Genocide, the Australian way: the truth about the Stolen Generations

Published: 26/07/2007

Written by: Tess Lee Ack and Sandra Bloodworth


Preface to the 2007 edition
Took the Children Away
Chapter 1 - What happened?
Chapter 2 - Answering the lies
Chapter 3 - The socialist alternative

Preface to the 2007 edition

This pamphlet was first published in 1998. We reprint it today in the context of a new and savage assault on Aboriginal rights from the Howard government.

After over a decade of leaving Indigenous people to rot in poverty, misery and squalor the Howard government has now unleashed its racist jackboot. Aboriginal communities are to be flooded with troops and cops and a vicious police state imposed.

Any element of Aboriginal self-determination is to be eliminated and the Racial Discrimination Act overridden. Land rights are to be summarily abolished.

Aboriginal children are to be stolen from their families once again. Forced labour is to be imposed. Welfare payments are to be halved and subject to tight authoritarian controls. Whites are to be given open slather to enter Aboriginal land.

What could be more utterly cynical than John Howard shedding crocodile tears over the sexual abuse of Aboriginal children? This is the man who refused to apologise for the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children. This is the man whose government presides over an Aboriginal infant mortality rate three times higher than that of whites.

This is the man whose government spends 70 cents per head on the health of Indigenous people for every $1 spent on the rest of the population. This is the man who has done nothing about the fact that Indigenous people die 20 years earlier than non-Indigenous Australians and are imprisoned at a rate 30 times the national average.

This is the man who for decades has sought to whitewash Australian history to deny the genocide and dispossession of the Aborigines. This is the man who gave Pauline Hanson open slather to launch her racist attacks on Asians and Aborigines and who orchestrated the racist "children overboard" scare.

Part of the task of resisting Howard's latest assault involves reasserting the truth about Australian history. That in itself is enough reason to justify republishing this pamphlet today.

The removal of Indigenous children from their families is one of the darkest chapters in the history of Australia. Hundreds of thousands of children were stolen, leading to the devastation of their families and communities. In 1997, the full extent of the horror was revealed by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission in its report, Bringing them home.

"Assimilation" (and other names by which the practice of stealing children was known) was a genocidal policy. Its purpose was the destruction of Indigenous culture and community, and as such it played a key role in the dispossession of Indigenous people.

This pamphlet examines the evidence in the report and debunks the racist arguments used by today's government to deny full acknowledgement and reparation. It argues that the government's aim is to perpetuate the oppression of Indigenous people to the advantage of the Australian ruling class, especially in the mining and pastoral industries.

- July 2007

Took the Children Away

This story's right, this story's true

I would not tell lies to you

Like the promises they did not keep

And how they fenced us in like sheep

Said to us come take our hand

Sent us off to mission land

Taught us to read, to write and pray

Then they took the children away

Took the children away

The children away

Snatched from their mother's breast

Said it was for the best

Took them away

The welfare and the policeman

Said you've got to understand

We'll give them what you can't give

Teach them how to really live

Teach them how to live they said

Humiliated them instead

Taught them that and taught them this

And others taught them prejudice

You took the children away

The children away

Breaking their mother's heart

Tearing us all apart

Took them away

One dark day on Framlingham

Came and didn't give a damn

My mother cried go get their dad

He came running fighting mad

Mother's tears were falling down

Dad shaped up he stood his ground

He said you touch my kids and you fight me

And they took us away from our family

Took us away

Snatched from our mother's breast

Said this is for the best

Took us away

Told us what to do and say

Told us all the white man's ways

Then they split us up again

And gave us gifts to ease the pain

Sent us off to foster homes

As we grew up we felt alone

Cause we were acting white

Yet feeling black

One sweet day all the children came back

The children came back

The children came back

Back where their hearts grow strong

Back where they all belong

The children came back

Said the children came back

The children came back

Back where they understand

Back to their mother's land

The children came back

Back to their mother

Back to their father

Back to their sister

Back to their brother

Back to their people

Back to their land

All the children came back

The children came back

The children came back

Yes I came back

© Archie Roach

Reprinted with the author's permission


To read Bringing them home, the report from the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families[1] (otherwise known as the Stolen Generations Inquiry), is to be overwhelmed with rage and horror. Your mind reels before the record of cruelty and misery it records, the kind of reaction you feel when you read about the Holocaust or the killing fields of Cambodia. The only thing that makes reading the report bearable is the knowledge that this attempt at genocide, while causing terrible suffering, could not stamp out the human spirit and could not prevent Indigenous people asserting their identity and demanding the sympathy of masses of ordinary people.

You read of Indigenous families shunted into shanty towns on the fringes of towns because of racism, denied work because of employers' prejudices, denied social security because they weren't recognised as citizens in their own land. The Catch-22 was that these very conditions provided the "legal" pretext to take their children away to be "assimilated" into white society, trained only for the most menial occupations to be a cheap (or often unpaid) labour force.

Many people will not be able to read the 689 pages of the report, but what was done to the stolen generations, their families and their communities must never be forgotten. Together with the report from the National Inquiry into Black Deaths in Custody, Bringing them home provides a damning indictment of the genocidal policies used against Australia's Indigenous people, past and present. Taken together, the reports document the systematic racism which has made Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders the most disadvantaged group in Australian society, and among the most disadvantaged on the face of the planet.

The two reports are among the most important documents in Australia's history. Yet Federal and State governments have done little or nothing to even acknowledge, much less make good, the tremendous damage they record, damage which amounts to crimes against humanity.

Indeed, in response to the High Court's Wik decision, the Coalition government under John Howard has introduced amendments to the Native Title Act (known as the 10-point plan), which aim to extinguish native title in all but name, perpetuating the cycle of dispossession and alienation. In what has been described (not only by socialists and Aborigines themselves) as "the biggest land grab since 1788", Howard's legislation takes from the Aborigines to give to the richest pastoralists in the land. At the time of writing, the Senate has rejected this legislation for the second time, setting the scene for a double dissolution and a general election.

Howard derides what he calls the "black armband view of history" - that is, a history which tells the truth about what happened to the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and how Australia's wealth was built on the theft of their land. He does so for both pragmatic and ideological reasons: to advantage his rich mates and make Australia safe for the mining companies, pastoral interests and capitalism generally, and to justify his assault on the gains Indigenous people have made in recent years, meagre as they are.

The Howard government has also given the go-ahead to Energy Resources Australia's Jabiluka uranium mine, situated on the traditional lands of the Mirrar people in the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, in direct contravention of the wishes of the traditional owners. Once again, the rights of Indigenous people have been trampled over in the rush to make profits.

The government therefore wants to sweep the Stolen Generations report under the table.[2] A crucial aspect of its strategy to enrich the miners and pastoralists is to deny any spiritual or traditional connection with the land as the basis for a native title claim - and this is the only kind of claim many of the stolen generations can make.

They must not be allowed to get away with it. In the past, Indigenous people have won rights through struggles - such as the freedom rides, the Gurindji strike and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy[3] - in which they and their supporters took to the streets to gain popular support. Today, we need that kind of fight again.

Opinion polls, the numbers who attend demonstrations in support of Indigenous rights and the establishment of organisations like Defenders of Native Title and the Jabiluka Action Groups show that there is widespread support for justice for Indigenous Australians. That support needs to be mobilised into a powerful movement that can stop Howard and turn the tide against the rising racism that he has fostered.

