Friends or foes?
Regrets and floggings
Very odd laws
Myall Creek Massacre
How to use history?
Dying for liberty
Rasputin meets Ned Kelly
Mary Anne Bugg
Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered
Not a good fence builder
The Apology to the Stolen Generations
Not so black and white
Versions of history are often told in the pursuit of personal agendas, which usually prevents the lessons of history from being learnt. In Australia, the existence of agendas in regards to the Stolen Generations is clearly evidenced by the lack of agreement about what actually happened, and the level of insults that have accompanied the interpretation of the few agreed facts.
The term Stolen Generations was coined in 1981 by Peter Reid; a white historian from the University of Sydney. Reid declared that 100,000 "Aboriginal" children had been stolen from their culture between 1910 and 1970 and placed in Catholic Missions. In Reid's opinion, the social workers who removed the children did so under a government policy to destroy the black race. (Reid didn't state which Australian prime minister had devised the policy and none have ever been nominated.)
Reid's interpretation was disputed by anthropologist Ron Brunton. Although Brunton found that Aboriginal people had been subjected to a ridiculously high level of government interference in the operation of their daily lives, he found no evidence of a government policy to place children in Catholic missions on the basis of their skin colour. Instead, he found evidence that children had been abused, or seen as outcasts in Aboriginal communities, because they were not full bloods.
Simply going to books to check whether governments ever had a policy to remove children was a little problematic because the laws were not consistent and it was not always clear about what they allowed. Specifically, laws in the Northern Territory, Queensland, Western Australia, and South Australia made Aboriginal children wards of the state. NSW and Victoria did not make Aboriginal children wards of the state. Tasmania did not have any laws concerning Aborigines because Tasmanian Aborigines were considered to have died out in the 19th century. The Federal Government didn't have any laws either because they had been constitutionally forbidden from making laws targeted at Aborigines until 1967. In regards to the regions where Aboriginal children were wards of the state, governments had to act in the children's best interests. This didn't mean that governments had the power to remove children from loving parents but it did mean they could remove children using subjective criteria of "disadvantage." Defining who was Aboriginal and who was not also changed from state to state. It was very common at the time for someone to have an Aboriginal parent, but not be defined as Aboriginal.
In 1987, the stories of the Stolen Generations was told in the official 1997 report : "Bringing Them Home - Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families." The report stated one in three children had been removed. In total, this amounted to 100,000 children.
Academic Robert Manne later received a grant of $62,000 to write about the Stolen Generations. He then revised the figure to one in ten, which was 30,000 children. Journalist Andrew Bolt then challenged Manne to produce the names of 10 people who were removed because of the colour of their skin alone. Manne was unable to provide the names. Because no verifiable names were provided, Bolt argued that the existence of a policy to remove children based on their skin colour was a fabrication.
In 2000, the courts heard test cases which were designed to prove that at least two children were removed unfairly. The legal action was initiated by Lorna Cubillo, 62, and Peter Gunner, 53 - both of whom had been removed as children. If successful, the two test cases would have been followed by many other people also seeking compensation - which some lawyers estimated could total around $5 billion dollars.
Both Ms Cubillo and Mr Gunner wept as they testified about the way they were stolen from their mother's communities, and subsequently suffered sexual, physical and psychological abuse at the hands of missionaries.
The official records showed Lorna Cubillo was born in 1939 on the Banka Banka Cattle Station. She was taken from her grandmother's care in 1940 and placed with the Aboriginal community in the Ration Depot at Seven Mile Creek. Peter Gunner was born in 1948 on Utopia Cattle Station. He was committed by the Director of Welfare, Harry Giese, to St Mary's Hostel in Alice Springs in 1956. In a deflating revelation for Mr Gunner, the government was able to show that the committal was only approved after receiving the consent of his mother, who wanted him to have an education. Justice Maurice O'Loughlin dismissed the federal government's liability on the grounds that there had been a failure to prove that the Commonwealth authorities had ignored the children's best interests by removing them from their families.
In 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generations, but refused to pay compensation. The apology helped Rudd achieve the highest level of popularity of any Australian Prime Minister in history.
