The empirical underpinnings of Bringing Them Home derived largely from the work of white academic historians. The Human Rights Commission did no serious research of its own into the primary historical sources. Co-authors Ronald Wilson and Mick Dodson also declined to hear any evidence that might have contradicted their preferred interpretation. They did not call witnesses from many of the still-living public officials responsible for child removal to hear or test their reasons for their policies and practices. The commission’s only original contribution was to solicit the testimony of 535 Aboriginal people who had been removed from their parents and who spoke about their own experiences. While many of these stories were completely believable in what they said about what happened and how they felt, it is nonetheless true that when these witnesses were children they were not in a position to comprehend the question at the centre of the accusation of genocide, the motives of government policy makers.
Moreover, some of these informants made claims that should never have been published. In Bringing Them Home, the anonymous ‘Jennifer’ claimed one child at the Cootamundra Girls Home was beaten to death by the staff, who then secretly disposed of the body. As Chapter Five argues, this assertion deserves no credibility whatsoever and, indeed, was a malicious defamation of the matron at the time, Miss Emmeline Rutter. History books have reproduced other tall tales from allegedly stolen children that could not possibly be true. One gave a vivid first-hand account of 500 children supposedly rounded up in 1938. The alleged aim was to remove all the half-caste children in the Kimberley district to the Western Australian government’s Moola Bulla station. However, as shown in Chapter Eight, the entire population of half-caste people in the Kimberley at the time, adults and children, amounted to just 500 and the station’s records of the full-blood and half-caste children it accommodated and fed at Moola Bulla that year numbered only 61. Most had been sent by their parents to go to the station’s school.
Some of the most celebrated books by Aboriginal authors about supposedly stolen children also provide serious grounds for contention, especially the works of Margaret Tucker and Sally Morgan. These and other stories told by well-known Aborigines Lowitja O’Donoghue and Charles Perkins are discussed in Chapter Six. I also discuss there the influence of the Communist Party of Australia, which few people realize played a key role in making some Aboriginal authors famous.
The idea that the removal policies had a racist component and were aimed at ending Aboriginality did not originate in Aboriginal testimony. Indeed, until the term ‘stolen generations’ first appeared in 1981, there had been no popular tradition among Aboriginal people that employed either the term or the concept. In the 1910s and 1920s, parents on some state-funded Aboriginal stations in New South Wales and South Australia did disagree with the government finding employment for their teenage children as four-year indentured apprentices. But these complaints were not about the removal of babies or young children. Moreover, these parents knew their children would be gone for a fixed term and then return.
The person who initiated the idea that the government wanted to destroy Aboriginality was a then unknown white postgraduate history student, Peter Read. He alone was granted the vision denied to all who came before him. In the course of just one day, he wrote a twenty-page pamphlet to make his case. His original title was ‘The Lost Generations’ but his wife advised him to substitute the more attention-getting adjective ‘stolen’.
Read’s publication, The Stolen Generations, was published in 1981 and was noticed within social policy and legal circles, but not much elsewhere. The critical turning point in the attitudes of Aboriginal people did not come until two years later. Read’s colleague in the Link-Up social work organization, Coral Edwards, addressed a meeting of the National Aboriginal Consultative Council to ask for funding for their new service. To the 40, mostly middle-aged Aboriginal community leaders, who until then had been ignorant of any racist separation policy, Edwards’s speech came as a bombshell. Mothers had not voluntarily given their children away, she said. Rather, ‘the governments never intended that the children should ever return’.
It is not difficult to understand the immediate appeal of such an explanation to many Aboriginal families, especially to those who had grown up on welfare communities and segregated housing estates with high rates of crime, alcoholism, domestic violence and child abuse. This new version of events was deeply comforting. The myriad problems in their own lives no longer derived from the failings of their families or the bad choices they made themselves. Mothers had not given their children away, fathers had not left their children destitute or deserted their families or been so consumed by alcohol they left them vulnerable to sexual predators. Siblings and cousins had not abandoned their communities because they thought their way of life hopeless. Instead of reproaching themselves, Aborigines could suddenly identify as morally innocent victims of a terrible injustice. Their problems could all be blamed on faceless white bureaucrats driven by racism. Since Read created this interpretation, it has come to be believed by most Aboriginal people in Australia.
That does not make the story true. Indeed, as an historical interpretation of government policy in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, it was poorly founded from the outset. Its creator once boasted he had read ‘all the thousands of childcare records of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board’. However, Read could not have done anything like the investigation he claimed. His research for The Stolen Generations was so shoddy he was completely ignorant of the existence of one government and mission-run institution in New South Wales that housed Aboriginal children for nineteen years, and he attributed to another institution a fifteen-year history that bore little relationship to what it actually did. Chapter Five provides the details. He drew selectively on the individual case files of removed children to bolster his case, but misrepresented the total picture. He provided false information about the age of children concerned and the proportion of them who never returned to their families and communities. He selected from government minutes and reports a small number of apparently incriminating quotations, took them out of context, and gave them a meaning their originators never intended. What little support for his thesis he could find he exaggerated out of all proportion. He claimed the Ward Registers of the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board openly revealed the real motives of those in charge:
The racial intention was obvious enough for all prepared to see, and some managers cut a long story short when they came to that part of the committal notice ‘Reason for Board taking control of the child’. They simply wrote ‘for being Aboriginal’.
