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Winter 2001 cover

National Observer Home > No. 49 - Winter 2001 >Legal Notes

The Stolen Generations True Believers Take One Step Back

Peter Howson

Sir Ronald Wilson's 1997 report, "Bringing Them Home", claimed that up to one in three Aboriginal children were forcibly removed or "stolen" from parents during the period 1910 to 1970 for basically racist reasons. Indeed, the report described the removals as involving "both systematic racial discrimination and genocide as defined by international law". It recommended compensation.

Associate Professor Robert Manne is one of many who have actively argued that an apology for such alleged actions is needed as part of the reconciliation process. Although his essay "In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right" acknowledges that there were some quite serious flaws in the Wilson report, Manne continues to argue forcefully that large numbers of children were wrongfully removed. Comically, he even asserts that there is an army of right-wingers, led by "General" Paddy McGuinness (who took over from Manne as editor of "Quadrant" magazine), which is running a campaign against the apologist school.

Manne now has something of a history of seizing on a particular subject that appears to have populist appeal and pushing a line of argument as far as it can go. In the 1980s he published extensively on Soviet espionage, but following the collapse of Soviet communism he switched to an attack on economic rationalism. A recent book, "Exasperating Calculators", exposes the many factual errors he made in his attempts to denigrate the more liberal economic policies of the 1980-90s.

His venture into Aboriginal issues has involved as aggressive an attack on past and existing policies as his other onslaughts. However, his essay's reliance on the 1994 A.B.S. Household Survey, which reported that one in ten Aborigines believed they had been "stolen", is without foundation.

The A.B.S. survey made no checks on the authenticity of surveyed beliefs, a process that was demonstrated as essential in the subsequent Williams case in New South Wales and Cubillo-Gunner cases in the Northern Territory. As Justice O'Loughlin pointed out in his judgment in the latter, mixed-race children who were removed at an early age could not themselves have personal knowledge of what actually occurred and would have to rely on stories they had been told.

When properly tested in court, such stories were revealed as close to fantasies and could not be substantiated. These substantiation failures occurred, moreover, despite the submission of massive evidence by claimants and the provision of extensive legal assistance to them.

Yet, in claiming that 25,000 children were "stolen" between 1900 and 1970, Manne fails to acknowledge that no reliance can be placed on childhood memories, or on subsequent stories relayed by a parent who would naturally tend to blame others. His characterisation of these removals as being "for Aboriginal Australians what the term Holocaust was for Jews" is so extreme as to raise other concerns. Moreover he produces no evidence to support his assertion that the "campaign" against the stolen generations thesis by alleged right-wingers is an attempt to deny that Aborigines suffered as a result of the occupation of Australia.

To support his view, Manne selectively quotes statements by one or two officials who were administering aboriginal policy as implying such policies were founded on racist objectives, rather than the provision of protection and succour for the children. However, whatever the views of those past administrators, no evidence has been produced that such objectives formed part of government policies themselves.

Indeed, the 1937 Government policy statement by the then responsible Commonwealth Minister, John McEwen, clearly indicated there were no such objectives in the Northern Territory. It is ironic that Manne dismisses sworn evidence on the stolen generation question, subjected to cross-examination, by patrol and other officers in the Cubillo-Gunner cases, while effectively claiming that statements by one or two other officers reflected government policy.

It is important to recognise that:

· The removals of children from parents involved part-Aborigines, not full-bloods.

· These children were often not accepted as members of traditional communities and in such cases were subjected to discrimination within such communities. Indeed, some of these children were subjected to infanticide. Baldwin Spencer's report of the late 1920s, which revealed that numerous part-Aboriginal children born during the construction of the Ghan railroad had been abandoned and become wandering waifs, inspired responses from those who saw a clear need to provide care for such children.

· Many removals were made by administrators in view of neglect or abuse of the children, as continues to the present day (in 1999-2000, for example, nearly 4,000 Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from a parent for this reason across all States and in the Northern Territory). As the Wilson report itself reveals, legislation going back to the early nineteenth century provided that such removals had to be authorised by boards and/or courts.

· The Christian churches took the lead in establishing institutions to help protect such children and provide education. By establishing boarding schools these Churches provided education for part-Aboriginal children that would not otherwise have been available.

· Not a few removals were made voluntarily by a parent or parents in order to provide better opportunities, particularly educational, for the child. This appears to have been the case with Lowitja O'Donoghue, for example.

· The evidence in the Cubillo-Gunner case clearly established that such children were generally well cared for in the Northern Territory, that this created opportunities for them and provided education not then availed of by those in traditional communities.

The fact that stolen generation myth-makers continue to ignore the evidence and decisions in the Cubillo-Gunner and Williams cases constitutes a disgraceful attempt to cover up the truth.

Last year eminent anthropologist Peter Sutton, who has spent thirty years working in Aboriginal communities, presented a paper to the Australian Anthropological Society in which he referred to the unwillingness amongst commentators to accept that certain indigenous traditions and beliefs have contributed to the immense social problems in those communities. Sutton's comment that "dishonesty has become the hallmark of public discourse in Aboriginal affairs" is certainly pertinent.

While one could not rule out the possibility that some improper removals occurred pre-World War II, no substantive evidence has yet been adduced to establish that this occurred on any scale. And it has become clear that it did not occur post-World War II.

It is a sad indictment of academia that so much of it continues to focus on trying to indict white Australians for past bad behaviour. Academics should instead be trying to find solutions to the serious current problems being experienced by the small minority of Aborigines who have not moved to urban centres and inter-married with non-indigenes.

Peter Howson


National Observer No. 49 - Winter 2001