Saturday, 26 May 2007

Sorry Day

Only forty years ago, the original inhabitants of Australia, the Aboriginal people, were not counted as people in Australia. A referendum held on May 27, 1967 enabled a change to occur which meant that the Australian Constitution was changed in two ways, so that the Commonwealth government would be able to make laws relating to Aboriginal people*, and allowing Aboriginal people to be counted in the national census* (more about the changes below).

Forty years ago tomorrow, more than 90 per cent of Australians voted in favour of the changes.

One important outcome has been that the referendum has acquired a symbolic meaning in relation to a period of rapid social change during the 1960s.

Many injustices were (and many remain) evident. In 1965, Aboriginal Freedom Rides were organised, whereby buses of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people visited country towns where there were, for example, laws preventing Aboriginal people using local swimming pools.

Throughout white history of Australia, children had been forcibly removed from their families.

Ten years ago, on May 26, 1997, a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity presented the findings of the National Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families - the "stolen generation" - in a report entitled Bringing Them Home. This part of our history still affects many Aboriginal people today. It is not ancient history, it is part of the experience lived by many able to tell their story today. Many many of the recommendations have never been implemented, including a refusal by the federal government to say "Sorry" (hence the naming of today "Sorry Day"). Others (mainly but not exclusively, non-Aboriginal) argue that such symbolism is now unnecessary - it is all too long ago, and there are other things to get on with; others argue that without truth and acknowledgement of past wrongs, little can be achieved in the future.

In 1991, a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody presented its report. Many of the recommendations are yet to be properly implemented. Further information here.

On May 28, 2000, more than 250 000 people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of reconciliation, and more than a million Australians across the country participated in similar marches. My blog on 26 January this year shows the plaque commemorating the event. And below are my (scanned) photos from that day.

There's a walk and gathering in Sydney today to mark these occasions. Unfortunately I can't attend but above is a copy of an Artist Trading Card I made recently, called 'Hands Up For Reconciliation'.

* The first was a phrase in Section 51 which stated that the Federal Government had the power to make laws with respect to "the people of any race, other than the Aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws." (This is known as the "race power.") The referendum removed the phrase "other than the Aboriginal race in any State," giving the Commonwealth the power to make laws specifically to benefit Aboriginal people.

* The second was Section 127, which said: "In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, Aboriginal natives shall not be counted." The referendum deleted this section from the Constitution.

More info about significant events in Aboriginal history.

My Reconciliation Walk photos from 28 May 2000.

It was amazing being part of such a huge crowd with hope int heir hearts and goodwill. Unfortunately, Aboriginal life expectancy is still 17 years below that of non-Aboriginal Australians, education outcomes are poorer, and infant mortality unacceptable high. Despite the stereotypical image, the majority of Aborigines live in urban and regional, populated areas, not the remote areas of the outback. Most of those Aborigines have long been dispossesed of their land and clan and family identity.


  1. Sadly, Sally, sometimes the best of well-intentioned good will does more harm than good. Both sides of my family was involved in the issue as far back as the mid 19th Century, and I despair at the effects of some of the do-gooders' attempts to improve things.

    But we can't stand in the way of "progressive" ideas, no matter how flawed they may be, can we?

  2. Sally, you're approaching a topic I feel much concerned with, so I must read your text with attention to be sure to understand well. I know a little better about Kanaks in New Caledonia because a part of my family lives there.

  3. It was nice knowing about this people through your wonderful documentary & photos. I can recount similar incidents with the Jarowas in Andaman & Nicobar islands & sadly enough still now they cannot be brought to normal human fold among us & they are still scary of the modern civilization.

  4. I suposse we all have made mistakes in our past. As we can't go back to those years, the best we can do is to be sorry for that... and most important, not making the same again... but I guess this second part is what we have to learn most of the times uh? Interesting post, Sally

  5. majority of natives in any country lost out from their land of origins, it is saddening. Personally, i'm quite shocked that at this day and age their life expectancy is so low ..

  6. Taking me back to the bridge walk. What a day. And it takes more than that.
    And it could be said that Kanaks from the Pacific were shanghied into work on our sugar-cane fields.

  7. A truly important post Sally.
    Thanks for the photos of the 2000 march. It must have been a powerful experience to be part of it. Sad that no more came out of it. Seventeen years less in life expectancy is huge!

  8. Sydney ,referred by the local aborigines as "Warrane",has been inhabited for at least 50,000 years.50,000 year old grindstones been found in the area recently, predating any previous finds more

  9. Hi!
    My name is Nancy and I am writing on behalf of Cultural Survival, an indigenous rights organization in Boston, MA. We publish a quarterly magazine, and in our next quarterly we are focusing on indigenous reparations. We would
    like to use the photo(s)from your Reconciliation Walk from May 28, 2000 found on your Saturday, May 26, 2007 blog. The photos would be great to display National Sorry Day as a sort of reparation that resulted from the Bringing them Home Report.

    Can you provide permission to include the photo in the print and online version of the magazine? Unfortunately, we cannot pay for the photo(s). Also, we need
    high-resolution versions--with a resolution of 300 dpi at at least 5 x 7 inches, pretty much any format. You can email our
    program officer or our managing edior Thank you, and we hope that we obtain your permission to use these great photos!


  10. Sally, thanks for your post. I feel mostly sadness for what we have lost from the culture of Aboriginal people. I write about Nourishment in all her forms and consider the lifestyle of the original people of this land to be the most Nourishing I've ever encountered. Here is a story about my experience with Aboriginal Australia. Love to hear your thoughts.
    Friendship Starts with Sorry

  11. Sally I would really love to use some of you march images in a multimedia peice for a poem ... I would like to use the peice for a "Love Poetry - Hate Racism" event in April. Your images are amazing and uplifting. I am happy to send you the audio... a poem I wrote in 2000 after the march.
    thank ... Denise