The argument of this book is that Australia does not deserve this reputation. While the case against genocide for the Stolen Generations has already produced several effective critics, most notably anthropologists Ron Brunton and Kenneth Maddock, journalists Paddy McGuinness, Paul Sheehan and Andrew Bolt, and two former Ministers for Aboriginal Affairs, John Herron and Peter Howson, a full defence of the charge has yet to be mounted. This book is longer, more detailed, and much less reader-friendly than it ought to be to gain a wide readership. But to address the full range of arguments made by the prosecution there was no alternative but to proceed comprehensively and forensically. That could only be accomplished properly by a complete re-examination of the foundation on which the case was originally made: its claim to be historically true.
My conclusion is that not only is the charge of genocide unwarranted, but so is the term ‘Stolen Generations’. Aboriginal children were never removed from their families in order to put an end to Aboriginality or, indeed, to serve any improper government policy or program. The small numbers of Aboriginal child removals in the twentieth century were almost all based on traditional grounds of child welfare. Most children affected had been orphaned, abandoned, destitute, neglected or subject to various forms of domestic violence, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. Historians have given Western Australia a particularly loathsome reputation, but when you examine the records you find the majority of children placed in state Aboriginal settlements were from destitute families and they went there with their parents. In New South Wales, some children became part of an apprenticeship indenture program to help Aboriginal youth qualify for the workforce. A significant number of other children were voluntarily placed in institutions by Aboriginal parents to give them an education and a better chance in life.
Moreover, there is no fall-back position for those who want to argue that, even if the removals might not have quite amounted to genocide, they were still done for racist reasons. In Chapter Three I demonstrate in an analysis of welfare policy for white children that none of the policies that allowed the removal of Aboriginal children were unique to them. They were removed for the same reason as white children in similar circumstances. Even the program to place Aboriginal children in apprenticeships was a replica of measures that had already been applied to white children in welfare institutions in New South Wales for several decades, and to poor English children for several centuries before that.
Chapters Three and Eight also discuss several pieces of legislative discrimination against Aboriginal people and their children that derived from the system of Aboriginal protectionism in the first half of the twentieth century. In some states officials treated Aboriginal people who lived on reserves, government stations, and on state-funded missions, depots and settlements as though they were the equivalent of white inmates of welfare institutions. I have no desire in this book to defend these last measures since they effectively treated Aborigines as second-class citizens. However, the critical question in the debate over the Stolen Generations is not whether all Aboriginal policy was free of discrimination. Rather, it is why were some Aboriginal children removed from their parents. The answer was the same for black children as it was for white. They were subject to the standard child welfare policies of their time. This is not to say the laws were all the same for black and white children. In some states they were quite different. Nonetheless, the intentions behind the laws that allowed the state to remove children, whether black or white, were the same.
One critical point that has always been avoided by the historians of the Stolen Generations is that full-blood children were rarely, and in many places never, removed from their parents. By the early decades of the twentieth century, most Aborigines in the southern half of the Australian continent were people of part descent, but in the northern half, full descent populations predominated. In the Kimberley district and the Northern Territory, half-castes constituted a small minority of indigenous people. From Federation to the Second World War, the policies of the Queensland, Western Australian and Commonwealth governments were to preserve full-blood Aboriginal communities inviolate. By the 1920s and 1930s, when it became clear the full-blood population was not dying out as previously thought, but was actually increasing in some places, these governments established reserves of millions of acres and passed laws forbidding Europeans and Asians from entering Aboriginal communities, employing or removing full-blood Aborigines without permission, having sexual relations with them, or providing them with alcohol or opium.
Overwhelmingly, in the north of the continent, the Aboriginal children subject to removal policies came from the minority of half-castes and those of lesser descent. They were removed for both traditional welfare reasons and to help some gain education and training for the workforce. In the local idiom, the latter was known as ‘giving them a chance’. The only full-blood children taken into care were those chronically ill, dangerously malnourished or severely disabled, but this was uncommon. Less urgent cases of child abuse and neglect among full-bloods were ignored and simply regarded as Aboriginal business.
This is yet another reason why the charge of genocide is untenable. The United Nations Convention on Genocide, Article 2, defines acts of genocide as those ‘committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such’. Half-castes and those of lesser descent did not constitute any such group. Their identity varied enormously. Some saw themselves and were treated by others as Aborigines, but there were many who did not. In some communities, full-blood people accepted half-castes; in others they were not regarded as true Aborigines at all; in some cases, half-caste babies born to tribal women were routinely put to death. Chapters Seven and Ten discuss evidence about many half-caste people who did not identify as members of a distinct racial community, and indeed, were more concerned to emulate white people and live like other Australians.
To say there were no Stolen Generations is not to argue there were no forcible removals of Aboriginal children from their families. There were many forcible removals in the period under discussion, just as there are today. Parents who neglected their children, who let them go hungry, who abused them with violence, who prostituted them, who let them run wild with no supervision, or who drank themselves into an alcoholic stupor while leaving children to their own devices, all faced forcible removals — often by the police and occasionally under scenes of great duress. Academic historians and Aboriginal activists, however, have redefined all these legitimate removals as racist and genocidal. Only by this means have they been able to mount the semblance of a case. A detailed study of the surviving individual case records in New South Wales in Chapter Two reveals an array of reasons for removal far too broad to fit into any single-minded bureaucratic program.
