OZ - The stolen agenda

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In these months leading up to the Olympic Games you will find a focus on Australia and the type of country it is. The UN critized OZ re: Aboriginal Affairs and the mandatory sentencing of repeat offenders. Mandatory sentencing is our way of saying 'three strikes and you're in the clink'. The 'stolen generation' is explained in this article.

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The stolen agenda
Monday 10 April 2000

LAST weekend the Howard Government's submission to a Senate inquiry into the question of compensation for those Aboriginal children who had been forcibly separated from their families and communities was published. One part of the submission became instantly notorious.

The Government argued that as, according to its estimate, a mere 10per cent of Aboriginal children had been separated over 60 years, the term which indigenous Australians used to express their collective experience and pain - the stolen generations - ought to be rejected as emotive and imprecise.

The reasons for Aboriginal anger and dismay at this gratuitous suggestion are generally understood. What is less well understood, however, is what the political events of the last week signify. For two years a right-wing campaign, centring on Quadrant magazine, has been mounted against Bringing Them Home, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's report into Aboriginal child removal. With the publication of the Government's submission it is now clear that this campaign has succeeded.

At the heart of the anti-stolen generations campaign is the argument that although the policy of Aboriginal child removal might now seem misguided, the intentions of those who designed the policy were always benign. What can be made of such a claim?

If the argument about benign intentions simply means that the child removalists believed what they were doing was right, the argument has no content. I have yet to hear of a government implementing a policy while knowing it to be wrong. If, however, the argument means that the policymakers were driven by the social welfare interests of the children, the claims about benign intentions soon collapse.

It is now well known that before 1945 the key Aboriginal administrators in Western Australia and the Northern Territory removed part-Aboriginal children from their mothers in order to solve the so-called "problem" of the "half-caste" by a program of racial engineering, popularly known as "breeding out the color". It is now also well known that after 1945 the key administrators removed part-Aboriginal children to ensure their "assimilation" and to rescue them from the supposedly hopeless and degraded Aboriginal world into which they had been born.

The desire to liberate "half-caste" children from their Aboriginality lay at the heart of child removal for 70 years. This policy was racist in the most obvious sense. It seems to me scandalous that the Howard Government, which must be aware of the evidence in Bringing Them Home, should still describe the plainly racist intentions of the policy as benign.

A second plank of the anti-stolen generations campaign concerns doubts about the methodology of Bringing Them Home. It is alleged that the inquiry refused to call as witnesses those who implemented the policy - the government administrators or church missionaries. This argument rests on a false premise. The inquiry had no subpoena power. Evidence before it was voluntary. So far as I know, no administrator or missionary volunteered to give evidence only to be refused.

The right-wing campaign and the Government submission both attack the value of the "anecdotal" evidence given before the inquiry by more than 500 Aboriginal witnesses. Both criticise the inquiry for failing to check their stories by looking to the evidence concerning their cases in government files.

Such criticism ignores one simple fact. The inquiry operated on a shoe-string budget; the kind of archival research recommended by critics of Bringing Them Home was quite beyond its means. In researching the Darwin case against two stolen children, the Commonwealth has spent millions of dollars. If the Human Rights Commission had asked the Howard Government for the tens of millions of dollars it would have required for the research it now insists should have been conducted, does anyone believe the Government would have obliged?

Moreover, the question of reliance on anecdotal evidence cuts both ways. The Howard Government regards reliance on the evidence of more than 500 members of the stolen generations as a fatal methodological flaw. On the other hand, its own submission is heavily reliant on the memoirs of one patrol officer, Colin McLeod, who wrote about Aboriginal child removal 40 years after the event. For the Howard Government, apparently, the memories of more than 500 Aboriginal children stolen from their families are less reliable than the memoirs of a single white patrol officer, who has forgotten the names of the children whose lives he determined by the stroke of a pen.

The political significance of the victory of the right-wing campaign is difficult to exaggerate. Two clear consequences will flow.

On 27 May the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation is planning a major ceremony in Sydney, where its declaration on reconciliation will be launched. It has always been assumed that the Prime Minister would attend. Because of the entirely predictable reaction to the Government submission on the stolen generations, if Howard does indeed attend, the largest "reconciliation" ceremony in Australian history will be marked by the most bitter Aboriginal protests seen in many years.

Nor is the collapse of reconciliation the only cost. In September, during the Olympic Games, many thousands of foreign journalists will descend on Australia. No question will interest them as much as the plight of the Aborigines. They will be particularly interested in what they hear about the shameful and heart-rending and almost unique Australian practice of part-Aboriginal child removal.

As a consequence of the events of last week, what the world will learn is that Australia has a government that not only refuses to apologise to the victims of child removal policies but also denies these people the right to call themselves members of the stolen generations and thinks their systematic removal for the purpose of biological or cultural assimilation was not racist in intention but fundamentally benign.

Concerning the stolen generations, the Howard Government has lost touch with reality. As a consequence, we all stand to lose.

Robert Manne is associate professor of politics at La Trobe University.


The Aboriginal Tribal communities number about 300,000 persons. It's hard to say because if you even possess a taint of aboriginal blood, and feel aboriginal, then you qualify for aboriginality.

About $2 Billion annually is expended on Aboriginal Affairs. This has been so for well over 20 years now. It's an industry that sees the money filter down. At the bottom of the pile you'll find a picture of deepest sorrow and neglect. We all wish to help but it's not wanted. The aboriginal industry needs pictures of extreme poverty and disease to sustain itself. This picture of dislocation has facets the media will ignore. Please treat the things you hear with some scepticism. We're pawns in a bastardised game.

The Howard Government has not lost touch with reality. The reality in Australia is a hardening of resolve to stop the freaking social engineering that is destroying our rural and regional communities - the power base of the coalition Federal Government. Its political agenda is stolen though. The Olympic Games brings more than sport.

Regards from Down Under

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), April 09, 2000

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