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“Sorry” heralds new start

News

Cite as: (2008) 82(4) LIJ, p. 21

The Victorian legal profession gathered in an emotionally-charged morning to commemorate the federal government’s apology for past injustices to Aborigines.

As members of the state’s legal profession attended the LIV to mark the federal government’s apology to Indigenous Australians, it was clear a great need to say and hear the word “sorry” was being filled.

On 13 February, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered Australia’s Indigenous peoples an historic national apology for past mistreatments and promised a future where all Australians would be equal partners, with equal opportunities.

The apology, and the following speech which gave an insight into the tragedy of the Stolen Generation, was broadcast from Parliament on television, radio and also the web.

Nationwide events to commemorate the occasion were held, including one at the LIV.

Mr Rudd’s speech, which was heard by the 130 attendees at the LIV, was followed by speeches from LIV president Tony Burke, Koori Children’s Court elder Pam Pedersen and Tarwirri, Indigenous Law Students and Lawyers Association of Victoria, president Abigail Burchill.

Mr Burke told the LIJ it was a very moving occasion.

“The stories were powerful and evocative and the emotion in the room was palpable. There was something really uplifting about it.”

Ms Burchill said she didn’t expect to be as moved by the occasion as she was.

“For the Prime Minister to make such a sincere and emotional address affected me. He stepped forward reconciliation in this country.”

She said the inclusion of such a respected elder as Pam Pedersen as a speaker at the LIV occasion had really added to the event.

Those that attended the LIV included members of Tarwirri, Supreme Court judge and Judicial Officers’ Aboriginal Cultural Awareness Committee chair Justice Stephen Kaye and former chair and retired Justice Geoffrey Eames, Federal Court Justice Peter Gray, LIV Council members, representatives from law firms, the Bar and LIV staff including CEO Mike Brett Young.

Mr Burke said in his speech that the national apology was an occasion worth commemorating.

“I say commemorating, not celebrating.

“There has been an incredible outpouring of emotion leading to today’s apology. The apology, I think, has touched us all deeply.

“We now know that the majority of Indigenous children removed from their families were removed because they were Indigenous, not because of concern for their wellbeing.

“Harm was done. Lives were damaged. Families were rent asunder,” Mr Burke said.

Ms Pedersen spoke about the day being historic.

“I am extremely pleased that this Australian federal government has made a formal apology to the Stolen Generation. It has been a very long time coming.”

Ms Pedersen said the first ever inclusion of the “Welcome to the Country” [where Indigenous peoples were involved in the opening of Parliament the day before the apology] was another historic event.

“I am hopeful that these two significant actions mark the beginning of a new way forward in the relationship between government and Aboriginal people.”

Ms Pedersen related the story of her aunt who, as a young girl, was snatched from her mother at the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Reserve.

“I hope that the Australian people will now fully embrace the truth about the children who were taken away and maybe understand the pain and sorrow felt by their families who were given no choice, no say in what happened.

“Finally the truth of the children removed from their families is being acknowledged by our Parliament. We are a better country because of our willingness to accept the truth and as we all know without truth there is no justice,” Ms Pedersen said.

Ms Burchill said by apologising the federal government was finally lifting the veil of denial from the story of the many generations of Aboriginal people stolen from their family.

“After 11 years, the Australian government is finally taking off the rose-coloured glasses and acknowledging history for its complexities and the gut wrenching and shameful events that have taken place,” a visibly emotional Ms Burchill said.

“This does not suffocate the nation with victimhood – it regards history honestly and highlights leaders who are courageous enough to lead this country and to set an example for every Australian that great wrongs have taken place and as a nation we are sorry.”

Ms Burchill thanked the LIV for marking the occasion by also offering a new annual Indigenous bursary for the College of Law.

“This creates essential opportunities to get Indigenous people into the legal sector and is a reflection of the LIV and the College of Law’s long and continuing support of Tarwirri.”

She said the fact that the LIV was offering a bursary showed that the federal government’s apology was not just empty symbolism but could lead to concrete change.

The bursary for one Indigenous law graduate to undertake the Victorian College of Law’s professional program was announced during the morning’s events.

The bursary is currently valued at $6280 and is an accredited course of practical legal training for admission as an Australian lawyer in Victoria.

Applicants must be of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, must have fully completed their LLB at a recognised Australian university, must demonstrate financial, social or family hardship and also show personal contributions to the community.

Applications, which closed on 31 March, will be reviewed by a panel consisting of LIV president Tony Burke, LIV CEO Mike Brett Young and Tarwirri president Abigail Burchill.

The LIV bursary is in addition to the College of Law Victoria placement for an Indigenous law graduate to undertake the Victorian Professional Program during 2008. Applications for this bursary closed on 1 February.

The LIV has espoused the cause of Indigenous Australians in the legal profession, particularly in the past year.

Since April 2005, Tarwirri has been housed at the LIV. In February this year, Tarwirri moved into a bigger office space at the LIV and the organisation receives some administrative support.

The LIV and the Victorian Bar will support Tarwirri when it hosts the third Annual National Indigenous Legal Conference and inaugural Indigenous Legal Ball on 12-13 September this year.

Late last year the LIJ exposed the under-representation of Indigenous Australians in the legal profession in a series of articles, starting with its August edition “Breaking the barriers: Victorian Indigenous lawyers”.

The award-winning coverage raised national awareness of Indigenous lawyers’ aspirations to influence and assist the wider Indigenous population.

It also led to city and regional law firms introducing identified places for Indigenous law students and lawyers.

For the full text of the apology and Prime Minister Rudd’s speech, see http://www.pm.gov.au.

For the speeches made at the LIV, see http://www.liv.asn.au/About-LIV/Media-Centre.aspx and for more information on the LIVbursary for Indigenous law graduates, see http://www.careers.liv.asn.au/content.asp?contentid=85.

Michele Frankeni

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