( dpa )- Australia took a further step in race relations Tuesday when mud-smeared Aboriginal elders staged the first-ever "welcome to country" ceremony at the opening of a new session at Parliament House in Canberra.
On Wednesday, the first full day of Parliament, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will offer the long-awaited official apology for a misguided assimilation programme that ran until the 1970s and saw black children taken from their parents to be brought up in white-run institutions.
A welcome-to-country ceremony is an indigenous equivalent of the 21-gun salute: it welcomes visiting dignitaries but stresses ownership of the land.
"A welcome-to-country acknowledges our people and pays respect to our ancestors' spirits who've created the lands," Canberra woman and Ngunnawal tribe elder Matilda House Williams told the gathering. "In doing this, the prime minister shows that we call proper respect, to us, to his fellow parliamentarians and to all Australians."
She handed what Aborigines call a message stick to Rudd symbolizing the "hope of a united nation through reconciliation."
Receiving the message stick, Rudd said that Aborigines had occupied the continent for thousands of generations but Europeans for only for five, six or seven generations.
"Despite this antiquity among us, despite the fact that parliaments have been meeting here for the better part of a century, today is the first time in our history that, as we open the Parliament of the nation, that we are officially welcomed to country by the first Australians of this nation," he said.
Rudd, who was elected in a Labor landslide in November that ended 11 years of conservative government under John Howard, recalled that when the first Parliament House in Canberra opened in 1927, the indigenous people went unrepresented save for gatecrasher Jimmy Clements, barefoot and in a ragged suit.
A local newspaper referred to him dismissively as "a lone representative of a fast-vanishing race." Australia's Aborigines now number 500,000 - back up to the estimated population when white colonization began in 1788 with the arrival of the First Fleet.
"Today we begin with one small step to set right the wrongs of the past, and in this ceremonial way it's a significant and symbolic step," Rudd said.
Opposition Liberal Party leader Brendan Nelson committed the alternative government to continuing the practice of having a welcome-to-country ceremony at the start of a new parliamentary term.
"Whatever happens in future parliaments, so long as I've anything to do with it, we'll have a welcome from the Ngunnawal and their descendants," Nelson said.