The apology was directed especially at Aborigines forcibly taken from their families as children in assimilation policies that lasted from the mid-1800s until 1970, during which time up to a third of Aboriginal children were ‘stolen’.

An official commission which reported to Parliament in 1997 said that the assimilation policy amounted, under international law, to genocide and demanded a national apology. Mr Howard resisted such a move for a decade and even declined an invitation to attend today’s ceremony.

The 360-word motion of apology used the word sorry three times, each greeted by cheers as crowds watched Mr Rudd introduce the motion on large television screens put up around the country.

“For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry,” the motion said. “To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

“We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation. For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.”

Some MPs were still opposed to the national apology, seeing it as a piece of liberal gesture politicking. The outspoken conservative MP Wilson Tuckey, known as “Ironbar” for his uncompromising views, walked out of Parliament before the apology, saying it would do little for Aborigines.

“Tomorrow there’ll be no petrol sniffing, tomorrow little girls can sleep in their beds without any concern – it’s all fixed, the Rudd spin will fix it all,” Mr Tuckey quipped.

But others described how hearing the Prime Minister say “sorry” after successive leaders refused to do so was like a weight off their shoulders.

“Sorry heals the heart and it goes deep,” said Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor, an Aborigine watching the ceremony on a large screen in the largely indigenous Sydney suburb of Redfern.

“This really means a big thing to us – a weight that can be lifted so that we can start our healing.”

Australia says sorry for ‘stolen generations’ of Aborigines