Thunderstorms peeled above Canberra yesterday as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd prepared to release the wording of the Government's apology to the Aboriginal Stolen Generations.
In an earlier respite from the rain that fell on the city for much of the day, Rudd was also reminded as Parliament opened that indigenous Australia regards today's apology as only the first step on a long road to reconciliation.
Thousands of demonstrators marched 1km from the Aboriginal tent embassy - a decades-old institution outside the capital's original Parliament House - to the present home of the Government.
Blocked from the building by a cordon of police, the demonstrators protested against the emergency intervention launched by former conservative Prime Minister John Howard to stop endemic child abuse in the Northern Territory and address appalling social and economic conditions.
Rudd supports the intervention but, as a practical extension of the apology to Aborigines taken from their families under former assimilation policies, intends moving from emergency measures to a long-term development programme to lift living standards and end the 20-year gap in life expectancy between Aborigines and other Australians.
On Monday night, 4000 candles had spelled out "sorry, the first step" on the lawns in front of Parliament House, reinforcing the message that busloads of Aborigines from around Australia had come to Canberra to deliver to Rudd.
Activists are demanding that as well as effective social and economic measures, Rudd's apology be matched by compensation for surviving victims of the Stolen Generations, a move the Government had categorically ruled out.
National Aboriginal Alliance spokesman Les Malezer told ABC radio that compensation was part of forgiveness and of an admission of wrongs against the indigenous population.
"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 said.
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission president John van Doussa said while Rudd should be congratulated for moving so quickly to acknowledge the gross violations of fundamental human rights caused to Aborigines by the separation of their children from their families and culture, the apology was only one step in the journey to reconciliation.
"All governments in Australia must now work to eliminate the gap between the life advantages of non-indigenous and indigenous Australians, with particular priority given to addressing the pressing issues of health, housing, education and employment," he said. Rudd also faced strong criticism for insufficient consultation over the wording of the apology, and of failing to allow indigenous representatives to speak in Parliament during today's debate over the motion proposing it.
But the decision to make the apology the first item of business of the nation's 42nd parliament has potent symbolism.
Rudd invited more than 100 members of the Stolen Generations - and family members of some who had died - to attend the historic apology at Government expense.
These included the co-chairs of the report of inquiry that revealed the tragedy of the Stolen Generations, Aboriginal leader Mick Dodson and Sir Ronald Wilson, and veteran activists Faith Bandler and Evelyn Scott, who campaigned in the 1967 referendum that finally gave indigenous Australians the right to vote.
For the first time, Parliament was opened by an eons-old Aboriginal "welcome to country" ceremony, an initiative that Rudd and Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson pledged to continue for future parliaments.
Ngambri elder Matilda House-Williams told MPs and senators of Jimmy Clements, an elderly Aborigine ordered to leave the 1927 opening of the original Parliament House because his old suit was "not appropriate".
"I stand here before you in this same great institution of ceremonial dress, barefoot, honoured and welcome," she said. The "welcome to country" ceremony paid respects to the spirits of the ancestors who created the land. "In doing this the Prime Minister shows that we call proper respect, to us, to his fellow parliamentarians and to all Australians. Welcome to the land of our ancestors."
'THIS BLEMISHED CHAPTER IN OUR NATION'S HISTORY'
Text of the formal apology to Indigenous Australians to be made in federal Parliament by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at 9am (11am) today.
Today we honour 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.
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.
We apologise 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.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.
For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.
We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.
A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.
A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.
A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.
A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.
A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.