

For the Stolen Generations the past is always present.

But, in my short time as Minister, I have met so many Indigenous Australians who have set out on the healing journey with great dignity and courage.

And with a generosity of spirit which is absolutely humbling.

Their willingness to accept the apology with such grace.

Saying to me, “As you say sorry, so we forgive.”

During the last seven months I have met many remarkable men and women who are the brave and inspirational face of reconciliation and healing.

Like the group of senior Yolgnu women I met at the Garma festival.

We sat among the stringy bark trees under moonlight.

We sat close together; the Yolgnu women sang. It was a powerful song sung by such strong women, with inspiring authority – not to mention a wicked sense of humour.

The same strength shown by 400 Aboriginal men at the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress Male Health Summit when chairperson, John Liddle apologised on behalf of Aboriginal men for the suffering caused to their wives, children, mothers, grandmothers, granddaughters, aunties, nieces and sisters.

The same spirit of healing at a sorry day service I went to.

About 100 people gathered to remember those who had passed on and share their stories.

I vividly remember one man’s story. How he had been angry all his life until the day the Prime Minister apologised; how the apology opened the way for him to forgive.

When I was in the APY lands, sitting with the old ladies as they painted huge canvases – stunning, colourful images telling the traditional stories of their beloved country.

They were initially shy but as we sat, the shyness faded, and they told the stories of they were painting.

There are many stories of healing but, in my short time as Minister, I have also come to see the terrible scale of grief and loss suffered by many Indigenous families.

The impact reaches across generations fragmenting families and communities.

It is a reminder to us all that true healing takes time and enormous emotional investment.

It also needs practical investment and that’s we are about.

The practical, on the ground measures to improve lives blemished by past policies of forced removal.

Earlier I spoke of the stories of resilience and courage which I have been privileged to see and hear.

I know there are thousands such inspiring stories and they need to be told – to all Australians.

To make sure they are, I can announce today that the Australian Government will build upon the work already undertaken in the National Library of Australia’s oral history project by contributing $100,000 so people from the Stolen Generations can share their stories of survival, struggle and healing and make them public.

So the stories, old and new, are never forgotten.

An online resource will be developed so stories of survival and healing can be shared.

The Bringing Them Home report set out the strength and struggles of many thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people affected by forcible removal.

It highlighted how important telling these stories is for people affected by these past policies.

And sharing those stories with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is an important step in reconciliation.

It is a part of the healing process and carries on traditional story telling practices.

The Government is also committed to practical measures to improve the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians affected by past policies of forcible removal.

These include additional funds of $15.7 million, announced earlier this year, to support the Bringing Them Home network of counselors and caseworkers – working to reunite lost families.

Last year there were 112 reunions across Australia.

With the employment of another 12 caseworkers this year, we aim to bring the number of reunions to 225, honouring the election commitment of 1000 reunions over four years.

These measures reflect the Government’s commitment to healing the nation in a very practical way.

The healing journey has many dimensions.

The establishment of a national representative body will be important to harness the aspirations of Indigenous Australians, recognising that their own will and effort is pivotal to positive change.

So too are new relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – relationships founded on mutual respect, resolve and responsibility.

Through these partnerships we can drive reforms to close the gap – an essential part of the healing process.

There are a number of healing models used around the country.

Your forum is an ideal opportunity for these to be tested and discussed – to help inform the Government on future directions.

I look forward to hearing your views on the next stages of the healing journey.