CATHY Freeman finds it hard to articulate why her people need an apology, but deep down she knows it’s the right thing to do.
“I am not going to try and break down the reasons why an apology should be given,” she tells The Weekend Australian. “But in my heart I feel there is a real need for it.
“I have not studied the claims for compensation, so I don’t feel I can comment on that at this stage until I have distilled more information.
“But saying sorry will mean so much to so many people. It is going to be a really proud moment for us.
“For my family, it allows some kind of healing and forgiveness to take place where there is less anger and bitterness in the hearts of people. It takes away the pain. We will never forget, but this allows us to forgive.”
For Freeman, the apology to the Stolen Generations, to be delivered by Kevin Rudd on behalf of parliament next week, will be very personal.
Since stepping away from the track, she has been on an emotional journey into her own history, trawling through government archives.
And what she has learned has been painful: how her mother, a member of the Stolen Generations, was refused permission to visit her parents at Christmas; how her great-great-grandfather fought for Australia in World War I but, as an Aborigine, was never paid for his service and returned, not a hero, but a slave.
The discoveries have only strengthened her feeling that an apology is not only necessary, but decades overdue…
See also this post.
… Bringing Them Home claimed “not one indigenous family has escaped the effects of forcible removal”. Hence it recommended that virtually every person in Australia who claimed to be an Aborigine was entitled to a substantial cash handout. The Bruce Trevorrow case in South Australia provided a benchmark for what that sum should be, a minimum of $500,000.
The Aboriginal population today numbers almost 500,000, living in about 100,000 families. Those who are serious about an apology should back it with a lump sum payment of $500,000 to each family, a total of $50 billion. Only an amount on this scale can legitimately compensate for such a crime and satisfy the grievances of activists such as Lowitja O’Donohue and Michael Mansell.
The parliament cannot take those bits of Bringing Them Home it finds congenial and ignore the rest. The report’s logic is impeccable. If children really were systematically removed to end the existence of Aborigines asa distinct people, then the crime was definitely genocide. As Raymond Gaita has argued, quite accurately, if Bringing Them Home is a true account, the crime of genocide is “over-determined”.
There is no doubt that the majority of Aboriginal people today believe the Stolen Generations story is true. If parliament agrees with them, but fails to offer compensation, it will reduce next week’s apology to a politically expedient piece of insincerity that yet again humiliates Aborigines by showing we do not take their most deeply-felt grievances seriously. It is also worth observing that by apologising, the Rudd Government will go a long way towards demolishing one of the Labor Party’s strongest calls on loyalty: its sense that it alone offers a historical progression towards “the light on the hill”. One thing the university historians who first established this story kept largely to themselves was that the major pieces of relevant legislation were all passed by Labor governments.
In NSW, the 1915 Aborigines Protection Amending Act, which allowed the Aborigines Protection Board to remove children without recourse to a hearing before a magistrate, was the work of the first Labor government in the state headed by James McGowen and W.A.Holman. The Act’s 1943 amendment, which allowed Aboriginal children to be fostered out to non-indigenous families, was introduced by the Labor government of William McKell, one of his party’s favourite sons who later served as governor-general.
In Western Australia, the 1936 Act that historians claim allowed A.O.Neville to implement his policy of “breeding out the colour” was the product of the Labor governments of Phillip Collier and John C.Willcock. By apologising, Kevin Rudd and his colleagues will be effectively trashing the reputations of their party’s predecessors.
The problem with the Bringing Them Home report is not its logic, but its facts. As regards NSW, the story of the Stolen Generations was largely formed in 1981 by the historian Peter Read, then of the Australian National University (now at the University of Sydney). Read’s work had an enormous influence on Aboriginal communities by saying institutionalised children had not been failed by alcoholic parents who neglected to provide them with food and shelter.
It was all the work of the white man, of faceless white bureaucrats who wanted to eliminate the Aborigines.
Bringing Them Home did no original research of its own in NSW. Instead, it relied upon Read’s writings. It quoted verbatim his claim that the files on individual children removed by the Aborigines Protection Board confirmed his case: “Some managers cut a long story short when they came to that part of the committal notice ‘Reason for board taking control of the child’. They simply wrote ‘for being Aboriginal’.”
If it’s pretended this was commonplace, however, it is a serious misrepresentation. In a debate with Read last year at the History Teachers Association’s annual conference, I asked him how many files bore those words. He confessed to the audience there were only two. When I investigated the same batch of 800 files in the NSW archives, I found there was only one. Its words were “Being an Aboriginal”. There were two others with the single word “Aboriginal”.
