House debates

Monday, 18 February 2008

Apology to Australia’S Indigenous Peoples

4:57 pm

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Environment, Heritage, the Arts and Indigenous Affairs) Share this | Hansard source

I too would like to begin my contribution to this debate by acknowledging the traditional owners of this country, the Ngunawal, and other traditional owners in this area and also the traditional owners of my electorate of Murray, who continue to be a very proud and important part of our local society. On Wednesday last week, I stood in the House of Representatives in this great parliament and joined in honouring the Indigenous peoples of Australia. We recognised them as the oldest continuing culture in human history. We apologised for the laws and policies of successive governments that inflicted grief, suffering and loss on our fellow Australians, in particular those who were the victims of the policies aimed at forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their families, communities and country in order that the children might lose their Aboriginal identity and be assimilated into white society. We recognised and apologised for the pain, suffering and hurt of the stolen generations and of their descendants and the families left behind. We said sorry. We respectfully requested that this policy be received in the spirit in which it was offered as part of the healing of individuals and the nation.

The policies that created Australia’s stolen generations echoed those of similar times in Canada, New Zealand and the USA. Children of mixed descent were permanently removed from the influence of their mothers, their kin and their culture—those children were of mixed descent, with Indigenous mothers. The children of mixed descent were then institutionalised, adopted or fostered out so that they might assimilate into the white society, having lost their traditional culture. These policies were widely debated and implemented across Australia from the late 19th century through to the late 1960s. They were contemporaneous with our own white Australia immigration policy and were based on the same notions of racial superiority. It is important to understand the different beliefs and values of those times. Only then can we understand what happened and why and the impacts on our Indigenous Australian community. I want to quote from an article in the Illustrated Sydney News and New South Wales Agriculturalist and Grazier, printed in May 1880. The writer says:

The Aborigines of Australia are a doomed race, found occupying one of the lowest stages of savage life when the shores of NSW became familiar with the presence of white men.

Unfortunately many Australians have only a scant knowledge of Australian history and previous values and beliefs. This is something which the John Howard government tried to remedy. Consequently, some in the community have objected to the apology given by the government on the basis that these policies were, they believe, only rescuing orphaned or neglected Indigenous children. In fact, two sets of policies coexisted in the different states, the Commonwealth and the territories, both of which affected Aboriginal children. One set of policies continues today and is designed to intervene in families where there are neglected or vulnerable children. These policies are and were not race based. Any at-risk children in need of special protection were and continue to be targeted by these policies. These were welfare policies and continue to be welfare policies today. The other set of policies, which coexisted and affected the same communities, can generally be referred to as our miscegenation or assimilation policies. These policies were race based. In the apology, the generations affected were called ‘the stolen children’. The stolen children were those who were the victims of these assimilation or miscegenation policies of Australia. The intent of the miscegenation policies—all listed in the Bringing them home report—was the forced assimilation of Aboriginal children of mixed descent through their physical removal from their mother and separation from their mother’s kin and culture. It was hoped that these paler skinned children would then come to take what was called their ‘rightful’ place in the Australian economy and society of the future.

So how did these race based policies evolve in a country now so colourblind, tolerant and free as our great Australian nation? The Charles Darwin theory of the survival of the fittest, framed in the late 1800s, coincided with and informed the observations and experiences of the white settlers, in particular in Tasmania and Victoria. The settlers attributed the huge decline in the Indigenous populations, which was in fact due to disease, malnutrition and frontier violence, to the consequences of immutable scientific laws. William Armit, writing in the 1880s in the journal the Queenslander, said:

Nothing that we can do will alter the inscrutable laws and withal immutable laws which direct our progress on the globe. By these laws the native races of Australia were doomed on the advent of the white man and the only possible thing left for us to do is to assist in carrying them out with as little cruelty as possible.

While settlers observed the demise of the clans, they also observed and began to be concerned about the increasing numbers of Aboriginal children of mixed descent who were being born into the surviving clans. In 1899, Police Inspector Paul Foelsche in South Australia reported to the South Australian government:

... something may be done for the half-caste children by compelling mission stations that have concessions from the government, under certain conditions, to take in such half-castes and civilise them. They would then, when grown up make excellent servants, and thus be raised above the ordinary condition of an aboriginal.

In the South Australian Progress Report of the Royal Commission on the Aborigines in 1913, Mr EC Stirling, a contemporary expert, gives his considered opinion about the best remedy ‘to solve the problem of existence of the half-castes’. The chairman said:

Is there anything else you would like to bring to our notice?

Mr Stirling answered:

I would like to refer to the half-caste children. My opinion is that the more of those half-caste children you can get away from the parents and place under the care of the state the better. I think you should take them at an early age. Supposing they were taken charge of by the State Children’s Department it would be easier to deal with them if they were taken when they have the attractiveness of infancy. There is always something attractive in the infants of all races, whatever their colour. You would get people to take those children young who might be disinclined to take them when they were older. I think that is the best way to save the half-caste children—take them away from their surroundings. When they are caught young they are far less inclined to revert to their old state. There is a strong tendency among the half-castes when they are grown to go back to the ways of the natives. They are far less likely to do that after they have had a long contact with civilisation.

