Perversely, the legal system in Queensland, which until the 1970s seemed the most oppressive for all the Aboriginal people who came within its jurisdiction, was the one that impinged least on Aboriginal children. The state created no separate institutions for Aboriginal children. It was least interested in removing them from the fringe camps and shanty towns, the least concerned about the sexual fate of half-caste girls, the most hostile to the notion of assimilation, the most critical of proposals to ‘breed out the colour’ and yet the most loathed by those who saw themselves as Aboriginal policy ‘progressives’.
Queensland removed far fewer children from their parents than any of the other states, except Tasmania. In the period from 1908 to 1971, the Queensland government placed 8912 Aboriginal men, women and children in government reserves, missions and other state institutions. Included in this figure were 2024 children. Yet only 249 of these children were unaccompanied by adults. They meant just 2.8 per cent of the Aboriginal people moved to reserves over 63 years were separated from their parents. The rate was less than four separations a year. These figures were calculated by the Queensland government from its own records and submitted in 1996 to the Human Rights Commission inquiry into the Stolen Generations.
Since then, at least one true believer in the Stolen Generations thesis has gone through the same records to try to make the total look bigger. In 2005, Mark Copland submitted a PhD thesis to Griffith University in which he counted both nineteenth- and twentieth-century removals in Queensland. He said that from 1859 to 1971 a total of 660 unaccompanied Aboriginal children were removed to institutions. However, to get that figure he not only extended the time frame by forty years but also included ‘removal’ to mean children placed in dormitories on the same missions where their parents were located.
As I have documented in Chapters Eight and Nine, most dormitories for children on government stations and missions in northern Australia were not fully segregated from the parents’ quarters. The children slept and ate apart but saw their parents most days. There were a small number of institutions that did use dormitories to enforce a fairly strict regime of segregation, especially the Anglican missions at Yarrabah in North Queensland and Forrest River in the Kimberley district of Western Australia, but is it wrong to assume the majority of children’s dormitories were of this kind. Any total that automatically counts children in dormitories as ‘removed’ or ‘stolen’ should be treated as suspect.
Nonetheless, even if Copland’s figure of 660 children removed from parents over 112 years were to be accepted as accurate, it still left Queensland with the lowest removal rate of all the states, less than six children a year. Given that Queensland was the second most populous state for Aborigines after Western Australia, such a small proportion is a good indicator of how little intention the state authorities had to separate children from their parents.
The Queensland government submission gave a selected list of extracts why children were sent to reserves between 1937 and 1941. A random sample of record cards from that period gave the following reasons for the removal of children:
· to accompany parents
· conduct has not been good
· transferred from the care of the State Children Department
· only eleven years of age and both parents are dead
· to accompany her father
· neglected children
· to join parents
· for their own benefit
· care and education
· parents dead — to be looked after and to receive schooling
· too young to work, to receive schooling.
Apart from the most common reason why children went onto Queensland reserves — to accompany their parents — the remaining reasons were similar to those that applied at the same time in New South Wales: because the children were orphans or neglected, or because there were opportunities for them to go to school. None of this fits the Stolen Generations profile of forcible removals for racist reasons. However, when it discussed Queensland, as elsewhere, Bringing Them Home failed to tell its readers that the line it was pushing did not fit the evidence it received from the state governments concerned.
As Chapter Seven has already discussed, Queensland was the state with the strongest commitment to the segregation of Aboriginal people. An Act to Make Provision for the Better Protection and Care of the Aboriginal and Half-Caste Inhabitants of the Colony, and to Make More Effectual Provision for Restricting the Sale and Distribution of Opium received assent in December 1897. The Act and its successors dominated the lives of Aboriginal people for the next seven decades. Queensland rejected the notion that Aboriginal people, particularly those of full descent, could be readily integrated into the expanding white economy and society. Instead, it sought to segregate them on reserves set apart from white communities. It appointed Protectors to deport large numbers of Aborigines onto the reserves where they could be permanently detained. The Act created an Aborigines Department and a Chief Protector. It divided the state into two administrative regions and appointed a Protector for each division. The Protectors had the right to detain Aboriginal people and control their movements. In particular, they were required to exclude Aborigines from towns and places where alcohol was available and to prevent Aboriginal women from having sexual relations with white men. Although half-castes who lived among whites, especially if married to them, could apply for exemption from the Act, the powers of the authorities to remove others were almost unlimited. There was no need for a court hearing and no appeal against a decision. Charles Rowley described the regime as follows:
Queensland now set a new example, by defining in rigid racial terms those who were to be the main concern of the Act — to be directed where to live, to be ‘drafted’ there where necessary; to be limited to the life of the institution at the will of the official. The special category of persons to whom the Act applied included Aborigines, and half-castes married to or children of Aborigines, or who ‘habitually’ associated with Aborigines … Aborigines, by administrative direction and without appeal, could be ‘removed to’ and kept ‘within’ the reserve boundaries unless they were lawfully employed or married to white men.
