Sorry, What About the Stolen Generations?


On February 13, in the flush of the nation’s new-found sense of momentum and generosity, there wasn’t a lot of scrutiny of what the national apology meant in policy terms for the Stolen Generations.

The reality became a little starker during Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin’s interview with Kerry O’Brien on the ABC’s 7:30 Report that evening. Macklin explained that housing for remote communities would be the first step "so that children can sleep safely at night". She also stressed the Prime Minister’s commitment to get every Indigenous four-year-old in remote Australia into pre-school, and again reiterated her Government’s priority to close the life expectancy gap. "We think the Federal Government money should … focus particularly on the children, to make sure that the next generation ha[s]the opportunities that people in the past haven’t had," she said.

Ah, the children. Indigenous children in remote communities have had a lot of government policy justified in their name in recent years. Who could disagree about the urgency of addressing the chronic rates of poverty and disadvantage those children face? But this is the point at which the voices heralding the new era in Indigenous policy start to sound kind of like the old ones.

We may be tired of the statistics but they bear repeating. Only 25 per cent of Indigenous people live in rural and remote areas of Australia: 12 per cent of Indigenous people live in the Northern Territory; and more than half of all Indigenous Australians live in New South Wales and Queensland.

We shouldn’t let the Government’s laudable commitment to children in remote communities divert us from the reality that housing, education and health concerns are no less pressing for the majority of Indigenous children who live in urban areas – the families of whom suffered much of the brunt of the policies of forcible removal.

Yes, the Government has to start somewhere, and yes, its commitments to time-bound goals and indicators are commendable. However, closing the gap on life expectancy, education and employment opportunities for Indigenous children is surely about basic citizenship entitlements. Dressing it up as the best response to the Stolen Generations now sounds a lot like practical reconciliation.

Thanks to Lukas

There is much for this new Government still to learn from the Inquiry into the Stolen Generations if it is indeed committed to not repeating the mistakes of the past. As well as past injustices, the Inquiry looked at contemporary removals of Indigenous children from their families through the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. The legacy of the policies of forcible removal is borne by the children of today, and any government who genuinely wishes to give those children the opportunities never afforded to their parents must understand this.

In accordance with international principles, the authors of the Bringing Them Home report introduced the holistic concept of reparations as the best response to the policies of forcible removal. Reparations include acknowledgment and apology as the first step, to be followed by guarantees against repetition, measures of restitution and rehabilitation relating to land, culture and language, as well as monetary compensation. It made specific recommendations relating to services for those affected, as well as a new framework for responding to Indigenous children who come into contact with government agencies.

Yesterday the South Australian Government announced it would appeal a judgement that saw the nation’s first compensation payment to a member of the Stolen Generations. In August last year, Bruce Trevorrow was awarded $775,000 for being illegally taken from his parents 51 years ago.

There will inevitably be more claims before the courts from members of the Stolen Generations – not as a result of the apology, but on grounds such as racial discrimination, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, pain and suffering, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, loss of cultural and native title rights, labour exploitation and loss of opportunities. The Federal Government could choose to spend resources on adversarial court proceedings or it could take positive action to set up a formal compensation mechanism like that of the Tasmanian Government or proposed by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

Surely reparations for the devastating and ongoing effects of past government actions doesn’t preclude concrete policy measures to ensure that all Indigenous children of this and future generations enjoy greater opportunities and choices.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.