Here we go again…

06 Dec

…as Miranda Devine says:

Feel-good apology of little use to young dead from abuse

Here we go again. Smug white folks have reactivated the “sorry” debate, demanding our new political leaders demonstrate their non-racist bona fides by apologising on behalf of the nation for the “stolen generation”.

Yes, I thought, here we go again indeed with Miranda continuing to fight the culture wars of the 1990s. The hook for Miranda’s column is the latest awful events from the more dysfunctional elements of Australian society, and I say that deliberately because recent problems centring on cases DoCS may or may not have done a good job with cover the gamut of dysfunctionality, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.

We should not apologise for the “Stolen Generation”, says Miranda, because “saying sorry usually means you will never again do the thing for which you are apologising. It means, as abused and neglected Aboriginal children in NSW and elsewhere discover every week, that welfare agencies will remain reluctant to remove a child from life-threatening conditions.” She rightly says there are times when that should happen, and there are times — and I agree with her here — when considerations about what carers may be “culturally appropriate” may not always lead to the best outcome for the child; in the case she cites the outcome, from what we know so far, was indeed the worst outcome possible.

If only past policy was just about “past removal of Aboriginal children by well-intentioned welfare authorities.”

…This tragic experience [of removal], across several generations has resulted in incalculable trauma, depression and major mental health problems for Aboriginal people. Careful history taking during the assessment of most individuals and families identifies separation by one means or another – initially the systematic forced removal of children and now the continuing removal by Community Services or the magistracy for detention of children, rather than the provision of constructive support to families and healing initiatives generated from within their own communities. The process has been tantamount to a continuing cultural and spiritual genocide both as an individual and a community experience…

It really is worth revisiting Bringing them Home with fresh eyes, even after the critique that emerged during the Howard ascendancy. It remains a very persuasive document. In a page on the movie The Rabbit-Proof Fence, the Howard government sponsored National Centre for History Education comes up with a very fair analysis:

Policy-makers and people in the front line, like policemen, frequently believed that they were acting in the best interests of the child. Many policy-makers thought that they were rescuing the children from racial degeneration and squalor. They insisted that children removed from Aboriginal dwellings and sent to institutions were ‘rescued’ from tribal societies that they thought were rejecting them, or else they were taken from families, ‘tribal’ or not, because of parental cruelty or neglect.

This image is taken from the film Rabbit-Proof Fence

This image is taken from the film
Rabbit-Proof Fence

Image reproduced by courtesy of Jabal Films Pty Ltd

They thought the institutions they set up for the children were places of refuge. While some Aboriginal children were removed because they were neglected, many children were removed from loving families where no neglect existed. The key issue is whether policies to remove Aboriginal children from their families really did have the best interests of the children at heart. Or were they a smokescreen to hide a policy of ‘breeding out colour’? Or was it the case that welfare and racial motives were inseparable in the minds of administrators. Motives can be simple, singular and clear; they can also be mixed, complex, even contradictory.

One way of telling is by comparing removal policies for Aboriginal or white children. Robert van Krieken shows that removals of Aboriginal and white Australian working class children were handled differently. While white families were often supported to enable their children to come back home, this was generally not the case with Aboriginal children. Van Krieken concluded, ‘Unlike white children who came into the state’s control, far greater care was taken to ensure that they never saw their parents or family again. They were often given new names, and the greater distances involved in rural areas made it easier to prevent parents and children on separate missions from tracing each other.’

However, not all white children were reunited with their families. In particular British children, who were sent to Australia as child migrants, experienced the same displacement and loss of family as their Aboriginal counterparts. Many of these children were transported from Britain without their parents’ knowledge or permission. Often neither child nor parent found out what happened to the other. Like Australian welfare authorities, British authorities considered that by sending children to Australia they were ‘rescuing’ them from a life of neglect in Britain. Growing up in Australia was intended to provide these children with greater opportunities. Today we know that rather than being ‘rescued’, child migrants have suffered from similar emotional distress to that experienced by ‘the Stolen Generation’.

For a brief time the ‘breeding out of colour’ scheme prevailed in Western Australia. What of other times and other States? You can assess child removal policy in your state using the state by state data at For the historian studying child removal policy, perhaps the main task is to unravel the racial and the welfare motives that drove the policy-makers.

The “breeding out of colour” scheme refers to this:

In 1937, the top administrators in Aboriginal affairs came to Canberra from all over Australia to discuss Aboriginal welfare policies. Neville played a leading part in this conference. He told his audience that the ‘half-caste’ problem could be solved, principally by removing children from their Aboriginal families. He emphasized the importance of removing the children before they were six years of age. There was much discussion about the practical problems of child removal and how these problems (e.g., parental opposition) might be overcome; there was also discussion about the details of institutional life for the children and the control of their futures, notably control of whom they could marry.

Neville summed up his purpose by putting a rhetorical question to the gathering: ‘Are we going to have a population of 1 million blacks in the Commonwealth, or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there were any Aborigines in Australia?’ The Commonwealth Census of 1933 estimated a total Aboriginal population of 66,000. The figure had probably not changed much by 1937.

The main outcome of the 1937 conference was the adoption of a policy of assimilation. Assimilation aimed to absorb mixed-descent Aboriginal people into mainstream Australian society. The report of the 1937 conference stated, ‘the destiny of the natives of aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth and it therefore recommends tha
t all efforts be directed to that end.’ Policy-makers expected that mixed-descent Aborigines would assimilate. They thought that the ‘white blood’ in mixed- descent Aborigines enabled them to be educated in European ways.

It really was not quite as benign as Miranda seems to think.

The fact is the kinds of abuse and problems Miranda is rightly concerned about continued, grew and festered during the ten years lacuna in the Howard Government’s policy before the Northern Territory Intervention, coming as it did in an election year, took the issues up in a dramatic manner. I have spoken of that before and still see it as a mixed bag, sincerely implemented as it may have been by the Howard government’s first energetic Minister in this area, Mal Brough.

It simply is not that case that one apologises OR one does something practical. What should have happened was both, and for years we had neither. But I commend my 30 November post 24 hours ago… on that, especially the excellent discussion between myself and Jim Belshaw that follows it.



Just how ticklish policy in these matters can be is indicated on another front in today’s ABC News:

A Tasmanian Aboriginal leader says the Rudd Labor Government’s focus on maths and English in education could isolate Aboriginal children from their communities.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre is concerned that children will not be taught Aboriginal culture and languages, if only maths, reading and writing are emphasised. The Centre’s legal director, Michael Mansell says he is concerned by the lack of detail in the promises made by Education Minister Julia Gillard.

“We’ve seen over the last 3 or 4 generations, more and more Aboriginal people are losing touch with their heritage, their culture and their Aboriginal values,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with teaching people skills that might make them employable but it doesn’t mean its either that or Aboriginal culture, we can do both.”

Some will say “Trust Mansell to stir the pot” and they’d be right, but does he have a point? Aboriginal language education in Western Sydney may be an example of getting the balance right.

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