April 2000 Newsletter
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A SOLUTION OR AN UNHELPFUL DIVERSION?
The past month has been taken up almost entirely in working on Aboriginal policy issues. This included assistance to Peter Howson (a former Minister of Aboriginal Affairs) with the writing of articles for the media and letters to prominent people who are actively involved in public debate, with the object of trying to get it across that the orientation of policy for the past 30 years has been antipathetic to the interests of Aborigines, and to relations between them and whites.
The culmination of the month's work was an address I gave to a Rotary function on 1 May, which helps explain why this month's newsletter is late. A copy of that speech is attached.
I apologise for the lateness of the newsletter and for its concentration on just one subject. However, the re-emergence of the debate on the "stolen children" following the Government's submission to the Senate Inquiry on that matter, and the mounting debate on reconciliation and what the 27 May document should include, provided both an opportunity to contribute to the debate and to persuade the media that there is an alternative view with substance on this important issue.
In that latter regard, some not inconsiderable success was achieved in placing articles by Peter Howson. The Age was particularly receptive as was the Canberra Times and placements were also secured in the Australian Financial Review, Brisbane Courier-Mail and the West Australian. Of the major papers, only The Australian was unreceptive - the SMH seemed content to rest on Paddy McGuinness' contributions. Two typical articles by PH are attached and I recommend his longer article on violence in Aboriginal communities in the current Quadrant as a must read.
The essential points in the alternative, politically incorrect view may be summarised as follows:
(1). The policy of encouraging separate development has given many Aborigines land (though on a communal basis only). However, it also created cultural and economic cul-de-sacs and has made them largely dependent on the dead-end of social welfare, leading (as one report concluded) to "hopelessness, despair, and anti-social behaviour…. and contempt and hostility." In short, the emphasis on land rights has been wholly negative for Aborigines, not to mention the serious on-going inhibitions, arising from the large unsettled native title claims, to investment and employment in rural and mining leaseholds.
(2). The emphasis on past maltreatment of Aborigines has created serious tensions in aboriginal-white relationships and has made victim-hood an easy option for Aborigines.
(3). This combination of disastrous policies is reflected in the absolutely horrific violence extant in Aboriginal communities, some of which seem to have descended almost into barbarism. A growing number of reports/studies acknowledge that violence in Aboriginal communities is reflecting the policies of cultural recognition, land rights and self-determination. Those Aborigines affected, mostly women and children, are in need of rescue from the life threatening situations into which a cruel fate has cast them, but their cries for help have so far gone unheeded.
(4). The failures of similar policies in other countries seeking to make amends for past treatment of indigenous peoples also provide us with a warning. Although such policies appeal to the intellectual elite as "moral idealism", they are not improving relations between races or the condition of the indigenes. In Canada, for example, there has recently been an outcry at revelations of the sad and deteriorating plight of those in indigenous reserves.
What is the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation doing to address this?
The Council's 1999 draft Declaration for Reconciliation accepted the notion that Aboriginal well-being basically requires the recognition of Aboriginal land rights, Aboriginal culture and law, and Aboriginal autonomy. It also sought an apology for past injustices.
If the 27 May Reconciliation document further promotes the concept of separate development and past injustices that will be contrary to the real interests of both Aborigines and whites. Nor will it find genuine support from most Australians. An entirely new approach is needed; one which reverses the separatist policies and rhetoric of past injustices and, instead, promotes closer Aboriginal involvement in the wider community.
Address to Tivoli Club
Monday 1 May 2000
By Des Moore
As I was travelling to my beach house for the Easter break I passed just outside Canberra a road sign with some provocative graffiti inscribed on its back. It read as follows:
"We stole their country, they stole our biscuits".
This statement probably symbolises the current feelings of a significant proportion of white Australians. In recent years many such Australians have come to accept that the majority of Aborigines were badly treated in the past, that most are still being mistreated, and that we need to apologise for such treatment and to make amends in various ways.
The relatively wide acceptance of this attitude is not one that I want to criticise the average Australian for adopting. Indeed, from one perspective it could be said to reflect the basic decency of the great majority of Australians. They have responded in good faith to apparently authoritative reports that have praised the predominantly communal Aboriginal culture and put it on a par with, if not above, the more individualistic European, that have encouraged the separate development of Aborigines, and that have portrayed in a poor light much of the past behaviour of Australian governments and Europeans in dealings with Aborigines.
