In Victoria unlike other States such as New South Wales there was no formal policy for removing children. It is therefore more difficult to trace how separations were occurring.
— Victorian Stolen Generations Taskforce, Report to Victorian Government, April 2003
In developing the Government’s Final Submission, consideration was given to the important question of the total number of Aboriginal people affected by separation or removal in Victoria. Unfortunately the Victorian Government is not in a position to give an estimate of these numbers.
— Victorian Government, Final Submission to National Inquiry Into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, August 1996
It is virtually impossible to establish a case supported by credible evidence that the state of Victoria created anything resembling the Stolen Generations. As the above quotations demonstrate, that has been acknowledged by government reports that went looking for the phenomenon but came up empty-handed. Between 1996 and 2003, the Victorian government produced or commissioned six separate submissions and reports on the subject:
Victorian Government, Interim Submission to the National Inquiry Into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children From Their Families, January 1996
· Victorian Government, Final Submission to the National Inquiry Into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children From Their Families, Parts I and II, August 1996
Victorian Government, Response to the Report of the National Inquiry Into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children From Their Families, Bringing Them Home, November 1997
Victorian Government, Response to Bringing Them Home: Implementation Status Report, November 1998
· The Victorian Government Response to Bringing Them Home 2002, October 2002
· Victorian Stolen Generations Taskforce, Report to Victorian Government, April 2003.
All these reports presumed from the outset that Victoria had Stolen Generations of its own, even though none was able to provide evidence of either government policies or a body of people who legitimately filled the bill. However, none of this prevented the Victorian parliament from passing the following motion in September 1997:
That this House apologizes to the Aboriginal people on behalf of all Victorians for the past policies under which Aboriginal children were removed from their families and expresses deep regret at the hurt and distress this has caused and reaffirms its support for reconciliation between all Australians.
The motion was put to the House by Jeff Kennett the Premier of Victoria and leader of the Liberal/National coalition government. It passed without dissent. This was strange, given that less than a year earlier its own submission to the Human Rights Commission inquiry made it clear that, from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, very few Aboriginal children had been removed as a result of government legislation or policies. Moreover, after the passing of the 1957 Victorian Aborigines Act, the Aborigines Welfare Board did not have the authority to remove children at all. Even Bringing Them Home acknowledged this: ‘for the first time in Victoria’s Aboriginal affairs legislation, the Board was given no specific power in relation to Aboriginal children.’ The Victorian government has produced a huge amount of literature on the subject, including two submissions to the Humans Rights Commission inquiry and four separate reports after that inquiry, yet has failed to find much more than some private fostering and informal adoptions that had no government sanction. In other words, there was nothing for the Victorian government to apologize for. Yet the government wanted so badly to have Stolen Generations of its own, it ignored the findings of its research and apologized anyway, just like they did in Tasmania.
To underline how irrational the Victorian apology was, let me provide a short account of the relevant policies and their outcomes from the 1880s to the 1970s. The information here has been summarized from the Victorian government’s own 1996 submission to the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry.
Apprenticeships: In the late nineteenth century the Board for the Protection of Aborigines in Victoria had similar objectives as the Aborigines Protection Board in New South Wales. Board members wanted young Aborigines to be able to take their place in the modern world and the modern economy and sought to help them get the training to do so. They wanted youths living on Aboriginal stations to go into apprenticeships with employers. The Aborigines Protection Act of 1886 gave them the statutory power to do this. The girls were to be trained for domestic service, as in New South Wales, but boys were offered a variety of occupations, including jobs with the Post and Telegraph Service. The apprenticeship system continued until 1929, but only ever involved small numbers. The board’s reports from 1912 to 1925 and the Victorian Year Books from 1921–22 to 1933–34 provided incomplete information on the number of young people involved. These reports indicated that only three or four children were ‘in service’ each year, until the scheme apparently lapsed in 1929.
Schools and Dormitories: The Aborigine Act 1890 consolidated previous legislation and gave the board control over the education of all Aboriginal children. Attendance at school was compulsory for both black and white children. On Aboriginal stations, Regulation 15 made every male under fourteen years of age and every female under eighteen subject to the dormitory system. They had to reside, take their meals and sleep in a dormitory if required to do so by the station manager. The regulation operated only four years and became redundant when dormitories on stations began to close from 1894 onwards because of the reduction of station populations.
Industrial Schools and Orphanages: The Aborigines Protection Act of 1886 allowed the board to pursue a program of boarding out children of mixed descent in urban areas so they could attend industrial schools. The program affected very few children. Between 1901 and 1952 the numbers were published in the Victorian Year Book. Although there was a gap between 1905 and 1922, it placed an average of only five children a year. The scheme lapsed in 1952.
Care and Protection Processes: Under regulations of 1890, the board was able to send children deemed by a court hearing to be neglected to the care of the Department of Neglected Children, later the Children’s Welfare Department. Boys could be sent to the Salvation Army farm for wayward boys at Bayswater, and girls to one of several homes to be trained for domestic service. However, the government’s research could not find any cases from the 1890s to the end of the 1920s where this actually happened. It concluded: ‘It is believed that there were few, if any, “care and protection” cases during this period, where Aboriginal children were committed directly through the Children’s Court to the care of the Department of Neglected Children.’ The only examples of Aboriginal children found being subject to these laws and regulations occurred in the 1950s when police initiated ‘care and protection’ action against 150 Aboriginal children from shanty towns in the Gippsland district, Western District and the Goulburn Valley. At Mooroopna near Shepparton, police removed 24 children from families living on the shire garbage tip. Children’s courts placed them in the care of the Children’s Welfare Department, which sent most on to the Ballarat Orphanage where anthropologist Diane Barwick found them in 1956 and 1957 and wrote about their plight.