My examination of the 800 files in the same archive found only one official ever wrote a phrase like that. His actual words were ‘Being an Aboriginal’.
In the early twentieth century, according to Read, the Australian authorities began to realize the Aborigines were not ‘dying out’ as once thought. Instead, the number of half-castes and others of part descent was increasing. So instead of being rid of the Aboriginal race by natural causes, governments decided they had to do the job themselves. ‘In the long term, Aborigines were not wanted — anywhere,’ Read wrote. ‘Their extinction, it seemed, would not occur naturally after all, but would have to be arranged. One of Read’s academic colleagues, the historian Heather Goodall, said the New South Wales government tried to do this by deliberately reducing the Aboriginal birth rate. This was, she claimed, the publicly declared reason the Aborigines Protection Board introduced its policy of youth apprenticeships:
The Board stated quite openly in its reports and minutes that it intended to reduce the birthrate of the Aboriginal population by taking adolescent girls away from their communities. Then it intended that the young people taken in this way would never be allowed to return to their homes or to any other Aboriginal community. The ‘apprenticeship’ policy was aimed quite explicitly at reducing the numbers of identifying Aboriginal people in the State.’
Goodall did not give any specific source for her claim. Instead, she referred readers of her book Invasion to Embassy to the Aborigines Protection Board’s annual reports for the whole period 1906 to 1923. I read the board’s reports not only for the years she suggested but also for its entire 85 years’ existence, looking for any comment about its intention to reduce the Aboriginal birth rate. I could not find anything of the kind. Instead, the board explained its apprenticeship policy in 1924 in the following terms:
[The Board’s] object is to save the children from certain moral degradation on the reserves and camps, and to give them a chance to reach maturity, after which they are given every facility to return either on holiday or permanently, according to their wish, to their own districts, where they are expected to take up suitable employment. Here they have an opportunity of meeting people of their own colour, and in many instances they marry and settle down in homes of their own.
The board also defined its policy in very similar terms in its minutes of June 1919 and its annual report of 1925–26. Chapter Three quotes them in full and examines the board’s real objectives. In short, the board saw a period of apprenticeship as the key to gaining employment, and the best way for Aboriginal youth to get off welfare and live independent lives in the modern world. It wanted to put an end not to the Aboriginal race but to Aboriginal dependency.
The Human Rights Commission used Read, Goodall and other academic historians as its major sources of information on government policy, thereby replicating their omissions, mistakes and falsehoods. Bringing Them Home copied a passage from Pat Jacobs’s biography of A. O. Neville, which quoted the Western Australian Chief Protector apparently announcing that in the ‘best interests’ of Aboriginal children he intended to remove as many as possible from their parents: ‘I say emphatically there are scores of children in the bush camps who should be taken away from whoever is looking after them and placed in a settlement …’ This quotation, however, was a truncated version of what Neville actually said. His full sentence was: ‘I say emphatically there are scores of children in the bush camps who should be taken away from whoever is looking after them and placed in a settlement, but on account of lack of accommodation, and lack of means and additional settlements, I am unable to exercise the power which the Act definitely gives me in this respect.’ In other words, instead of a declaration of intent to remove scores of such children, Neville’s full statement was actually an explanation why he could not remove them. As Chapter Eight shows in detail, he never had the funds to remove more than a handful each year. The same was true of the Chief Protectors in other states. None of them ever had enough money to remove all the genuine child welfare cases within their domain, let alone attempt as immense a task as eliminating the Aboriginal race.
That did not mean, however, that Aboriginal institutions were as impoverished as historians have painted them. Though conceding that they were not as terrible as the mass extermination camps of Nazi Germany, historian Anna Haebich nonetheless claimed: ‘Aboriginal people in Australia’s refugee camps and gulags faced for a far longer period the daily reality of starvation, disease, chronic ill health and often early death.’ It is true the Moore River Settlement in Western Australia was a vermin-infested dump, and some of the remote missions in the tropical north ran short of food supplies in the wet season and during periods of prolonged drought, but they were not typical. The best Aboriginal stations had superior buildings and more amenities than many white working class people in the outer suburbs and country towns at the same time. Some institutions for Aboriginal children had swimming pools, gymnasiums, tennis courts, film projectors, radios, record players, pianos and telephones decades before many white people. Chapter Five contains details. In the midst of the 1930s Great Depression, the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board used unemployment relief funds to provide its La Perouse Reserve with new buildings designed by the Government Architect, to plant it with trees and shrubs from the Sydney Botanic Gardens, and to connect every home with fresh water and sewerage. The State Government Tourist Bureau thought so highly of refurbished La Perouse it listed it with Bondi Beach among Sydney’s recommended visiting spots for overseas tourists. In the 1950s, St Mary’s Hostel for Aboriginal children at Alice Springs, located in a former wartime recreation centre for servicewomen, was another model of its kind that attracted busloads of tourists.