The focus on alleged bad aspects of our history has been aptly described by historian Geoffrey Blainey as the black armband view of Australia's past. It is a view that has unfortunately in recent years come to be an almost predominant part of our culture, at least amongst the intellectual elite, and that has neglected our many achievements. From this perspective have developed the demands that apologies be extended to indigenous peoples and that amends be made to the current generation.
This development is not unique to Australia. There have been similar moves to make amends for past treatment of indigenous peoples in Canada, the United States and New Zealand and in other countries in what philospher Professor Kenneth Minogue has described as "an adventure in moral idealism."
In New Zealand, for example, a policy was promulgated in 1985 of attempting to wipe clean so-called historic injustices suffered by the Maori population since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.That policy is continuing to evolve and, according to Professor Minogue writing in 1998, the concept of historic injustices has been expanded beyond the taking of land to "include the use of resources such as fish, the destruction of tribal custom, the invasion of rights and ultimately a kind of dishonour". A moment's thought will indicate the enormous problems inherent in determining precisely the extent of injustices so ill-defined, let alone who in the current generation is suffering from them and what should be done about it. Australia is fortunate that it has avoided the worst of such problems so far.
However, I do not propose today to delve far into the question of historic injustices to Aborigines. My principal concern is to suggest that, however well-meaning the pursuit of moral idealism in Australia, it has led to the adoption of policies that are not in the interests of Aborigines, let alone of good relations between them and white Australians. I also want to correct what is probably now the most notorious version of the past treatment of Aborigines and one that has now become a major feature of the debate about reconciliation. I refer to the 1997 report entitled Bringing Them Home by Sir Ronald Wilson. That report claimed that between 10 and 33 per cent of Aboriginal children were forcibly removed or "stolen" from their mothers for basically racist reasons and that they were then poorly looked after in institutions. One consequence is that an apology for stealing Aboriginal children is now seen by many as an essential component of attempts at reconciliation.
Let me make it clear right at the start that I am not an expert on Aboriginal culture or policies on Aboriginal issues. That is one reason why I have asked my good friend Peter Howson to be here today as, apart from having been Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971 and 1972, he has studied the issues for nigh on 40 years and has contributed much to my thinking on them. Some may say that non-experts such as myself should keep quiet on what is clearly a difficult, complex and sensitive subject. But there can also be value in having someone look from the outside, particularly at an area where policies of successive governments could scarcely be described as having been successful. "Experts" are not always right and, from my outsiders' perspective, it appears they have got it badly wrong in recent years.
I should also make it clear that I am not in the business of trying to whitewash the past. There is no denying that our forefathers effectively occupied this continent by force of one sort or another and that Aborigines suffered many acts of violence and killings as a result. One could seek to defend the actions of our forefathers by pointing out that they were simply following practices of "colonisation" that had been pursued on every continent since time immemorial, and which the Aborigines themselves may at some time also have pursued in occupying Australia. However, while it is necessary to examine some of the past policies and practices, my fundamental concern is not with them but with the policies that should be pursued today in the longer run interests of both Aborigines and whites.
Elsewhere, Peter Howson has aptly formulated the basic question as follows: "How do we assist, humanely and effectively, people who have reached various and different stages in the incredibly difficult transition from a precarious nomadic hunter-gathering existence, to a sedentary life in the modern world; a world in which their ancient culture, and the religion which is intrinsic to their former hunter-gatherer economy, are completely at variance with the demands of modern life."
Up until about 1970 this question was answered, in the broad, by the pursuit of policies that sought both to protect Aborigines and to encourage them to assimilate. From one perspective an assimilationist policy may be viewed as "racist" in the sense that it assumes that one's own culture is superior. But an assimilationist policy is surely only intrinsically racist if it forces a culture down another's throat and/or prevents the pursuit of another culture within the society. Pre-World War 11, some within and outside government saw no future for Aborigines and their culture, and advocated "biological" assimiliation to avert future racial conflict. However, all the evidence suggests that the objects of the official policy pursued by the Commonwealth Government were essentially benign and protective and were not derived from any deliberate design to breed out Aboriginal blood.
From about 1970 a major change in Aboriginal policy occurred, essentially involving the abandonment of the assimiliationist approach and the encouragement of separate development and of Aboriginal cultures. With that change came an increasing acknowledgement of past maltreatment of aborigines and an increasing acceptance in some quarters that changes in established policies were necessary and appropriate.
The essential flavour of this major change is captured in the 1992 Mabo case where the majority of the High Court judges took it upon themselves to effectively overturn the previously settled law on title to land. One of the most astonishing aspects of this case is that the majority judges based their decisions heavily on their assessment of past injustices experienced by Aborigines and, in doing so, they effectively adopted the role of an elected government and legislated their perception of what they thought was morally appropriate for the nation - and even beyond the nation. Justice Brennan, for example, proclaimed in his Mabo judgement that:
Whatever the justification advanced in earlier days for refusing to recognise the rights and interests in land of the indigenous inhabitants of settled colonies, an unjust and discriminatory doctrine of that kind can no longer be accepted. The expectations of the international community accord in this respect with the contemporary values of the Australian people.
Justice Deane (now the Governor General) and Justice Gaudron made a proclamation in similar terms:
"The nation as a whole must remain diminished unless and until there is an acknowledgement of and retreat from those past injustices"
Apart from the recognition in Mabo of native title to land in certain circumstances (which is continuing to cause problems and uncertainties in regard to mining and pastoral leases), the next most important change has probably been the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976 which has resulted in the granting of over 40 per cent of the Territory to land trusts for the communal benefit of Aborigines entitled by tradition to use or occupy that land. Then, by the creation in 1990 of a body of elected indigenous representatives (ATSIC), the Government sought to give Aborigines responsibility for making decisions on programs affecting indigenous people.
The growing perception that a reconciliation process was needed led in 1991 to the establishment of a Council for Reconciliation. This was perceived as laying the foundation for "the renewal of this nation as a harmonious and just society" … "so that all Australians can go forward together", culminating in a Document of Reconciliation by the centenary of Federation in 2001. The draft Declaration for Reconciliation produced by the Council essentially endorses the accepted "wisdom" that Aboriginal well-being is intrinsically tied to the recognition of Aboriginal land, culture and autonomy, as well as accepting "the apology" for injustices of the past.
The final version is scheduled for release on 27 May, followed the next day by a People's Walk for Reconciliation across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and it remains to be seen whether it will include a demand for an apology. In a speech on 26 April, the Deputy Chairman of the Council, Sir Gustav Nossal, stated that "an official apology from the Commonwealth Government for past injustices generally, but more particularly for the stolen generation, has come to have great significance". However, he also referred to the Prime Minister's continued refusal to make such an apology and said that, because of this, "the correct place for the apology is under the heading of unfinished business." This, of course, is simply another way off saying that it remains very much a live issue.
Another important part of the reconciliation process was, of course, the appointment in 1995 of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission to report on the separation of Aboriginal children from their families.
Let me turn now to consider how these policies and initiatives have worked out in practice.
I refer first to a 1999 report commissioned of John Reeves QC on the effects of the Northern Territory legislation on land rights. Major conclusions by Reeves included the following:
"A focus on directly developing the land granted to Aboriginal Territorians as providing the best economic way forward is misplaced. Such a focus leads to an economic cul-de-sac for Aboriginal Territorians"….and…"The loss of self-reliance, and the build-up of economic dependency of Aboriginal Australians on other Australians is conducive to hopelessness, despair, and anti-social behaviour, on the one hand, and contempt and hostility, on the other."
Reeves also pointed out that "after more than twenty years of land rights in the Northern Territory, Aboriginal Territorians are less likely than Aborigines in the rest of Australia to:
A Senate Inquiry into the Reeves report rejected his very modest proposals for reforming the administration of the land and the matter rests there.
My second reference is to Aboriginal education. Former Labor Senator Bob Collins, who is married to an Aborigine, reported earlier this year on Aboriginal education in the Northern Territory. That report revealed that, under an education program that has encouraged the teaching of Aboriginal languages and the greater use of Aboriginal teachers, and that has failed to deal with high truancy rates, illiteracy has been increasing and has now reached 80 per cent. This is, unfortunately, almost certainly an understatement as regards the extent of illiteracy of children from traditional communities: at a Quadrant conference early last year the head of Kormilda College in Darwin estimated that literacy for those children averaged between zero and 10 per cent. The Collins report has been followed by the recent action of the Hon David Kemp announcing education initiatives designed to improve literacy, but that still leaves the problem that derives from the encouragement of separate cultures and languages.
My third reference is to the violence in Aboriginal communities, which is without doubt the greatest immediate concern. It is now beyond argument that we have an epidemic of domestic and communal violence that is almost beyond imagining. Yet the debate about the appropriate wording of a document of reconciliation simply serves to divert attention from this tragic problem and an agreed document would do nothing to assist in overcoming it.
The problem of violence in Aboriginal communities has recently been vividly highlighted in the report of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Task Force by Associate Professor Boni Robertson, herself an Aborigine. That report stated that “the degree of violence and destruction in Aboriginal communities cannot be adequately described”. It also found “evidence of all forms of physical, psychological and cultural violence being perpetrated”. The report describes many horrific incidents, including the deaths of 24 young men (mostly suicides) in one community in a year, and the rape of a three year old by three men. Despite the report's conclusion that there is "a crisis of large proportions", and that it was presented to Queensland Minister, Judy Spence, on 9 December last, the Queensland Government has yet to respond to it.
Regrettably, the Robertson report is far from being the only evidence of this problem. A 1994 report by Prof Colin Tatz came to similar conclusions and included evidence from 77 communities throughout Australia. The Reeves report also exposed the issue, as last year did both Rosemary Neill of The Australian and a Channel 9 Sunday program that showed horrendous scenes of the aftermath of violence in these communities. While carrying less immediate weight now, of possibly even greater significance in some respects is a draft study that has recently emerged.
Although this study cannot be publicly quoted at this stage, it is significant for three reasons. First, it is clearly the product of detailed and careful research and thinking about the issues. Second, the author says that, as someone who comes from Labor stock with a firm belief in social justice and equal opportunity, she started researching Aboriginal issues believing in what she terms as the current "progressive" policy paths taken in the quest for Aboriginal justice. Third, as a result of her research, however, she changed her views because she concluded that the violence in Aboriginal communities indicates that the policies of cultural recognition, land rights and self-determination are not appropriate.
This terrible situation of domestic and communal violence is not isolated but exists in Aboriginal communities across the whole of the North of Australia, from the Kimberleys to Cape York. Although these people are in greatest need of assistance, their cries for help have so far gone largely unheeded primarily because this would require an acknowledgement that existing policies are wrong and that the focus of the intellectual elites is also wrong. For example, after pointing out that half the Aboriginal men who died in custody were imprisoned for violent crime, one Aboriginal observer claimed that
In fact, more women have died from violent assault in a number of communities than all the deaths in custody in the states concerned…and all too often no charges are laid.
The contrast between the failure to respond to this problem and calls for an apology for alleged past sins could not be more striking. Equally, it is difficult to see how the process of reconciliation is helping or could help overcome this horrific practical problem of Aboriginal violence. Would it, for example, help the girls who are bashed and raped on Thursday pension nights at Arukun? Would it help reduce the crimes being committed at Umbakumba on Groote Island? Or reduce the murder rate on Doomadgee or Mornington Island (which is thirty times worse than anywhere else in Queensland)?
If violence of this scale and character were occurring in white communities, community leaders would have a great deal to say about it. It is particularly ironic that a Commonwealth Government survey of 5000 youths aged between 12 and 20 that has recently revealed a relatively minor degree of violence in relations between the sexes has been extensively covered in the media and made the subject of editorials expressing serious concerns. It is surely infinitely more important to condemn horrendous violence in Aboriginal communities, and to agitate for effective government action, than to weep tears over teenage "date rape" or the mandatory sentencing of Aborigines who have committed crimes.
My fourth reference is to the report by Sir Ronald Wilson which has been responsible for the now widespread perception that there are generations of Aboriginal children who were forcibly and wrongfully removed from their mothers for basically racist reasons, and who were poorly cared for after their removal. It is pertinent to note that the terms of reference were written so as to imply that Aboriginal children had in fact been removed from their families by "compulsion, duress or undue influence".
However, since that report was published in 1997, evidence that ought to have been considered by Sir Ronald, but was not, has been brought to light; evidence which makes necessary a fundamental re-assessment of Sir Ronald’s conclusions. This evidence indicates that his conclusions were based on fundamental untruths about the situation that faced Governments, the churches, the part Aborigine children and their mothers, and about the circumstances of the separation of those children from their mothers.
I refer in particular to:
In reality, the 10 per cent figure is of little value, as the submission makes clear. It was obtained from a 1994 ABS household survey in which respondents were asked whether they were taken away from their natural family by a mission, the government or welfare and who brought them up during the time they were taken away. The question was prefaced with a reference to forcible removal but no information was sought as to the manner of removal or the reasons for it. No checks were made (or could have been made) as to the veracity of these responses.
In considering Sir Ronald's estimate of forced removals, it is important to realise that he did not check the veracity of stories told to him by Aborigines; he did not call evidence from government patrol officers involved in administering Aboriginal welfare; and he did not call on those missionaries and other church workers who were active in church hostels. These officers and missionaries, some of whom are still alive, have been incriminated by Sir Ronald’s report without having any opportunity to defend their conduct.
By contrast, the three test cases in courts since Sir Ronald's report have heard sworn evidence from officers and aboriginal witnesses, and both they and the claimants have been subjected to cross-examination. What was the result?
The judge in the Williams case described the “whole of the evidence” as being against the plaintiff’s claim. Yet Williams was quoted in Sir Ronald’s report as a typical “stolen child”. Again, unchallenged evidence in the Northern Territory test cases has shown that the majority of children were separated and placed in hostels by parents and those placed by the Government were virtually all put there after obtaining parental consent (in one or two cases it was not possible to ascertain whether consent had been obtained). It emerged during the case that some children who believed they were "stolen" were unaware they had been placed in hostels by their parents.
This may be the situation with Lowitja O'Donohue, whose claim that she was a "stolen" child has been given much media prominence. Yet Peter Howson has received firm information that her father initiated her removal to further her education. Charles Perkins has acknowledged that his mother placed him in a hostel, and he later praised the system "as it had excellent results". But this has not stopped him from calling for an apology and threatening all sorts of trouble if one is not forthcoming. Perkins also said he would return his OA honour but there has been no report of that happening as yet.
Sir Ronald also claimed that the removal of children was racially motivated. However, the removal of mixed-blood children reflected the fact that in many cases traditional Aboriginal communities rejected them and they were in danger of neglect -or worse. On reading Senator Herron's submission I was particularly struck by one quotation from the book written by Patrol Officer Colin Macleod on his experiences in the Northern Territory in the 1950s. It is worth repeating that quote here, viz:
Many children were assessed …and were judged to be better off staying where they were. Many, also, were not… Never, however, were children taken from families with a mother and father. They were always from very young and unprotected single mothers, often between 10 and 13, with no family member to properly care for them. On the occasions that I recommended the removal of children from their families, it appeared that the alternatives were pretty shocking.
Against this sort of background, it is difficult to see how anyone of good conscience, and with a concern for the truth, could portray the removal of the children of unprotected single mothers aged between 10 and 13 as other than an act of mercy. To describe it as a racist act would be bizarre and misguided: yet that is the implication of the Wilson report, and it is on this false basis that demands for an official apology are mounted. In fact, I believe that the opposite position to Sir Ronald's is closer to the truth, that is, the effect of the Commonwealth action was to provide protection against discrimination by traditional Aboriginal communities arising from the children's part-Aboriginality.
Of course, even though virtually all who were separated certainly benefited by comparison with the situation they would otherwise have been in, life in institutions and the lack of a parental upbringing had adverse effects on some. In such circumstances, compassion and sympathy should be extended. The Government has in fact acknowledged this and has taken action to provide, among other things, assistance with family reunion, counselling, parenting and emotional support. It has also publicly stated that it deeply regrets the harm caused by past policies that separated indigenous families.
Let me conclude by coming back to the graffiti with which I started, viz "we stole their country, they stole our biscuits". There are many debating points one could make in response, such as that "we" in the sense of those of us alive today did not steal anybody's country but some of us actually fought to reject would be "colonists" who would have treated Aborigines very badly indeed. Again, the majority of Aborigines alive today are of mixed blood and would not be here had it not been for the colonisation by our forefathers. Or, those present day Aborigines who are stealing biscuits are not simply stealing from present day whites but from fellow Aborigines - and some are doing a lot more than that to their fellow men and women.
However, tossing such debating points around gets us nowhere. The key issue is to try to identify the underlying causes of the present problems in relations between aboriginal and white Australians, and even more importantly in some senses, in the often violent relations within some Aboriginal communities themselves. We should start, I suggest, with the fundamental contradiction between, on the one hand, the continued pursuit of policies designed to encourage separate development, including separate Aboriginal cultures, and, on the other hand, the apparent failure of those policies in practice.
The failure is evidenced, on the one hand, by the marriage (de facto or de jure) of nearly two-thirds of indigenous adults to non-indigenous spouses, the movement of over 70 percent of Aborigines to urban communities (including 28 per cent in capital cities), and (if the Census is to be believed) the "conversion" of some 70 per cent of Aborigines to Christianity. On the other hand, we have the violence and deterioration in standards of living and education in traditional communities.
Statistics showing that the majority of Aborigines have moved towards Western culture and lifestyles do not, of course, mean that they have completely abandoned their own cultures and links. But they do indicate that, for better or worse, most Aborigines are recognising that Western economies and cultures have many advantages and almost certainly offer the main way ahead. Not least among such advantages are the opportunities for employment and earning an income, both of which are scarce commodities in Aboriginal communities themselves. For most Aborigines, which is the more important - having the opportunity of getting a job or hearing an apology for alleged past sins of white Australians and a statement of reconciliation?
