The Stolen Generations Debate

I have been following the Stolen Generations Debate between Robert Manne and Andrew Bolt at a distance. Apparently, the two had a debate at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on this issue. Manne seems to be arguing that there were racist policies behind the removal of “half-caste” children from their families, and that children were removed from loving families. Manne has asked Bolt to read a large amount of historical documentation. Bolt seems to be arguing that the concept of the Stolen Generation is a beat-up which has lead to abuse of Aboriginal children today. He has asked Manne to give him the names of 10 Aboriginal children who were removed from their families merely because of their race.

It seems to me that at certain times there was an undeniable racist aspect behind the removal of “half-caste” children. For example, one commentator, Dr Peter Read, made the following observation in relation to the Aborigines Protection Act 1909 (NSW):

White children too were charged with neglect, and removed from their parents. But the Act under which white children were charged was a good deal more generous in the alternatives it offered to permanent separation, for it was framed for a different purpose. White single mothers could apply for a pension to look after their own children. Children could be committed to a suitable relative, and they could be returned to their parents after a period of good behaviour. Insitutionalised children could be returned home for holidays. No such provisions existed under the Aborigines Protection Act 1909 (NSW), for its intention was to separate children from their parents (and their race) permanently.”

(Source: Dr Peter Read, The Stolen Generations: The Removal of Aboriginal Children in New South Wales 1883 to 1969 (New South Wales Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, Sydney, pg 9)

The problem is that, at the same time, there were also humanitarian and welfare concerns driving the removal of children (although these were sometimes misguided). The practices varied widely from State to State (or Territory). Of course, the motivations behind removals also varied at different times.

The case of Cubillo v Commonwealth [2000] FCA 1084 (affirmed on appeal by Cubillo v Commonwealth [2001] FCA 1213) shows the problems of proving that the motivation behind removal of half-caste children was wrongful. Mrs Cubillo, one of the plaintiffs, could not prove what the motivation had been behind her removal. Most of the relevant witnesses were dead and there was no documentation. In the case of the other plaintiff, Mr Gunner, the trial judge found that there was documentation to indicate that his mother had in fact requested his removal. Unfortunately, Mr Gunner had then been sexually abused while in care. I think what this case shows is that litigation is a very bad way to try and resolve these kinds of complicated issues.

Through hearing the stories of my former Aboriginal students, I believe that the history behind the Stolen Generation is not straightforward. Of course, these are just stories told to me by former students (not tried and tested in a court of law) but they illustrate the difficulties in assessing these matters. It is not easy to draw conclusions about whether the removal in these particular cases was right or wrong.

One of my students had a half-Aboriginal, half-Irish background. Both his mother and his father were born because their Aboriginal mothers had been raped by men of Irish heritage. My student’s maternal grandmother came from a very traditional tribe and when she gave birth to a daughter, my student told me they proposed to kill the child because she was a “half-caste”. The maternal grandmother, however, loved her child and did not want her killed. She was ostracised from the tribe because she tried to protect her child and continued to care for her against the wishes of the elders. Eventually the daughter was removed from the tribe and taken to the opposite side of Australia. I do not think they saw each other again, which was greatly distressing to both mother and daughter.

So there are differing concerns here: on the one hand, the mother wants to bring up her much-loved child and does not want her removed; on the other hand, the tribal elders want to kill the child. One can see how it is clearly arguable that the child should be removed for her welfare. However, it seems very cruel and needless to move the daughter to the other side of the country so that she could not see her mother again. From that point of view, the removal seems to have also been motivated by an intention to purposefully break the bonds between mother and child, and an idea that it is best to “sever” the child from her Aboriginal background.

Another of my Aboriginal students was physically and verbally abused by her mother. Her mother had bad parenting skills, which my student felt was partially as a result of the fact that her mother had been forcibly removed from her family. My student was removed from her mother, and placed with a foster family, who abused her, so she was placed back with her mother, who abused her again, and then removed and placed with a different foster family, who abused her again…you get the picture.

Clearly, removing a child from a physically abusive parent is preferable. But for my student, it was a case of out of the frying pan into the fire. The removal was in the interests of the child, but it just resulted in further abuse and did not help her at all.

