Australia's PM-elect to say sorry to Aborigines

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CANBERRA, Nov 27 (Reuters) Australia's Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd is set to repair race relations with Aborigines by saying ''sorry'' for past injustices, ending more than a decade of bitter division over racial reconciliation.

Outgoing conservative Prime Minister John Howard, swept from power in weekend elections after 11 years, refused to say sorry to indigenous children taken from their homes and fostered to white families in what became known as the Stolen Generation.

But Rudd, 50, has promised to apologise to Aborigines early in the new parliament, with Labor party sources tipping it may come on the first day of sittings, expected in February.

''The content of it (the apology) will be real, meaningful, substantive ... it is really important to get it right,'' Rudd said on Tuesday, promising to consult with aboriginal leaders.

''We will do that in order to build a bridge. Then you can use that bridge to start doing some practical things like closing the gap in life expectancy between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Australia. I'm not just into symbols for symbols' sake.'' Aborigines are Australia's most disadvantaged group with many living in third world conditions in remote outback settlements.

The 1997 ''Bringing Them Home'' report found Stolen Generation children, as depicted in the 2002 film ''Rabbit-Proof Fence'', were usually placed into orphanages run by churches or charities, or fostered out to socialise them to European culture.

Some were brutalised or abused, with harsh punishment for speaking in indigenous languages instead of English.

COMPENSATION ISSUE Howard rejected an apology because the removal of aboriginal children between the 1870s and 1960s was done by past governments and could open the door to expensive compensation claims.

Every Australian state government has issued an apology and no compensation claims have yet been lodged.

Under public pressure, Howard in 1999 drafted a motion for parliament expressing ''deep and sincere regret over the removal of aboriginal children from their parents'' and calling the Stolen Generation ''the most blemished chapter'' in Australia's history.

Aboriginal elder and Stolen Generation member Lowitja O'Donoghue today called on Rudd not to be evasive.

''Don't use apology. We want sorry, OK, that's what we're saying. We want him to say sorry,'' she told local radio.

Prior to his election Rudd said he would say sorry through a simple statement to the nation. He has also flagged a review of a conservative government takeover of outback black communities by troops and police to end alcoholism and child sexual abuse.

''Let's move forward in a spirit of cooperation rather then intervention...,'' said Northern Territory leader Paul Henderson, adding he plans to meet Rudd soon to discuss the intervention.

Indigenous activist Mick Dodson said Rudd could improve aboriginal lives ''by listening to aboriginal people, not just a select few, and respecting our ideas, and our culture''.

Dodson, now head of Reconciliation Australia, said he was confident Rudd was sincere in his commitment to close the 17-year life expectancy gap between white Australians and the country's 460,000 Aborigines and indigenous Torres Strait Islanders.

''We're confident Mr Rudd wants results and will develop policy based on evidence of what works,'' he said.

Until 1967 Aborigines were governed under flora and fauna laws. A referendum in that year saw Australians vote to include Aborigines in the national census and be granted citizenship.

Reuters SZ RS0931

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