I also found that, although popular songs and the Bringing Them Home report gave the distinct impression that most children were removed when they were babies or toddlers, there were hardly any in this category. The archive files on which Read relied show that between 1907 and 1932, the NSW authorities removed only seven babies aged less than 12 months, and another 18 aged less than two years. Fewer than one-third of the children removed in this period were aged less than 12 years. Almost all were welfare cases, orphans, neglected children (some severely malnourished), and children who were abandoned, deserted and homeless.
The other two-thirds were teenagers, 13 to 17 years old. The reason they were removed was to send them off to be employed as apprentices. In reality, the NSW Labor governments were not stealing children but offering youths the opportunity to get on-the-job training, just like their white peers in the same age groups.
Read knew these Aboriginal youths were being apprenticed, though he never admitted they constituted the great majority of those removed. He claimed the authorities regarded them as stupid and consigned them to degrading jobs: the boys to agricultural work and the girls to domestic service. But at the time, this is where most white Australians were also employed. These were the two biggest single employment categories for men and women. The government was not asking Aborigines to take occupations any more onerous or demeaning than those of hundreds of thousands of their white countrymen.
Moreover, these teenagers were not removed permanently, as the charge of genocide infers. The majority of them returned home to their families when they turned 18 and their apprenticeship was complete. The archival records s
how this clearly, and Read found the same when in the ’80s he recorded a little-publicised oral history of the Wiradjuri people.
Yet in 2002 he could still claim publicly: “Welfare officers, removing children solely because they were Aboriginal, intended and arranged that they should lose their Aboriginality and that they never return home.”
There is another very good reason why it was not the policy of the government to remove Aboriginal children from their parents: it wanted them to go to school. It pursued this objective with both action and money.
The NSW Department of Public Instruction constructed schoolhouses and employed schoolteachers on all the 21 Aboriginal stations set up between 1893 and 1917. It also provided schools and teachers on any of the 115 Aboriginal reserves that had enough children of school-going age to justify it.
On those reserves where there were not enough children to warrant a dedicated school, the Aborigines Protection Board insisted they must go to the local public school. In the early years, it tried to coerce Aboriginal parents into sending their children to school by withholding rations if they failed to do this. In its later years, it organised for all Aboriginal children to have a hot midday meal at school.
In contrast, in the ’20s and ’30s, there were only three welfare institutions in NSW designated for Aboriginal children. One at Bomaderry housed 25 infants to 10-year-olds, the second at Cootamundra accommodated 50 girls aged up to 13 years, and the third at Kinchela housed 50 boys aged up to 13 years.
At about the same time, about 2800 Aboriginal children in NSW lived at home with their parents and attended public schools.
The 125 places at the welfare institutions represented a mere 4.5 per cent of all the places provided for Aborigines at public schools. On these grounds alone, no one can argue that the government was conducting a systematic program to destroy Aboriginality by stealing children from their families. A similar ratio of schools to welfare institutions operated in most other states, where the same conclusion deserves to be drawn.
In Western Australia and the Northern Territory, the two greatest villains in this story were A.O.Neville and Cecil ‘Mick’ Cook. Both publicly endorsed a program to “breed out the colour” with the ultimate aim of biologically absorbing the Aboriginal people into the white population.
This was an obnoxious policy that well deserved Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Neville as a fastidious, obsessive bureaucrat in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence.
However, it was also a policy that had only a minor focus on children. It was primarily concerned with controlling Aboriginal marriage and cohabitation patterns in order to foster the rapid assimilation of part-Aborigines. To define the policy as part of the Stolen Generations thesis is a mistake. In any case, it was almost a complete failure.
In the ’30s, marriages arranged by these administrators totalled less than 10 a year. Neville proved as inept at rounding up children as he did at match-making. The Moseley royal commission recorded in 1935 that over three years, the one government settlement in the state’s south at Moore River took in only 64 unattended children. This was out of a total Aboriginal population in the state of 19,000. It was less than 1 per cent of all Aboriginal children in the state. Neville dealt with handfuls of children, not generations.
The only successful program from this era was the NSW Aboriginal apprenticeship system, which operated from the 1880s to the 1940s. It provided real jobs and skills and gave young Aborigines a way out of the alcohol-soaked, handout-dominated camps and reserves of their parents. Indeed, it is a policy that could well be revived today to rescue children from the sexual assault and substance abuse prevalent in the remote communities.
If Rudd led a real Labor Government, he would be more concerned about emulating the down-to-earth policies devised by his party’s predecessors among the old cream of the working class than pandering to the misinterpretations of the recent academic historians who created this issue.
