Ken Wyatt’s strong voice cracked.
“When the former prime minister delivered the apology on the 13th of February, 2008, in this chamber, I shed tears for my mother and her siblings,” Australia’s first Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives said in his maiden speech on Wednesday.
It was the first time an indigenous Australian has responded to the apology on the floor of parliament since then prime minister Kevin Rudd said sorry on behalf of the nation more than two years ago for the suffering of the “stolen generations” of indigenous people.
The Liberal member for the Western Australian seat of Hasluck fought back tears as he told the chamber about his mother Mona and her extended family, all of whom were taken from their homes.
He had listened to their stories.
“I often wondered about the experiences locked up in their memories and not often talked about,” he said.
“My mother and her siblings along with many others did not live to hear the words delivered in the apology, which would have meant a great deal to them.”
“I got a sense of relief that the pain of the past had been acknowledged and the healing could begin.”
Mr Wyatt, a former public servant in the fields of Aboriginal health and education, drew a larger crowd for his speech than most newcomers to parliament.
“The decision of the Hasluck electors has immortalised them for creating a historic moment in Australia’s history by electing the first Aboriginal member to the House of Representatives,” he said.
“Researchers in the future will analyse the decision made by the people of Hasluck on August 21, 2010, but they’re likely to find it was the personal and professional qualities of the candidate was the reason for their decision.”
Mr Wyatt said his education was responsible for putting him into parliament.
He said he worried about the struggles of elderly people and veterans he had met during his campaign, because of the sacrifices they made to give Australia the services and freedoms it has today.
“I don’t want to celebrate a day or a week dedicated to seniors and veterans, but instead want to work with the members of this house to find real solutions to enable them to enjoy a comfortable retirement and be financially secure.”
When he was done, both sides of politics stood and clapped, as did visitors in the upper galleries.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard shook his hand, kissed him on the cheek and touched the kangaroo skin coat Mr Wyatt has worn in the chamber since parliament resumed on Tuesday.
Mr Rudd crossed the floor to shake his hand.
“Welcome,” he said.