It was moment that the Indigenous community has long waited for and a moment the nation may recall as a turning point. So how did people see the apology? Did Mr Rudd get the wording right? Was his speech inspiring or equivocal and half-hearted? And what of the opposition leader’s response? Crikey took those questions to both prominent Australians and people with close links to Stolen Generation.

Robert Manne: I think it was a magnificent speech, one of the finest, most well balanced, intelligent, moving speeches I’ve heard. I think it was a great moment in the country’s history. It’s the biggest issue of difficulty in the nation’s history and one that we keep on struggling with. There’s only one speech in history which can be compared to it in the Indigenous area and that’s the one Paul Keating made, not in Parliament, but in Redfern. I think it was a magnificent, intelligent, well informed, open-hearted speech. Two things were most important. One was to record accurately in a short space the history, and the other was to make absolutely clear that the policies were the policies of government and that the parliament bears responsibility. There was the slightest equivocation about where the political responsibility lay for the suffering. So the moral grammar of it was very clear.

Don Watson, author of the Redfern Speech: “No comment.”

Megan Davis Director, ILC Director of the Indigenous Law Centre and Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of NSW: I thought Rudd was magnificent, it was really beautiful and more than what we expected … I don’t think compensation issue will go away but today’s not the day for it. Today is a day of celebration. I was happy with the wording of the apology, and the full speech then clearly explained it. It was a very sophisticated apology, it explained that regardless of the motivations of people in power, who had the power, the focus should be on what the children’s experience was, the experience of the stolen generations and that was acknowledged today. I’m getting phone calls from all over the country, from all of my family – it truly is a day of celebration. So many people have been affected. Every Aboriginal person has in some way been affected, it has manifested itself in all sorts of illness and behaviours. It was really important… it’s just a really golden day for the nation. A lot of people don’t actually talk to aboriginal people and don’t understand the importance of this to them and what sorry means to them. That apology has an impact on how they feel about themselves and how they fit in the nation, their place in the nation. This is enormous. I think that Brendan Nelson is an extremely mean-spirited man and that’s exactly why they’re not in government anymore. Rudd came across as a statesman. It was a beautiful speech, I’m just so impressed. He had a lot of dignity, and he gave the stolen generations a lot of dignity. It’s a new day for the country. It didn’t feel like that when Rudd was elected, but it really feels different today. It’s a new dawn for the country. This is a massive step for unacknowledged, unfinished business… We’ve started now. It’s taken a long time to get here, but we’ve begun.

Harry Scott, CEO of Titjikala, an Indigenous community situated 130km south east of Alice Springs: The significance of it is we’re not expecting to have any people at work today. It’s a very significant moment for Indigenous people right around Australia and no less so in Titjikala. Personally, I thought it was sensational. We were watching one of our staff, one of the Stolen Generation, in Parliament House. My feeling is that the Indigenous people have been at the table for a long time and mainstream culture has finally joined them. One of the most significant things was the formation of the committee for the next five years on Indigenous housing. That is what needs to happen. There are some substantial issues that need to be addressed and that isn’t going to happen by someone coming in and autocratically creating an intervention. Regarding the apology itself, for me it was more about the intention and spirit in which it was delivered. The significance of it was seen by the amount of applause after their speeches.

Ray Gaita: It is properly an apology, which is something I feared it might not be. I feared it may turn out to be nothing much more than an expression of regret for all the past injustices, but it is unequivocally an apology and a genuinely humble one. What’s also important is that it recognises that action in the future has to be action that carries the spirit of that apology. But what really matters is how the Indigenous community sees it.

David Flint: I thought it was a little long, and I still think you have to look at this issue on a case by case basis. I find it difficult to see what good this does. I’m inclined to think Keith Windschuttle was correct. That is, if the apology is tendered, compensation follows. Having a sweeping apology I don’t think is really a good idea. I was more impressed by the leader of the opposition’s speech. I thought he brought together the reality of what was happening in the Northern Territory, that what happened to at least a significant number of the removals may well have been justified. The Bringing Them Home report is not really a report on which you can base much. These are stories presented by people, their recollections, which haven’t really been tested. It’s very proper to listen to what people say but to then base policy on it is not I think a very sensible thing to do.

Michael Kroger: Sorry, but I can’t offer a comment. I saw the first couple of minutes and had to run off to a meeting.

Tim Flannery: For me, it was just about the most significant moment I’ve seen in the Australian parliament. I can’t think of another moment that rivals it. It signals a change of direction for Australia, a very fundamental one. The fact that it was unanimous and that a bipartisan group would be dealing with the issues … it is extraordinary. A huge sense of relief. I didn’t analyse the apology itself too deeply, but I didn’t have a problem with them at all. I think the response of all the Aboriginal people in the audience indicated they were whole-hearted. In some ways you could say way too late, but so important.

Barry Jones: I was down at Federation Square, watching the crowd reaction there, and I thought it was very careful and measured, but there was also a deep emotional content in it. It was balanced, it wasn’t recriminatory, and I think the objectives he set out are rational, achievable, and highly desirable. It was very reflective of Rudd’s approach, very disciplined and very process-oriented, but with a tremendous ethical foundation. I thought it was absolutely right for him as the Prime Minister and I think he spoke with great moral authority.

Humphrey McQueen: I must say I thought Brendan Nelson’s speech was much better. I kept waiting for the word humble to appear … I could see why Rudd kept saying “great country”, to appease people perhaps who didn’t agree with the apology, but one way of being great means being humble … that didn’t come into it. As Brendan Nelson kept saying, the real trick is to put yourself in other people’s shoes and I really didn’t get that from what Rudd was saying. One of the things that we non-Aboriginal communities find difficult is that the notion of sorry means much more to them … It carries a much greater weight, a depth of sadness, it means many more things … Today felt like a moment of relief, relief amongst Aboriginal communities.

Louise Togo from the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, University of Technology, Sydney: I watched it this morning and it felt really historic. My daughter is Indigenous and I did get emotional over it, although I’m not from that Stolen Generation. I was really interested in the wording of it, and I did think it had some substance, but let’s just wait and see. As for the opposition response to Kevin Rudd, I was listening to (Nelson) and … I found him to be a little bit undermining … particularly with his wording … I thought, “Trust you to be covertly undermining…” That talk of compensation was just unnecessary. I thought the actual apology was good. And you could really tell that Prime Minister Rudd is a Christian … you could really tell in his wording and his empathy that it was a faith-based feeling on his part. It was really important I think. It would be more important to the older Aboriginal people who were a part of the Stolen Generation, but it did bring a tear to my eye. I actually thought that the speaker of the house had a tear in his eye, and that was really touching because historically it is the government that committed all these atrocities … I know many people and older people who have been removed as children from around the Redfern and Sydney area … Today is really symbolic because it’s an acknowledgement of what has not been taught in Australian history, and this means for her, for my eight-month-old daughter, she will learn about what happened, she will learn the real story.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey