As I email this story to the editor, I am heading to breakfast at my local to watch Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations. Yesterday I was at work at my local high school, where my principal told her charges just how important this day, 13 February, will be in the history of this nation. My Aboriginal friends are brimming with excitement.
Yet two articles published in The Australian last weekend show that we cannot yet say goodbye to the obduracy of the Howard years. Keith Windschuttle claims historians created the story of the stolen generations, and misrepresented the benign intentions of administrators. Rather strangely, he argues that if the PM decides to accept the words of historians and make an apology, Rudd ought to accept historians’ reckoning on the numbers affected by child removal, and pay $50 billion in compensation.
This inflammatory salvo is an attempt to spruik the second volume of Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, about the stolen generations, and I am sure I am not the only person to feel a there’s a nasty sort of opportunism at play here. However, Windschuttle’s claims cannot go unchallenged.
I wrote a PhD using the files of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board, as Peter Read, Heather Goodall and a host of others had done. The question I most wanted to answer was whether the practices of the Protection Board were – as conservative commentators claim – the same as those of white welfare systems. (Please note that what occurred in NSW cannot, as Windschuttle implies, be extrapolated to other jurisdictions.)
Few will be surprised that I found Aboriginal children in NSW experienced welfare differently to white state kids. In fact, the legislation that controlled Aboriginal children was designed to circumvent the mainstream welfare system. Although neglected Aboriginal children were removed from their families by the forerunners of the Department of Community Services (whose records are closed), the Board wanted to take children that no court would remove. We don’t know how many were taken, but we can provide a thumbnail sketch of what happened to them, based on the 800 kids whose records survive.
Windschuttle says historians misrepresent child removal by hiding the fact that the majority of children removed were aged between 13 and 17. This isn’t true. Heather Goodall and Victoria Haskins, amongst others, have written about how important this fact is -the Board claimed it was rescuing little orphan and neglected children from the appalling conditions on reserves. (Please note, the Board created these conditions by forcibly relocating communities to sites without services or sanitation, perpetuated them with chronic mismanagement, then wrote about the need to take the children.)
Nor is it accurate to present the NSW Aboriginal apprenticeship policy as "on-the-job training", broadly similar to that experienced by white children. Sometimes things that appear similar prove to be different when you scratch the surface.
The "Aboriginal schools" that Windschuttle praises as a training initiative offered only a dumbed-down grade three education. So it was with apprenticeship. By 1915, reformers were complaining that it did nothing to help white children gain skills, and by World War II fewer than 10 per cent of white state wards lived this way. The gold standard of white child welfare was actually fostering, which was not considered possible for Aboriginal children until the 1950s. Instead they were apprenticed or institutionalised.
Windschuttle accuses Read of overstating the number of children committed "for being Aboriginal". He says only one form states this, but that is wrong. In one quarter of the cases where a reason was given, Aboriginality was clearly denoted by terms like "camp life", "surroundings" and residing on an "Aboriginal station". Half of the cases cited Children’s Court definitions of neglect (conditions were dreadful) but in the remaining quarter of cases apprenticeship was given as the reason, even though it was unthinkable for white children to be taken from their parents simply to be put to work.
Finally, Windschuttle argues that because 60 per cent of Aboriginal apprentices eventually found their way home, they were not stolen. How anyone can say this, when apprentices spent up to eight years away from home, is beyond me. And I am completely bamboozled by Windschuttle’s claim that a system in which the majority of children returned to the exact same conditions they left constitutes "a way out of the alcohol-soaked, handout-dominated camps and reserves of their parents".
Fortunately, Windschuttle’s call for Kevin Rudd to apply similar policies to remedy sexual assault and substance abuse in remote communities comes at the point when we can at last say that the tide has turned in Aboriginal affairs.
In the Parliament today, the PM said sorry, not once, but three times. With that comes the hope that we will never repeat the mistakes of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board, or any other State jurisdiction.
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