Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Last week I called on this federal government to focus on and now commit to compensating those directly affected by past policies of forced removal in the Northern Territory. Compensation for the stolen generations has remained a key recommendation for reparation and an issue of national and international concern. Monetary compensation is indeed due for the hurt and the harm suffered by those people who were removed.
I want to acknowledge that over the past decade federal governments, both Liberal and Labor, have taken a number of steps towards reconciliation. We have had the national apology and funding for counselling and parenting services. Evidence, however, suggests that these measures have been inadequate in fully responding to the needs of the stolen generations. There is now a strong moral and legal basis for providing compensation and there is a growing urgency to resolve this issue as the stolen generations, particularly in the Northern Territory, have very little time left.
The research that I have undertaken personally over the last four years, with the assistance of an ANU intern who I had the pleasure of having in my office, comprehensively reveals that it is in fact the Commonwealth's responsibility for the Northern Territory. Detailed examination of the laws between 1911 and 1978 reveal the Commonwealth's intention to control the Northern Territory's Indigenous population. Further, given that the state governments have begun compensating the stolen generations now in their respective states, there is really no reason for any more excuses. It is now accepted that the only government liable to pay compensation to the Northern Territory is the Commonwealth government.
Since the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families in 1997, which we all know produced the Bringing Them Home report, monetary compensation has been a key recommendation in providing full and effective reparations to those removed under official government policies. Compensation is internationally recognised as essential in acknowledging and repairing the harm done to those who have suffered gross violations to their human rights.
The Commonwealth government took control of the Territory in 1911 and superseded the Northern Territory Aboriginals Act 1910 of South Australia with the Aboriginals Ordinance 1911. Under that ordinance, the Commonwealth gave the Chief Protector the power to act as the legal guardian of every Aboriginal and every half-caste in the Northern Territory until they were 18 years of age. If you track through the key Commonwealth laws that actually allowed the removal of Aboriginal children, you will see that it goes to the Aboriginals Ordinance Act 1911. This was repealed but replaced by the Aboriginals Ordinance Act 1918. Again, the Director of Welfare under this act was made the legal guardian of all Aboriginals. He—and predominantly it would have been a 'he'—may have declared persons with Aboriginal ancestors to be Aboriginal but, in fact, had wide-ranging powers over Aboriginal people and still was able to remove those children if it was thought it was in their best interests. The Welfare Ordinance Act 1953, again, gave the Director of Welfare extensive powers over the lives of people declared to be wards. The director was made the legal guardian of all of those wards, again, if it was considered to be in their best interests. He was able to take them into custody, detain them or even institutionalise them. The Child Welfare Ordinance 1958 still allowed Aboriginal people to be removed in accordance with the wishes of that act.
The urgency of providing compensation must also be recognised, because each year an increasing number of these people are getting older. According to the Croker Island Stolen Generation Group, there are old people dying at such a high rate, and to settle this would mean closure for them and for all of us. I anticipate that there were probably about 1,000 children taken in the Northern Territory—some might say it was as high as 2,000 people—but what I do know is that there are probably only about 380 of those original stolen children alive in the Northern Territory this very day.
The position of the federal government has been that there will be no compensation paid, with the focus continually on practical measures that will assist the Indigenous community as a whole. The Commonwealth has offered many arguments regarding its position. My research shows that those arguments are no longer sustainable and probably no longer acceptable—arguments such as, 'No amount of money can make up for the pain of the past'; an argument that says that there is no framework for compensation or that we do not want to set a precedent; an argument that the removals were intended to be in the best interests of the children, when we clearly know that research has shown that this is not the case; and an argument that not all children considered removed had an injurious experience—and it is probably true. Phillip Elsegood of the Stolen Generations Alliance has recognised different levels of harm, saying that there are deeper issues for some people concerning what happened to them while they were in care. We also have some people who have said that it was the best thing that ever happened to them, but the stolen generations people acknowledge that.
I just want to also say that I recently heard Minister Macklin's comments, in the last week or so, saying that we have now set up the royal commission into child sexual abuse. But that is not a reason to now park the needs of the stolen generations people in the Northern Territory under that umbrella—far from it. Evidence shows that the removal of the majority of removed children was primarily an injurious experience. Many children, in fact, experienced multiple institutional and foster places. They may well have suffered harsh living conditions and some were physically punished. However, only one in 10 of the boys and only one in 10 of the girls were allegedly sexually abused. So by far the majority most certainly had a horrific childhood—were ripped away from their parents, institutionalised, disciplined and harshly treated, or were put as foster children in some places. But certainly parking their needs under this current royal commission, in terms of making that the excuse for not compensating all of the members of the stolen generations, is still an unacceptable argument. Forced removals were official government policy between 1910 and 1970 and, although they occurred, we know that it took three general forms: they were placed in government or church-run institutions, they were adopted by white families or they were fostered into white families. These people are still looking for compensation. They may well have stories under the current royal commission into child sexual abuse, but not all of them will have.
There are arguments that the government has already apologised, arguments that the focus should remain on practical measures that benefit all Indigenous people and arguments that claims for compensation should be made through litigation. Their final argument is that the federal government is not responsible at all. But we now know that in 2006 Tasmania became the first state to provide compensation to the stolen generations. They set up the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal Children Act 2006 and created a $5 million fund that was managed by a tribunal. In 2007, the WA government announced a $114 million redress scheme for children who were abused or neglected in state care. The stolen generations people came under that and were benefited by that. In 2007, the Queensland government introduced $100 million in a scheme in response to the Forde inquiry—which also, of course, was not limited to but covered the claims of the stolen generations.
It is more than time now to face up to the fact that the Commonwealth government need to provide a reparations fund. They have relied on various arguments in support of their position of no compensation; those arguments now no longer hold water. I have been proposing for quite a while now that the reparation of the Northern Territory stolen generations should consist of monetary compensation. It is the Commonwealth government—and only the Commonwealth government—that is now responsible for removing the children in the Northern Territory between 1911 and 1918. In fact, a one-off ex gratia payment to the current living members or the families of those members should be made available, as they did in Tasmania, through a reparations fund managed by a tribunal where people can make claims and finally get the closure they deserve. It holds practical and symbolic meaning to living members of the stolen generations and it would also assist in addressing the ongoing disadvantage faced by their families and communities. Finally, as well as these practical measures, these monetary measures might show some sense of closure for those people who have been—and are continually—affected by the past policies of forced removal under the Commonwealth government.
Senate adjourned at 19 : 29