In summation, there was one academic saying mixed-race children were stolen from full blood communities, one academic saying they were rejected by full-blood communities, there was a government report stating that there were 100,000 victims of a policy to remove mixed-race children, a government-funded academic saying that there were 30,000, a court saying that the test cases did not show the existence of a government policy to remove children on the basis of race, a journalist saying the whole thing was a fabrication, and a prime minister saying there had been a policy to remove on the basis of race, that the Federal government was responsible, but that no compensation would be paid. The wide discrepancies between academics, the court, the government report, journalists, and also the prime minister, suggested that there had been some extremely sloppy or deliberately biased research occurring. Furthermore, there was a great deal of politics occurring.
Perhaps the story of Lowitja O’Donoghue, the former head of the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Commission (ATSIC), provided the best illustration of the problems associated with not checking testimony as well as some of the problems with fabricating history for political purposes. O’Donoghue initially claimed to have been a member of the Stolen Generations, and blamed the government for causing her to grow up in a mission without access to her culture and her mother's love.
Like many others, O’Donoghue’s story was initially taken as sincere and no attempt was made to verify it. Consequently, O’Donoghue was appointed co-patron of the National Sorry Day committee and was seen as one of the 100,000 people who had been stolen as a child.
The Herald Sun newspaper checked O’Donoghue's background and discovered that her white father had placed her and her four sisters in a Catholic boarding school, and paid for their upkeep. Her mother may or may not have agreed to giving up her children. The mission where she was placed did not prevent parents from visiting, and the parents of other children did in fact come to see their kids. After being shown evidence of how she was placed in the mission, O’Donoghue conceded that she had not been stolen in the technical sense of the word, but blamed the mission for not keeping her in contact with her mother and expressed anger at her deceased father. In that regard, she continued to maintain that she was stolen.
According to the typical narrative of a child being put into the missions because of their skin colour, O’Donoghue was not a member of the Stolen Generations; however, it could be argued that she was a victim of race-based government policy. As recently as 1962, the South Australian government prosecuted non-Aboriginal men as sexual predators if they had relationships with Aboriginal women. (Queensland and Northern Territory also had laws that could prosecute non-Aborigines having sexual relationships with Aborigines.) Even if the men weren't prosecuted, the stigma of the laws made it difficult for them to have socially respected relationships with Aboriginal women.
Aside from the laws criminalising sex across the colour line, other laws designed to protect Aborigines would also have placed great stress on a relationship between a non-Aboriginal man and Aboriginal woman. Specifically, Aborigines in Queensland and Northern Territory needed permission to marry from the chief Aboriginal protector, which is something few self-respecting people would ever ask for. Additionally, until 1962, it was illegal to supply alcohol to Aborigines in all states except Victoria. Consequently, a non-Aboriginal man could be prosecuted for sharing a beer or wine with his wife or girlfriend. Finally, many states had laws that prevented Aborigines from being able to move around the state. Consequently, a man would have struggled to take his wife or girlfriend to a different part of the state to have a holiday or meet his family.
In the case of Lowitja O’Donoghue's father, the fact that he paid for the upkeep of his daughters indicated that he probably wasn't a dead-beat dad, and the fact that he had four kids with the one woman indicated that she probably meant a lot to him. He might have stayed with her mother and formed a happy family if the South Australian government had been supportive of inter-racial relationships, instead of criminalising them. Likewise, O'Donoghue’s mother, and her extended family, may have been less likely to have abandoned O'Donoghue if her father was still around and building respect in the communities.
By making an apology to the Stolen Generations, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd prevented two very important issues of history being considered. The first issue was whether governments should have the power to make laws targeted at a specific race. The Federal Government was not responsible for what happened to O'Donoghue (or any other government policy targeted at Aborigines in any state) because until 1967, the Federal Government had been constitutionally forbidden from making laws for Aboriginal people.
If Rudd had clarified that the Federal government was not responsible because it lacked the power to make laws targeted at Aborigines until 1967, he could have triggered a debate about whether the right question was asked in 1967. Basically, the 1967 referendum asked whether the race-power provisions of the constitution should be extended to include Aborigines. The provisions had initially been created in 1901 to give the Federal government the power to discriminate against non-white migrants, but by the 1960s, governments decided that they should be extended so that the Federal government could discriminate in favour of Aborigines. (The state laws that made Aboriginal children wards of the state and prosecuted non-Aborigines who had sex with Aborigines were also designed to discriminate in favour of Aborigines.) Unfortunately, by apologising for something the Federal government was not responsible for, this important question was not considered.