This pamphlet looks at some of the issues raised by the Stolen Generations report - and in particular addresses the criticisms and disclaimers emanating from the Howard government and its supporters in big business - not to mention Pauline Hanson and her racist One Nation organisation. In order to build the kind of movement described above, we need to be able to counter Howard's arguments with the real facts. Hopefully this pamphlet is a small contribution to building such a movement.

- May 1998


Chapter 1 - What happened?

In 1949, Millicent was four years old. That's when she and five of her siblings were taken from their parents and placed in institutions. She never saw any of them again, apart from one brother who was subsequently removed to another institution.

The authorities told Millicent that her parents didn't want her, when actually they prevented them from visiting her. After a horrific childhood consisting largely of domestic servitude, beatings and religious indoctrination, Millicent was sent into unpaid domestic service, where she was raped, bashed and slashed with a razor for resisting. On reporting the rape, she was beaten for lying. The resulting pregnancy earned her yet more beatings. Millicent was overjoyed to have a baby - someone she could love - but her joy was shortlived. They took her baby away and told her the infant had died - a lie only revealed when the two were reunited many years later.

The immense human tragedy of the stolen generations is made up of thousands of stories like Millicent's.[4]

The practice of forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families has a long and dishonourable history, dating back to the very beginning of European settlement in Australia. The early settlers often simply kidnapped children to work for them, as personal or domestic servants, or on the land. They were effectively enslaved: paid no wages and supplied with only the barest necessities of food, shelter and clothing. In the north of Australia, this type of thing was happening up to the early twentieth century.

While settlers stole children purely for personal gain, governments and churches came up with a range of ideological justifications for the practice of systematically removing children from their families. These justifications, though on occasion presented as in some sense "benevolent", led to the same outcome for their Aboriginal and Islander victims - lives of misery and physical, cultural and spiritual deprivation.

The motivation of the missionaries and governments also reflect a deep underlying racism. Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were seen as backward and barbaric, incapable of determining their own future and therefore without rights. They had to be "civilised", their languages, culture and way of life destroyed, so that they could take their place - a subordinate one, naturally - in European society. Crucially, they were to be inculcated with European values and work habits so that they would be fit for service to the colonial settlers.

You didn't have to scratch the surface very far to find the real motivations behind seemingly "altruistic" actions. In 1814, for example, Governor Macquarie funded a school for Aboriginal children. Within a few years, however, it became obvious to Indigenous families that the real purpose of the school was to distance the children from their families and communities. This was an essential step in the process of separating Indigenous people from their land, which was necessary to free the land for capitalist exploitation.

Meanwhile, colonial authorities were doing nothing to curb the brutal activities of the settlers. It was the British government, embarrassed by reports of frequent massacres and atrocities, which moved to appoint a Select Committee into the condition of the Aboriginal people. But the result of this, far from providing any relief for Indigenous people, was the establishment of legal mechanisms to control the Indigenous population, restrict their movements and rights and remove their children. All this went on in the name of "protection".

Along with "protection" went segregation. Many Aborigines, thrown off their land, deprived of the means of subsistence and forced into dependence on government handouts, drifted to the towns and set up camps. The inevitable poverty, malnutrition and disease in the camps made them an embarrassment to the settlers and the colonial governments. So it was planned to remove Indigenous people to reserves in areas the Europeans didn't want, segregating them from the white population and restricting their movement. By 1911, the Northern Territory and every State except Tasmania had some form of "protectionist legislation", giving the government-appointed Protection Board or Chief Protector virtually total control over every aspect of Aborigines' lives, and, crucially, legal guardianship of all the children. The sham of "protection" was indicated by the fact that the enforcement of protectionist legislation was carried out by "protectors" who were usually police officers.

The exception, Tasmania, simply removed all its Aboriginal inhabitants to Cape Barren Island and thereafter claimed it had no Aboriginal population, just a few "half-castes".

Throughout the nineteenth century, massacres, disease and malnutrition took a heavy toll, leading to a serious decline in the full descent Indigenous population. However, the mixed descent population was increasing, due no doubt to the widespread practice of the rape of Aboriginal women and girls by white settlers. These developments led to a somewhat different approach from the authorities. In social Darwinist "survival of the fittest" terms, the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were "doomed races", destined to extinction because they couldn't compete with a more "advanced" society. The task of government and missionaries was therefore to "smooth the dying pillow". Indigenous people of mixed descent, however, were to be absorbed into European society and forced to join the workforce. This policy of "merging" would both save the government money and provide cheap labour for the developing capitalist economy, and it made the removal of children an even more vital part of the process, to keep full descent and mixed descent Aborigines apart.

Definitions of "Aboriginality" were arbitrarily changed to fit government policy and facilitate the break-up of families and communities. Across the country, there were some 67 definitions of "Aboriginality", enshrined in over 700 pieces of legislation. People were defined as "full blood" or "half caste" and there were further offensive divisions such as "quadroon" and "octoroon".

The first national discussion of the "Aboriginal problem" took place in 1937, at a Commonwealth State Native Welfare Conference. It was here that the notion of "merging" became the policy of "assimilation", which formed the basis for government action right up to the 1970s. The difference between "merging" and "assimilation" was largely one of degree: an intensification and extension of control over the Indigenous population. Though couched in seemingly high-minded phrases about enabling mixed descent Aborigines to "take their place in the white community on an equal footing with the whites" and "improving their lot", the authorities began from the implicit notion that there was nothing of value in Aboriginal culture. Aboriginality was to be destroyed by removing "half-caste" children from their communities, their language and their cultural heritage. Assimilation was not a sharp break from what had gone before, simply a refinement.

Moreover, the practices which occurred under assimilation were racist through and through. To return to Millicent's story: the reason given for taking the children was that "the authorities decided us kids could pass as whitefellas". But at the notorious Sister Kate's Home in Western Australia where Millicent spent her childhood, she got a very different message:

"They said it was very degrading to belong to an Aboriginal family and that I should be ashamed of myself, I was inferior to whitefellas. They tried to make us act like white kids, but at the same time we had to give up our seat for a whitefella because an Aboriginal never sits down when a white person is present."[5]

All States had child welfare legislation which allowed children - black or white - to be taken from their parents if the children were deemed to be "neglected", "uncontrollable" or "destitute". Prior to 1937, however, most States preferred to use the protectionist legislation when taking Indigenous children, because that way they didn't have to justify anything before a court. The authority of the Chief Protector or the Board was sufficient.

But even after 1940, when child welfare legislation was used instead, "proof of neglect" could easily be dispensed with. In many cases, "Aboriginality" was sufficient "proof", and the poverty in which Aborigines were forced to live made them targets because it could be argued the children were "destitute". Girls who ran away from situations of sexual abuse or got pregnant were labelled "uncontrollable". The separations were carried out with extreme brutality, traumatising the children and their parents for life.

"Early one morning in 1952 the manager from Burnt Bridge Mission came to our home with a policeman. I could hear him saying to Mum, ‘I am taking the two girls and placing them in Cootamundra Home.' My father was saying, ‘What right have you?' The manager said he can do what he likes, they said my father had a bad character (I presume they said this as my father associated with Aboriginal people). They would not let us kiss our father goodbye, I will never forget the sad look on his face...That was the last time I saw my father, he died within two years after...Next morning we were in court. I remember the judge saying, ‘These girls don't look neglected to me'. The manager was saying all sorts of things. He wanted us placed in Cootamundra Home. So we were sent away..."[6]

Children were routinely taken from their mothers at birth. Her consent was sometimes waived, sometimes forced from her with threats, or she was simply told the child died.

"My mother told us that the eldest daughter was a twin...And in those days, if Aboriginals had twins or triplets, they'd take the babies away. Mum swore black and blue that boy [the twin] was alive. But they told her that he had died. I only found out a couple of years ago - that boy, the nursing sister took him. A lot of babies were not recorded."[7]

Often, too, the parents and children were tricked:

"I was at the post office with my Mum and Auntie [and cousin]. They put us in the police ute and said they were taking us to Broome...But when we'd gone [about ten miles] they stopped and threw the mothers out of the car. We jumped on our mothers' backs, crying, trying not to be left behind. But the policeman pulled us off and threw us back in the car. They pushed the mothers away and drove off, while our mothers were chasing the car, running and crying after us...When we got to Broome they put me and my cousin in the Broome lock-up. We were only ten years old. We were in the lock-up for two days waiting for the boat to Perth."[8]

Children who were left temporarily in "homes" or even hospitals simply disappeared.

"A mother [single teenager] had a child in a home, and went out to provide some sort of basis for rearing the child...when the mother came back, they told her that the child had died. And 25 years later we have a request from a person to find his mother...(she) now has gone through the grieving of the person dying and now coming to terms with his resurrection."[9]

Siblings who were stolen were often placed separately, or even when placed together, their identities and kinship were not revealed. The inquiry gives the example of one witness who, in a seeming act of gratuitous cruelty, was "introduced to his brother on the day that brother was departing the institution for a foster placement."[10] At a conference following the release of the report in Melbourne in 1997, an Aboriginal speaker recalled how he, along with an older boy, was summoned one day to the office of the institution in Ballarat where the two of them had lived for several years, introduced to an Aboriginal woman and told she was their mother.

And you didn't have to be stolen to experience the effects of the practice:

"Every morning our people would crush charcoal and mix that with animal fat and smother that all over us, so that when the police came they could only see black children...We were told always to be on the alert and, if white people came, to run into the bush or run and stand behind the trees as stiff as a poker...and hide...And if the Aboriginal group was taken unawares, they would stuff us into flour bags and pretend we weren't there. We were told...if we sneezed...we'd be taken off and away from the area...During the raids on the camps it was not unusual for people to be shot - the arm or the leg. You can understand the terror that we lived in..."[11]

The pace of removals increased through the 1950s and 1960s. Despite the difficulty in establishing precise numbers (partly because of lack - or falsification - of documentation, partly because many removals were illegal even under the various racist laws in operation) the inquiry concluded that between 1910 and 1970, between one in three and one in ten children were forcibly removed, and "[I]n that time not one Indigenous family has escaped the effects...". [12]

One of the most heart-rending aspects of the report is reading about the Indigenous parents who blamed themselves for the loss of their children. The NSW branch of Link-Up (an organisation which works to reunite separated families) reported to the inquiry:

"...we found that Aboriginal women were unwilling and unable to speak about the immense pain, grief and anguish that losing their children had caused them...We see that they judge themselves harshly, never forgiving themselves for losing their children - no matter that they were part of ongoing systematic removal of Aboriginal children...They were made to feel failures; unworthy of loving and caring for their own children; they were denied participation in the future of their community."[13]

The accounts of those who observed this pain show clearly how the lives of the parents, and the wider Indigenous community, were shattered.

"I remember my Aunty, it was her daughter that got taken. She used to carry these letters around with her. They were reference letters from the whitefellas in town...[saying that] she was a good, respectable woman...She judged herself and she felt the community judged her for letting the welfare get her child...She carried those letters with her, folded up, as proof, until the day she died."[14]

Such accounts also show how the practice of stealing their children is at the root of many problems experienced by Indigenous people today, particularly substance abuse.

"My parents were continually trying to get us back. Eventually they gave up and started drinking. They separated. My father ended up in jail. He died before my mother. On her death bed she called his name and all us kids. She died with a broken heart."[15]

Non-Indigenous families who adopted children were also lied to - told that mothers who were searching for their child were dead, or had refused to take responsibility for them. Some of these families told the inquiry they are wracked with guilt and regret that they were unknowingly complicit in such barbarism.

"We would never have deprived any mother of her child, or any child of its mother...The doctor told me how this child's mother was very young [she was actually 20] the baby was never wanted right from the start. If this was true, why did she take her poor frail baby home...? He would not feed. She took him back [to the hospital] and it was the last she saw of him. She said they would not give him back..."[16]

"In 1960 my wife and I applied to adopt an Aboriginal baby, after reading in the newspapers that these babies were remaining in institutionalised care...Later that year we were offered a baby who had been cared for since birth in a Church run Babies Home...We were told, and truly believed, that his mother was dead and his father unknown..."

Despite the love of his adoptive family, this child, Ken, grew up feeling isolated and alienated, subjected to constant racism, and several times attempted suicide.

"...When Ken was eighteen he found his natural family, three sisters and a brother. His mother was no longer living. She died some years earlier when Ken was four. Because of the long timespan, strong bonds with his family members could not be established."[17]

Although supposed neglect provided the justification for removing children from their parents, many children never experienced such terrible conditions and abuse until they were taken away.

"And for them to say she [mother] neglected us! I was neglected when I was in this government joint down there. I didn't end up 15 days in a hospital bed [with bronchitis] when I was with me mum and dad."[18]

"These are people telling you to be Christian and they treat you less than a bloody animal. One boy, his leg was that gangrene we could smell him all down the dormitories before they finally got him treated properly."[19]

The luckier ones were adopted; others went to foster families, sometimes a succession of them. But even those who were fortunate enough to be placed with loving families felt and regretted the effects of separation (see the discussion of "benefits" below). Often too, the adoptions or fostering arrangements didn't work out. Possibly the most notorious case of this was that of James (Russell) Savage, who was not only removed from his family, but from the country when his adoptive family moved to the USA. Like most stolen children, Russell had severe problems growing up, and ended up thrown out on the streets at the age of twelve. Worse was to come: several years ago, after getting involved with drugs and alcohol like so many other stolen children, he ended up in jail for life on murder and rape charges, narrowly escaping the death penalty. The scandal surrounding this case put a spotlight on the whole practice of stealing Indigenous children.

In keeping with the objectives of the assimilation policy, many children were not told of their Indigenous background. Children were bullied into adopting white ways of living and thinking, only to suffer abuse and denigration at home and school for the darkness of their skin. Others were taught racist attitudes towards Indigenous people only to find - often because of constant taunting about their complexion - that they themselves belonged to the people towards whom they felt disgust. The denigration of all things Aboriginal was one of the most common experiences reported to the inquiry.

"During this placement [with a foster family], I was acutely aware of my colour, and I knew I was different from the other members of their family. At no stage was I ever told of my Aboriginality...When I'd say...‘why am I a different colour?' they would laugh at me and tell me to drink plenty of milk, ‘and then you will look more like us.' The other sons would call me names such as ‘their little Abo' and tease me. At the time I didn't know what this meant, but it did really hurt..."[20]

"We were told our mother was an alcoholic and that she was a prostitute and she didn't care about us. They [foster family] used to warn us that when we got older we'd have to watch it because we'd turn into sluts and alcoholics, so we had to be very careful. If you were white you didn't have that dirtiness in you. It was in our breed, in us to be like that."[21]

But generally speaking, those who fared the worst were those - the vast majority - who were put into mostly Church-run institutions, such as Sister Kate's Home, Kinchela Boys' Home, Cootamundra Girls' Home and so on. The experiences from these institutions remain like a nightmare. Many inmates remember the constant hunger:

"There was no food, nothing. We was all huddled up in a a little puppy-dog...on the floor... Sometimes at night time we'd cry with hunger, no food...We had to scrounge in the town dump, eating old bread, smashing tomato sauce bottles, licking them. Half of the time the food we got was from the rubbish dump."[22]

On top of that, there were cruel punishments for the slightest "offence":

"I remember once, I must have been 8 or 9, and I was locked in the old morgue. The adults who worked there would tell us of the things that happened in there, so you can imagine what I went through. I screamed all night, but no-one came to get me."

