In 1881 the New South Wales government of Premier Henry Parkes and acting Premier John Robertson created the office of Protector of the Aborigines and appointed the former Mayor of Sydney and then Legislative Councillor, George Thornton, to the position. I mention these names and titles because until now the historians who discuss the people involved in establishing Aboriginal policy in New South Wales have largely neglected to tell us who they were. Those who accuse them of stealing children usually treat them as faceless men and sheet the blame home anonymously to ‘the government’ or to bureaucratic boards. In his 1981 pamphlet The Stolen Generations, Peter Read denounced those responsible without mentioning even one of their names. In his 1999 book A Rape of the Soul So Profound, Read has a headline asking ‘Who is to Blame?’ But the only culprits he identifies are ‘various Aborigines protection and welfare authorities’, ‘officers’ and ‘officials’ of the New South Wales Aborigines Welfare Board, and some unnamed former managers and superintendents of the homes for Aboriginal children at Cootamundra and Kinchela.
If we are going to try people for genocide in their absence, we ought to have a clear idea of who they are. Although the story of the Stolen Generations is now widely accepted across Australia, the only publicly familiar individual is Auber Octavius Neville, the Aboriginal administrator of Western Australia from 1915 to 1940, thanks to his portrayal by actor Kenneth Branagh in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence. Within academic and intellectual debates over the Bringing Them Home report, a handful of other administrators and protectors became known — Cecil Cook of the Northern Territory, John William Bleakley and Archibald Meston of Queensland. In New South Wales, the only figure of authority commonly mentioned by historians is Robert Thomas Donaldson, a member of and inspector for the Aborigines Protection Board from 1904 to 1929.
Passing the buck down the line this way is historically misleading. In New South Wales, Aboriginal policy went all the way to the top. Premiers and former premiers not only enacted the policy into legislation, they took personal responsibility for it, publicly endorsed it and in some cases held offices responsible for the day-to-day administration of Aboriginal policy. After Henry Parkes and John Robertson, another prominent New South Wales politician who became closely involved was Alexander Stuart, leader of the free traders. As both Premier and Colonial Secretary in 1883, Stuart founded the Aborigines Protection Board, the organization which Peter Read says began ‘the century of Aboriginal persecution’. Sir John See, Premier from 1901 to 1904, was a member of the Aborigines Protection Board continuously from 1897 until his death in 1907. He was also a member of the board’s local management committee at Grafton. As Premier in 1903, See and his Attorney-General Bernhard Wise personally visited Aboriginal stations as far distant from Sydney as Brewarrina. One of the founding figures of the Australian Labor Party in New South Wales, Fred Flowers, was the state’s Chief Secretary when he personally endorsed additional powers the Aborigines Protection Board had long sought to implement its policies. In 1915, the state’s first Labor government, then headed by William Arthur Holman, enacted these powers into law, thereby triggering what Read has labelled an ‘enormous tragedy’ for Aboriginal children. In 1943, an amendment to the law by the Labor government of William McKell, a man who later served as Governor-General of Australia, permitted Aboriginal children to be placed with foster parents in private homes, a policy that the Human Rights Commission was later to claim was ‘arguably genocidal’.
In other words, Aboriginal policy was not made out of sight by anonymous officials working behind closed doors. Nor was it the product of the peculiar obsessions of a handful of bureaucratic zealots who got their way through government inertia or neglect. Whatever happened, it was openly approved by our democratic processes. If the charge of genocide is true, then the major political figures of the era, and indeed the constituents who approved of them enough to vote them into office, must be guilty. Hence the indictment should be made openly, naming those charged so we can assess the case both on the evidence provided by their accusers and on what else we know of their opinions and character.
Not only are the faces of the accused usually absent, but so are their voices. Bringing Them Home and Peter Read’s histories pay almost all their attention to the stories of the victims. Indeed, Ronad Wilson and Mick Dodson of the Bringing Them Home enquiry expressly decided not to invite testimony from any of the surviving government ministers, public servants or heads of institutions who administered the policy. Wilson later justified this stance with a claim that his budget of $1.8 million was insufficient to ‘headhunt’ any of those in authority. This excuse is unconvincing. It would have cost very little to ask all the still-living ministers responsible to testify at the hearings held in all states. All would have been glad of the opportunity to put their case. Wilson clearly preferred not to give a platform to views that might have contested those of his Aboriginal witnesses. To judge this case properly we at least need to hear, in their own words, what those who designed, implemented and administered the policies thought they were doing. If their roles are to be assessed fairly, we need to know their intentions.