Stolen Generation


Newstopia, a satirical news program on SBS, commenced its second season last night and one story covered was the formal apology to the members of the stolen generations.

Presenter Shaun Micallef grilled a caricature of a staffer for the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs about why there shouldn’t be any compensation delivered with the apology (my own transcription):

Micallef: So the pain they suffered is so great, that they shouldn’t get a cent.

Staffer: Well it’s an incalculable loss.

Micallef: Right. So we’ve actually saved ourselves quite a bit of money by doing such a proper job on them, haven’t we?

The whole program can be viewed for free, and without commercials, from the Newstopia website, but only until the next episode airs on the 5th. The segment on the apology runs from about 9’30” until 11’10” or so, but the rest is also worth watching.

On my way to work late this morning, I took note of how many Aboriginal and Torres Straight flags there were flying prominently around Sydney Harbour. They flew above the bridge, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and notably, above Kirribilli House. I don’t know if they’ve been there any longer than just today – the day of the formal Parliamentary Apology to the stolen generations – or if they’d been there for a while, but certainly, and fittingly, today is the first time I’d noticed.

The apology itself was of course only one part of this morning’s proceedings, and a short part too. And since the text of Kevin Rudd’s first parliamentary act as Prime Minister had already been made public, the more interesting part of the session occurred after the reading of the motion. Both Rudd and opposition leader Brendan Nelson delivered very deliberated, considered speeches, each of which took more than twenty minutes, while the motion, at 361 words, was finished in under three.

Kevin Rudd, in his post-apology speech, reiterated the reasons that an apology is so necessary for the reparation process after the Bringing Them Home report and for reconciliation in general. His speech overall was solemn, dignified, yet implicitly scathing towards the inaction of the previous government.

These stories cry out to be heard, they cry out for an apology. Instead from the nation’s Parliament there has been a stony and stubborn and deafening silence for more than a decade.

A view that somehow we the Parliament should suspend our most basic instincts of what is right and what is wrong. A view that instead we should look for any pretext to push this great wrong to one side.

In addressing the historical context, Rudd unashamedly lambasted policy-makers of the early twentieth century, rather than offering defences, or historical rationalisations.

One of the most notorious examples of this approach was from the Northern Territory protector of natives, who stated, and I quote, “Generally by the fifth and invariably by the sixth generation all native characteristics of the Australian Aborigine are eradicated. The problem of our half castes”, to quote the protector, “will quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race and the swift submergence of their progeny in the white.” End quote.

These are uncomfortable things to be brought out into the light. They are not pleasant. They are profoundly disturbing. But we must acknowledge these facts, if we are to deal once and for all with the argument that the policy of generic, forced separation was somehow well-motivated, justified by its historical context, and as a result, unworthy of any apology today.

The conclusion of Rudd’s speech was met with lengthy applause and a standing ovation. Nelson’s speech in reply, also caused people to stand, but not for the same reasons.

He started out well, soliciting applause after acknowledging the Ngunawal people, the traditional owners of the land upon which Canberra was built. But after that, he slowly but surely lost the support of the crowd.

Our responsibility, every one of us, is to understand what happened here. Our generation does not own these actions. Nor should it feel guilt for what was done, in many cases, with the best intentions.

But in saying we are sorry, and deeply so, we remind ourselves that each generation lives in ignorance of the long-term consequences of its decisions and its actions. Even when motivated by inherent humanity and decency to reach out to the dispossessed in adversity, our actions can have unintended consequences. As such many decent Australians are hurt by accusations of theft in relation to their good intentions.

It was around about this point that large groups of people watching the apology from right around the country began to stand up and turn their backs at Dr Nelson, in a symbol of disrespect that hasn’t been seen at such a high level of office since 1997, when John Howard angered a gathered crowd of Indigenous people by sternly refusing to apologise.

Shortly after the conclusion of Nelson’s speech, the entire parliament stood in apparent unanimity to vote in favour of the motion, though with the exceptions of Don Randall and Wilson Tuckey, who was publicly very skeptical about the point of such an apology, even moments before it was read.

“So the Prime Minister reads a speech, apparently some people stand up and sit down and then a miracle happens over night, there’ll be no petrol sniffing … and girls can sleep safely in the family bed at night,” [Wilson Tuckey] said.