"I've seen girls naked, strapped to chairs and whipped. We've all been through the locking up period, locked in dark rooms. I had a problem of fainting when I was growing up and I got belted every time I fainted...I've seen my sister dragged by the hair into those block rooms and belted because she's trying to protect me."[23]

The infamous A. O. Neville (WA Chief Protector 1915-40) wrote a book in 1947 in which he listed some of the punishments meted out by his staff - tarring and feathering, chaining girls to table legs (this was done by "an ex-Missionary, and a good man too" whom Neville clearly regrets having to dismiss), shaving heads and so on.[24]

But some stories were even more horrendous:

"Cootamundra...was very strict and cruel...Mum remembered once a girl who did not move too quick. She was tied to the old bell post and belted continuously. She died that night, still tied to the post, no girl ever knew what happened to the body or where she was buried".[25]

A key aspect of the assimilation project was to prevent the children speaking their own language. No effort was spared on this, because it was one of the most effective ways to permanently separate the children from their parents and communities.

"Y'know, I can remember we just used to talk lingo. [In the Home] they used to tell us not to talk that language, that it's the devil's language. And they'd wash our mouths with soap. We sorta had to sit down with the Bible language all the time. So it sorta wiped out all our language that we knew."[26]

This meant that even when children and parents were subsequently reunited, they often couldn't speak to each other except through an interpreter.

The accounts given to the Stolen Generations inquiry also abound with examples of sexual abuse of both girls and boys, which fits with the revelations about sexual abuse in churches and institutions everywhere (though the report notes that for girls in particular, "the risk of sexual assault in a foster placement was far greater than in any other"[27]). Almost one in ten boys and just over one in ten girls reported that they were sexually abused in a children's institution, while one in ten boys and three in ten girls reported the same for foster placements.

"There was tampering with the boys...the people would come in to work with the children, they would grab the boys' penises, play around with them and kiss them and things like this...It was seen to be the white man's way of lookin' after you. It never happened with an Aboriginal."

Girls who reported sexual assaults were told to stop telling lies and often beaten.

" foster father molested me. He would masturbate in front of me, touch my private parts and get me to touch his. I remember once having a bath with my clothes on 'cause I was too scared to take them off. I was scared of the dark 'cause my foster father would often come at night. I was scared to go to the outside toilet as he would often stop me on the way back...So I would often wet the bed...I once attempted to tell the local Priest at the Catholic Church and he told me to say ten Hail Mary's for telling lies. So I thought this was how ‘normal' non-Aboriginal families were. I was taken to various doctors who diagnosed me as ‘uncontrollable' or ‘lacking in intelligence'."[28]

A young Koori woman, with the help of an employer, tried to have a former employer who had raped her charged with the offence. Although two medical examinations confirmed the rape, the Protection Board officials to whom the matter was reported first accused the victim of being a "sexual maniac" and then had her committed to Parramatta Mental Hospital where she remained for 21 years.[29]

A total of 777 people and organisations from all over Australia provided evidence or submissions to the inquiry. This chapter provides only some samples of the experience of the stolen generations and their communities. The total picture is a devastating account of racism and the attempted destruction of an entire people and its culture.

"We may go home, but we cannot relive our childhoods. We may reunite with our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunties, uncles, communities, but we cannot relive the 20, 30, 40 years that we spent without their love and care, and they cannot undo the grief and mourning they felt when we were separated from them. We can go home to ourselves as Aboriginals, but this does not ease the attacks inflicted on our hearts, minds, bodies and souls, by caretakers who thought their mission was to eliminate us as Aboriginals."[30]

Chapter 2 - Answering the lies

Bringing them home utterly refutes the claims made by the likes of Howard and Hanson, as we shall see below. That's why Howard and Minister for Indigenous Affairs John Herron have gone to such extraordinary lengths to undermine it, before and after its release.

Howard claimed, for example, that the inquiry President, Sir Ronald Wilson, was "biased" because, in his capacity as a church representative, he had offered an apology to Indigenous people for the church's role in the treatment meted out to Aboriginal and Islander people. It is crucial that those who support Indigenous rights equip themselves with the facts and arguments, and disseminate them as widely as possible.

  • Howard claims that what happened is "all in the past", unfortunate to be sure, but "ancient history" nonetheless.

Indigenous children were forcibly taken from families well into the seventies - merely twenty years ago. The Broken Hill Aboriginal Legal Service told the inquiry "there were children removed from Wilcannia in the 1970s in much the same way [as] in the 1960s". A woman told how she was adopted by a white family, without her mother's knowledge, in 1973:

"I was taken off my 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 they'd get a good upbringing. I had a shit upbringing. Me and [adopted brother who was also Aboriginal] were always treated different to the others..."[31]

In 1964, Paul was stolen from the Royal Children's 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 mother's 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 didn't 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 Mother's maiden name..."[32]

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).[33]

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 Melbourne's 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.[34]

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.[35]

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."[36]

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."[37]

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.

  • Howard denies that he or anyone else alive today is responsible for what happened to Aborigines in the past.

So it's 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 government's policy on native title, it's 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 doesn't 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 isn't 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.

Howard's 10-point plan in response to the High Court's 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 Howard's response (or lack of it) to the Stolen Generations report is entirely consistent. He doesn't 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 Australia's 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 doesn't 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. I've put my children in Bomaderry Children's Home when they were little. History repeating itself."[38]

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.

Howard says we should not judge the actions of the past by present standards - that what was done was done in good faith, with the best of intentions, and sanctioned by the law of the time.

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 communications, local authorities could get away with murder - literally. And the Australian colonies were the most notorious. The report shows how the following common law rights were routinely violated with regard to Indigenous people: deprivation of liberty (by removing Indigenous people to reserves and missions and by detaining children and confining them in institutions); abolition of parental rights (by making the children wards or by assuming custody and control); abuses of power (in the removal process) and breach of guardianship obligations (on the part of Protectors, Protection Boards and other "carers").[39]

Moreover, a host of special legislation was devised to provide legal cover for the atrocities committed against Indigenous people. For example, a Welfare Ordinance was introduced in the Northern Territory in 1953. Its purported objective was to "subject all Aboriginal people to the same welfare legislation as non-Indigenous people. Accordingly, it made no mention of race, referring instead to ‘wards'. A ward was any person who ‘by reason of his manner of living, his inability to manage his own affairs, his standard of social habit and behaviour, his personal associations, stands in need of special care.'"[40]

These "wards" had no rights whatsoever; they were completely in the power of the Director of Welfare. But when there were protests from non-Indigenous Territorians who feared the Ordinance might be applied to them, the wording was changed to make it clear that only Indigenous children were to be targeted. This was simply done, still managing to avoid any reference to race - people with voting rights could not be made wards. Before the 1967 referendum, this excluded few apart from Aborigines.

