Aborigines plan to sue after Australia issues historic apology for racist policies

By Rod McGuirk
Canberra, Australia (AP) 2-08

Representatives for Australian Aborigines confirmed plans to launch the first compensation lawsuits since a landmark government apology in mid Febuary for past abuses.

The cases, details of which were not released because they had not yet been filed, would be the first since Parliament in mid Febuary made a formal apology to tens of thousands of Aborigines who were taken from their families as children under now discredited assimilation policies.

An activist and a lawyer representing some members of the so-called “Stolen Generations” of Aborigines said as many as 40 claims for compensation were being prepared in Victoria state.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has ruled out setting up a compensation fund for victims of the policies, which lasted from 1910 until the 1970s, and legal experts say the apology does not strengthen chances of compensation being won through the courts.

Several cases have been filed in the past but most have failed. Lawyers say proving the harm inflicted by the policies in a legal sense is extremely difficult.

Acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard, standing in for Rudd who is overseas, reiterated the government would not offer compensation to head off court action.

“We have said no to compensation,” Gillard told Fairfax Radio Network.

Lawyer Jack Rush said he was representing Aborigine Neville Austin, but declined to discuss specifics of the case. Austin also declined to comment.

A newspaper reported that Austin intends to sue the state of Victoria for unspecified damages, alleging he was taken by authorities in 1964 from a hospital where he had been admitted as a 5-month-old baby with a chest infection.

He then lived in foster homes and orphanages until he turned 18, the Herald Sun newspaper reported.

His cousin, Lyn Austin, head of the state advocacy group Stolen Generations Victoria, said dozens of lawsuits were pending.

“I cannot make comment on that case at all,” she told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio, referring to her cousin’s case.

“I do know that there are another 30 or 40 that are going to be doing a civil action claim.”

Rudd won wide acclaim by leading the Parliament in apologizing for the racist assimilation policies.

He received a letter of congratulations from the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, dated the day of the apology, Rudd’s office said. But Rudd has been widely criticized for refusing to pay compensation for their suffering.

An estimated 100,000 children were forcibly taken from their parents in an effort to make them grow up like white Australians.

Aborigine Bruce Trevorrow was awarded 775,000 Australian dollars (US$700,000; euro481,000) in damages and interest in Febuary from the South Australia state government. He was taken from a hospital without his parents’ knowledge 50 years ago.

Australia’s smallest state, Tasmania, is the only government to establish a compensation fund for Aborigines.

The state government announced January it had paid 84 forcibly removed children and 22 of their descendants. Each victim received A$58,000 (US$52,000; euro36,000) and each descendant A$5,000 (US$4,500; euro3,000).

There are now about 450,000 Aborigines in Australia’s population of 21 million. They are the country’s poorest group, with the highest rates of unemployment and illiteracy. Their life expectancy is 17 years shorter than that of other Australians.