Former Prime Minister John Howard’s conservative government expected criticism from Indigenous people and the media by not making an official apology to the Stolen Generation in December 1997.

Confidential cabinet papers released by the National Archives of Australia this week show then Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs John Herron told cabinet in November 1997 the decision may be unpopular in some quarters.

Cabinet was considering its response to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families.

The Bringing them Home report commissioned by Paul Keating’s previous Labor government was tabled in the Senate in May 1997.

It contained 54 recommendations covering areas from Commonwealth, State and Territory responsibility including compensation for individuals removed from their families and a formal apology.

The cabinet records show that in December 1997 the Howard government decided on a $54 million, four-year package of measures to allow easier access to family records, an expanded Link-Up service to aid with family reunions and enhanced Indigenous mental health services.

But it decided against financial compensation for individuals and saying sorry.

“Criticism may be expected from Indigenous people and perhaps the media on the decision not to make an official apology part of the government response,” Mr Herron told cabinet in a November submission.

“The scope of the response and the amount of the funding may also attract criticism from Indigenous groups as being inadequate to address the range of issues raised in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) report.”

Mr Herron said some of the disadvantages suffered by Indigenous people could be attributed to child removal policies, but the HREOC report focussed only on one view of the separation process.

He said, however, it was “very emotive” and had attracted wide community and media attention.

“If the government is not seen to make a positive and committed response, there will be strong criticism from Indigenous groups and elements of the wider community, including the churches,” he said.

“Therefore, I am seeking a modest amount of funding to provide practical assistance to people affected by past policies and practices and a small amount to record and commemorate the experiences of those separated from their families.”

Members of the Stolen Generations eventually received an apology in 2008 from Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

By Wendy Caccetta