During our recent visit to Australia, the new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, fulfilled a pre-election promise by using the first session of the new parliament to apologise to the indigenous Australians for the mistreatment they had suffered as a result of laws passed in parliament.  The apology was especially directed to the ‘stolen generation’ children who had been forcibly taken from their families, removed to Mission stations and brought up ‘properly’ in White ways.  We were in Canberra, and were able to attend while Rudd spoke to the nation.  We were in the large crowd outside Parliament House, and were impressed how the crowd reacted to the broadcast, breaking into spontaneous applause in many places.  In fact, all over Australia the speech had been eagerly anticipated.  Crowds gathered before huge screens in all the capital cities. The reaction everywhere was strikingly similar – spontaneous applause to parts of the speech, favourable comment even in the right-wing press, expressing a widespread belief that the nation could now move on, turn a dark page in its history.

Here are some quotes from Rudd’s speech :-


The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. We the parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation


We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians. A future where this parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.  A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.


There comes a time in the history of nations when their peoples must become fully reconciled to their past if they are to go forward with confidence to embrace their future.

The nation is demanding of its political leadership to take us forward.

Decency, human decency, universal human decency, demands that the nation now step forward to right an historical wrong. That is what we are doing in this place today.


This is not, as some would argue, a black-armband view of history; it is just the truth: the cold, confronting, uncomfortable truth - facing it, dealing with it, moving on from it.  Until we fully confront that truth, there will always be a shadow hanging over us and our future as a fully united and fully reconciled people.  It is time to recognise the injustices of the past. It is time to say sorry. It is time to move forward together.

For us, symbolism is important but, unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong.

The nation is calling on us, the politicians, to move beyond our infantile bickering, our point-scoring and our mindlessly partisan politics and to elevate this one core area of national responsibility to a rare position beyond the partisan divide.

I said before the election that the nation needed a kind of war cabinet on parts of Indigenous policy, because the challenges are too great and the consequences are too great to allow it all to become a political football, as it has been so often in the past.

I therefore propose a joint policy commission, to be led by the Leader of the Opposition and me, with a mandate to develop and implement, to begin with, an effective housing strategy for remote communities over the next five years.


Mr Speaker, today the parliament has come together to right a great wrong. We have come together to deal with the past so that we might fully embrace the future. We have had sufficient audacity of faith to advance a pathway to that future, with arms extended rather than with fists still clenched.


That night I dreamed that Gordon Brown announced to the nation that he was to say sorry for Britain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq.  Such an unprecedented action caused a huge stir in the nation.  Everywhere in the pubs and clubs provision was made for gatherings to view the occasion – it was almost like a football final.  Great screens were set up in Hyde Park and other places, and the day before, pundits speculated about nothing else.

When it came, the speech fully justified the anticipation.  Gordon Brown spoke for almost an hour, and as with the Australian prime minister, he wrote every word of the speech himself.  He, too, spoke of the need to admit the tragic error.  ‘My predecessor Tony Blair often spoke of the need to ‘move on’’, he said.  ‘But how is it possible to move on before we confess our error?  To the people of Iraq, on behalf of the British government, I say sorry.  To the British people, who were not involved in the decision to go to war, I say sorry.  We ought to have listened to the voice of the British people.’

Gordon Brown described at careful length exactly how the decision to go to war had been made, at first on a Texas ranch, then how the vote to go to war was obtained in parliament.  He spoke of the production of the now-notorious dossier, which informed MPs that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be launched (at Britain, was the inference) within forty-five minutes.  ‘It was no wonder that parliament voted to go to war,’ said Brown.  ‘The wonder is that anyone at all voted against war, in the circumstances.’

He exculpated Members in this way, but did not elaborate on where the blame should lie.  Instead, he explained why he had felt the need to apologise, and what the effect of an apology would be.

‘I know not what the effect of this apology will be, on our American friends,’ he went on.  ‘This is something we must do for ourselves.  However I fully expect that this apology will be welcomed across the Atlantic.  American thinking on Iraq has greatly changed today, and I would not even be surprised if our lead is followed over there.’

Brown expected two major benefits from his formal apology.  ‘First, we must move on, and the only way to progress to a cleaner future is to apologise.  Second, by admitting our error in going to war without UN sanction, we are unlikely to make the same mistake in the future.  And a more benign foreign policy will mean that the name of this great nation will eventually be trusted abroad again.’

The apology was to be only a first step.  As with the Australian case, Brown proposed the setting up of a Joint Policy Commission, chaired by himself, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg.  This was not a party-political issue, and he welcomed the participation of all the parties in determining how reparations could be effected for the people of Iraq.  ‘It is impossible to compensate for the loss of life, but there is now much work to be done in restoring the infrastructure of Iraq, and re-establishing its sovereignty.  And the sooner we start, the better!’

Brown’s speech had an extraordinary effect upon the nation.  There was the immediate applause by the watching public.  It was quite clear that public sentiment was deeply moved and overwhelmingly in favour.  As usual the media rode the tidal wave of public feeling. Opinion polls taken the next few days showed support for Brown as prime minister had reached the amazing height of 82 %.  It seemed that parliament might become a trusted institution once more.  After a long and difficult time, a clean smell seemed to be emanating from Westminster . . .


Then I woke to the Britain of today.  I could not get the dream out of my mind for some days.  Would it be possible, in this real world of ours, that such an apology could occur?  Could a groundswell movement be started, to press for our government to say sorry?