Addressing an Australian conference in 1997, the former High Court judge and co-author of the Bringing Them Home report on the Stolen Generations, Sir Ronald Wilson, quoted a statement he said had been made 60 years earlier at the 1937 conference of national and state Aboriginal affairs ministers:
This conference believes that the destiny of the natives of Aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth and it therefore recommends that all efforts be directed to that end. Nobody who knows about these groups could deny that their members are socially and culturally deprived. We must improve their lot so that they can take their place economically and socially in the general community. Once this is done, the breakup of such groups will be rapid.
‘That, ladies and gentlemen, is genocide,’ Wilson told his audience, ‘and as an Australian and a non-Indigenous Australian I apologize with all my heart to the Aboriginal people that my people, whether or not with the best will in the world, promoted that process.’
It is true that the 1937 conference advocated the absorption of some Aborigines, though not others, into the general Australian population. The first sentence quoted here by Wilson comes from one of the resolutions it passed. The other three sentences, however, were not part of the resolution and were not actually spoken by anyone at the conference. At the time, and ever since, similar sentiments were certainly expressed about Aborigines being economically and social deprived and about the desirability of improving their economic and social position. No one at the conference, however, said: ‘Once this is done, the breakup of such groups will be rapid.’ That sentence, which implied that the intention behind amelioration was the breakup of Aboriginal society and culture, is Wilson’s own embellishment of the text of the proceedings. As I demonstrate below, Wilson is far from the only one who has done this. He is one of many who have made that conference appear to say things and hold beliefs it never actually did.
The notion that the absorption or assimilation of some Aboriginal people into the European population is a form of genocide had gone around academic and leftist political circles long before Wilson’s enquiry but gained enormous impetus from it. Afterwards, the full imprimatur of the report was deployed, in both formal and informal political settings, to make the charge stick. As one New South Wales government submission later wrote: the Stolen Generations report ‘established that the forced removal of children and the policy of assimilation was an act of genocide contrary to the Convention on Genocide ratified by Australia in 1949’. The historian Henry Reynolds made a similar case and drawn its political implications. In the last two chapters of his book An Indelible Stain? he argued the only way the Australian nation can avoid the charge of genocide under United Nations conventions is to give up assimilation and ensure the survival of the Aborigines as a distinct group of people. And the only way to accomplish that, he said, was for Australia to recognize customary law, Aboriginal self-government, regional agreements (treaties), and a constitutional definition of indigenous rights. In other words, Reynolds used the charge of genocide as a tactic to publicly intimidate this country into accepting the most radical version of the political agenda for Aboriginal segregation.
Australian history’s most terrible moment
Much of the weight of the accusation that, in Australia, assimilation equaled genocide was borne by the opinions expressed at the 1937 Canberra conference, the first meeting of Commonwealth and State departments of Aboriginal affairs ever held. Almost all the historians who interpret it this way use the speeches and resolutions made by the public servants at this meeting as their evidence for policies that purportedly continued for decades afterwards. According to political commentator Robert Manne, the conference was probably the most horrific event in recent Australian history:
If there exists a more terrible moment in the history of the twentieth-century Australian state than the Canberra conference of April 1937, I for one do not know where it is to be discovered.
In support, the philosopher Raimond Gaita observed a sinister conjunction of sentiment:
the reason the report of the 1937 conference of the key administrators of the absorption program is such chilling reading is because page after page expresses precisely this conjunction of racist disdain and sincere professions of concern for the welfare of the Aborigines. Without a trace of irony, the report is called Aboriginal Welfare.
The conclusion that this amounted to genocide is now entrenched within the international academic literature on the subject
It is impossible to conclude otherwise than that Australia in the 1930s was possessed of an administrative culture that in reality practised genocide.
— Paul Bartrop, Journal of Genocide Research, 2001
According to those who make this case, the leading figures at the 1937 conference were advocates of eugenics, a notion fashionable among intellectuals in the early twentieth century that was taken up by Nazi Germany in the 1930s with the intention of improving the Aryan racial stock by controlled breeding. In Australia, said Robert Manne, the era was marked by ‘cultural contempt and social alarm’ at the increase in the numbers of people of mixed Aboriginal-European descent. Inspired by eugenics, state bureaucrats sought to control half-caste breeding by prohibiting them from marrying either full-blood Aborigines or other half-castes. If they were only permitted to marry Europeans or those lighter in colour than themselves, the process would eventually ‘breed out the colour’.
Two of the most important Aboriginal administrators of the period, Cecil Cook of the Northern Territory and Auber Octavius Neville of Western Australia, were ‘enthusiastic converts’ to the eugenics cause, said Manne. As evidence, he quoted the conference’s resolution headed ‘the destiny of the race’. It called for the total absorption into the white community of all non-full-blood natives. That resolution was the first sentence quoted above by Sir Ronald Wilson: ‘This conference believes that the destiny of the natives of Aboriginal origin, but not of the full bloods, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth and it therefore recommends that all efforts be directed to that end.’ For good measure, Manne told his readers that the delegate who moved this resolution, A. O. Neville, was ‘the intellectually dominant figure in the Canberra discussions’. In one of his addresses to the conference, Neville asked the rhetorical question:
Are we going to have a population of 1,000,000 blacks in the Commonwealth, or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there were any Aborigines in Australia?