The second issue was the extent to which governments should be allowed to interfere in the lives of people. By saying sorry, Rudd was saying sorry for past governments being racist, which allowed Rudd to communicate an image that he was not racist. It must be stressed; however, that Rudd was not saying sorry for governments passing judgements on what constitutes a "moral" relationship between two consenting adults, or deciding that governments should be able to interfer in people's lives in the name of "helping" them. Today, governments continue to pass judgement on the relationships of consenting adults and continue to pass laws that inpose undue restriction on what people can and can not do. Furthermore, Aborigines continue to be subjected to disproportionately high numbers of social engineering programs designed to help them. These programs are not based on need, but on skin colour. The government's own reports indicate that the programs often don't help and have actually resulted in Aborigines going backwards in many areas.
Because Rudd was apologising for an attitude that may or may not have existed, rather than power to make race-based laws that definately existed, Rudd didn't have to answer questions about whether the Federal government should lose its power to make laws targeted at Aborigines or non-Aborigines that associated with Aborigines.
Considering that various state laws prosecuted white men for having sexual relationships with Aboriginal women, and even prosecuted them for just being in the women's presence, it is really no surprise that almost 100,000 children of mixed heritage ended up not knowing who their mothers or fathers were. For creating those laws, various state governments contributed to broken families. Despite contributing to family breakdown, there has yet to be a court case that has found that any state government used race over welfare when deciding whether to place mixed race children in the missions. It is unfortunate that, in the dispute over whether a law targeted mixed race children existed, the real lessons of history were not addressed.
Stolen Generations in Australian movies
The story of the Stolen Generations have been told by two movies, Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and Australia (2009). Both movies were funded by the federal government and both took the perspective that it was racist attitudes that resulted in the children ending up in missions. Both movies showed ignorance of agreed laws and in their design, both movies showed many of the cultural fingerprints that they denounced.
Rabbit-Proof Fence told the story of three young girls being ripped from their mother's arms, taken to a mission thousands of kilometres away, but then escaping to go home. The movie was based on a true story, but elements had been altered for dramatic effect. Specifically, the bush camp was shown in idyllic terms, the removal was violent, the mission was a depicted as a cruel concentration camp and the children made it home to their mother.
While director Phillip Noyce stated that he wanted to show respect for Aboriginal culture, his movie showed that he had very little. Firstly, he preferred the music of Englishman Peter Gabriel to the music of the people he claimed he was fighting for. Secondly, his actions in making the movie shared a number of parallels with A.O Neveille, the bad guy of the movie. To be more precise, Noyce also scoured bush camps to find his Aboriginal actors and believed he was giving them an opportunity for a better life. Everlyn Sampi, the star of the movie, was not always grateful for the opportunity given to her by the white man. She was rude to Noyce and kept running away. In response, Noyce abused her and said she showed "signs of the worst behaviour that I’ve observed." Noyce then explained to journalists,
“During the rehearsals, she ran away twice. We found her in a telephone booth ringing up inquiries trying to book a ticket back to Broome….I found myself thinking, ‘I have to look after her. She can live with us. I’ll send her to school.'”
When reporter James Thomas asked Noyce if he had noticed a commonality between his own attitudes and those of Neville, Noyce said,
"Well, I suppose in one way you could say that in a different context, in a different time, I’m A.O. Neville promising these young Aboriginal children a better life, asking them to do things that are against their instincts, perhaps because it’s for their own good. But we do live in a slightly different world..."
Noyce failed to elaborate on how the worlds were different. For many Aborigines in bush camps, the lifestyle today isn’t much different to what it was like 70 years ago. Furthermore, whites such as Noyce continue to look upon the camps with the same judgemental attitudes that they did in the days of A.O Neville. The only real difference is that the whites deal with their prejudices in a different way.
Another feature of Noyce was his ignorance about the laws of Australian states that actually allowed social workers to do what they did. It was clear that he had not considered the laws at all when he said:
"For me, Rabbit-Proof Fence the movie will be as much about stolen history. History that we Australians needed to reclaim...Until 1967, Australian Aborigines couldn’t vote and were not counted as citizens."
The 1967 referendum that Noyce was referring to had nothing to do with voting or citizenship. It was whether the Federal government should be given the power to make laws targeted at Aborigines; the very power that states had and which his movie was meant to be denouncing.