Australia voluntarily pledged itself to certain standards of conduct under the banner of international human rights - the UN Charter of 1945, the UN Resolution of 1946 declaring genocide to be a crime against humanity, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and so on. At this time "assimilation" was in its infancy, and it was to continue for several more decades, despite the fact that the policy itself, and practices such as the forcible removal of children, were both generally and specifically outlawed under the various declarations Australia had signed (see also the discussion of genocide below).

Let's turn now to the treatment of Indigenous children and how it fits with the ideas of the time about the raising and treatment of children.

In our society, the family is held up as the foundation of all that is worthwhile - it is where we are supposed to be nurtured, loved and prepared for life in the wider world. This is not a new idea. Millions of words were written from the 1880s to the 1970s about the damage children suffer when removed from their parents, in particular the mother, and about the problems institutionalised care causes for child development.

As far back as 1874, a Public Charities Commission inquiry stressed that institutional life

" prejudicial to a healthy development of good character and the rearing of children as good and useful men and women. The one fatal and all-sufficient objection to the massing of children together under...conditions of barrack life is, its utter variance from the family system recognised by nature in the constitution of human society as the best suited for the training of the young."[41]

In 1951 the United Nations released a report based on studies of maternal deprivation and its effects. The report stressed that the focus of child welfare services should be on assisting families to keep their children with them. This thinking underpins a lot of child welfare policy-making this century.

In 1955 the Australian High Court unequivocally confirmed the rights of parents to keep their children except in the most extraordinary circumstances.

"It must be conceded at once that in the ordinary case the mother's moral right to insist that her child shall remain her child is too deeply grounded in human feeling to be set aside by reason only of an opinion formed by other people that a change of relationship is likely to turn out for the greater benefit of the child."[42]

Yet during all these years, in the name of "assimilation" into white society, Indigenous children were deliberately stolen from their families, then systematically lied to in order to keep them out of their families. They were prevented from having any contact with their families by the suppression of letters, being moved to inaccessible places, having their files destroyed, even having their names and birthdates falsified. By and large, these things did not happen to white children who were removed from their families. And indeed, the trend with regard to white children was to return them to their families wherever possible, to arrange fostering if not - at the same time as the pace of removal of Indigenous children was increasing.

"Unlike white children who came into the state's control, far greater care was taken to ensure that [Aboriginal children] never saw their parents or families again. They were often given new names, and the greater distances involved in rural areas made it easier to prevent parents and children on separate missions from tracing each other."[43]

Many of the officials who oversaw and implemented the removal of the children tried to justify their actions with the racist claim that family bonds among Indigenous people were not as strong or as important as among whites.

"I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-caste from its Aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief might be at the time. They soon forget their offspring."[44]

Yet if this was the case, why did government departments go to such extraordinary lengths to make it difficult for parents to find out where their children were?

"They changed our names, they changed our religion, they changed our date of birth...That's why today, a lot of them don't know who they are, where they're from. We've got to watch today that brothers aren't marrying sisters; because of the Government. Children were taken from interstate and they were just put everywhere."[45]

"When I finally met [my mother] through an interpreter she said that because my name had been changed she had heard about the other children but she'd never heard about me. And...every morning as the sun came up the whole family would wail. They did that for 32 years until they saw me again."[46]

Parents and other relatives tried desperately to find or maintain contact with the children, meeting with obstacles and threats at every turn.

Murray's mother was initially allowed to visit her children (under supervision) at the Townsville State Children's Orphanage. But the visits were stopped because they had "destabilising effects":

"That didn't deter my mother. She used to come to the school ground to visit us over the fence. The authorities found out...They had to send us to a place where she couldn't get to us. To send us anywhere on mainland Queensland she would have just followed - so they sent us to...Palm Island Aboriginal Settlement...I wasn't to see my mother again for ten nightmare years."[47]

Paul's mother never gave up looking for her son.

"She wrote many letters to the State Welfare Authorities, pleading with them to give her son back...All these letters were shelved. The State Welfare Department treated my mother like dirt, as if she never existed. The department rejected and scoffed at all my Mother's cries and pleas for help."[48]

Records were destroyed, often deliberately. For example, in the Northern Territory, personal files were "culled back to only 200 records in the 1970s due to concerns their contents would embarrass the government".[49] And even today, it remains extraordinarily difficult to gain access to the remaining records.

The first Annual Report of the newly-established Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs in 1968 expressed concern about the illegal removal of children in Victoria, citing "unauthorised fostering arrangements" and informal separations where children were taken and their names changed to prevent their parents finding them. Government reports by this time recognised that Indigenous children were best left in their own communities, yet despite all this, the number of Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed continued to rise, from 220 in 1973 to 350 in 1976.

Minister for Indigenous Affairs John Herron and others have claimed that many children benefited by being taken from their families.

Economic rationalists like Howard and Herron, of course, see "benefits" only in material terms. They seem incapable of understanding the trauma of separation and the deprivation of things most Australians take for granted.

"I've often thought, as old as I am, that it would have been nice to have known a father and mother, to know parents even for a little while, just to have had the opportunity of having a mother tuck you into bed and give you a good-night kiss - but it was never to be."[50]

Another stolen child, Penny, reports that three of her siblings are under psychiatric care, and one of them, Trevor, has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and sometimes gets suicidal. Yet because he has had a job for most of his life and owns a house and car,

"People...look at [Trevor] and say, ‘He's achieved the great Australian dream'. And they don't look behind that...They look at us and say, ‘Well, assimilation worked with those buggers'. They see our lives as a success."[51]

Some submissions to the inquiry acknowledged the "love and care provided by non-Indigenous adoptive families (and foster families to a much lesser extent)" or recorded "appreciation for a high standard of education. However, all of the witnesses who made these points also expressed their wish that they had not had to make the sacrifices they did."[52] [our emphasis]

"...even though I had a good education with [adoptive family] and I went to college, there was just this feeling that I did not belong there. The best day of my life was when I met my brothers because I felt that I belonged and I finally had a family."[53]

Access to education is the most frequently-cited "benefit" that stolen children are supposed to have enjoyed. Yet more often than not, their educational aspirations were denigrated and opportunities denied.

"I wanted to be a nurse, only to be told that I was nothing but an immoral black lubra, and I was only fit to work on cattle and sheep properties...I [got] that perfect 100% in my exams at the end of each year...only to be knocked back...Our education was really to train us to be domestics and to take orders."[54]

"I was the best in my class, I came first in all the subjects...[At age 15] I...wanted to continue in school, but I wasn't allowed to...I was sent out to the farms just to do housework."[55]

The first Aboriginal magistrate, Pat O'Shane, recalls her ambitions to study medicine, but her teacher "responded that I didn't have the brains to go on to high school...notwithstanding that I had always had an above average record through school."[56]

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.[57]

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.[58]

The effects of the atrocities of the past haunt people's 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 couldn't 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 hasn't done my sons any good, the Welfare...taking them away from me, they would have been better off with me their mother."[59]

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 Hanson's 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.

Another Herron lie is the proposition that "we didn't know" - he would like us to believe that governments had no knowledge of either the scope of the problem or the systematic abuse that went on.