For Aborigines who proved recalcitrant and who refused to be confined to their allocated reserves, in 1918 the state established a place of secondary confinement. Troublemakers were shipped to Palm Island where they joined an estranged community. Others sent there were the unmarried mothers of half-caste children and criminals recently released from prison. Because it was an island, 65 kilometres off the coast from Townsville, escape was very difficult.
The rationale for reducing Aborigines to what was effectively second-class citizen status was to prevent them from being economically exploited in the settled districts and from being subject to violence on the outback frontier. The author of the 1896 report that lay behind the Act, Archibald Meston, was a Queensland journalist who provided a range of anecdotal evidence to support his case. He wanted Aborigines excluded from all itinerant work, which included cane cutting on the Queensland sugar fields, and an ‘absolute prohibition’ of all Aboriginal labour on the largely Asian-owned fishing boats that collected pearl shell, bêche-de-mer and tortoiseshell, and which paid their indigenous labour in opium dross — the ash left from smoking. Meston said the dross was widely used as a work incentive to addict Aborigines and tie them to an employer. Abori-gines in permanent employment were not to be removed to reserves but their positions should be registered and their conditions regulated by the state.
As compensation for their loss of economic freedom and confinement to the reserves, Aboriginal people were to be given housing, rations, clothing, schools and medical aid and were to be employed on the reserves raising tropical and sub-tropical crops and stock. In the twentieth century, the government established several sprawling, segregated communities to house men, women and children. They brought together Aboriginal groups from many districts, some of them traditional enemies. Some settlements were based on old missions, which received additional housing and other facilities. Others were newly created government-run settlements which, according to Rowley, soon developed the classic ills of the institution under authoritarian management and generated the same lack of political concern. According to Charles Rowley: ‘Aboriginal administration in these places became an issue as remote as that of gaols or asylums.’
From the mid-nineteenth century until 1906, child welfare provisions for both black and white children had been governed by Queensland’s Industrial and Reformatory Schools Act of 1865. This Act included an extraordinary clause that defined as neglected ‘any child born of an aboriginal or half-caste mother’. However, the Act required neglect to be established by a court before a child could be removed to an industrial school or reformatory, and no one has found evidence that any child was removed simply because it was born to an Aboriginal mother. An amendment in 1906 dropped the clause. Under the 1865 Act, some of Queensland’s Aboriginal missions were declared to be industrial schools. Instead of removing child offenders or neglected Aboriginal children to non-indigenous institutions, they were sent to Aboriginal missions. One former mission redefined like this was at Deebing Creek, near Ipswich, which became the Deebing Creek Industrial School. Aboriginal children from other reformatories were subsequently sent there.
At the same time, however, Queensland police were positively discouraged from recommending the prosecution of Aboriginal children for either neglect or juvenile offences. In the 1880s, an internal directive was issued to all police that no action could be taken to arrest half-caste children without first reporting the matter to the Colonial Secretary.
The 1865 Act was eventually replaced by the State Children Act of 1911. This also applied equally to black and white children and again, rather than allow a child to be removed by arbitrary administrative fiat, it required a court to decide on cases of neglect. This Act remained in force for more than 50 years when it was replaced by the Children’s Services Act of 1965. Yet again, the new Act contained no particular provisions for Aboriginal children.
The closest Queensland came to creating special powers for the removal of Aboriginal children was the Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act of 1939 which replaced the Chief Protector with the position of Director of Native Affairs and gave him increased powers. Among them was the provision that the director of Native Affairs be the ‘legal guardian of every Aboriginal child under 21’. Recording this in Bringing Them Home, the Human Rights Commission took the most radical interpretation, declaring it gave the Director of Native Affairs ‘virtually total control of the lives of Indigenous children’. That might have been true in theory, but as the Bruce Trevorrow case in South Australia showed, when tested in court the concept of ‘legal guardian’ did not mean the state had in loco parentis powers over children, even over children on government reserves. In any case, the Human Rights Commission was forced to admit in Bringing Them Home that, whatever the particular powers the authorities had over Aboriginal children, very little use was made of them in Queensland since ‘families were generally moved together’.
Indeed, in the report’s chapter on Queensland, any statistics about the incidence of actual child removal were conspicuous by their absence. Had Bringing Them Home done a proper job of fulfilling its terms of reference it would have admitted that the segregationist administration in twentieth-century Queensland, however else one might regard its deprivation of Aboriginal liberties, was not a regime that pursued the separation of Aboriginal children from their parents to any serious extent. Instead, Bringing Them Home confined itself to lamenting the powers over Aboriginal people the 1897 Act and its successors gave the state, while omitting to mention the inconvenient truth of how small a number of children were actually separated. Had the report been frank with its readers, it would have admitted that the data provided by the state government, which were the only Queensland data it had, proved that no plausible case could be made for the existence in Queensland of anything deserving the name of Stolen Generations.