When asked by Sky News if he supported the apology, a technical error occurred, with Mr Tuckey telling the camera he was unable to hear the question.

That’s our Wilson.

This apology has only been one step in a long and arduous process of reconciliation, but it’s a very important step symbolically. In the (paraphrased) words of Mick Dodson, we have to willingly go through all this sorry business before we can start the healing. Without an apology, we risk being viewed as insincere in our commitment to restitution for our predecessors’ actions, although until last year, this would have been precisely the case, generally speaking.

In all the talk just prior to, and following the apology, many people are crying about how the sky will surely fall in, with the inevitable flood of compensation cases that will necessary follow.

I personally think compensation should be given, I don’t think many people can successfully argue to the contrary, but I am sympathetic to the decision that Rudd made, not to include any compensation in the apology directly. An apology and compensation were two of the key recommendations of Mick Dodson and Sir Ronald Wilson’s report Bringing Them Home, but they are not one and the same. Compensation should become available at some point down the track, preferably soon, and claimants should not be made to undergo intrusive and traumatic, lengthy legal proceedings in order to secure it. But I think it’s wise to leave compensation as an issue quite independent of an apology.

We took an important step forward this morning, and I think I can earnestly say that for the first time in a long time, I’m very proud to call myself Australian. Contrast this with numerous times over the past 7 years or so, probably since Tampa, that invoked a fleeting feeling of nationalistic shame.

I might even celebrate Australia Day like a normal person one day in the future.

It’s been almost eleven years since the tabling of the Bringing them Home report, and tomorrow, the Australian Federal Parliament will formally apologise to the stolen generations.

This afternoon, Rudd made the full text of the apology available for the first time and, despite some earlier whining from some members of the coalition, specifically over the use of the word stolen, Brendan Nelson has signalled that he will support it as it stands.

Tonight on Lateline however, opposition spokesperson for Indigenous Affairs, Tony Abbott, made it quite clear that their support is out of respect and that the wording would be significantly different had the Coalition drafted it. He also added the corker that John Howard had done more positive things for Aboriginal people than anyone.

That was no gaff. He said it three times.

~

Anyway, tomorrow morning at about nine o’clock, Rudd will move that:

Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

Reading this, I’m a tiny bit glad that Howard didn’t apologise to the stolen generations, that he didn’t take the chance to take the largest and most difficult step towards eventual reconciliation. Of course he should have done so years ago, but I’m glad Rudd will instead take the honour of being The Prime Minister Who Apologised.

In a post this morning, I suggested facetiously that the Coalition might prefer to use the term ‘separated’ as opposed to ‘stolen’, in the wording of a formal apology to the victims of some of the more abhorrent assimilationist policies.

The opposition are most concerned over the term Stolen Generation apparently. Perhaps they’d prefer to use Gerard Henderson’s newest euphemism, Separated Generation?

Well, not long after that, this popped up on the ABC News website:

A Liberal backbencher says he would prefer to see “Separated Generations” rather than “Stolen Generations” used in next week’s formal apology to Indigenous Australians.

“I think separated is probably a better word than stolen personally,” [Liberal backbencher Dr Denis Jensen] said.

Perhaps I’m more widely read than I had fancied, or perhaps more likely, Dr Jensen reads Gerard Henderson.

In less than a week, the federal Australian Government will catch up to the eight states and territories, and only a decade behind them.

The Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Parliament on May 26, 1997. Within two days, Western Australia and South Australia, both Coalition-governed states at the time, had issued unreserved apologies¹. By the end of the year, only Queensland and the Northern Territory had yet to apologise. Queensland issued their apology in 1999, a little under a year after Peter Beattie was elected, and the NT issued theirs only six weeks after Clare Martin was elected in 2001.

On Wednesday, February 13, Kevin Rudd will add the federal Parliament to the list of parliaments who have apologised. Rudd has been light on the details and the wording of the apology so far, only giving the occasional clue about the rough scope of the apology. Yesterday for instance, he revealed that it “will be on behalf of the Parliament, not the Government, and will make reference to not only the members of the Stolen Generations but to their families and descendants.”

