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Aborigines open Canberra session

This parliament opening was very different from previous years

Australia's parliament has opened with an Aboriginal welcome, ahead of an apology for past wrongs inflicted on the country's indigenous community.

In a special ceremony, an Aboriginal elder handed a symbolic message stick to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

On Wednesday Mr Rudd is due to deliver a historic apology to Aborigines for past assimilation policies.

Under these policies, in place until the 1960s, thousands of children were forcibly taken from their families.

Break with tradition

Never before has the Australian parliament opened with this kind of ritual.

Didgeridoo-playing Aborigines overturned hundreds of years of British tradition by marking the official opening of the session in their own way.

According to the BBC correspondent Nick Bryant, this is perhaps a sign of the new spirit of reconciliation which the country's new prime minister is trying to nurture and nourish.

An Aborigine teenager in Alice Springs (file image)
Aborigines are the most disadvantaged sector of society

Aboriginal elder Matilda House, wearing a coat of animal skins, delivered a traditional message stick to Mr Rudd, and spoke of "the hope of a united nation through reconciliation".

"Today we begin with one small step to set right the wrongs of the past," Mr Rudd said.

The first act of parliament will be to apologise to the Stolen Generations - young Aboriginal children taken from their parents in a policy of assimilation which lasted from the 19th Century to the late 1960s.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed a motion to acknowledge the "profound grief, suffering and loss" as well as the "indignity and degradation" caused to the Aboriginal community by previous policies.

"For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry," the text of the motion says.

The motion is due to be put to a vote on Wednesday, and is certain to pass because it has the support of both the government and the main opposition parties.

New agenda

The previous prime minister, John Howard, refused to apologise to members of the Stolen Generations, a position which chimes with about 30% of the population, according to the polls.

HAVE YOUR SAY
If they want to address the wrongs of the past, then address them
Shaun D, Durban

But the Liberal Party he led until last November's election has now decided to alter its stance, so all sides will take part in the apology.

Mr Rudd's agenda, also outlined in parliament on Tuesday, included a commitment to close the 17-year life expectancy gap between Aborigines and other Australians within a generation, was well as halving Aboriginal infant mortality rates within a decade.

Australia's 460,000 Aborigines make up 2% of the population and are the most disadvantaged group.

They have higher rates of infant mortality, drug abuse, alcoholism and unemployment than the rest of the population.



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Scenes from the ceremony in Australia



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