Australia is preparing to issue its first formal apology for past mistreatment of the country's Aboriginal people.   The declaration by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will be the first act of the new government when the Australian parliament reopens in Canberra on February 13.  It will acknowledge injustices suffered by Aborigines in the years after European colonization that began in the late 1700s.   From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

It's been a long time coming but Australia is about to say sorry to its indigenous people.

February 13 will be a momentous day.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will apologize for injustices of the past, including the forced removal of thousands of Aboriginal children from their families.

These people are known as the 'Stolen Generations' and have come to symbolize the mistreatment suffered by Australia's
original inhabitants.

Mr. Rudd, who promised to apologize during last November's election, says it will help to heal the rift between black and white Australians.

"Our commitment to saying sorry is clear cut. I said so before the election," he said. "I said, if we're elected, we'd do it, and we're going to do it.  And, I've said repeatedly the reason for so doing is that there is unfinished business here on the part of the nation. We need to get this right because the symbolism of an apology is important. But, it's beyond that, as well. As I said, it's building a bridge of respect, which I think has been in some state of disrepair in recent decades."

The previous prime minister, John Howard, had always refused to apologize, declaring that modern Australia had no need to show contrition for the deeds of the past.

In opposition, Howard's right-wing coalition remains uncertain about supporting a formal apology.

Some opposition members of parliament believe that the time has come to say sorry.

"I approve, I'm certainly in favor of that. I think it's something that we have to do and then move on," said Fran Bailey.

"The time has come for us to make an apology," added Steve Ciobo. " I'll be interested in, obviously, having a close look at the actual wording of the apology, but the broad spirit of it, I'm supportive of."

Other opposition politicians, however, are strongly against offering an apology.

"In my view, it brings up a whole lot of other issues such as compensation, such as certain Aboriginal elders saying that we should promise never to take Aboriginal children again," said Denis Jensen.

The 'Stolen Generations' were young, mostly mixed race Aborigines forcibly taken from their homes by government authorities and sent to live with white families, where they grew up often unaware of their indigenous background.

It was an official attempt to dilute indigenous culture and persisted until the 1970s. 

It remains a divisive issue.

Opposition lawmaker Bruce Scott says the policy did have its merits.

"I'm not into the business of inter-generational responsibility in the case of, this case, an apology," he said.  "Those people, and they were very well-meaning people, took many of those children in good faith believing that they were doing the right thing and that they thought that that would give them the best chance in life."

The 'Stolen Generations' have often complained of an inner emptiness and trauma they could not understand until the truth of their removal from their families emerged years later. 

Christine King, who was taken away as a young child, welcomes the government apology.

"To me, it means that my mother has lived her whole life under this policy from when she was taken when she was four
years old and now that she is in her 80s, she will hear the Government say, 'I'm sorry' and it means that all the other people in my family who were taken away, including my sister and I, will be able to have that personal healing," she said.

Other members of the 'Stolen Generations' want more than just a formal apology.  They are also seeking compensation,
which the Rudd government has ruled out, meaning the issue is likely to remain controversial.

Cecil Bowden, 68, who was taken from his Aboriginal family as a baby, says he should be compensated for the mistreatment he endured.

"Constantly flogged - if you got into strife or anything, they'd line all the boys up," recalled Bowden.  "There would be 60 or 70 of us all lined up and you had to walk the line, you know, and every boy had to punch you.  So, by the time you got to the end of the line you're black and blue and bleeding all over, you know, and it was racism for no reason whatsoever, you know."   

REPORTER:  When you look back over your life to date, Cecil, how do you think your experiences as a child in that very difficult situation in the boys' home affected you through your adult life?

BOWDEN:  "It's made me angry, very angry.  I've got a temper I still can't control.  I get into trouble a lot with that temper, you know, even as old as I am."  

Aborigines make up about two percent of Australia's population of 21 million.  They endure disproportionately high rates of ill-health, unemployment and imprisonment. 

Before 1967, Aborigines in some parts of the country were governed by laws covering wildlife and plants. 

A referendum that year gave indigenous people the same legal rights as everyone else. 

It's taken more than 40 years but Australia is on the verge of another historic moment that involves a simple, five-letter word - sorry.