When Kevin Rudd was elected prime minister of Australia, I wrote that he was a committed Catholic who was thinking about how to apply Catholic social teaching to public policy. This week, on the day after his swearing in as prime minister, in the first act of his new government, Rudd delivered a speech of apology to the aboriginal people as "Government business, motion number one." [Watch A historic speech]
I move, That today we honor the indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history. We reflect on their past mistreatment. We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were stolen generations - this blemished chapter in our nation's history. 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.
Then, to "cheers and tears," he continued
We apologize especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities, and their country. 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.
For Australia's aboriginal people, news reports called it a day for healing:
Aboriginal leaders who gathered in Canberra to hear today's apology have reacted with joy and relief at the long-overdue event. The co-chairwoman of the Stolen Generation Alliance, Christine King, said, "This has been a journey of all our people, so all voices have to be heard, all pain has to be acknowledged, all grief has to be shared and this is the way forward."
And, not being content only with words, the government and the opposition party agreed to form a joint "war cabinet" to develop policies that make the apology real. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Rudd "proposed the following tasks: to provide every indigenous four-year-old in a remote community with early childhood education within five years; to halve the gap between white and black Australia in literacy, numeracy, and literacy within a decade; to halve the infant mortality rates within a generation; and close the life expectancy gap."
I expected Kevin Rudd to be a new kind of political leader who seeks to practice moral politics. His initial act of apology for past wrongs begins to fulfill that hope and is a great start to his new government.