Ten years ago, a landmark report laid bare the suffering of Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families as part of a state-sanctioned assimilation policy.
A key recommendation of the Bringing Them Home report was an official apology to members of the "Stolen Generations" and their relatives. But John Howard, whose conservative government had just been elected, refused to do so, claiming it was impossible to say sorry for the actions of the past.
Now the new Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is poised to end a decade of bitterness. The government announced yesterday that Mr Rudd will deliver a formal apology in parliament on 13 February, as the first item of business when politicians reconvene after the summer break.
It will be a purely symbolic gesture. Mr Rudd has ruled out compensating victims of the removals policy, which the authors of Bringing Them Home concluded amounted to genocide.
But symbolism matters, and Christine King, co-chair of the Stolen Generations Alliance, choked back tears on hearing the announcement. "Older people thought they would never live to see this day," she said. "It's very emotional for me, and it's very important."
An estimated 10,000 children – as many as one in three – were taken from their families under a policy introduced in 1910 and not abandoned until the 1970s. They grew up in orphanages, church missions or white foster homes. Many were physically and sexually abused, or used as unpaid labour. Many never saw their families again.
The aim was to integrate the children, particularly those of mixed race, into the mainstream and eventually "breed out" their colour. The thinking at the time was that full-blooded Aborigines were a doomed race.
Mr Rudd was elected on a campaign platform that included an apology to the Stolen Generations. Yesterday his Indigenous Affairs minister, Jenny Macklin, announced the date. "A national apology to the Stolen Generations and their families is a first necessary step to move forward from the past," she said.
Ms Macklin added: "The apology will be made on behalf of the Australian government and does not attribute guilt to the current generation of Australians." Those words were interpreted as an attempt to stave off compensation claims, and placate voters who oppose saying sorry.
The issue of reparations is certain to remain a source of resentment. While all six state governments have issued their own apologies, only Tasmania has agreed to pay compensation. It announced last week that 106 people will benefit from a $5m (£2.2m) fund. Mr Rudd, however, has rejected calls for a $1bn fund to be established at the national level.
Court cases brought by victims of the removals policy – which inspired an award-winning film, Rabbit-Proof Fence, by an Australian director, Philip Noyce – have ended in failure.
The wording of the apology – and the question of whether it contains the word "sorry", a subject of much controversy – remains under wraps.
Mr Rudd said: "It's about building a bridge of respect, which I think has been in some state of disrepair in recent decades. But having crossed that bridge, the other part of it is all about practical business."
He said he was determined to close the gap between Aborigines and other Australians in infant mortality, health, education and life expectancy.Reuse content