The Culture Wars Are Over — And Here's The Proof


Very few people would be aware that Keith Windschuttle released volume three of his series The Fabrication of Aboriginal History in December last year. As Robert Manne observed in his review of the book in The Monthly, it arrived to only the most "strangely muffled fanfare from his friends".

This fanfare has consisted of some blog puffery by Janet Albrechtsen and Andrew Bolt and limited coverage in The Australian, which published an article in December claiming Rabbit Proof Fence was grossly inaccurate, and, this month, an article by Imre Salusinszky and an extract from the book which was uncharacteristically balanced by a very decent-sized response by Manne. Michael Duffy did invite Windschuttle onto Radio National’s Counterpoint but Manne appearing the next night on Phillip Adams’s Late Night Live balanced that. It would seem the most reliable media combatants have done their duty, but half-heartedly, so you have to wonder, what will be the impact of this book?

Windschuttle’s argument, as Manne spells out, is that there was no stolen generation, because although substantial numbers of children were removed, they were taken for reasons that applied to white children in welfare and they were treated the same as those children. I suppose this book must have been at the printers when the Rudd Government issued its second (and as I argued here at, belated) apology to child migrants and the forgotten Australians, but the second apology undermines his argument that Aboriginal people have no grounds for complaint and means the book was out of date even before it was published.

The person most viciously attacked in this book is Peter Read who exposed child removal policies in a 1981 pamphlet written for the NSW Government called The Stolen Generations. Read and Coral Edwards, who grew up in the Cootamundra Girls Home, formed Link-Up NSW and worked through Aborigines Welfare Board and Youth and Community Services records to help families and children reunite. The Stolen Generations came out of that work, and Windschuttle claims it underpinned the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report Bringing them Home, so attempts to eviscerate it, calling it "advocacy research". (I acknowledge here that Peter Read was one of the markers of my thesis which was about black and white child welfare in NSW and Tasmania.)

Windschuttle slashes Read’s estimate of the numbers of Aboriginal children removed from 5000 to 2600, but that is because he only counts children mentioned in Aborigines Protection Board records. As all historians working in the field know, younger Aboriginal children who were considered able to pass as white were dealt with by the State Children’s Relief Department (SCRD), not the Board. A sense of their numbers can be gleaned from the 1915 SCRD Annual Report in which the president complained he had 80 children from Aboriginal camps who were, in his view, absolutely unfit to live with white children. At this time, the Board had no more than 120 children under its direct control, but if you add the 80, it is easy to see that Read’s estimates are far more robust than Windschuttle would have anyone believe.

Windschuttle is at his most outrageous, and egregious, when he writes about Aboriginal apprenticeships. His apparently devastating insight that 66 per cent of children in the Board’s records were in fact teenaged apprentices has already been established by dozens of researchers, including Inara Walden, Heather Goodall, Victoria Haskins and myself. He claims that the practice was a supported employment scheme like Therese Rein’s disability placement enterprises and argues that, although the Board wanted to close down reserves and remove children permanently, it failed to do so, and in fact acted as a "country employment agency".

I also have to dispute Windschuttle’s claim that Aboriginal children were treated the same as white children. Although there were superficial similarities between the apprenticeships of black and white children, the Board’s systems were unique. Aboriginal children were not inspected regularly or even given the same legal protections until at least the 1940s, by which time apprenticeship as domestic servants was almost unheard of for white children.

Windschuttle presents himself as a master of evidence but then hypocritically dispenses with it when it suits him. On page 121 he argues that Aboriginal people supported this policy and saw the Board as protector of their children, yet provides no footnote and no source while dismissing incidents of Aboriginal protest at child removal recorded in the Board’s own minute books. He says the Aboriginal activist William Ferguson must have supported the Board because he served on it in the period 1940 to 1950. In fact, Ferguson told a 1937 government inquiry that the apprenticeship system was "very close to slavery". Windschuttle cites this report elsewhere but does not mention that fact, and if he had read the Board’s minutes of the 1940s, he would have found just how often Ferguson was threatened with suspension and condemned by his fellow Board members for attacking their policies.

I could go on, but in a sense, the detail matters little. What does matter is the question of motivation and it is here that I have to admit I feel a sense of satisfaction from knowing that I can finally be sure what drives Keith Windschuttle. In a nutshell, it is class envy, resentment of the academy, racism and a fervent desire that the policies of old should live again today.

You can see class envy when he writes that the grade three education offered at Aboriginal schools was like his own state school in the knockabout western Sydney suburb of Canterbury, while pointing out snidely that Read attended an elite north shore private school, Knox Grammar. His attacks on academic historians are disgustingly personal. He hates them most for receiving "six figure salaries" from publicly funded universities and informing government policy. As the editor of a national (publicly funded journal), who sits on the board of a cherished public institution (the ABC) and has considerable personal wealth (including his own printing press), he is in no position to attack them for receiving public funds.

Is it just that he hates them for occupying the ivory towers he once rejected?

I don’t think so. Windschuttle could have chosen any number of topics and any number of historians to have a go at but he chose Aboriginal history. He bends over backwards to repudiate any sense of Aboriginal will or consciousness, let alone self-determination. He writes that Aboriginal people were not bothered by child removal until Read put the idea into their heads. Link-Up’s three decades of dedicated support of people seeking their families is dismissed as an Aboriginal industry, started by a white man (Coral Edwards’s work, as a black woman, is ignored). Aboriginal writers like Margaret Tucker have misremembered the past because white people with political motives influenced them. Sally Morgan’s grandmother’s stories matter much less than stories told by her grandmother’s employer. This is the racism.

But, ultimately, I think what drives Keith Windschuttle is nostalgia. He has no expertise in Aboriginal policy yet has firm views on the abolition of outstations, spelled out in this transcript of Counterpoint from 2004. He appears to long for a time when it was acceptable to talk about forcing Aboriginal people to live a different way so he writes the present into the past, telling a story of how the Board realised its efforts to provide welfare to Aboriginal people had failed and the traditional ways were gone, so it benevolently removed young people from their nasty home lives, to the cities, where they might learn the ways of modern industrialised nations.

Read closely, this book is nothing more than a paean to the Northern Territory Intervention. Windschuttle is himself trying research advocacy but he’s not very good at it, he’s left his run too late and I hope the lacklustre response proves his advocacy is redundant.

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.