I hope these two stories show that it is a difficult question, and one which merits consideration on a case by case basis. There is no way that one can draw generalisations, because each case is different, and there may be conflicting motivations behind each particular removal. In some cases (like the first story) the removal of the child caused the parent/s or family great pain. You can understand why the child was removed, but not why she had to be moved so far from her mother. In other cases (like the second story) the removal of the child had a creditable motivation, but did not fix the problem, and indeed exacerabated it. In each case, the removal was neither clearly right nor wrong. I am not sure of the exact terms of the argument between Manne and Bolt. If Manne is arguing that forced removals were wholly wrong and motivated by racism alone, I think he is incorrect. If Bolt is arguing that forced removals were wholly right and motivated by welfare of children alone, likewise, I think he is also incorrect. The truth lies in between. If they agree with me – what are they arguing about exactly?

Unfortunately, the issue of welfare of Aboriginal children is still a current issue. As regular readers of this blog will know, I have previously written a post on this topic. I do not think that the Stolen Generation issue has been a “beat-up”, but I do think that it is a factor leading to a reluctance on the part of government to intervene in cases of abuse of Aboriginal children. This is understandable. Children who were removed from their parents in the past have talked of how terribly hurt they were. One person said:

“I feel very bitter, hurt and confused over what has happened to me especially being removed from my family. I have tried to commit suicide on a number of occasions and I blame the Welfare Department and my foster mother, who never told me about my mother’s death until much later. I was never allowed to mix with Aboriginals and I have no Aboriginal culture and identity.”

(Source: Telling Our Story, Aboriginal Legal Service for Western Australia (Inc), 1995, at page 28)

In the face of anguished testimony like this, one would naturally hesitate to remove a child from his or her parents or family. But on the other hand, there are cases such as the one I read about the other day, which involves terrible allegations of abuse of an Aboriginal boy in the Northern Territory. This seems to indicate that there are very bad problems in that particular community, at the least. One’s instinct is to get the poor boy away from the people who perpetrated these acts. What is the right answer? There is no easy answer that I can supply. As I have said in my previous post, the solution to these problems must come from within indigenous communities themselves, or at least, government working with indigenous communities to find a solution.

Postscript: The apparently ludicrous conduct of the Department of Community Services

I do worry about the capacity of government departments to help with these problems though. I was shocked to read in The Australian that an Aboriginal couple were not allowed to be foster parents for an Aboriginal child, allegedly because their expectations that the child might be able to go to university when she grew up were “too high”. Also, they said that they would not be happy if the child took drugs, and this was found to be “judgmental”. It seems judgmental and racist to pigeonhole this poor child and decide that she is incapable of being educated or having a drug-free future. Why should she not aspire to go to university? Why should it be presumed that she will have a problem with drugs? It seems that the Department of Community Services has already decided that the future of this child will be bleak.

This seems absolutely ludicrous to me. There is no easy solution for solving the problem of abuse of Aboriginal children, but at the very least, when children do have to be removed from their parents, they should be fostered with people who share the same culture as the foster child, who have aspirations for the child, care for her and take her to the doctor if she is sick. Aren’t these people exactly the kind of person you would want to have a young damaged Aboriginal child fostered with? Food for thought…


Filed under indigenous issues, society

3 responses to “The Stolen Generations Debate

  1. The Other Guy

    Interesting post, though I think you might have confused the arguments of each speaker in the debate.

    Manne has argued that a significant proportion of half-caste aboriginal children were removed for merely racist reasons, a deliberate policy that he considers tantamount to genocide. Bolt, on the other hand, has argued that most, if not all, children were removed for their own welfare.

    It is the motivation of the authorities that is subject to the debate, not the relative merits of removing the child or leaving it with their parents. Even Bolt acknowledges that many children were removed for reasons that were not good enough, and that their subsequent foster homes were often just as abusive.

    For mine, having read Manne’s documents, I think I probably side with Bolt. I think Manne has based his argument on little more than the dated and coldly clinical language of the official records. I am not sure I agree with Bolt’s argument that this is directly leading to abuse of children today – but his point that this debate is leading to a reluctance to be more interventionist in aboriginal welfare today is well made

  2. Legal Eagle

    I think part of the motivation behind the removals was definitely to take “half-caste” children from their Aboriginal mother and sever them from their Aboriginal heritage so that they could live like a white person. This was thought to be for the benefit of the children, but it was also, to my mind, racist, because white children would have been treated differently.

    I guess what I was trying to say is that if Manne is arguing that the motivation was just to erase Aboriginal culture, that is incorrect, and if Bolt is arguing that the motivation was wholly welfare-based, I think that is also incorrect. It seems clear to me that there was a murky mix of both.

  3. Pingback: Stolen Generation Success « The Legal Soapbox

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