Some Aboriginal children do have genuine grounds for grievance, but they are not alone. In the rough justice of child welfare policy, white children could be treated harshly too, especially if their mothers were unmarried. Until as recently as the 1970s, such children, white or black, were frequently removed on grounds that we would not approve today. Before governments began paying pensions to unmarried mothers in the 1970s, children could be charged with neglect because they lacked a father, and thus a means of support. Until then, unmarried white teenage girls who fell pregnant were strongly pressured by both church and state to give up their babies, who were often taken from them at birth and adopted out to other families. But in these cases the child’s fate was determined not by its colour but by its illegitimacy. There was a common presumption throughout Australia that unmarried teenage mothers, black or white, could not and should not be left to bring up the children they bore. White children too were removed from parents in ways that now appear to us to be unfair.
Some people removed as children remember their former family life as a time when they were happy and well cared for. They recall their removal as an event of great trauma. There is no reason to doubt they are telling the truth. Some of their testimony is inherently convincing. They could not possibly have invented the kind of trauma they described. There were others, however, who remembered trauma from another source — their own homes: ‘I can understand why they took me,’ one former inmate of the Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls’ Home told an interviewer in 1994. ‘Mum and dad were terrible when they were on the grog — in fact we were dead scared.’ The problem with the Stolen Generations thesis is that childhood recollections constitute the only credible evidence its adherents have provided to make their case. But no amount of childhood anecdotes can establish the argument’s central thesis that the intentions of the authorities were both criminal and racist. That accusation was embedded in both the words of the term. The adjective ‘stolen’ said the removals were deliberately intended to achieve an illegal result. The noun ‘generations’ said this objective was targeted at a particular line of people across successive age cohorts. The childhood memories of individuals are not enough to establish that governments had such intent or such perseverance. Indeed, memories of childhood trauma are consistent with forcible removals for the same welfare reasons as white children.
The case for the Stolen Generations needed a convincing account of government policies towards Aboriginal children. However, this book’s examination of the primary source evidence reveals there is a void at the very core of the case. There was no unequivocal statement by anyone in genuine authority that child removal was intended to end Aboriginality. The only support for that proposition has come from creative interpretations of selected statements taken out of context by politically motivated historians. Moreover, the lack of government words on the subject was matched by the lack of government action. The handful of places allocated for the care of Aboriginal children, the tiny budgets that supported the government boards and departments, and the archival records that show how small a fraction of the Aboriginal population they affected, all render the thesis completely implausible.
Another of the central claims of the academic historians who created this story was that children were taken by authorities as young as possible so they would never inherit Aboriginal culture. ‘The younger the child the better,’ according to Henry Reynolds, ‘before habits were formed, attachments, language learnt, traditions absorbed.’ In the SBS Television series, First Australians, scriptwriters Beck Cole and Louis Nowra confidently declared: ‘Between 1910 and 1970 an estimated 50,000 Aboriginal children were removed from their families. Most were aged under five.’ None of those who make this assertion have ever backed it with proper evidence, such as a breakdown of the ages of the children sent to various institutions. All the available evidence shows their claims are completely untrue.
The statistics of child removals in this book reveal those most commonly affected in New South Wales were not the very young but those at workforce entry age, which in rural districts in the first half of the twentieth century was normally thirteen, fourteen and fifteen years. This was because of the influence of the state’s apprentice indenture scheme. In Western Australia and the Northern Territory the age of the few separations correlated with primary school age. This was because many part-Aboriginal children in these regions were sent by their parents to board at government and religious hostels and institutions that sent them to school. Whatever their circumstances, it was rare for babies and infants to be removed. In one archive of 800 children removed between 1907 and 1932 in New South Wales, only seven were babies aged twelve months or less and only eighteen aged between twelve months and two years. Some governments had policies that strictly forbade removing Aboriginal babies unless they were orphans or urgently needed hospitalization for disease or malnutrition.
Another deception is the assertion by historians that most children were removed permanently, that they were never meant to see their parents again. ‘The break from family, kin and community must be decisive and permanent,’ Henry Reynolds has written. ‘If young people could return to their families the effort had been wasted.’ Chapter Two provides good evidence that this was also untrue. The case records show a clear majority of children removed in New South Wales returned either to their families or to Aboriginal communities. In fact, welfare authorities gave the older ones assistance such as money for the rail fare home, and usually accompanied the younger ones on the train. In other states, especially Western Australia, government institutions like the notorious Moore River Settlement and religious missions across northern Australia admitted the majority of child inmates with their parents. Institutions for indigent Aborigines of all ages have been widely but wrongly characterized by historians, television producers and filmmakers as homes exclusively for children, when they never were.
Rather than acting for racist reasons, government officers and religious missionaries wanted to rescue children from welfare camps and shanty settlements riddled with alcoholism, domestic violence and sexual abuse. Evidence throughout this book shows public servants, doctors, police and missionaries appalled to find Aboriginal girls between five and eight years of age suffering from sexual abuse and venereal disease. They were dismayed to sometimes find girls of nine and ten years old hired out as prostitutes by their own parents. That was why the great majority of children removed by authorities were female. The fringe camps where this occurred were early twentieth–century versions of today’s notorious remote communities of central and northern Australia. Indeed, there is a direct line of descent from one to the other — the culture of these camps has been reproducing itself across rural Australia for more than 100 years. Government officials had a duty to rescue children from such settings, as much then as they do now. From the perspective of child welfare officials, the major problem was that state treasuries would not give the relevant departments and boards sufficient funds to accommodate all the neglected and abused children who should have been removed.