Our policy makers, both Aboriginal and White, must stop focussing on past injustices and the encouragement of separate development. The practical result of the focus on past injustices is to create and sustain tensions in relationships between Aborigines and whites and to provide Aborigines with an excuse for their own failings and disappointments. The focus on separate development condemns many to a lifestyle offering little prospect of employment and limiting the potential spin-off benefits from more direct contact with Western culture. They are in a sense trapped, no longer relying on the hunter-gathering pursuits of their ancestors but not having acquired the new skills required to prosper in the changed environment.
They are thus now essentially dependent on the dead-end of social welfare benefits. One does not need to be a psychiatrist to understand that lives in such environments can become veritable powder kegs of tension, fuelled by alcohol in particular. Moreover, the neglect of education, and the accompanying low literacy levels, threaten to create a longer term problem even outside these communities.
Of course, the hardest part is to identify what might be achievable politically. There are many entrenched views on all sides as to what is "untouchable." It has hitherto, for example, been politically incorrect to question the policy of maintaining traditional Aboriginal communities based on land rights won by tortuous processes. Indeed, Aboriginal leaders continue to press for land rights even while acknowledging to the United Nations that the very extensive land actively sought and now held had not helped indigenous people. Aboriginal lawyer and activist, Noel Pearson, has at least identified the dangers of welfare dependency, although his proposed remedies appear to be directed more at changing the mechanisms for distribution than at attacking the substance of the problem and have not been warmly received by fellow Aborigines.
It is particularly urgent that policies be changed in regard to those remote communities where some 20 per cent of Aboriginal people still live. The violence problem in those remote communities is undoubtedly the most pressing, though it is relevant more generally too. It has become such a national disgrace that it must no longer be swept under the carpet. Yet there is an extraordinary reluctance to address an issue that is far more important than those that have attracted popular attention, such as mandatory sentencing and the apology. The situation has been allowed to get so far out of hand that it is going to be extraordinarily difficult to resolve. But one thing is essential to start doing. That is to reverse the separatist policies and to encourage those Aborigines who have not already done so to enter, or become more closely involved in, the wider community of which they will need to become a part.
In short, the focus must be on how to rescue those concerned from their cultural and economic prisons, not on an apology for alleged past sins of White Australians or an attempt to keep Aboriginal offenders out of real prisons on the ground that there are proportionately more Aborigines in jail than whites. Some well-meaning Australians perceive that, if only an apology were given for past injustices, that would get the issue out of the way and allows us to get on with the real issues. Seductive as that may seem, it is a profoundly mistaken view that fails to recognise that it would simply add credibility to those seeking action to correct those injustices and would further divert attention away from the underlying issues I have sought to identify today.
The Truth About the 'Stolen Generation'
Sir Ronald Wilson's report was astonishingly deficient
By Peter Howson (the Age 14/4/00)
The Howard Government's denial of any generation of "stolen" Aboriginal children has produced highly emotive reactions from those who have accepted without question the report by Sir Roland Wilson, Bringing Them Home. That report concluded that between one-tenth and one third of half-caste children were forcibly removed from their mothers during the period 1910 to 1970 and it recommended compensation on the basis that the removals were unjustified and that after-care was poor.
But since this report was handed down in 1997, questioning has been mounting. This has emerged partly partly from increasing evidence suggesting that the policy of encouraging the separate development of Aborigines has been a failure.
Sir Ronald objected to the policy of removing half-castes from their mothers on the ground that it was racially motivated, being designed (as he saw it) mainly to assimilate half-castes so as to remove them from a perceived "dead" Aboriginal culture. A contrast is sometimes made here between policies before and after 1970, when Nugget Coombs replaced Paul Hasluck as the guiding influence on Aboriginal policy. Aboriginal cultures have indeed been promoted, and separate Aboriginal development has been encouraged through the granting of extensive land rights.
While there have been some positive spin-offs, this encouragement of separate cultural and economic development has made adaptation to modern society difficult for many Aboriginals, particularly those living in traditional communities. This has, in turn, contributed to the high rates of unemployment, crime, alcoholism and violence amongst Aboriginals, and to dependency on welfare. By contrast, the benign Hasluckian policy of encouraging the removal of half-caste children can now be seen to have allowed many to participate in and benefit from modern society.