The opposition, under Dr Brendan Nelson, has given its in-principle support, but wants to see the exact wording before it goes to parliament, adding that “It’s essential that the Australian people have the opportunity to understand what is going to be said by their Parliament on their behalf.” (Update: the opposition are most concerned over the term Stolen Generation apparently. Perhaps they’d prefer to use Gerard Henderson’s newest euphemism, Separated Generation?)

As an aside, this entire issue must be a bit of a test for Brendan Nelson, who won the leadership of the opposition over Malcolm Turnbull largely because the latter announced his support for an apology. Just how Nelson will balance the pressure from his über-conservative party-room backers with the vast weight of popular opinion in favour of an apology, will either see him in strife, or will herald much needed reform for the Liberal party.

I think it’s entirely reasonable that the opposition should see the text of something they are expected to vote for or against before they are required to do so. That’s democracy. It’s just a shame that this opposition, when they were the government, all but refused this crucial aspect of parliamentary debate with respect to the legislation covering the intervention into Northern Territory communities.

On the other hand though, the Coalition had 11 years in which to shape the apology however they liked. Instead, the best they could muster was an insipid statement that:

acknowledges that the mistreatment of many indigenous Australians over a significant period represents the most blemished chapter in our national history,

and

reaffirms the central importance of practical measures leading to practical results that address the profound economic and social disadvantage which continues to be experienced by many indigenous Australians.

Some might contend that the 1999 expression of ‘deep and sincere regret’ – which was occasionally more of an economic rationalist manifesto – was better than nothing, and they’d be right. But what irritates me about the whole affair was the government’s behaviour when Kim Beazely moved to amend the Prime Ministers motion so that the focal paragraph:

[The Parliament] expresses its deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices,

would be replaced with:

[The parliament] unreservedly apologises to indigenous Australians for the injustice they have suffered, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to suffer as a consequence of this injustice [and] calls for the establishment of appropriate processes to provide justice and restitution to members of the stolen generation through consultation, conciliation and negotiation rather than requiring indigenous Australians to engage in adversarial litigation in which they are forced to relive the pain and trauma of their past suffering.

The motion was opposed and the Prime Minister’s politically impotent statement was passed without dissent.

I look forward to seeing the full text of the apology that will go to parliament next week and will certainly offer up an analysis, provided I’m not too busy engaging in just one instance of the plethora of practical reconciliatory efforts that go largely unnoticed.

~

¹Apologies from all state governments, as well as the federal Government’s infamous expression of deep and sincere regret, are available from the HREOC website.

It seems that Gerard Henderson, former culture warrior, has coined a new euphemism in relation to Australia’s indigenous history. Henderson has always disputed the term stolen generation, because the population of stolen aboriginal people hardly comprised an entire generation, so it’s odd that this new euphemism of his retains this word.

Here’s an excerpt from Henderson’s column in today’s Herald:

Most of the separated generation had European or other genes – in addition to indigenous ones. This means that an abject apology would require that some of today’s indigenous Australians apologise to their indigenous predecessors for the actions of some of their European predecessors.

Leaving aside the fact that this is a spurious conclusion, the choice of the word separated is curious, but is glaringly deliberate – Henderson uses it twice in the same article, and all three instances of the term stolen occur either in direct quotes or, in one case, in the name of a lobby group, the Stolen Generations Alliance.

I think Henderson’s intention here is crystal clear; stolen is such a harsh term; it connotes malevolence when, in his view, clearly no such malevolence existed since it cannot be proved with official bureaucratic documentation. But as the rest of us know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Separated though, is far too light a term. Couples separate when they’ve had enough of each other. Potassium nitrate separates when it cools. Breasts are separated (and lifted) with the help of the appropriate undergarments.

Separate, the verb, when applied to humans, implies reciprocal volition, mutual agreement, as it were. The forced removal of aboriginal children from their parents in an effort to effect linguistic and cultural homogeneity, involved no such volition on behalf of either parent or child; these families didn’t actively separate, they were forced apart by racist policy.

Moreover, separated, in its unmarked form, is an unergative verb, it necessitates no agent, no one who causes the sepatation to occur. They separated is far more natural than he separated them.

Stolen however, necessitates that someone, an agent, willfully acted to cause the theft. The forced removals that led to the existence of the stolen generation had an agent; the Australian Government. Thus in my opinion, stolen is a perfectly accurate word to describe what happened to aboriginal children in Australia’s Colonial past.