Kidnapping Goes Unpunished


The welfare and the policeman said ‘You’ve got to understand
We’ll give to them what you can’t give teach them how to really live.

‘Took the Children Away,’ Archie Roach

Exactly 10 years ago, the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children From Their Families, was presented to the Federal Attorney-General by Sir Ronald Wilson, President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC).

Bringing Them Home was dedicated ‘with thanks and admiration to those who found the strength to tell their stories to the Inquiry and to the generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people separated from their families and communities.’

Wilson had undertaken an extensive program of hearings in over 50 locations across the country, commencing on Flinders Island in December 1995 and concluding in Sydney some 10 months later. The final Report drew on 777 submissions, 500 of which were made confidentially.

The report made 54 recommendations, among them Recommendation 5b, calling on all Australian Parliaments to ‘officially acknowledge the responsibility of their predecessors for the laws, policies and practices of forcible removal.’ While all State and territory parliaments have long ago offered this apology, the Prime Minister Howard like Fonzie struggles with the word ‘sorry’ and has drawn the line at an expression of ‘deep and sincere regret.’ Other recommendations called for guarantees against repetition, measures of restitution and rehabilitation, monetary compensation, and sufficient funding to allow Indigenous agencies to fully document perhaps the sorriest chapter in this country’s history.

Kim Beazley, a flawed but deeply human politician, wept in Federal Parliament as he recounted extracts from the 700-page Report soon after its publication. ‘This is a terrible, terrible record,’ he told the House of Representatives, unhesitatingly drawing attention to the fact that Labor administrations had been complicit in the policy of forced removal.

On the Government benches, Prime Minister John Howard made a bloodless and calculated assessment of the likely political damage the issue might cause, and decided to tough it out. In December 1997, the Federal Government produced a response to the Report which contained no apology but offered $63 million dollars in blood money to promote Indigenous health and culture.

The Bringing Them Home Inquiry had its genesis at the Going Home conference held in Darwin during October 1994. Indigenous people from around the country met to share their stories, shine a light on the country’s shameful past and ponder how to address the wrong. Singer/songwriter Archie Roach, himself part of the Stolen Generations, told delegates:

We’re here together, just to encourage each other, because we all know what we’ve been through but here today it looks like we’re getting up.

The then Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, the ALP’s Robert Tickner, also spoke, telling those assembled that no issue had haunted him as much as the ‘Stolen Generations.’ He foreshadowed his intention to write to Attorney-General Michael Lavarch, seeking an inquiry into the matter. ‘I hope this will be an issue that soars like a bird above Party political differences,’ observed Tickner with laudable, if sadly misplaced, faith.

Some years later, I sat in a lecture theatre in Melbourne, listening to academics debate whether the Stolen Generations ‘really happened.’ The history wars were raging, ignited by Keith Windschuttle’s book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, which argued that the mistreatment of Indigenous Australians had been grossly over-stated. Tabloid tub-thumpers like Andrew Bolt and Piers Ackerman were splitting microscopic hairs in a forensic crusade to define the stolen generations out of existence. In his 2001 Quarterly Essay, In Denial, Robert Manne noted that these scribes ‘invented no new arguments and uncovered no new facts’ and served only to create ‘skepticism and outright disbelief’ in the public mind on the issue of the Stolen Generations.

As I researched this piece, I called into the library here in Alice Springs with the intention of thumbing through a copy of Bringing Them Home. Defeated by Dewey Decimals, I approached the desk and enlisted the help of Sylvia Neale, whose badge identified her as the Indigenous Services Officer.

She quickly tracked down my quarry and motioned me towards the shelves. ‘Both my parents were taken,’ she told me conversationally, while tracing her finger across the row of spines. Sylvia also produced for me a copy of the papers from the Going Home conference. I explained that I did not have a borrower’s card, but she waved my protests away. ‘It’s my own copy,’ she said simply. ‘Bring it back when you’ve finished with it.’

Two weeks earlier I had interviewed William Tilmouth, Executive Director of Tangentyere Council, the organisation that provides advocacy and services to the Alice Springs town camps. Tilmouth told me he had been taken away at the age of four, following the death of his mother. ‘Three of us from the same father were sent north and the fair-skinned ones were sent south,’ he mentioned, matter-of-factly.

The Australian Democrats are hardly political flavour of the month. But alongside the Greens, they resolutely bear witness to the continuing brutal mistreatment of Australia’s Indigenous people, even as the major Parties conduct focus groups to refine their electoral pitches.

Earlier this month, Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett tabled an exposure draft of proposed Democrats legislation which will provide a measure of financial compensation for victims of the Stolen Generations. The Stolen Generations Compensation Bill, is timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Bringing Them Home.

The Bill is modelled on the Stolen Generations Act passed by the Tasmanian Parliament in November last year. Under that legislation, a funding package worth $5 million was established to provide for a one-off cash payment to Stolen Generation victims. The Act came into operation on 15 January 2007 and prescribes a six-month time limit for compensation applications.

Bartlett is proposing a fund of $40 million with a similar six-month window for applications. Double-dipping across State and Federal compensation schemes would not be permitted. The legislation would also create an independent office of the Stolen Generations Assessor to rule on compensation applications.

Bartlett said:

The Bill acknowledges the wrong of removing people from their families and communities and takes practical steps to right the wrong so that Indigenous people affected by the removal policy can move forward more equally with the wider Australian community.

Professor Mick Dodson has congratulated Senator Bartlett for bringing the issue ‘back onto the political radar screen,’ describing the move as ‘long overdue.‘ Dodson is no doubt painfully familiar with this material, having assisted Ronald Wilson in the Bringing them Home hearings.

No amount of money can compensate a person for the theft of their childhood. However the symbolism of the gesture is crystal clear. Regardless of the best intentions of the administrators of the time, the policy of forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families was simply wrong.

This stain will one day be ameliorated by a Prime
Ministerial apology, when that office is again occupied by a leader with vision and grace. A dead weight will lift from the nation’s shoulders and perhaps then ‘we can all be mates’ as the great Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari might have said.

Sir Ronald Wilson, fondly remembered as a giant in the battle for Indigenous justice, wrote a preface for Carmel Bird’s gentle and respectful collection of extracts from Bringing Them Home. ‘It is not too late,’ concluded Wilson, ‘for the nation to gain release from the burden of this shameful part of its history.’ Andrew Bartlett’s initiative affords another opportunity for a curmudgeonly and mean-spirited Government to right a great wrong.

The Bringing Them Home Report is a tribute to the strength and struggles of many thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people affected by forcible removal. We acknowledge the hardships they endured and the sacrifices they made. We remember and lament all the children who will never come home.

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