The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal Children from their Families (which ran from 1995 to 1997 and was undertaken primarily by Sir Ronald Wilson and Mick Dodson) brought to public attention and debate the nature of the suffering of Indigenous families under Commonwealth, state and territory Aboriginal protection and welfare laws and policies.
The Bringing Them Home Report (from the National Inquiry), tabled in Parliament on 26 May1997, contained 54 Recommendations on how to redress the wrongs done to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by the race-based laws and policies of successive governments throughout Australia.
Recommendations 5a and 5b were about acknowledgement and apology by Parliaments and Police forces.
The Report was tabled in Parliament on a day which coincided with the Australian Reconciliation Convention being held in Melbourne. Mick Dodson, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner launched the report. From the start the Coalition Government would not agree to offering a national apology. In 1998 the Sorry Book campaign, which culminated on the first National Sorry Day on 26 May, was often described as ‘the people’s apology’. Between 1997 and 1999 all State and Territory governments apologised in Parliament to the Stolen Generations.
The Commonwealth Government did offer a motion of reconciliation in Parliament on 26 August 1999, which expressed “deep and sincere regret”, however this was not accepted as a true apology and it did not contain the word ‘sorry’ – a word with rich cultural meanings for Indigenous Australians.
The Government’s submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee Inquiry in 2000, disputed the term ‘Stolen Generation’ and the number of children taken, arguing that the term could not be applied to a whole generation. There was also public debate on the use of the term ‘stolen’.
For over ten years making an apology was continually rejected by the Commonwealth government.
Corroboree 2000 was held in May 2000, towards the end of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation’s ten-year mandate. Again, an official apology was not forthcoming, although thousands of people walked over Sydney Harbour Bridge and bridges around the country in support of the aims of Reconciliation. The ‘SORRY’ skywriting on that day in Sydney has become an iconic image in the Australian media. Mick Dodson, gave a powerful speech at Corroboree 2000 the next day which highlighted the currency of actions which led to the Stolen Generations.
In 2001 the Labor Party responded to the Bringing Them Home Report stating that it would make a National Apology in the first sitting week of a new Parliament if elected to government. This commitment to an Apology remained Labor Party policy.