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." [60]

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."[61]

Inspector Thomas Clode, a Sub-Protector of Aborigines in South Australia, wrote to the Commissioner of Police in 1910:

"...on the 16.2.1909 instructions were received by me re committing a number of half-caste children to the State Children's Department...I think it is my duty to inform you that grave consequences may be the result, as the natives have as much love and affection for their children as the white people have, and they will fight for the sake of their children. Such being the case it appears to me to be a very cruel thing to enforce. And it is looked on by the settlers in the interior as being nothing short of kidnapping..."[62]

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."[63]

South Australia's 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."[64] 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 AAPA's 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."[65]

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"[66]. Feminist politics of the time were strongly maternalist, and this led feminist groups such as the Australian Federation of Women Voters, the Women's 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".[67]

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."[68]

Even many of those involved in forcibly removing children were sickened by it:

"An official protest in 1949 by one of the patrol officers at having to effect such removals caused considerable argument in government circles during the early 1950s. The Government Secretary advised that the practice seemed likely to attract ‘criticism for violation of the present day conception of human rights' [our emphasis] and ‘to outrage the feelings of the average observer.' In October 1951 Dr Charles Duguid, President of the Aborigines Advancement League, received widespread publicity when he called the practice of taking babies from their mother ‘cruel' and ‘the most hated task of every patrol officer.'"[69]

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 government's 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."[70]

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 committees to organise support for Aborigine and Torres Strait Islander demands at the request of the FCAATSI.

Was it genocide?

According to the definition of genocide under international law and used by the UN - yes. Australia is a signatory to a number of UN Charters, Conventions and Declarations which outlaw the very practices carried out here. The 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (ratified by Australia in 1949) made it clear that genocide includes any actions which have the effect of "destroying, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group." It defines genocide as: "...killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting...conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group..."[71]

Australia's treatment of Aborigines qualifies as genocide on every single count.

So at the same time as Australian governments were grandstanding internationally, they were deliberately ignoring their own commitments, and they continued their genocidal practices for decades afterwards.

"There are certain restrictions which must remain imposed on Aborigines even though they are at variance with the complete ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." (A.R. Driver, Administrator of the Northern Territory, July 1949)[72]

The UN Conventions also make it clear that acting out of "good intentions" is no excuse - it's the effects which count, not the purpose. Nor can a state use the excuse that "it was lawful under its own laws". For example, the Holocaust was genocide, even though much of the persecution of the Jews in Germany was legal under the Nuremberg Laws of 1938.

"Official policy and legislation for Indigenous families and children was contrary to accepted legal principle imported into Australia as British common law and, from late 1946, constituted a crime against humanity. It offended accepted standards of the time and was the subject of dissent and resistance. The implementation of the legislation was marked by breaches of fundamental obligations on the part of officials and others to the detriment of vulnerable and dependent children whose parents were powerless to know their whereabouts and protect them from exploitation and abuse."[73]


UN Conventions also stipulate that, where genocide is established, reparation must follow. Australia would not be the first country to do this. The report documents a number of cases where it has been done, and more recently the Canadian government made an apology to its indigenous people for similar practices and allocated substantial funds towards a reparations program.

While nothing can adequately compensate for the damage, the prospects for healing are further reduced in the absence of acknowledgement and reparation.

Financial compensation is only a part of this. Equally important are an open and official acknowledgement of and apology for the past, the establishment of mechanisms to help people find out about themselves and to reunite with their families where that is possible and legislation to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again. These and the other recommendations of the inquiry should be implemented immediately, but the Howard government has rejected most of them.

The government response to the report, announced in December 1997, is nothing less than an insult to the stolen generations. The paltry sum of $63 million dollars will be spent - over four years - on such things as counselling, regional support networks, family support programs, link-up services, a culture and language maintenance program and an oral history project. Minister Herron once again reiterated the tired old Coalition party line justifying the government's refusal to offer an apology: "You might as well go and ask the British for an apology for coming to Australia with the convicts", he said. "You can't judge past practices by today's standards."[74]

Herron also ruled out any financial compensation, saying "It was believed cash compensation to individuals would not achieve a great deal."[75] Meanwhile, stolen children who want to seek compensation for abuse in government and church institutions through the courts are being prevented from doing so by lack of money to fight the cases and what lawyers describe as an almost impossible hunt for documentation. Matthew Storey, senior solicitor for the NT Stolen Generation Litigation Unit, has been told that government records dating back to the crucial period of the 1950s have been destroyed.[76]

Although most States have not undertaken to adopt the report's recommendations on adoption, child welfare and juvenile justice procedures, Herron said Commonwealth action to force their compliance was unnecessary. This is a repeat scenario of what happened with the recommendations of the Black Deaths in Custody Royal Commission, where the States' failure to implement them has meant that the problem has not only continued, but got worse. Since 1990, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology, 92 Indigenous Australians have died in prison or police custody (including deaths in police operations such as sieges and pursuits). More than 17 per cent of all custodial deaths were Aborigines or Torres Strait Islanders, who make up 1.4 per cent of the adult population.[77]

With all this plus the racist 10-point plan, it is little wonder that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission has passed a vote of no confidence in Herron, and refused to have further dealings with him. Even the conservative, Liberal-appointed head of ATSIC, Gatjil Djerrkura, who was a Country Liberal Party candidate for a Northern Territory Senate seat in 1980, has called for Herron's sacking. In a recent interview Djerrkura described Herron as "a person who believes he knows best for us. He has a paternalistic attitude." And one of his staffers described the relationship between Herron and Howard as "the uninformed informing the uninterested."[78] Howard has repeatedly demonstrated his lack of interest in the issue, perhaps most notably when he actually left the parliamentary chamber just as Labor opposition members started to read out some of the experiences of the stolen children.

Howard wants to be "fair" to pastoralists, many of whose fortunes were built on both dispossession and cheap or unpaid Aboriginal labour. He has no problem with setting up special funds for things such as drought relief or gun buy-backs, or funding the redundancies of wharfies sacked by Patrick Stevedores. Clearly, he feels some loyalty and sense of responsibility to those constituencies. But he rejects any compensation for Aborigines.

With its attacks on native title, ATSIC, Abstudy and so on, the Howard government is carrying on the racist traditions of its predecessors and adding further insult to the grievous injuries already suffered.

There is no better refutation of Howard's and Herron's hypocritical claims than the searing words of the Aboriginal activists William Ferguson and John Patten in their 1938 manifesto Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights:

"You have almost exterminated our people, but there are enough of us remaining to expose the humbug of your claim, as white Australians, to be a civilised, progressive, kindly and human nation. By your cruelty and callousness towards the Aborigines you stand condemned...If you would openly admit that the purpose of your Aborigines legislation has been, and now is, to exterminate the Aborigines completely so that not a trace of them or their descendants remains, we could describe you as brutal, but honest. But you dare not admit openly that what you hope and wish for is our death! You hypocritically claim that you are trying to ‘protect' us; but your modern policy of ‘protection' (so-called) is killing us off just as surely as the pioneer policy of giving us poisoned damper and shooting us down like dingoes!"[79]

Chapter 3 - The socialist alternative

The damage done to individuals and families can never be undone, although it can and must be acknowledged and regretted.

The Stolen Generations report has had a profound affect on millions of people, increasing their awareness of the crimes committed against Indigenous people, their continuing oppression and the racism which is still so much a part of Australian society. Repelled by the Howard government's insensitive reaction to the report and its refusal to make any serious attempts to redress the wrongs, people all over the country have taken a stand in various ways - from official apologies from all sorts of bodies and institutions involved in perpetrating the separations to individuals signing "Sorry Books".

The reaction of ordinary people to the report has also led to increased support for native title rights and general sympathy for Indigenous causes.

