As Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon said in 2008, the $58,000 individual payments to his state’s stolen children were not much for a lifetime of ‘cultural isolation’. His choice of phrase made it clear that he was endorsing the full-blown Stolen Generations thesis of Peter Read: Aboriginal children were removed from their parents with the aim of preventing them from inheriting Aboriginal culture. Yet in Tasmania this could not possibly be true for at least four reasons: (i) there was no existent Aboriginal culture from which to be disinherited; (ii) the Tasmanian authorities did not believe the children they removed were Aborigines; (iii) many children removed from Cape Barren Island were fostered with other Cape Barren Islander families on the Tasmanian mainland; and (iv) only a small proportion of Tasmanian Aboriginal children were removed, demonstrating no serious program to destroy Aboriginality ever existed.
At the time of writing, only four of the 84 Tasmanians recipients of compensation had been publicly identified. The four participated in government media announcements of the compensation package. However, when each of them discussed their background in interviews, they provided information that only went to further question the existence of the Stolen Generations in Tasmania. The personal biographies they gave to journalists included the following information:
[Annette Peardon]: The story that we’ve learned and from some files, the charge was neglect for most mothers that lost their children, or the children were actually taken from them, and the charge was neglect. I myself was removed from Flinders Island with my brother and my mother, who’s now deceased, was actually in prison for three months hard labour for neglect of children.
[Debra Anne Hocking]: I was born in South-East Tasmania in a family of five children and the welfare authorities removed myself and my other siblings when I was eighteen months of age and you have to understand that this isn’t recalled history, this is stuff that I’ve read from my government file, a lot of it, particularly in the early years. So we were removed on the grounds of neglect, and neglect back in those days could mean anything, it could mean that, you know, perhaps there wasn’t enough food in the cupboard and so you were being neglected, or perhaps, you know, the kids haven’t got shoes on so they’ve been neglected, and it was very dodgy, very dodgy guidelines on, you know, neglect … Over the years all my mother’s children, my five brothers and sisters were removed from her care. Over a period of two years all but one of the children were returned. Sadly I was not returned but instead remained in state care for reasons I have yet to understand.
Eddie Thomas, 70, believed to be the oldest surviving member of the stolen generations in Tasmania, was taken from his grandmother when he was six months old. He and his brother and sister had been placed in her care when his mother died of septicaemia after his birth on Cape Barren Island in 1936. He believed his grandmother was duped into signing a consent form. ‘She couldn’t read or write, so she couldn’t have been in agreement,’ he said. His life with white foster families on mainland Tasmania was unhappy and his grandmother was prevented from visiting the children, he said.
Heather Brown, 63, broke down as she recalled the day she and six other children were taken from her family home … She still does not know why she was taken from her parents at Wiltshire Junction, northwest Tasmania, or why she was not allowed to see them or her siblings while she grew up in a succession of foster families.
Although each of these four people had seen their social welfare files, none of them could quote any extract saying welfare or police officers acted simply because the children were Aborigines, or half-castes, or Cape Barren Islanders. As they said, two of them were ostensibly removed because of parental neglect, one did not know why she was removed, and the grandmother of the fourth apparently consented to his removal to a foster home six months after his mother died in childbirth. In short, none of the four provided any evidence they were removed ‘simply on the basis of race’, as Premier Lennon claimed. If these were the best cases Lennon could find to nominate for media interviews, there was a void at the centre of his rationale.
In fact, the reasons given on the welfare files raise a very different possibility. If ending the Tasmanian Aboriginal or half-caste ‘race’ really had been the policy of the governments and the courts of the time, why would the officials involved in these four quite different child removal cases go to so much trouble to cover their actions with bogus file entries? Why didn’t they simply record the underlying reasons on which they allegedly acted and the policies that sanctioned them? Why, in subsequent years when this issue gained so much publicity, have none of them regretted their actions and publicly come clean? It doesn’t make sense. In Debra Hocking’s case, her four siblings were returned to their mother yet, according to the theory of the Stolen Generations, the whole idea was that the children would never return. As Lennon said, they were meant to endure ‘a lifetime of cultural isolation’. So that doesn’t make sense either. Indeed, the only rational conclusion is that the reasons given on the files probably told the truth. The children really were neglected; the grandmother really did request the baby be placed in foster care.