Last month, Kevin Rudd used the occasion of his first parliamentary sitting as Prime Minister to make history: he apologised to Indigenous Australians, and particularly the Stolen Generations, for the policies and practices of past Australian governments.
As the large crowds that gathered in Canberra and other cities to watch and celebrate the occasion attest, the Apology Resolution was a moving tribute that captured the national mood for symbolic, emotional, and practical steps toward national Reconciliation.
From the perspective of AIJAC and Australia’s Jewish community, it was very welcome. As the Review editorialised more than a decade ago, “It has taken an extraordinarily long time for Australia to face up to the tragic consequences of policies and attitudes that have done so much to virtually wipe-out and demoralise the original inhabitants of this land.”
The apology is a necessary first step. Yet just as important to the process of Reconciliation are the many practical efforts that must be taken on the ground to bridge the gaps and promote opportunity for all Australians – on issues such as education, health care, alcohol abuse and economic opportunity. In this regard, it is promising that the Rudd Government appears ready to largely build on and extend the far-ranging concrete steps already undertaken last year by its predecessors.
The Australian Jewish community continues to have a particular role to play. Given our long historical experience of dispossession, disenfranchisement and persecution, we have long keenly understood that we cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering faced by Indigenous Australians. We know that the mistreatment of one minority group, even if not your own, reflects poorly on the country as a whole, and cannot be ignored nor abided.
To its credit, the Australian Jewish community has taken up this mantle. Australian Jews have long been proponents of Reconciliation and have been instrumental in the long-running battles to achieve equality for Indigenous Australians and in overturning attitudes and policies that have contributed to their impoverishment and marginalisation.
AIJAC is very proud of its association with many individuals at the forefront of fighting for Reconciliation, particularly our National Chairman Mark Leibler AC, Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia; the late Ron Castan QC, who fought the ground-breaking Mabo case; Jeremy Jones AM, long-serving Chair of Faith Communities for Aboriginal Reconciliation; Mark Dreyfus QC; and Rabbi John Levi AM, just to name a few.
The Australian Jewish community has also explored the similarities between the two communities’ experiences. On both sides, there is a recognition that Aboriginal community challenges – to maintain with pride their own cultural and ethnic identity while successfully negotiating the road to full participation and integration into the broader Australian community of which they are the founding and integral component – are not dissimilar from those faced by Jewish communities.
Prime Minister Rudd inspiringly concluded his historic motion by calling for “A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.” The supportive and considered response by Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson also made a genuinely positive contribution to helping bring closer the better future that the Prime Minister outlined.
By choosing to offer this apology as the first motion of his first parliamentary session, Prime Minister Rudd has taken an important step, fast-tracking our nation along the long road to Reconciliation.
It is very heartening, but the priority remains to make sure we complement the symbolic with substantive, effective and equitable outcomes.