Young Offenders: The desperation of the authors of the government’s submission to find stolen children in any numbers was demonstrated by its inclusion of young offenders in is listing of children removed from their parents. It estimated 400 Aboriginal children were separated because they were young offenders. Including them in such a list was ridiculous since they had obviously broken the same laws as white youths and, as the submission reluctantly admitted, ‘they were generally able to return to their communities within a few months although this was certainly not always the case’.
Legal Adoption: Adoption became legal in Victoria in 1928. However, the government submission failed to turn up any examples of Aboriginal children subject to the process. ‘No records have been located, however, it is possible that there were a small number of legal adoptions arranged through hospitals.’
The Lake Tyers Settlement: From 1924 to 1957, the only institution staffed and funded by the Protection Board was the settlement at Lake Tyers. It provided for indigent Aborigines who inhabited a strictly regulated regime but who remained there voluntarily. Its population ranged from about 250 in the 1920s to fewer than 200 persons when it closed in 1957. In 1928 the Aborigines Act excluded from its provisions all but full-blood Aborigines. Although the settlement still accommodated people of part descent at Lake Tyers, subsequent changes to state definitions of what constituted Aboriginality meant the board declined to accept responsibility for people of Aboriginal descent who chose not to live at the settlement.
Government Indifference: When the chairman of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines attended the 1937 Commonwealth–State Aboriginal administrators’ conference, he said he was there primarily as an observer since ‘the problems relating to Aborigines are not acute in Victoria’. The board declined to attend the 1948 and 1951 Commonwealth–State conferences on the grounds that its numbers of Aborigines were too small to warrant it. In the years from 1950 to 1955 the board met just five times, and not at all in 1953 and 1954.
The Aborigines Welfare Board: After a review of policy, the Victorian government introduced the Aborigines Act of 1957. It established a new Aborigines Welfare Board with ten members, two of them Aboriginal people. However, the new Act gave the board no authority over Aboriginal children. In fact, the Act did not even mention children. Apart from the provision of welfare housing, the board was left with little responsibility. Most other services for Aborigines were consigned to mainstream government departments: education to the Education Department, health to the Health department, child welfare to the Social Welfare Department. The Aborigines Welfare Board could give advice on these policies and found a way to provide funds for books and uniforms for some Aboriginal children at secondary schools, but it had no powers to enforce any of its ideas in these fields.
The Bringing Them Home report acknowledged that the 1957 Act formally ended any authority the board and its predecessors had to remove Aboriginal children: ‘… for the first time in Victoria’s Aboriginal affairs legislation, the board was given no specific power in relation to Aboriginal children.’ However, it pretended to its readers that this made little difference to the outcome: ‘Although the Aborigines Welfare Board had no power to remove children, it could notify the police that it was concerned about a particular child and thereby initiate forcible removal action.’ The report declined to tell readers that any Aboriginal child removal at the time was subject to the Child Welfare Act of 1954, a law that did not discriminate on grounds of race or ethnicity and which required police to go before a magistrate and prove their case, just as with white children. Nor did it provide any examples of what normally happened in this period. So let me give one now. It comes from Richard Broome’s book, Aboriginal Victorians: A History Since 1800:
In 1944 two children were removed from a couple who had a history of convictions for drunkenness and domestic violence. The crunch came when they were both drunk in public and police observed the father throw the children down the river bank. The children were crying and allegedly in danger of falling in. Their hut was said to be ‘dirty’ and there was only flour, jam and powdered milk on hand. A police constable said in court: ‘I have known the accused about three years. I have frequently seen them on the streets of Shepparton in a drunken condition with their children. There have been convictions of both of them. In my opinion they are not fit and proper persons to have control of children. The children have no boots and few clothes.’ They were convicted of causing neglect, jailed, and their children were removed.
Bringing Them Home also misled its readers about the intentions of the government in 1957. It alleged the government remained determined to enforce assimilation. Although the new Aborigines Act removed the Board’s authority to remove children:
Nevertheless, comments were made in debate on the Bill on the desirability of separating Aboriginal children from what were regarded as degenerate influences of their family. The best hope for these children was seen to lie in making them believe they were part of non-indigenous society.
This was dissembling. As the barrister Douglas Meagher observed in a withering dissection of Bringing Them Home’s treatment of the debate on the Victorian legislation:
So far as I can determine (and it is difficult because no source is supplied in the Wilson report), that may have referred to a speech by a Mr Feltham, a Country Party member in the Legislative Council, who was speaking not of government policy but of the activities of a committee of local citizens at the Mooroopna Settlement near Shepparton (Hansard vol. 252 p 1261). Or perhaps it was a reference to Mr Little, of the same house and a member of the Opposition, who spoke of removal of children from conditions of squalor and specifically disclaimed that it was on the ground of their parentage (Hansard vol. 252 p 1265). No member of the government spoke in such terms. Speeches by backbenchers, especially members of the Opposition, are not a basis for concluding government policy of the time.