ge 15] I…wanted to continue in school, but I wasnt allowed to…I was sent out to the farms just to do housework.”
The first Aboriginal magistrate, Pat OShane, recalls her ambitions to study medicine, but her teacher “responded that I didnt have the brains to go on to high school…notwithstanding that I had always had an above average record through school.”
A three-year study in Melbourne during the 1980s of both children taken from families in childhood (33 per cent) and those raised in their communities found that those removed were: less likely to have undertaken tertiary education; much less likely to have stable living conditions; twice as likely to have been arrested by police and been convicted of an offence; three times more likely to have been in jail; and twice as likely to be using illegal drugs.
A national survey by the Bureau of Statistics in 1994 found no significant difference in standards of education, ability to find work, or the large numbers living on incomes under $12,000 between those removed and those not. But those removed were twice as likely to have been arrested more than once in the last five years. And 70.9 per cent of those taken away assessed their own health as good or better, compared with 84.5 per cent of those not taken.
The effects of the atrocities of the past haunt peoples lives to this very day. And in any case, those children who could point to some positives such as education to weigh up against the devastation of separation are very much in the minority.
A majority of the stolen children spent all or part of their childhoods in institutions, and in many cases, this was a prelude to a life in and out of other institutions, such as prisons and psychiatric hospitals.
“They grew up to mix with other troubled children in Tardon…they only knew how to mix with the other boys they grew up with and these boys were into stealing, so my sons went with them. I couldnt tell them anything…because they felt that coloured people were nothing…
“One of my sons was put into jail for four years and the other one died before he could reach the age of 21 years. It hasnt done my sons any good, the Welfare…taking them away from me, they would have been better off with me their mother.”
To say that any stolen child “benefited” from the experience is not only utterly false with respect to material advantage for the vast majority, it also reflects the racist view that there is nothing of value in Aboriginal culture and denies the significance of cultural identity for Indigenous people.
Howard says that he “understands” the concerns and anxieties of those white Australians who feel their cultural identity is under threat (people who are attracted to Pauline Hansons One Nation for instance). He is also an active promoter of “family values”. Yet he shows absolutely no sympathy for or understanding of the cultural identity and family relationships of Indigenous people. This, plus his contemptuous dismissal of the report and its recommendations, is further evidence of his inherently racist world view.
There are none so blind as those who will not see. Bringing them home documents criticism of and opposition to the practice and methods of forcible removal, as well as the extreme cruelty and abuse suffered by children, from the very beginning, and all around the country. It quotes Members of Parliament, government officials (including police and patrol officers), newspaper editorials, welfare organisations and of course Aboriginal organisations.
The historian Henry Reynolds has recently published a book, The Whispering in Our Hearts (Allen and Unwin 1998), about opposition to the treatment of Aborigines from 1790 to 1940. He notes that the word “reconciliation” was used in the 1830s in much the same way as it is used today, showing that “this tradition has much deeper roots than people suppose.”
In an official report commissioned by the Queensland government in 1896, Archibald Meston wrote:
“Kidnapping of boys and girls is another serious evil…[They] are frequently taken from their parents and tribes, and removed far off whence they have no chance of returning; left helpless at the mercy of…white people responsible to no-one and under no supervision by any proper authority…Stringent legislation is required to prevent a continuance of abuses concerning the women and children.”
In 1915, the NSW parliament passed the Aborigines Protection Amending Act, giving the Protection Board total power to take children away without having to prove neglect, and abolishing the minimum age at which Aboriginal children could be apprenticed. There was strong opposition to this Act by MPs who argued that it was an “act of cruelty” to “steal the child away from its parents”, that the real intention was “to gain absolute control of the child and use him as a slave without paying wages” and that this was tantamount to the “reintroduction of slavery in NSW.”
South Australias 1923 Aborigines (Training of Children) Act made it easier for the state to remove Indigenous children, justified on the basis that such a separation was “less traumatic” for Indigenous than for white children. It was strongly opposed by Aboriginal families who organised a petition to the government, and they won some public support. The South Australian magazine Daylight editorialised: “There is not and never should be occasion for the Children to be taken away from their parents and farmed out among white people.” As a result of the protests, the operation of the Act was suspended in 1924, although it was subsequently revived in another form.
In 1925 the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association (AAPA) was formed in NSW and immediately called for an end to the stealing of children. One of the AAPAs supporters was the MP for Cobar, whose questions in parliament led to a Parliamentary Select Committee into the Aborigines Protection Board and a further inquiry in 1938.
In Western Australia in the early 1930s, a series of articles appeared in the local and international press, containing allegations of slavery, mistreatment of Aborigines and abuse of Aboriginal women. The resulting publicity forced the government to hold a Royal Commission. Bessie Rischbieth, president of the Australian Federation of Women Voters, gave evidence: “In most instances I should prefer to see the children left with their parents…the system of dealing with the parents should be improved in order that they might keep their children”. In her opinion, governments preferred to remove children “because it was cheaper than providing the same system of support which operated for white children.”
Another prominent critic was the feminist Mary Bennett, who taught from 1932 at the Mt Margaret Mission in Western Australia. She described the removal of children as the “official smashing of family life”. Feminist politics of the time were strongly maternalist, and this led feminist groups such as the Australian Federation of Women Voters, the Womens Christian Temperance Union and the British Commonwealth League to take up the issue of the stolen children. They supported Aboriginal women giving evidence to a WA Royal Commission in 1934, though they failed to win the legal rights for Aboriginal mothers that they were seeking. Their evidence was dismissed by Royal Commissioner Moseley as “hearsay…interesting, but valueless”.
In 1937 the Commonwealth Minister of the Interior, John McEwen, visited The Bungalow and Half-Caste Home in Darwin, and was shocked at what he saw:
“I know many stock breeders who would not dream of crowding their stock in the way these half-caste children are huddled.”
Though not documented in the report, a major source of opposition to racist government policies towards Aborigines was the trade union movement, and especially the unions influenced by the Communist Party. In the film Lousy Little Sixpence (itself evidence that many people knew about and opposed forcible removal), an Aboriginal activist fondly recalls the financial support given by wharfies of the Waterside Workers Federation, who “gave like anything”.
In the light of the Howard governments current attacks on maritime workers, it is well worth recalling the wharfies proud history of support for Indigenous people indeed it is precisely this record of solidarity with the oppressed which is one of the main reasons the government and employers have set out to smash the Maritime Union of Australia.
In 1964 Faith Bandler, the NSW Secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, wrote to the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF predecessor of the MUA) secretary: “The main support of the FCAATSI [in the struggle for scholarships for Aborigines to receive skills training] comes from the Trade Unions, and among the Trade Unions, the WWF has a special place in my heart because it has so often been the first and most generous in response to our appeals.”
The next year, the WWF levied every member around Australia to build a new bakery at Moa, a Torres Strait Island, after the Queensland government had refused to help. With other groups of well-organised workers, such as the Newcastle branch of the Operative Bakers, Seamen and the Transport Workers Union, the WWF organised the purchase, delivery and installation of the bakery.
In the run-up to the 1965 FCAATSI conference, Aboriginal wharfies held lunch hour meetings to explain the issues to their fellow workers. In 1968, with other unions, the WWF bought a car for Aborigines in northern Australia campaigning for their rights. By 1969, the WWF was one of seven unions which had set up committee