y mum as soon as I was born…What Welfare wanted to do was adopt all these poor little black babies into nice, caring white families, where theyd get a good upbringing. I had a shit upbringing. Me and [adopted brother who was also Aboriginal] were always treated different to the others…”
In 1964, Paul was stolen from the Royal Childrens Hospital in Melbourne as a baby, when he and his mother were both ill. His mother was told his removal to a Babies Home was a temporary arrangement until she got better. But Paul was first made a ward of the State and then offered for adoption when the courts dispensed with his mothers consent. The adoption placement failed because the family was racist, and Paul was returned to an orphanage, subsequently being fostered until the age of 17. In this family too, he experienced cruelty, abuse and racism which he didnt understand until he was discharged from State wardship. It was a bombshell.
“In May 1982…the Senior Welfare Officer…conveyed to me in a matter-of-fact way that I was of Aboriginal descent, that I had a Natural mother, father, three brothers and a sister, who were alive…He placed before me 368 pages of my file, together with letters, photos and birthday cards. [His mother had never given up looking for him.] He informed me that my surname would change back to my Mothers maiden name…”
The Home at Bomaderry in NSW, notorious for holding Indigenous children, was not closed until 1980.
And according to National Party MP Bob Katter hardly a sympathiser of the Aboriginal cause the removal of Aboriginal children, presumably under child welfare legislation, is still going on today in areas of Queensland and other parts of the country. So we are not talking about “ancient history” here, but a pattern of racist oppression which has continued in different forms from settlement right up to today.
In fact, Bringing them home devotes a whole chapter to “Contemporary separations”. Though “assimilation” is no longer official government policy, there are still ways to break up Indigenous families and communities. Although Indigenous children and youth aged 10-17 accounted for only 2.7 per cent of the total youth population in 1993, they made up 20 per cent of the numbers in care, with the main reason cited as “neglect”. In 1997, Indigenous children were almost six times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be removed from their families and placed in protective care, according to a survey by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (and in fact this was an underestimation, because NSW was unable to provide details on Aboriginality).
Of perhaps even greater concern is the juvenile justice system and the way it is administered in respect of Aboriginal youth. Indigenous youth (and adults) are routinely arrested for minor “offences” such as drunkenness, offensive language and so on, which when committed by whites lead to at most a caution. The Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody recommendation that these offences be dropped from the criminal code like most of its other recommendations was ignored.
A study by researchers from the University of Melbournes criminology department found that over-representation of Kooris in the Victorian criminal justice system has worsened since the findings of the Royal Commission on Black Deaths in Custody in 1991. Between 1989-90 and 1993-94 the number of Koori “offenders” aged 17 and under jumped by 69 per cent, and the rate of charges against Kooris increased by 17.3 per cent over the same period. Kooris are 14.5 times more likely to be charged with being drunk than non-Aborigines and 10 times more likely to be charged with robbery.
After funding of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Services Association Inc was cut in 1996 (as a result of Federal government cuts to ATSIC), the number of young Victorian Aborigines in custody nearly doubled in less than a year.
In November 1996 Western Australia introduced a “three strikes” law which makes a minimum 12 month jail sentence mandatory for anyone adult or juvenile convicted of a third home burglary offence. Under this law, a 12-year old Aboriginal boy was jailed for a year for acting as a look-out. There was outrage in December 1997, when a magistrate jailed two Aboriginal children for (quite understandably) spitting at the racist MP Pauline Hanson. Fortunately, the public outcry led to their release.
In August 1995, a National Police Custody Survey illustrated, according to an analysis done by the Australian Institute of Criminology “the continuing heavy involvement of Indigenous children (compared to non-Indigenous children) in the criminal justice system, in particular the elevated proportion of Aboriginal children being held in the cells by police.”
Of 1,753 juveniles aged from 10 to 17 years held in police custody in the survey period, 704 about 40 per cent were Indigenous children and young people. Similarly, some 36 per cent of youth in juvenile correctional institutions in June 1996 were Indigenous, with a rate of incarceration of 540 per 100,000, compared to 25 per 100,000 for non-Indigenous youth.
These scandalous figures again highlight the systematic, ingrained racism of Australian society and its institutions. And as the WA Aboriginal Legal Service submission to the Stolen Generations inquiry points out, “The detention of Aboriginal youth is a form of child removal.”
The separation from their families and communities of Indigenous children and youth detained in correctional institutions is even worse when you consider that the detention centres are often hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away from the communities, especially in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, where the rates of removal are particularly high compared with the national average.
So its very strange that he was prepared to give a personal apology (albeit a very grudging, mean-spirited one) at the 1997 Reconciliation Convention, but utterly refuses to countenance an apology by the Federal Parliament, on behalf of the nation. And since he followed up his stilted, two-sentence “expression of regret” with an angry, lectern-pounding tirade defending his governments policy on native title, its hard to believe in his sincerity. No wonder a quarter of the audience turned their backs on him in disgust.
It might appear that Howard just doesnt get it. A majority of people (according to the polls), most newspapers, churches, a host of eminently respectable public figures, and even some State Liberal governments can recognise that an acknowledgement of and apology for past crimes against the Aboriginal people is not a matter of people today admitting individual or collective guilt a word which, as the inquiry President Sir Ronald Wilson has pointed out, is never mentioned in Bringing them home.
But Howard isnt really that dumb. His refusal to consider either an official apology or compensation arises out of his determination to pursue a course that involves not only continuing racist oppression, but stripping away some of the gains, small as they are, that Indigenous people have made in recent years.
Howards 10-point plan in response to the High Courts Wik judgement takes away from Indigenous people and gives to the miners and pastoralists, and all the millionaires who stand to make windfall profits from the effective upgrading of pastoral leases to freehold ownership. So Howards response (or lack of it) to the Stolen Generations report is entirely consistent. He doesnt want to acknowledge the past because he plans to continue it in other ways.
A sincere acknowledgment and expression of regret for the wrongs done to Australias Indigenous people has nothing to do with guilt. But it does imply that you take responsibility for trying to redress the wrongs by fighting for, or at least supporting, greater rights and a better deal for Aborigines today.
The reason Howard is so obsessed with guilt is that, unlike most of us, he actually does have reason to feel some.
But of course, Howard doesnt want to be seen as the racist he is, nor does he want the Australian economy damaged by international perceptions of Australia as a racist country. Hence his condemnation of what he calls “the black armband view” of Australian history. Howard prefers what the historian Henry Reynolds refers to as the “white blindfold view”. (And the whitewashing continues. Following the release of Bringing them home, government departments have been instructed not to refer to “stolen” children, but to use the more sanitised term “separated” instead.)
There is no rigid barrier between the past and the present or between the present and future for that matter. There is a continuity in history things that happen in one year or decade shape what comes after, as the victims of the assimilation policy know only too well.
“I have six children. My kids have been through what I went through…The psychological effects that it had on me as a young child also affected me as a mother with my children. Ive put my children in Bomaderry Childrens Home when they were little. History repeating itself.”
The social and economic position of Aborigines today is a direct result of what has happened to them in the past. And on a personal level, the effects ripple through the generations in a vicious cycle of despair and alienation.
In fact, as the report clearly shows, existing laws were often flouted and common law rights were certainly ignored. British common law rights were promised to all the Indigenous peoples of the British Empire. But in far-flung colonies, before the development of mass transportation and communica