Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said on Sunday that a planned official apology to Aborigines over the forced removal of children from their families will remove "a blight on the nation's soul."
Rudd, whose centre-left Labor party won November elections, has pledged to offer the apology to the so-called "stolen generations," who were taken from their families as children, as the first act of the new parliament.
The previous conservative government of John Howard had doggedly refused to say "sorry", saying current generations should not apologise for the wrongs of their forebears.
But Rudd said Australians felt an "overwhelming desire" to recognise the tens of thousands of indigenous people taken from their homes as children under policies designed to force assimilation.
"It is unfinished business for the nation," he told the Nine Network.
"It's never going to be a unity ticket – a whole lot of people out there have raised objections and concerns.
"But I think this is a blight on the nation's soul. I think we need to act on it."
The prime minister said he was finalising the wording of the apology he will make on behalf of lawmakers in front of more than 100 members of the "stolen generations" at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday.
"The key thing, the absolute key thing here is to get it right in terms of the stolen generations themselves, to make sure the language is right," he said.
"That's my first responsibility – otherwise, next Wednesday is a wasted event."
Rudd said he had met with an elderly Aboriginal woman on Saturday who told him her first-hand experience of being taken in the 1930s, when she was three or four, and who never saw her mother again.
"Those stories are writ large across the country and they are the source of enormous pain," Rudd said.
The apology has the in-principle support of the opposition and indigenous affairs spokesman Tony Abbott said it had the potential to be "a significant milestone towards more complete reconciliation".
"But we'll be getting behind it in a way which acknowledges our true history – that's to say the good things that have happened as well as the unfortunate things," he told Sky News.
"Yes, some kids were stolen and this is shameful but many were helped and some were rescued, and I think we need to be honest about that."
The Stolen Generations Alliance estimates as many as 55,000 Aboriginal children, mostly of mixed descent, were taken from their homes to be raised in institutions, foster care or by adoptive parents until 1970.
The policies left indigenous children not only without their families, but robbed of their language and culture. Many were not told of their Aboriginal heritage while others suffered in care.
A 1997 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission inquiry found that the main reason for removing the children was not concern for their welfare but because they were Aboriginal.
Few details have so far been released on the apology except that it will be addressed to the stolen generations and their families, and will not commit the government to financially compensating those taken away from their relatives.
The apology has been mostly welcomed by indigenous leaders but many believe compensation should follow.
A spokesman for the National Aboriginal Alliance, Les Malezer, said the apology should be accompanied by reparations "as part of admitting that the wrong thing was done".
"Once the apology has been issued, and providing the apology is not qualified, we will then go on to ask the government to now consider how it will pay compensation," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. (AFP)
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