I take Keith’s recommendation that “a lump sum payment of $500,000 to each family, a total of $50 billion” be paid as an exercise in irony and scorn, of a piece with the rest of the article. Keith Windschuttle, along with Ron Brunton and some others who filled the pages of Quadrant after Robert Manne’s sacking, probably did more to confirm John Howard’s reluctance to apologise during his long long eleven years than just about anyone else. This line became the New Orthodoxy, the New Political Correctness, and was faithfully followed by the Bolts, Devines and Akermans of the press.
But look at what he says above more closely. The current 500,000, for example: yes, many have claimed (or acknowledged) Aboriginal descent in the past couple of decades, since earlier the wise course was to say as little about such matters as possible, the “breeding out” having been rather effective. Not all of Aboriginal descent claim Aboriginality of course; I don’t for one, though my nephew does. I have no direct evidence of any of my Aboriginal ancestors being stolen, though they clearly were deracinated and dispossessed. If there is compensation, it should only be for those where there is hard evidence of unjustified and involuntary removal from an Aboriginal family, and that would, and here Windschuttle does have a point, affect fewer people than some have feared. It seems to me, however, that a future-oriented use of what funds might be available would be rather more useful in the long run, and there I might quarrel with the likes of Michael Mansell. At issue too is the big picture, the destruction brought about (not always intentionally) that is so well attested it can hardly be denied. No “compensation” can ever address that, but acceptance and recognition symbolically and practically can make a difference. Again, I would see the future as being the true focus.
In his account of NSW Windschuttle is guilty of spin. Sure, the numbers in designated chidren’s homes may have been comparatively small, but to assert that the rest were in families that, it is implied, were in no way disadvantaged is to ignore the obvious: very few of those families would have been in circumstances or have had opportunities equal to the rest of the population. Many of them would have been in fringe settlements, or in recognised enclaves like La Perouse in southern Sydney. In the circumstances, I hasten to add, some did well, but it was a very long time before anything but the lowest jobs were available to them, and it was a long time before anyone got so far as university. With a few exceptions, sport, for men, was the only path to a degree of recognition — boxing and Rugby League or VFL especially.
The sarcastic chronicling of all the Labor politicians who initiated or supported past policies is quite odd, as just about all politicians did; in fact, Windschuttle rather unwittingly confirms, if anything, that the current Labor politicians really do have something to apologise for.
In the Sydney Morning Herald is another story:
A welfare officer whose work was taking children from families has changed his mind in the past decade about a government apology and now says it is due, writes Andrew West.
LAST Thursday morning, as Harry Kitching woke in his small cottage in the far western Queensland town of Blackall, everyone was saying sorry.
On Radio National, he heard the Opposition Leader, Brendan Nelson, say he would support the Federal Government’s apology to the Aboriginal stolen generation. Nelson’s colleague,
Tony Abbott, a favourite of the Liberal Party’s right wing, was telling the AM program that he also endorsed an apology.
Over at Channel 7’s Sunrise, even Mel and Kochie and their guests were putting the case for saying sorry.
But the cheerleading of breakfast television hosts and the bipartisan agreement of politicians pale alongside Kitching’s decision, after almost 60 years, to back the cause.
Because Kitching, now 88, spent 25 years implementing the policy that has led to the official apology the Prime Minister will deliver at the opening of Parliament on Wednesday. He was an Aboriginal welfare officer who recommended the removal of several indigenous children from their families.
“An apology? I support it now, yes,” he says. “I feel that it’s about time they did something about it. It had to be done eventually. Things have changed, life has changed, and the background reasons for children being removed, well, most of them have gone.”
On Wednesday 13 February at 9 am I plan, if I can, to be here:
Redfern Community Centre
29-53 Hugo Street
Redfern NSW 2016
Take part on 13 February
The apology will take place at 9am, and will be screened on ABC.
- Feb 13: NSW: Redfern community centre
- Feb 13: VIC: Aborigines Advancement League
- Feb 13: ACT: Parliament House
- Feb 13: WA: Perth Exhibition & Conference Centre
- Feb 13: VIC: Federation Square
- Feb 13: NSW: Martin place
- Feb 13: QLD: Jagera Arts Centre
Yes, there may well be exaggeration in the term “Stolen Generation”, and as Jim Belshaw says, I think, careful historians do need to shelve the idea to some degree at least if they are to look at the detail of the history of Indigenous Australia, but I for one know that it does point up ghosts we have to allay. The time has come at last to do just that.
Check the VodPod.
In the last episode of Monarchy, David Starkey referred to the “invention of tradition”, especially in Scotland, brought about very much through Sir Walter Scott; he called it “romantic nonsense” but also noted it unified the UK around the idea of constitutional monarchy for generations to come. Just a thought for our eager conservative rationalist revisionists.