Australia says sorry to blighted Aborigines

( dpa ) - An official apology delivered in Canberra on Wednesday for past wrongs done to Aborigines ignited fresh hope of a better future for Australia's 500,000 indigenous people.

Across the nation of 21 million, people cheered and wept as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said sorry for discarded assimilation policies that some say show up today in bad health, poor schooling, unemployment and a 17-year disparity in the life expectancy of whites and blacks.

Rudd, elected in a Labor landslide in November, told a gathering at Parliament House that the nation's contrition would help expunge a "great stain from the soul of Australia."

The former government under John Howard refused to say sorry to the so-called stolen generations - those Aborigines wrenched from their parents and brought up in white-run institutions in a programme to "breed out the black."

Rudd said "profound grief, suffering and loss" followed when up to 50,000 children were separated from their families from 1910 to the 1970s.

To applause and weeping from the packed gallery, he admitted "laws our parliaments enacted made possible the stolen generations."

"For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry; to the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry; and, for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry," Rudd said.

Albert Holt, 61, who lost six sisters, said an apology was due. "I've waited such a long time. Let's face it, we were kidnapped people, full stop," he said.

Mary Terzak, 66, journeyed the 3,000 kilometres from Perth to be in the capital to accept a personal apology for being taken from her family when she was 2 years old.

"It's so important to me to see something so significant in our black history," she told national broadcaster ABC. "Finally somebody finally recognized the fact to say sorry to the first peoples of this land."

A proposal to set up a bi-partisan "war cabinet" to tackle Aboriginal issues was accepted by Brendan Nelson, successor to Howard as Liberal Party leader. Howard lost his own seat as well as government in November and was the only living former prime minister absent on the occasion.

Both Rudd and Nelson oppose cash compensation for the stolen generations but the government promised more spending to lift Aborigines out of poverty and programmes to get them out of jail, off the dole and into work.

Rudd pledged that within a decade he would halve the gap in educational attainment, infant mortality and employment.

Jackie Huggins, an Aboriginal activist noted for her work in tackling sexual abuse, readily accepted the apology.

"Just before, we saw five old ladies who had come down from Darwin and they were so excited, and like me they thought they'd never live to see the day this would happen," she said. "The prime minister talks about a new page in our history - well, I think it's a new book," she said.

But others were unconvinced. Andrew Bolt, columnist with Melbourne's Herald-Sun newspaper, told local television that "if sorry could fix things, things would be fixed years ago, if it was only white hearts that could fix things, it would be fixed years ago."

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