Stolen Generations Redress Scheme passes after many years of waiting

02 December 2021

Firstly, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to and acknowledge the work of Harold Furber, who passed away peacefully last month, surrounded by family. Mr Furber was born in Alice Springs in 1952 and, in 1957, was taken from his mother to the Croker Island Methodist Mission. He was taken, along with his younger sister, when he was only four years old, and they were eventually separated too. Mr Furber was instrumental in bringing together many voices of the stolen generations. His work with the Central Australian Stolen Generation and Families Aboriginal Corporation created a stronger, united voice for members of the stolen generation right across the Northern Territory. He was a talented footy player. He rubbed shoulders with the great players of his day at the North Adelaide Football Club in the early seventies. Determined to find his sister, he signed up with a Queensland footy team, which gave him the opportunity to search for her. He eventually succeeded and was able to attend her wedding. Mr Furber worked tirelessly to advocate for survivors and had called for a reparations package for years. One year after former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered his historic apology speech, in 2008, Mr Furber felt the apology was empty, with nothing practical being done. He said there was a lot of euphoria and excitement after the speech, but he felt as though the Commonwealth had quickly turned its back on survivors in the Northern Territory.

Here, today, we do see those concerns addressed in the best possible way for the moment. Clearly, as the previous speakers have said, no amount of money can really compensate for the incredible loss of so many members of the stolen generations not just in the Northern Territory but right across Australia. Until now, Territory survivors haven't been given the same respect and recognition as survivors living in some states. In April this year, around 800 stolen generations survivors in the Northern Territory launched a class action against the Commonwealth government. This class action came after many years of federal government inaction on the issue. The lead litigant, Eileen Cummings, was only four when she was taken from her family in the 1940s. Backed by lived experience, survivors like Ms Cummings have shown great strength and bravery in challenging the government and all political members, whether in government or not, for recognition. Without their fierce advocacy, I'm sure we wouldn't have this scheme here today.

Aunty Maisie Austin, the CEO of the Northern Territory Stolen Generations Aboriginal Corporation, has also done incredible advocacy work and will certainly keep a close eye on the rollout of this scheme. Ms Austin gave evidence to the inquiry into these bills and reminded us that many of these survivors are reaching the end of their life or have already passed away, before they could see this through. And, yes, there have been so many stolen generations members who have passed away. From my home community, there's Aunty Hilda Muir, who I pay great tribute to, and people like Barb Cummings, who was tremendous in forwarding the march towards equality for stolen generations. There are so many more, who I am unable to announce today, but I know those members and families listening will know who I mean. There is simply no more time to waste.

The government has not publicly stated that participation in this scheme will be conditional on forgoing the right to make a civil claim, but I imagine this can be expected to be the case. In the Northern Territory, the exact number of children who were taken away may never be known, but what we do know is that there are hundreds of families that have been affected. I'm sure there isn't a community in the Territory that hasn't been affected in one way or another by the stolen generations.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's Bringing them home report put a face and voice to much of the suffering endured over decades. The commission interviewed around 500 people who were affected and spoke to institutions right across the country. These are not just statistics; they are very real stories, which are hard to hear and, I imagine, were incredibly hard to tell in the first place. I will read part of the testimony of one man who was left in the infamous Bungalow in Alice Springs, He said:

There was no food, nothing. We was all huddled up in a room … like a little puppy-dog …on the floor … Sometimes at night time we'd cry with hunger, no food … We had to scrounge in the town dump, eating old bread, smashing tomato sauce bottles, licking them. Half of the time the food we got was from the rubbish dump.

There are so many other stories of hurt and suffering at the Bungalow, and many children were told they were unwanted or that their parents were dead. Another survivor recalled the trauma of lies and forced separation. She said:

I remember this woman saying to me, 'Your mother's dead, you've got no mother now. That's why you're here with us'. Then about two years after that my mother and my mother's sister all came to The Bungalow but they weren't allowed to visit us because they were black. They had to sneak around onto the hills. Each mother was picking out which they think was their children. And this other girl said, 'Your mother up there'. And because they told me that she was dead, I said, 'No, that's not my mother. I haven't got a black mother'.

