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Australian Prime Minister Pinpoints Date for Apology

Rich Bowden, Sydney, Australia, January 28, 2008

Though Aboriginal leaders have welcomed the important symbolic apology gesture, some have called for compensation and further funding to aid disadvantaged indigenous groups. (Photo: Anoek de Groot / AFP-Getty Images)

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has announced that the opening of parliament early next month is the most likely date for a formal apology to the Aboriginal people of Australia.

Rudd has said the promise to apologize to indigenous Australians for past wrongs is an important step that will aid reconciliation between white and Black Australians. However, despite protests from Aboriginal groups, he insisted his government will offer no compensation to accompany the apology.

"The key thing is to build a bridge with indigenous Australia through an apology, through saying sorry because that bridge is halfway to respect, to restoring respect," the prime minister told reporters in Canberra this week.

"I've always said that for us we can do that in the absence of any compensation arrangements," he said.

"I think the key thing is to build a bridge of respect between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians rather than sweep that to one side."

The issue is controversial in the country with over two-thirds of people opposing any form of apology according to a recent poll conducted by the Herald-Sun.

The previous Howard administration refused to accept any blame for past wrongdoings with Howard maintaining that to apologize would be an error as Australia's present white population should not be blamed for past wrongdoings.

Though the policy was popular among much of the electorate, it severely damaged relations between white and Black Australians during the 11-year term of the Howard government.

However, it was during Howard's tenure as prime minister, in 1997, that a government-commissioned report into the forced assimilation of Aboriginal children into white society during the late 19th and 20th centuries, recommended compensation be paid.

The practice of assimilating the "Stolen Generation" often included the forced removal of indigenous children from their parents and family members; however, though Howard expressed "regret" for the actions on a number of occasions, he consistently refused to offer a formal apology.

Rudd told an Australia Day gathering at the prime ministerial residence in Canberra that he regarded race relations in the country as one of his government's great challenges. Rudd added that he wished for all Australians to be participants in society with none considered as marginalized adding he would concentrate on "bridging gaps" between the white and Black communities.

Rudd said his government will prioritize improving indigenous health and education and the protection of Aboriginal children. Last year's "Little Children Are Sacred" report, commissioned by the Northern Territory government, uncovered wide-ranging sexual abuse of children in Aboriginal communities, prompting an intervention by the federal government.

During last year's election campaign, the prime minister promised to maintain the federal takeover of indigenous communities prompted by the report, though he has said he will examine aspects of the contentious move that have failed to show adequate results. The forced takeover has caused divisions within the Aboriginal leadership with some calling the intervention "necessary" and others maintaining the Commonwealth move impinges on Aboriginal sovereignty.

Though Aboriginal leaders have welcomed the important symbolic apology gesture, some have called for compensation and further funding to aid disadvantaged indigenous groups. Activist Michael Mansell, legal director of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Center, has called on the government to establish a 1 billion-Australian-dollar ($882 million) compensation fund.

The prime minister made his remarks concerning reconciliation as Australia celebrates a long weekend to honor Australia Day, the country's national day marking the first settlement of the land by British ships in 1788—an event referred to by many Aboriginal groups as "Invasion Day."

Australia's 450,000-strong indigenous community remains the most impoverished in Australian society, for the most part trapped in poverty with a average life span 17 fewer years than their white counterparts.

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