A rabbit-proof fence full of holes

The hit movie is based on myth and misunderstanding, according to Peter Howson and Des Moore

The Australian, 11 March 2002

The Australian film Rabbit Proof Fence presents a dramatic story about three young half-caste Aboriginal girls who ran away from a Western Australian settlement in which they were placed in 1931. Two girls are portrayed as returning to their mother’s community by the almost super-human feat of walking for nine weeks along 1500 miles of rabbit proof fence. After being diverted from the other two, their cousin was returned by police to the settlement.

There is a need, however, to examine the grossly misleading assertions regarding Aboriginal policy made in the film, and in handouts, statements and web sites by publicity agents and others. We do this in the important context of a strongly asserted claim: "This is a true story".

An important feature of the film is its attempt to give credibility to the now discredited stolen generation thesis. It is alleged that the policy applying in most States until 1971 involved the removal of "half or quarter caste Aboriginal children from their mothers/parents" and that "those children who were taken in this way are now referred to as the ‘Stolen Generations’". The film depicts the children being forcibly removed —"torn away"- from their mother/aunt by a police officer.

Film viewers, however, should recognise that major claims of forcible removal of half-caste children have been comprehensively rejected in three court cases. In the Cubillo-Gunner cases in the Northern Territory, Justice O’Loughlin noted mixed-race children removed at an early age could have no personal knowledge of events and would rely on stories told them. In court, such stories were revealed as close to fantasies and could not be substantiated despite massive submissions by claimants with extensive taxpayer-funded legal assistance.

No testing of forcible removal claims has been made in Western Australian courts and the story of the separation of the rabbit proof fence girls rests only on a story told 35 years later by one of the girls to her daughter. The daughter then wrote the book on which the producers of the film drew. But the film’s removal scene bears no resemblance to even the book’s account of a separation that apparently required no force.

Moreover, the film’s publicity conveys a completely erroneous picture of the policy circumstances under which children were removed from parents, and the extent of such removals. Thus, we are told that "the official policy of the time decreed that all half caste children should be taken from their kin and land in order to be made white" and that Mr A.O. Neville (Chief Protector of Aborigines in the State from 1915 to 1940) was a racist who believed "the answer to the ‘coloured problem’ is to breed out the Aboriginal race".

In reality, however, only a small proportion of half-caste children were being separated when the rabbit proof fence girls were removed from their mother/aunt. Neville’s evidence to the 1934 Royal Commission showed that, in the first two and a quarter years of the 1930s, of the 1067 admitted to the settlement from which the girls "escaped", only 64 unattended or orphan children were wards of the Department, being removals from their mothers. Neville told the Commission that "there are scores of (other) children …who should be taken away and placed in a settlement" but that available accommodation was insufficient. By implication, only those judged most in need of care were removed.

Importantly, Neville made the removals under a State Government policy dating from 1905 of protecting all neglected children, including special protective arrangements for Aborigines. As the first half-castes born in their remote community, the rabbit proof fence girls were subjected to the kind of insults and abuse not uncommonly handed out to half-castes in traditional communities.

When he received reports these girls were being allowed to run wild amongst whites and were in danger, Neville acted responsibly. Today, we find that the Western Australian authorities have over 300 indigenous children on care and protection orders. It is regrettable more progress has not been made since Neville’s time in dealing with this serious problem of child neglect.

His removal order was made at a time when some half-caste children were being subjected to infanticide carried out by grandmothers. May O’Brien, who later became head of Aboriginal Education in the State, told an ABC radio program in 1996 that her "dint" in the head came from an attempt by her grandma to kill her in the 1930s.

The film’s casting of Neville as "a devil" in the eyes of Aborigines is the final insult. After he died, his mother received about 500 letters from Aborigines praising his efforts on their behalf. A true story would have shown his humane actions to protect them from exploitation by whites or their own kin.

Peter Howson was Minister for Aboriginal affairs in 1971 and 1972. Des Moore is director of the Institute for Private Enterprise.