Moreover, evidence submitted in the compensation test cases against the Commonwealth indicates that, at least for the 1937-70 period in the Northern Territory, there can be no serious suggestion that the aim of policy was other than the welfare of half-caste children. The principal reason for the policy, rarely mentioned by supporters of Sir Ronald's report, was that many half-caste children were culturally rejected by traditional Aboriginal communities. By encouraging their removal, the Commonwealth could be said to have been pursuing a policy of protection against discrimination.
So much for the underlying basis of Sir Ronald's work. But what about the factual basis, including the 535 personal and 1000 written accounts given to him alleging forcible removal and/or poor after-care?
The evidence does not support either proposition. The judge in the New South Wales compensation test case found that the claimant was not "stolen" and concluded that "At all points, the whole of the evidence seems to be against the plaintiff's claim." Judgement in the cases against the Commonwealth is still awaited but, on the evidence submitted, a similar conclusion seems warranted.
The conflict between Sir Ronald's report and evidence in these latter cases arises because he did not check the veracity of stories told him. Nor, astonishingly, did he call evidence from officers involved in administering Aboriginal welfare.
His supporters (such as Robert Manne on this page on Monday) have offered the excuses that evidence could only be obtained "voluntarily" and that his "shoe string budget" precluded research needed to check Aborigines' stories. However, offers by administrative officers to provide evidence were not taken up by Sir Ronald and, no matter what resources were available, it is surely a travesty of justice to accept stories without checking them.
Sir Ronald effectively convicted administrative and welfare officers of serious crimes without even giving them the right to defend their conduct. Yet the evidence in the Commonwealth test cases shows that they are people of whom Australia can be proud. In difficult circumstances, they upheld the highest standards in carrying out their work.
Other evidence led during the cases also provides a totally different perspective. For example, evidence which was unchallenged by the claimants shows that, taking the period 1946-62 in the Territory, half-caste children numbered between 500 and 1000. Only 129 of such children were placed in hostels by the Government and all except three were placed with the mother's consent. Such consent was obtained from discussions that typically extended over 18 months to 2 years.
By contrast, about 450 children were placed in hostels by parents at their own expense, reflecting the general enthusiasm shown by Aboriginal parents to obtain western education for their children. Some have been unaware that their parents sent them to hostels. However, one prominent person calling for an apology, Charles Perkins, was aware his mother put him in a hostel and he later praised the system "as it had excellent results".
This and other evidence undermine the credibility of Wilson's report. We must start again and promulgate the truth.
Peter Howson was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971 and 1972
Aboriginal Problems Call for Radical Solutions
Lawlessness and Violence must be curbed before we tackle reconciliation or mandatory sentencing argues Peter Howson (Canberra Times 24 April 2000)
It is now widely accepted that there has been a breakdown of law and order within many Aboriginal communities, with acts of violence being inflicted on women and children in particular and little response from authorities. The main problem is in the outlying communities across the north of the Australian continent - from the Kimberley's in Western Australia to Port Keats and Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory, and from Mornington Island and Aurukun in Queensland to Wilcannia in New South Wales.
It has become such a national disgrace that it must no longer be swept under the carpet. Yet there is an extraordinary reluctance to address an issue that is far more important than those that have attracted popular attention, such as mandatory sentencing and the apology.
The 400 page Robertson report on violence in Aboriginal communities presented to Queensland Minister Spence last December found "evidence of all forms of physical, psychological, cultural and structural violence being perpetrated." The report describes many horrific incidents including in one community where 24 young men died in one year (mostly suicides) and a three year old girl had been raped by three men. Despite the report's conclusion that there is a "crisis of large proportions", the Minister has yet to respond to it.
This is far from the first exposure of the issue. In 1994 Professor Colin Tatz, and in 1998 John Reeves QC and Rosemary Neill of The Australian, each detailed the extreme violence being experienced, as did Channel 9's Sunday program last year.
To date, the basic response has been that the matter is one for the Aboriginal communities themselves. But the authority of the tribal elders has largely disappeared and representative bodies such as ATSIC appear unable to provide leadership. Robertson recommends that Aborigines themselves must throw off the cloak of victimhood: but they need help to do that.
Of course, the hardest part is to identify what might be achievable politically. There are many entrenched views on all sides as to what is "untouchable." It has become, for example, politically incorrect to question the policy of maintaining traditional Aboriginal communities based on land rights won by tortuous processes. Indeed, Aboriginal leaders continue to press for land rights even while acknowledging to the United Nations that the very extensive land actively sought and now held had not helped indigenous people.
