On the morning of 13 February 2008 the nation heard an historic speech by the Prime Minister, the Hon Kevin Rudd—it was the Apology to Australia's Indigenous peoples.
The response by the majority of Australians, of all backgrounds and beliefs, was profound. It drew tears: tears of happiness and relief. It gave hope. It was warmly received, accepted and responded to by Indigenous communities.
For many it led on to a personal reflection on their own relationships with husband, wife, children, family and friends. It stimulated thought about how we had done things in the past, and how we might do them better in the future, at a private level. As a nation, it stimulated us to think in the same manner. To reflect on the past and to look forward: where to from here?
The precise question is how can the spirit and intention of the apology become manifest in the lives of all Australians. How will the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians be defined in the future?
On the day he spoke, Prime Minister Rudd was presented with a glass coolamon. Within it was a message: 'We have a new covenant between our peoples—that we will do all we can to make sure our children are carried forward, loved and nurtured and able to live a full life.'
As Muriel Bamblett, Chair of the Secretariat National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, explained:
The use of a coolamon to carry this message was significant because coolamons were often used to carry newborn children in Aboriginal communities. Now it is the carrier of the future for Indigenous and non-Indigenous children alike, in response to the apology for the carrying away of indigenous children from their families, communities and country.
The renovation of relationships where there has been deep hurt is not accomplished by words alone. But they form the first, necessary, step.
In undertaking our work, one of the Review Board's first acts was to accept an invitation to attend the Central Australian Aboriginal male health summit at Ross River, near Alice Springs. It was an appropriate place to start our community consultations. At the summit nearly 400 Aboriginal men settled the Inteyerrkwe Statement, an apology from men to women for past violence and abuse. In part the statement read:
We acknowledge and say sorry for the hurt, pain and suffering caused by Aboriginal males to our wives, to our children, to our mothers, to our grandmothers, to our granddaughters, to our aunties, to our nieces and to our sisters ... We also acknowledge that we need the love and support of our Aboriginal women to help us move forward.
The statement was courageous and took the Review Board to the heart of the issue that drove the construction and implementation of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER). Child abuse and neglect are intensely emotional matters. The damage done is severe. The urge to act to protect children—to secure their safety and wellbeing—is the essence of being human.
The Inteyerrkwe Statement signifies the very serious manner in which the men at the health summit heard and accepted the national apology by the Prime Minister. It caused them to reflect. They saw the need for a specific apology by Aboriginal men to Aboriginal women. It is an affirmation of their values and respect for women. It is part of the way forward.
One thing is very clear to the Review Board: the way forward from the Intervention can not be based on a return to 'business as usual'. Both Aboriginal people and the Australian Government want a new relationship.
The most fundamental quality defining that relationship must be trust. And for that to occur at the community level in the Northern Territory there must be an active re-engagement with the community by government. As we report, one of the impacts of the NTER was to fracture an already tenuous relationship with government.
During July and most of August 2008 the Review Board travelled the Northern Territory. We are no strangers to Aboriginal community life in its great diversity throughout Australia, yet in the conduct of this review we felt deeply privileged to gain an insight into a part of the nation's life that few others experience.
We were warmly welcomed. People opened their hearts revealing their grief, anger and stories of trauma, placing the Intervention as an episode within the longer history of their communities.
People spoke about the position they occupy within the Australian nation. How much a part of our nation they felt. How shocked they were by an Intervention that approached them as though they were alien and repugnant to the rest of the country. How they were singled out for special treatment.
In all communities the importance of customary law and language, the strength of kinship ties and responsibilities, were evident. We saw, not for the first time, the appallingly overcrowded housing that no other Australians would tolerate. Most people deal day to day with the ravages of alcohol and cannabis abuse, violence, poor health and plain poverty. The rate of death means that sorry business is an ever present part of community life.
Experiences of racial discrimination and humiliation as a result of the NTER were told with such passion and such regularity that the Board felt compelled to advise the Minister for Indigenous Affairs during the course of the Review that such widespread Aboriginal hostility to the Australian Government's actions should be regarded as a matter for serious concern.
There is intense hurt and anger at being isolated on the basis of race and subjected to collective measures that would never be applied to other Australians. The Intervention was received with a sense of betrayal and disbelief. Resistance to its imposition undercut the potential effectiveness of its substantive measures.
The crisis that prompted the NTER in June 2007 is real. It should remain a national priority for sustained attention and investment by the Australian Government. But the way forward must be based on a fresh relationship.
As previously noted, the renovation of relationships where there has been deep hurt is not accomplished by words alone. It requires decisive action.
Accumulated neglect by governments over 30 years has resulted in situations within some remote communities that could benefit from the same disciplined, professional approach that Australia brings to international programs of reconstruction and community development.
That is not limited to providing the hardware of a healthy community: adequate housing, infrastructure and schools. It requires the building of effective social and civil institutions that express the values and beliefs of the community. It requires investment in local skills and capacities and leadership. Essentially, it is about growing both the skeletal structure and the soft tissue of a community.
If it is to work, community development must be led by the community and partnered by government. That is the basis for a new relationship.
It is a relationship governed by principles of informed consent, participation and partnership. It will require structural support enabling robust and sophisticated dialogue, where common aspirations can be explored and regional and local agreements can be negotiated.
Such a relationship will incorporate a different vision of the place of Aboriginal communities in our nation's story.
The strength of traditional culture in remote Australia—ceremony, dance, art, knowledge of land and sea—should be respected for its intrinsic worth and its potential productivity. The protection of the longest continuing culture on earth is consistent with Australia's international obligations. It is also a celebration of a unique part of Australia's national identity.