While Noyce's movie at least tried to have some aspect of reality, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia was literally anchored in the Wizard of Oz, and listening to Somewhere Over the Rainbow seemed to have motivated Luhrmann to approach history as if it were fantasy. When selling the film to the American market, Lurhmann said,
"The President-elect of the United States is 47. If he was living in Australia, it is absolutely credible that the government, because he had one white parent and one black parent, could have taken him forcibly from his family. They would have put him in an institution, probably lied to him that his parents were dead, changed his name and reprogrammed him to be European, so he could have some sort of function doing something of service in white society. That would possibly have been Obama's journey."
By trying to sound like he had a social conscience, Lurhmann ended up sounding like a fool. Firstly, Obama was raised in a white family and ended up as part of mainstream American life. In fact, he was so engrained in mainstream life that he became the US president and served white America in the process. Secondly, proponents of the Stolen Generations campaign have only suggested that children were removed from Aboriginal communities. There has never even been a suggestion that children were removed from white mothers because their fathers had been black.
The Stolen Generation's story was further confused by Lurhmann's lead actor Hugh Jackman, who had a different take. For Jackman, the Stolen Generations wasn't motivated by a desire to make blacks serve white society, it was motivated by a desire to preserve the supremacy of the white race. When talking to an American audience, Jackman said:
"The stolen generation was a policy that was born out of eugenics. Eugenics in Europe, as we saw with Nazi Germany, was sort of popular at the time. This idea that if you mixed races or mixed breeds you lessened the blood or something and that you had an inferior human being, right?
So many well-intentioned people thought this was a good idea and in Australia if you had an Aboriginal parent and a white parent or a European parent, the government would take you away from your family, they would tell you your family had died or been killed in an accident, they would put you in an institution. "
If the Stolen Generations were indeed motivated by eugenics, then the whites who were removing the children wanted to weaken their own race by infusing Aboriginal genetics into mainstream Australian life. Meanwhile, they wanted to keep the Aboriginal race strong by keeping it pure. So in effect, they were doing the opposite to Nazi Germany.
Like Noyce's movie, Lurhmann's movie showed no understanding of the laws of the time. Specifically, Lurhmann showed an Aborigine being refused service in a bar because the barman was racist. In reality, it was illegal to serve alcohol to Aborigines. Many barman did, either to make money or out of an ethic of egalitarianism, but they broke the law to do so. Over time, this developed into a culture of "dog boxes", which were rear windows to bars in which Aborigines could be sold alcohol discreetly.
As well as showing ignorance or liquor laws, Australia showed ignorance of marriage laws. The hero of the movie (Hugh Jackman) had been married to an Aboriginal woman. At the time, it was illegal for whites to have sex with Aborigines and Aborigines could not marry without permission. By showing ignorance of the laws, Lurhmann showed that he hadn't bothered to study the laws that allowed the lives of Aborigines to be dictated by government.
In his movie, Jackman's Aboriginal ex-wife was dead, which ensured that Lurhmann didn't have to show a black woman and white man being romantic with each other. Instead, Jackman's love interest was a white woman. This would suggest that Lurhmann was as confronted by interracial relationships as the bureaucrats of history that once criminalised them. If he had really wanted to reveal the true attitudes that led to the various laws being created, Lurhmann should have had the interracial relationship front and centre so that his audience could be as confronted by it as generations were in the past. Admittedly, it would have harmed the movie's commercial prospects, but at least the heart of the issue would have been exposed.
Lurhmann ended the movie by telling the audience that the policy of assimilation ended in 1973. No where in the movie had Lurhmann ever addressed what the policy of assimilation was, or the specific laws that were intended to realise assimilation or even which government had the policy of assimilation. Was it the laws against the provision of alcohol? Inter-racial relationships? Movement of Aborigines around the state? The power of the Federal government to make laws targeted at Aborigines, which it gained in 1967?
In 2008, when Lurhmann made his movie, the Federal Government was spening almost $3.5 billion annually on programs specifically targeted at the Aborigines and the Australian military was in the Northern Territory as part of an intervention to improve the lives of Aboriginal people. The policy of assimilation had certainly not ended.
White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese
What to celebrate?
Science and survival
The father of the blitzkrieg
He died so others may live
Desert Rats defy Hitler
The White Mouse
Never giving up
Which side would Convicts choose?
A history of "no"
Skeletons in the closet
Australia's engagement with Asia