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The Age 3 April 2001

Manne et al would help Aborigines more by looking at the present, not the past

By Peter Howson

One believer in the "stolen generations" claim, Robert Manne, has now conceded serious errors in the report by Sir Ronald Wilson, Bringing Them Home. But Manne and others continue to promulgate the myth without producing substantive evidence.

Contrary to the claim in Manne’s new book "In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right"(an extract of which appeared in Saturday Extra), no significance at all can be attached to the 1994 ABS Household survey reporting that one in ten Aborigines (compared with Sir Ronald’s one in three) believed they had been "stolen".

The ABS survey made no checks on the authenticity of these beliefs, a process that was demonstrated as essential in the subsequent Williams case in NSW and Cubillo-Gunner cases in the Northern Territory. As Justice O’Loughlin pointed in his judgment on the latter, mixed-race children who were removed at an early age could not themselves have personal knowledge of what actually occurred, and would have to rely on stories they had been told.

When properly tested in court, such stories were revealed as close to fantasies.

The failure of the self-appointed true believers to find any living Aborigine who was stolen, and the realization that there are some questions about the Wilson report, has now forced Manne to retreat to claiming:

  • That 25,000 children were "stolen" between 1900 and 1970 - but without acknowledging that reliance on childhood memories, and on subsequent stories relayed by a parent who would naturally tend to blame others, provides no substantive evidence of the reason for removals;

  • That these removals are for Aboriginal Australians what the term Holocaust was for Jews;

  • That there has been a campaign against the stolen generations thesis by alleged right wingers whose motive is to deny that Aborigines suffered as a result of the occupation of Australia. There is no evidence to support this and it is fanciful to imagine such a large number of individuals with diverse views and backgrounds could mount a campaign. Manne seems unable to distinguish between a campaign and the obvious concern of these individuals to establish the truth.

To support their views, generation myth-makers such as Manne are selectively quoting statements by one or two officials who were administering Aboriginal policy as implying such policies were founded on racist objectives, rather than providing protection and succor for children.

However, whatever the views of those administrators, no evidence has been produced that such objectives formed part of government policies themselves. Indeed, the 1937 Government policy statement by the then responsible Commonwealth Minister, John McEwen, clearly indicated there were no such objectives in the Northern Territory .

Manne dismisses sworn evidence on the stolen generation question, subjected to cross examination, by patrol and other officers in the Cubillo-Gunner cases, while effectively claiming that statements by one or two other officers reflected government policy.

It is important to recognize that:

  • The removals of children from parents involved part-Aborigines, not full bloods;
  • These children were often not accepted as members of traditional communities and in such cases were subjected to discrimination within such communities. Indeed, some of such children were subjected to infanticide. Baldwin Spencer’s report of the late 1920s, which revealed that numerous part-Aboriginal children born during the construction of the Ghan railroad had been abandoned and become wandering waifs, inspired responses from those who saw a clear need to provide care for such children.
  • Many removals were made by administrations because of neglect or abuse of the children, as continues to the present day (in 1998-99, for example, over 3,000 Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from a parent for this reason across all States and in the Northern Territory). As the Wilson report itself reveals, legislation going back to the early nineteenth century provided that such removals had to be authorized by boards and/or courts.
  • The Christian churches took the lead in establishing institutions to help protect such children and provide education that would not otherwise have been available.
  • Not a few removals were made voluntarily by a parent or parents in order to provide better opportunities, particularly educational, for the child. The evidence in the Cubillo-Gunner case showed such children were generally well cared for in the N T.


While one could not rule out that some improper removals occurred pre-World War II, no substantive evidence has yet been adduced to establish that this occurred on any scale. And it has become clear that it did not occur post-World War II.

It is a sad indictment of academia that so much of it continues to focus on trying to indict white Australians for past bad behaviour. They should instead be trying to find solutions to the serious current problems being experienced by the small minority of Aborigines who have not moved to urban centers and inter-married with non-indigenes.

Peter Howson was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971 and 1972.