SYDNEY (AFP) — Australian media and commentators Thursday hailed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology to Aborigines for past injustices as marking an historic shift for the nation.
With the word "sorry" splashed across front pages in huge type along with pictures of weeping and cheering Aborigines, newspapers devoted entire sections to what the Daily Telegraph called "a unique and radiant moment."
Like most commentators, however, the paper said in an editorial "the brutal truth is that unless it is followed up with a program of substance and originality, the aftermath of yesterday will merely be a hollow symbolism."
The Australian described Wednesday's apology in parliament as "by any measure a historic day in the life of the nation, its parliament and, crucially, in relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians."
The Sydney Morning Herald said the prime minister's speech generated "a nationwide emotional release -- a collective sigh of relief that this long-awaited moment had finally come."
In an address broadcast live on giant screens around the country, Rudd apologised to Aborigines for injustices over two centuries of white settlement, saying he wanted "to remove a great stain from the nation's soul."
"We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians," he told parliament.
Rudd also pledged practical measures to improve health, education and housing for Australia's most impoverished minority.
"The reality of the apology, I hope, signals a far deeper intent to remedy the situation quickly with the participation of the Aboriginal leadership," said Pat Dodson, former chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.
Several Aboriginal leaders have also called for financial compensation for victims of the "Stolen Generations" policy under which Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their families to be raised in white institutions.
"No one out there believes compensation is an issue that will go away," said indigenous leader Lowitja O'Donoghue.
But, for the moment, newspapers reflected a sense of fundamental change in the nation.
"Growing up as an Aboriginal child, looking into the mirror of Australia was difficult and alienating," Linda Burney, a cabinet minister in New South Wales state government, wrote in the Australian.
"Your reflection was at best ugly and distorted, and at worst non-existent... There was always that nagging sense of not belonging, like a piece of a puzzle was missing.
"February 13, 2008, has allowed me to finally fill in the last piece of my jigsaw."
Debra Hocking, who was 18 months old when she was taken from her mother in 1960 and was a founder of the Stolen Generations Alliance, said the apology should not be overshadowed by calls for compensation.
"It deburdened me, I felt a lot of things go when he said sorry," Hocking told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "For many of us it's the first day of healing."
Commentators also noted that centre-left Rudd had made a clean break with the policy of his conservative predecessor as prime minister, John Howard, who had steadfastly refused to apologise through 11 years in power.
Conservative columnist Miranda Devine said in the Sydney Morning Herald some would see the apology "as it was perhaps intended, in part, by Kevin Rudd, as a repudiation of his predecessor, a declaration of victory in the culture wars."
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