But while all this is positive, it is not enough. By any measure, Indigenous people today remain by far the most disadvantaged group in Australia, with dramatically lower life expectancy (15-20 years), higher infant mortality (Indigenous babies are 2-4 times more likely to die at birth), worse health (death rates from infectious diseases are up to 18 times higher than for the rest of the population, as only one indicator)[80], worse employment and education prospects. Indigenous people are under-represented in almost every sector of society - except of course the prisons and justice system, where they are over-represented.

The challenge, then, is to fight for the elimination of the institutionalised racism that underlies all these problems. And to do that successfully, we have to understand where racism comes from, why it persists and who benefits from it.

Socialists argue that racism is a product of capitalism. In the early days of capitalism, when the accumulation of capital depended very largely on slavery, racism arose as a justification for the slave trade. It was necessary to promote the idea that the Africans who were stolen in their millions to work the plantations of the New World were, on the basis of their physical characteristics, "inferior", undeserving of the "rights of man" which had been established by the great bourgeois revolutions, and excluded from the "brotherhood of man" sanctimoniously preached by the Christian churches who provided ideological approval for the subjugation of non-white peoples.

Racism also provided the justification for colonisation and stealing the land of indigenous peoples in Australia, the Americas, Africa, the Indian sub-continent and so on. The dispossession of indigenous peoples was an essential prerequisite for capitalist development of the land. In Australia, this meant clearing the land for grazing, agriculture and mining. Native populations had to be characterised as "backward" and "inferior", so that their rights could be trampled with impunity, their land taken, their cultures and communities destroyed - the stolen generations were a key part of this process. And this racist, barbaric view is not just a relic of an earlier historical period, superseded by more "enlightened" modern attitudes. As recently as 1971, Justice Blackburn said in his land rights decision that: "the whole earth was open to the industry and enterprise of the human race, which has a duty and right to develop the earth's resources. The more advanced people were therefore justified in dispossessing, if necessary, the less advanced."[81]

Even when slavery was no longer the most efficient method of exploitation, direct colonial rule by the great powers became impossible to maintain (largely as a result of the struggles of the oppressed peoples themselves) and dispossession was more or less a fait accompli, racism has remained a supremely useful mechanism for dividing the oppressed and exploited against their common enemy. That is the main purpose that racism serves today. To the extent that racism causes suspicion and hostility between groups of workers and the oppressed, it benefits the minority who rule us, in particular the capitalist class. Where strong racial divisions exist in the working class, the class as a whole is worse off, as low wages for one group drive down wages for all. For example, in the southern states of the US, entrenched racism means that white workers earn more than blacks - but they earn less than their counterparts in the northern states. Albert Szymanski's study of the relative earnings of black and white workers in the US clearly refuted the notion that white workers benefit from racism. On the contrary, he concluded that: "White workers appear to actually lose economically from racial discrimination".[82] And using the percentage of workers in unions as an indicator of the degree of solidarity, he found that "the more intense racial discrimination is, the lower are the white earnings because...solidarity is weaker."[83] In other words, because racism divides the working class, it is contrary to the material interests of white workers.

This has also been the case in Australia. For example, whites on cattle stations in the Northern Territory had the lowest wages of any white workers in Australia and worked long hours without proper overtime "because they allowed the bosses to treat the Aborigines like dogs."[84]

All workers, therefore, have an objective material interest in getting rid of the racism that stands in the way of their class unity and impedes their struggles with the employers. And workers are quite capable of recognising this. In 1962, white workers at the Weipa bauxite mine opposed Comalco's attempt to pay below-award wages to Aborigines.

It is true that workers can be influenced, at times strongly, by the racist ideas fostered and promoted by the powers that be. But their class position and the need for unity in struggle against the employer also means that workers can be won away from racist attitudes. Even as early as 1891, when racist attitudes were much more prevalent in the working class than today, the Amalgamated Shearers' Union, having exposed in its journal the appalling conditions of Aborigines, moved to admit Aborigines to union membership and benefits for an annual contribution without the normal entrance fee. The conservative general secretary David Temple argued that this would be a "graceful act to those from whom the country had been taken".[85]

But it was usually the more left-wing and socialist unionists who were the strongest fighters against racism, and who argued for unions to take up the anti-racist cause. They did so with some success, especially in the unions where the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) was influential. The record of the Waterside Workers' Federation has been referred to above, and there are many other examples.[86]

Labour movement support for Aborigines has not been restricted to industrial issues such as equal pay and opposition to victimisation of Aboriginal workers. Unions and left-wing activists have taken a stand on many issues: the stolen generations, mining on Aboriginal land, land rights, black deaths in custody and so on. They have provided active and financial support for numerous industrial and non-industrial campaigns around Aboriginal demands.

These examples not only show how racist attitudes can effectively be broken down, they also point in the direction of the final elimination of racism.

The current debate around native title highlights the opposing class interests at play in Australia today. Those who stand to gain from Howard's 10-point plan are the mining companies and the big pastoralists - those who already own or control most of the country's wealth. At the same time, the Coalition government, in concert with Patrick Stevedores and the National Farmers' Federation - and with the support of employers and right-wing ideologues around the country - has launched an all-out attack on the Maritime Union. If Howard succeeds on either of these fronts, the capitalist class will be strengthened and made more confident to go after the rest of us. On the other hand, victory for our side would push them back and make it easier to fight for a better deal for workers and for Indigenous people.

Labor's appalling record

But while we have to fight Howard's attacks, simply replacing the Coalition with a Labor government will not help either Aborigines or workers. While claiming to stand for the interests of workers and Indigenous people, Labor's actual record is abysmal. During Labor's last term of office from 1983-1996, unemployment rose while wages fell, privatisations started, unions were demobilised through the Prices and Incomes Accord or even smashed (in the case of the Builders Labourers' Federation and the Pilots' Federation).

And Labor's record on land rights is a graphic reminder that whether defending native title, or campaigning to stop the Jabiluka uranium mine on Mirrar land, we cannot afford to have any illusions that the ALP will be any more sympathetic to Aboriginal rights than Howard.

Because Labor want to govern capitalist society, they have to win at least some support from the Australian ruling class. Mining capital has had enormous clout over the past three decades - not because it benefits the majority of us, but because of the huge investments and profits it brings to a few. And the mining companies have been the most vicious campaigners against land rights, because they often want to mine the same land over which there are Aboriginal claims.

In 1984, Hugh Morgan of Western Mining threatened Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke's government: "If the doctrines and principles underlying the Northern Territory [Land Rights] legislation are applied to the rest of the Commonwealth, then there will be no exploration activity in this country and, ultimately, no Australian mining industry."

During the WA state election campaign in the same year, Brian Burke, the Labor Premier, took out a full-page advertisement in the daily papers promising that the Federal Labor government would not introduce land rights. Hawke capitulated immediately, reneging on Labor's promises of land rights and the right of Aboriginal people to veto mining on their land.

This pattern has been repeated every time land rights has been on the political agenda since.

After the High Court's 1992 Mabo ruling which recognised Aboriginal Native Title, the mining companies and pastoralists were hysterical. Rob Davies, an adviser to mining investors, declared: "If this decision stands, Australia could go back to a stone age culture of 200,000 people living on witchetty grubs."

Rather than defend the small gains of Native Title, Labor's Minister of Aboriginal Affairs in the Hawke and Keating governments, Robert Tickner, lectured Aborigines that they should not put in "sweeping" claims, as they would provoke racism. In 1994 Queensland ALP Premier Wayne Goss dismissed Native Title claims which mentioned genocide, rape, kidnapping of children and destruction of culture as "bogus and offensive".