I thank the many survivors out there, and those who are no longer here, for sharing their stories. I also thank those who endured their suffering silently, without being able or willing to tell their story, for whatever reason.

One of the most important parts of this scheme finally being established is that it gives survivors acknowledgement—acknowledgement of what was done to them, acknowledgement that it was wrong and racist and acknowledgement of each person's story. Under this scheme, a one-off $75,000 payment in recognition of the harm caused by forced removal will go some way to providing recognition to survivors who are still with us today. I also welcome the provision of a one-off $7,000 healing assistance payment and an opportunity to confidentially share stories with senior officials.

As a parliament and a country, we failed in one of the most important and basic duties we have, and that is to not harm children. In fact, the complete opposite was done. The removal of children from their families—an almost centuries-long practice by governments across Australia—created a trauma that has transcended generations and will continue to do so for years to come. In some situations, the removal of children was a slow process that happened over the course of some weeks. In other cases, children were just taken immediately, without warning. Many mothers didn't know it would be the last time they would hold their child, many families didn't know it was the last time they would spend together and many children never even knew their families to begin with.

The separation of families and the destruction of communities on a systemic scale cannot simply be forgotten, and the fear and pain remain with not only the members of the stolen generations but their children and grandchildren too. We continue to see the long shadow the trauma has cast on relationships, on health and mental health, on people's economic prospects and on culture, language and identity. The stolen generations have haunted not only the victims but also our national history and conscience. I'd like to think the stolen generations are a faraway memory—something that did happen a long time ago. Instead, it happened so recently—right up to where we are now. And, if we're not careful, we'll continue to do the same thing by removing First Nations children from their families.

The prohibition and loss of language has been connected with the loss of identity for those forcibly removed and their descendants. Many children were beaten for speaking their own language, and this loss of culture has isolated children from the supporting structures and identity of their culture.

In the Northern Territory today, most children in out-of-home care are Indigenous. Although the scheme will be a relief for some surviving members, it is concerning and sad that many family members of those who have passed away will be left out. So, for many families, this is too little and too late. The Healing Foundation has pointed out that many survivors are in poor health and virtually all will be eligible for aged care next year. Each year, more stolen generations elders are lost, and the remaining survivors suffer significant distress. So I urge the parliament: let there be no unnecessary delay in rolling out this scheme. My thoughts are with the survivors in the territories who waited for too long and did not live to see this scheme come to fruition. Throughout this pandemic we have seen far too many examples of poor messaging to Indigenous communities and we do not want to make things any harder now in this instance with this particular area of the stolen generations.

Let me also stress the importance of involving community organisations and elders in the decision-making process all the way through. The information needs to be available in languages early on and throughout the rollout of the scheme. It needs to be accessible to remote communities—although in-language communication should have been a no-brainer in the rollout of the vaccine, and the federal government did take way too long to get that communication out there. I certainly don't want to see this repeated with regard to the stolen generations. It means working closely with stolen generations' survivor groups at every stage—working with the Healing Foundation, the Northern Territory Stolen Generations Aboriginal Corporation and other groups in the NT, the ACT and Jervis Bay. The scheme needs to heal, not retraumatize.

In April this year Labor reaffirmed our commitment to a stolen generations redress scheme. Labor took a policy to the 2016 election, which was almost identical to the government's announcement, of $75,000 in redress and $7,000 to help with funeral costs.

The redress scheme we have is thanks to the dedication and tenacity of advocates, community groups and survivors themselves. I thank each and every one of them. Many survivors in the Territory are now in their 70s and 80s and many of them never thought this day would come. I hope these payments will go some way in helping them enjoy their final days or help give their children and grandchildren a better future. Hopefully this scheme and the recognition of wrong it will afford will go some way to the healing of those Australians who feel so deeply betraye