All groups need to acknowledge the failure of the 25 year experiment of having land rights as a keystone of the policy response to the Aboriginal situation. The practical result is that many face a lifestyle offering little prospect of employment and limiting the potential spin-off benefits from more direct contact with Western culture. They are in a sense trapped in cultural prisons, no longer relying on the hunter-gathering pursuits of their ancestors but not having acquired the new skills required to prosper in the changed environment. They are thus now essentially dependent on the dead-end of social welfare benefits.
Some, particularly the young, are drifting away to urban centres, where some 75 per cent of Aboriginals now reside. But that simply exacerbates the situation of those left behind. One does not need to be a psychiatrist to understand that such environments can become veritable powder kegs of tension, fuelled by alcohol in particular. Moreover, the neglect of education, and the accompanying low literacy levels, threaten to create a longer term problem even outside these communities.
To succeed in reducing this serious problem requires a bipartisan effort. The Federal Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Senator John Herron, has called a meeting for early next month of his fellow State Ministers to try to agree what to do. But the matter cannot be left to Ministers of Aboriginal Affairs. The leaders of Federal and State Governments must meet soon after Herron's group and agree a program of action. The Federal Government's initiative to improve the literacy and numeracy of Aboriginal children provides a start.
What might an anti-violence program include? To start the debate rolling, I raise the following possibilities.
· A statement agreed by all Government leaders, for circulation to all Aboriginal communities, that accepts the traditional links with land but outlines the problems for Aboriginals themselves in sustaining communities based almost entirely on land and social welfare. Agreement also on the need to share the cost of the additional funding required to deal with the problem.
· Provision of an incentive to those presently living in traditional communities to move to urban areas, including regional towns and cities. Possible incentives might range from cash grants to (additional) subsidies for housing.
· The establishment of substantial policing units in Aboriginal communities and the (eventual) inclusion in those units of Aborigines trained for that purpose.
· The establishment of alcohol free zones that would include residential areas and would allow the barring of entry to those under the influence.
· Attempts to reduce truancy rates of up to 60 per cent by the provision of additional teaching and administrative staff and the enforcement of Australian law requiring children to attend school. A requirement that English be the main language taught, the only way to ensure that they can find employment.
· The establishment in the communities of safe havens to which those fearful of damage or even their lives could flee temporarily.
Some of such possibilities will seem radical, even extreme. But the problem calls for radical action.
Peter Howson was Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1970 and 1971.
Minogue, Kenneth, Waitangi Morality and Reality, New Zealand Business Roundtable 1998 p1.
 Op cit, p 16.
 In his 1994 booklet on The Australian History of Henry Reynolds, Geoffrey Partington pointed out that Reynolds (who has written extensively on Aborigines and who had a major influence on the High Court's Mabo decision) has shown that Aborigines also responded violently and that an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 settlers were killed by them. Reynolds estimated that 20,000 Aborigines were killed, although Partington argues that that estimate include deaths from imported diseases.
 Even though it might be thought "racist", prevention of pursuit of another culture may be justified morally if it is judged that that pursuit would destroy the society.
 For example, in 1933 the Commonwealth published a general policy regarding the indigenous population within its range of responsibility that stated the main objectives as, inter alia, "to preserve the aboriginal races" and "to protect the aboriginal from exploitation". (Quoted in Federal Government Submission to Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee "Inquiry into the Stolen Generation", March 2000, p 6-7).
 The only dissenting view was that of Justice Dawson, captured in the following: "The policy which lay behind the legal regime was determined politically and, however insensitive the politics may now seem to have been, a change in view does not of itself mean a change in the law. It requires the implementation of a new policy to do that and that is a matter for government rather than the courts. In the meantime it would be wrong to attempt to revise history or to fail to recognise its legal impact, however unpalatable that may seem. To do so would be to impugn the foundations of the very legal system under which this case must be decided." Prior to Mabo, the accepted view was that no legally enforceable rights to land existed prior to annexation of Australia by the Crown because there was no effective government. Contrary to the perception which has persistently been conveyed in the media, this doctrine of terra nullius does not rest on any perception that Australia was not occupied!
 In the 1996 Wik case, the High Court found that the grant of certain pastoral leases did not give the lessee exclusive possession of the leased land and did not necessarily extinguish any native title that may be held in respect of those areas. The Native Title Amendment Act of 1998 sought to implement the High Court decision and also enabled States to integrate native title requirements into their land administration systems. This
 That is, no individual Aboriginal person could acquire title or sell his or her share of the land.
 Reeves,John, Land Rights Now….Advancement When? Quadrant October 1999, p35-36.
 Judy Atkinson, Violence in Aboriginal Australia Part 2, The Aboriginal and Islander Worker 14(3), September 1990, p7.