Australia will issue its first formal apology to the country's indigenous people next month, a senior minister said Wednesday, a milestone that could ease tensions with a minority once subjected to policies including the removal of mixed-blood children from families on the premise that their race was doomed.
The Feb. 13 apology to the so-called "stolen generation" of Aborigines will be the first item of business for the new Parliament, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose Labor Party won November elections, had promised to push for an apology, which has been debated in Australia for years.
"The apology will be made on behalf of the Australian government and does not attribute guilt to the current generation of Australian people," Macklin said in a statement.
Macklin and Rudd have previously ruled out financial compensation for the impoverished minority, and Macklin did not mention that subject Wednesday. But she said she sought broad input on the wording of the apology, which she hoped would signal the beginning of a new relationship between Australia and the impoverished minority.
"Once we establish this respect, the government can work with indigenous communities to improve services aimed at closing the 17-year life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians," she said.
Australia's original inhabitants, Aborigines number about 450,000 among a population of 21 million. Aborigines are the poorest ethnic group in Australia and are most likely to be jailed, unemployed and illiterate.
Australia has had a decade-long debate about how best to acknowledge Aborigines who were affected by a string of 20th century policies that separated mixed-blood Aboriginal children from their families - the cohort frequently referred to as Australia's stolen generation.
From 1910 until the 1970s, around 100,000 mostly mixed-blood Aboriginal children were taken from their parents under state and federal laws based on a premise that Aborigines were a doomed race and saving the children was a humane alternative.
A national inquiry in 1997 found that many children taken from their families suffered long-term psychological effects stemming from the loss of family and culture.
The inquiry recommended that state and federal authorities apologize and compensate those removed from their families. But then-Prime Minister John Howard steadfastly refused to do either, saying his government should not be held responsible for the policies of former officials.