The Hon. J Jelly:

What would be a suitable age to remove them?

The answer:

I think when they are about 2 or 3 years of age.

The chairman:

You would not recommend that they be taken away when they are absolute infants?

The answer:

No, because then you would have the burden of them that all children are at such a young age. When they are a couple of years of age they do not require so much attention and they are young enough to be attractive.

Then there is the question:

Do you think that their experience of two years with the black mother would seriously interfere with them?

The answer:

No. There would not be time for them to establish habits and customs. I am quite aware that you are depriving the mothers of their children, and the mothers are very fond of their children; but I think it must be the rising generation who have to be considered. They are people who are going to live on.

That was the thinking and the value system of the day. In 1913 Professor Baldwin Spencer MA, CMG prepared the preliminary report Aboriginals of the Northern Territory: Bulletin No. 7 for the Department of External Affairs. Professor Baldwin Spencer wrote:

The children must be withdrawn from the native camps at an early age. This will undoubtedly be a difficult matter to accomplish and will involve some amount of hardship, so far as the parents are concerned, but if once the children are allowed to reach a certain age and have become accustomed to camp life, with its degrading environment and endless roaming about the bush, it is almost impossible to try to reclaim them. On the other hand, if they are at once brought at an early age into a station and become accustomed, as they soon do to station life—provided this be made attractive—then they will gradually lose the longing for a normal nomad life and will, in fact, become incapable of securing their living in the bush.

And so police, missionaries, public servants and government agencies were charged through government legislation, regulations and ordinances with the task of taking young Aboriginal children of mixed race from their mothers ideally at about two or three years of age. They were taken to a range of institutions, adopted or fostered out to white families; mothers were denied access to their children—if they could find them in the different locations. Aboriginal language speaking was banned, as was any contact with the parents or families. It was reported that the mothers who tried to hold the hands of their children through the wire at Alice Springs were driven away.

I want to read from a 1940 book called The Great Australian Loneliness. It was written by Ernestine Hills, a very much favoured author of the time. The book was reprinted many, many times. She writes about the actual living, breathing experience of this policy on human beings as it affected Indigenous Australians. She writes:

It was in the Gulf of Carpentaria that I was approached by a beach-comber with a poignant little problem of his own. He was the father of four children. Their mother was a black woman.

According to Government decree, these children were now to be taken from him, and placed in an institution in Central Australia for their up-bringing and education. The protector had sent a policeman on a pack-horse. Must he let these children go, or could he claim the rights of father-hood?

‘They’re well fed and happy enough,’ he said. ‘They have no clothes, but they don’t want them out here. This is their country. They don’t want to leave it, and I know they won’t be happy. I don’t suppose either I or their mother will see them again.

‘They tell me you write for the papers, so you ought to know. Can I keep them with me? We’ve always been together, whatever else we’ve been, and the old woman will break her heart.’

Sadly enough, the answer was no. The father of a half-caste has no paternal rights in North Australia, and as for the half-castes themselves, they must learn to live white.

Is there a throw-back to the Australian black?

Dr. Cecil Cook, anthropologist, biologist, bacteriologist, Chief Medical Officer and Chief Protector of Aborigines in North Australia, after ten years’ closest observance and research among the half-castes, quadroons and octoroons of the North, says no.

‘The Mendelian theory does not apply,’ Dr. Cook told me. ‘There is no atavistic tendency as in the case of the Asiatic and, the negro. Generally by the fifth and invariably by the sixth generation, all native characteristics of the Australian are eradicated. The problem of these half-castes can quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race, and the swift submergence of its progeny in the white.’

…                …              …

‘The Australian is the most easily assimilated race on earth,’ said Dr. Cook. ‘A blending with the Asiatic, though tending to increased intelligence and virility, is not desirable. The quickest way out is to breed him white.’

This is the race based policy of miscegenation which we acknowledged and apologised for last Wednesday when the Prime Minister addressed the nation and the Australian stolen children generations. I cannot imagine how profound and how deep the trauma, sadness and psychological and developmental damage must have been to many individuals who were subject to that policy—the parents, the mothers, the children, the sisters and brothers, the kin.

The surviving direct victims of these policies, the mothers and their children and grandchildren, want the nation to acknowledge their history and their hurt. Of course we must. We must acknowledge their loss, and I am so pleased to have been amongst those in the House on Wednesday who said we were sorry. Let us hope our bipartisan apology, sincerely expressed, helps with the healing. And, by acknowledging our past, may it also help to ensure our great society continues to evolve towards having an even more fair and tolerant future for all.

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