Manne interpreted this statement as an expression of Neville’s desire for an Australia ethnically cleansed of Aborigines. He claimed Neville believed this would occur because the full-blood Aborigines would die out and those half-castes remaining would be coerced into breeding only with whites. ‘At that moment in Australian history,’ Manne said of the 1937 conference, ‘genocidal thought and administrative practice touched.’ The historian Russell McGregor of James Cook University has endorsed this interpretation:
Indisputably, in my view, ‘breeding out the colour’ was policy, in that it was a systematic course of action endorsed and pursued by those charged with authority over Aboriginal affairs … I find Robert Manne’s arguments persuasive: genocidal intent was sometimes manifest in twentieth century Aboriginal policy, and that ‘sometimes’ includes, above all, the schemes of systematic biological absorption pursued by Western Australia and the Northern Territory in the 1930s.
Before the emergence of the Stolen Generations thesis, an older generation of historians, including Charles Rowley and Paul Hasluck, had seen things differently. Between 1910 and 1940, they argued, Commonwealth policy had four main aims: first, to ensure that the remaining nomadic tribes had enough land to pursue their traditional life; second, to make Aboriginal reserves places of refuge from alcohol, opium and disease and centres for welfare handouts to the needy; third, to preserve the ethnic purity of the full-blood Aborigines by prohibiting sexual contact between full-blood women and white or part-Aboriginal men; and fourth, to educate the children of poor, detribalized part-Aborigines living on the fringes of white towns and cities so they could take up employment in the white community. Throughout this period, protectors in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia had the right to approve or prohibit marriages between whites and those full-bloods confined to Aboriginal reserves. Hence, Rowley and Hasluck argued, government policy was certainly racially motivated, but with the apparently worthy aim of preserving the original Aboriginal race intact.
After the Stolen Generations thesis rose to academic prominence, the protectors’ authority to control marriage among half-castes (rather than full-bloods), especially in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, became the central issue for historians. Concerned about an increase in the number of half-castes, the protectors responded with, in McGregor’s words, ‘a systematic course of action’ to eliminate Aboriginality by the biological absorption of the half-caste population. ‘Breeding out the colour’ soon emerged as the preferred academic idiom for attempts by the protectors to bring this about.
What does all this have to do with stolen children? In itself, the goal of ‘breeding out the colour’ did not necessarily involve removing children from their parents or from Aboriginal culture. As its words said, its aim was to control breeding. It was focused most on preventing people of half-caste or lesser descent from marrying or cohabiting with Aborigines of either of full descent or half-caste. In Neville’s words, it was ‘to prevent the return of those half-castes who are nearly white to the black.’ In February 1933, Dr Cecil Cook, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory, used the phrase when he wrote to the Territory Administrator about the advisability of introducing a common policy with Queensland and Western Australia on inter-racial marriage. In this context, he did not mention the removal of children. He wrote:
PERMISSION TO MARRY ABORIGINALS
… In the Territory the mating of aboriginals with any person other than an aboriginal is prohibited. The mating of coloured aliens with any female of part-aboriginal blood is also prohibited. Every endeavour is being made to breed out the colour by elevating female half-castes to white standard with a view to their absorption by mating into the white population. The adoption of a similar policy throughout the Commonwealth is, in my opinion, a matter of vital importance.
While his superiors never took up his invitation to adopt such a policy throughout the Commonwealth, Cook himself continued his attempt to make the female half-castes within his orbit of authority marry white men. As this chapter records in greater detail below, his matchmaking was an abject failure — as it well deserved to be. It was a gross and impertinent invasion of human rights. In a liberal-democratic society the state has no business intervening in private lives to this extent, particularly when its actions are directed solely at one group of people.
For the discussion here, however, the important point is that the objective of ‘breeding out the colour’ was confined to the control of marriage. One of the ploys used by those who support the Stolen Generations thesis is to find expressions of support for ‘breeding out the colour’ that refer only to marriage, and to then hold this up as evidence of a policy to steal children, which is quite a different thing. But to presume from a government’s control over marriage that it was also engaged in child removal is to make an unwarranted leap from one category to another. Whether policy makers ever had the latter goal and whether they enacted it in practice, are matters we should decide on the evidence of what they actually said and did about removing children.
Nonetheless, the objective of ‘breeding out the colour’ has become such an integral part of the Stolen Generations debate that it needs to be examined here in some detail. The phrase deserves particular investigation because it bears much of the weight of the accusation that child removal in Australia was part of a program of assimilation that equalled genocide. Although his parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generations in February 2008 did not mention the term ‘genocide’, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had no doubt that the removal of children and the desire to eliminate the Aboriginal race were inextricably linked:
Let the parliament reflect for a moment on the following facts: that, between 1910 and 1970, between 10 and 30 per cent of Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their mothers and fathers. That, as a result, up to 50,000 children were forcibly taken from their families. That this was the product of the deliberate, calculated policies of the state as reflected in the explicit powers given to them under statute. That this policy was taken to such extremes by some in administrative authority that the forced extractions of children of so-called ‘mixed lineage’ were seen as part of a broader policy of dealing with ‘the problem of the Aboriginal population’. 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.