It wasn't as if Labor's own supporters opposed Aboriginal rights. In a poll taken at the height of the hysteria over the Mabo ruling, 60 per cent of ALP voters and 51 per cent of the population as a whole supported Aborigines' right to veto mining on their land.

But Labor bowed to the demands of the huge mining and pastoralist capitalists anyway.

When MIM complained that land claims by the Borroloola people were affecting its $290 million McArthur River project in 1993, Paul Keating immediately pressured the Northern Territory government to legislate to give mining leases immunity from Mabo-style claims.

Gareth Evans, former Minister for Foreign Affairs and Labor's current deputy leader, made it clear soon after the Mabo ruling what Labor's attitude to Native Title would be: "people think [Mabo] a matter of righting all the wrongs of the past. It's not going to operate like that".

He was right. Keating's Native Title legislation aimed to "preserve the integrity and certainty of Australia's land management system and to ensure continuing economic development; and to provide a measure of justice for Aborigines".

This could have come from the mouths of John Howard or John Herron, the current Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

For all their posturing and claims to support Aboriginal rights, when it comes down to it, Labor differs little from the open racists of the Liberal and National Parties. In the game of electoral politics, any principles other than those of profit-making are dispensable.

None of this should surprise us. Labor is after all committed to managing capitalism, just as the Liberals are. In order to get rid of racism, we have to fight to get rid of the capitalist system that puts profits before people.

We need to fight for a better world, where wealth and power are not locked in the hands of a few, and where human need replaces the profit motive - a world where the tragedy of the stolen children could never happen. Such a society - socialism - cannot be handed down from above, it must be created by workers themselves. And in the process of fighting for a better world, workers will have to confront and discard the ideological baggage that keeps us divided against each other - racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia. For without unity, we simply cannot win. Workers and the oppressed will have to make common cause, in our common interests.

But while history has shown time and again that such common cause and united struggle is possible, it does not happen automatically. The ideological grip of capitalism is strong, and the ruling class has many ways - the media, the education system and so on - to disseminate its poisonous ideas. The task of socialists is to fight these ideas, to be involved in the struggles of today, arguing the need for unity and solidarity and attempting to demonstrate it in practice. It is a huge task, and our forces today are very small. We need to build a mass organisation that can bring together those people who want to change the world, that can learn and keep alive the lessons of past struggles and unite the most militant, politically experienced workers in action.

That obviously won't happen overnight, but we can lay the groundwork today. As individuals we are weak and powerless. But when we start to act together, we can make a difference. So if you want to make a difference - if you hate the kind of society that inflicts war and starvation and poverty on millions while lining the pockets of a few, if you are angry about what happened and continues to happen to the Indigenous people of this country, if you want a world where everyone can live decently, achieve their individual potential and realise their aspirations regardless of their race or sex - then you should join us in the fight for socialism.


[1] Bringing them home, National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Commonwealth of Australia 1997.

[2] The report was commissioned by the Keating Labor government in May 1995, as a result of campaigning by the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care and Link-Up (NSW), was completed in April 1997 and published on 26 May 1997.

[3] A brief account of Aboriginal resistance and struggle from settlement to the present day can be found in another Socialist Alternative pamphlet, Land Rights Now!by Diane Fieldes.

[4] Millicent's story is told in Bringing them home, pp.116-118.

[5] Bringing them home, p.116

[6] Bringing them home, p. 53

[7] Bringing them home, p.6

[8] Bringing them home, p.6

[9] Bringing them home, p.10

[10] Bringing them home, p.12

[11] Bringing them home, p.26

[12] Bringing them home, p.37

[13] Bringing them home, p.212

[14] Bringing them home, p.213

[15] Bringing them home, p.213

[16] Bringing them home, p.242

[17] Bringing them home, pp.65-6

[18] Bringing them home, p.158

[19] Bringing them home, p.160

[20] Bringing them home, p.69

[21] Bringing them home, p.157

[22] Bringing them home, p.159

[23] Bringing them home, p.161

[24] Bringing them home, p.161

[25] Bringing them home, p.52-53

[26] Bringing them home, p.154

[27] Bringing them home, p.162

[28] Bringing them home, p.164

[29] Bringing them home, p.165

[30] Bringing them home, p.12

[31] Bringing them home, p.50

[32] Bringing them home, p.70

[33] The Age, 4 July 1997

[34] reported in The Age, 21 August 1997

[35] reported in The Age, 17 June, 1997

[36] Bringing them home, p.491

[37] Bringing them home, p.494

[38] Bringing them home, p.228

[39] Bringing them home, p.252

[40] Bringing them home, p.143

[41] Bringing them home, p.44

[42] quoted in Bringing them home, p.255

[43] Bringing them home, p.29

[44] Bringing them home, p.104

[45] Bringing them home, p.156

[46] Bringing them home, p.130

[47] Bringing them home, p.86

[48] Bringing them home, p.70

[49] Bringing them home, p.326

[50] Bringing them home, p.178

[51] Bringing them home, p.89

[52] Bringing them home, p.13

[53] Bringing them home, p.13

[54] Bringing them home, p.171

[55] Bringing them home, p.171

[56] Bringing them home, p.171

[57] quoted in Bringing them home, p.13

[58] quoted in Bringing them home, p.15

[59] Bringing them home, p.191

[60] The Age, 18 April 1998

[61] Bringing them home, p.72

[62] Bringing them home, p.258

[63] Bringing them home, p.42

[64] Bringing them home, p.123

[65] Bringing them home, p.109

[66] quoted by Marilyn Lake, professor of history at La Trobe University, in The Age, 17 January 1998

[67] quoted by Marilyn Lake, The Age, 17 January 1998

[68] Bringing them home, p.140

[69] Bringing them home, p.142

[70] Letter from Faith Bandler, NSW State Secretary of the FCAATSI, to the General Secretary of the WWF, dated 31 October 1964, WWF Federal Office subject files numbered N114/489, held at the Noel Butlin Business and Labour Archives, Canberra

[71] Bringing them home, p.270

[72] Bringing them home, p.270

[73] Bringing them home, p.275

[74] The Age, 17 December 1997

[75] The Age, 17 December 1997

[76] The Age, 17 January 1998

[77] reported in The Age, 25 September 1997

[78] The Age, 15 April 1998

[79] quoted in Bringing them home, p.46

[80] Figures from the first biennial report into the health and welfare of Indigenous Australians, based on data compiled since 1992 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, reported in The Age, 3 April 1997

[81] Quoted in V. Burgmann, ‘Capital and Labour', in A. Curthoys and A. Markus (eds) Who are our enemies? Racism and the Australian Working Class, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1978, p.20

[82] A. Szymanski, ‘Racial discrimination and White gain' in American Sociological Review, 41:3 (1976) p.411, quoted in Peter Alexander, Racism resistance and revolution, Bookmarks, July 1987.

[83] Szymanski, p.412.

[84] F. Hardy, The Unlucky Australians, Nelson, Melbourne, 1968, p.49.

[85] A. Markus, ‘Talka longa mouth' in Curthoys and Markus, Who are our enemies?, p.140.

[86] see M. Armstrong, ‘Aborigines: Race and Class' in R. Kuhn and T. O'Lincoln (eds), Class and Class Conflict in Australia, Longman, Melbourne, 1996.