March 2008

Essays

Robert Manne

Sorry business

The road to the apology

In a recent conversation the novelist Alex Miller told me he thought people who claimed that they hadn't known, until relatively recently, that Aboriginal children had been forcibly removed from their families were lying. I didn't have the heart to tell him that, until the publication of Bringing Them Home in 1997, my own ignorance about Aboriginal-child removal had not been feigned but real. Like very many Australians, I was shocked, moved and ashamed when I read its account of the systematic decades-long practice of separating Aboriginal children of mixed descent from their mothers, families and communities, and of the physical and psychic suffering so many had endured, as a consequence, for the remainder of their lives. This was a chapter of recent Australian history I had not taken the trouble to understand.

Two pieces of evidence I stumbled upon shortly after reading the report had a particularly powerful effect on me. One was a passage from Margaret Tucker's autobiography, If Everyone Cared. As I know now but did not yet understand, Margaret Tucker had been one of the many New South Wales Aboriginal children and adolescents who had been seized by state authorities and prepared for apprenticeships as domestic servants or rural labourers after the Aborigines Protection Board in 1915 had convinced the parliament to amend legislation so that children could be taken from their families without any need to prove neglect before a court. The police had arrived at Tucker's school and arrested her and her sister. Their grief-stricken mother had rushed to the school and begged for mercy. She had been allowed to accompany her daughters part of the way. And then:

I heard years later how after watching us go out of her life, she wandered away from the police station three miles along the road leading out of town to Moonahculla. She was worn out, with no food or money, her apron still on. She wandered off the road to rest in the long grass under a tree. This is where old Uncle and Aunt found her the next day ... They found our mother still moaning and crying. They heard the sounds and thought it was an animal in pain. 

The other piece of evidence had even more impact. Some weeks after the publication of Bringing Them Home, the ABC showed a documentary called Frontier. In the final episode the following words, spoken by the Western Australian chief protector of Aborigines and later commissioner of native affairs, AO Neville, were quoted: "Are we going to have a population of 1 million blacks in the commonwealth, or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there were ever any Aborigines in Australia?" As I have written before, these words struck me with the force of lightning. As a university student, I had read Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. One passage had shaped forever my understanding of the nature of the crime we call genocide. "It was when the Nazi regime declared that the German people not only were unwilling to have any Jews in Germany," she had written, "but wished to make the entire people disappear from the face of the Earth that the new crime, the crime against humanity - in the sense of the crime against the human status - appeared." As Arendt argued, at the heart of the crime the Nazis had committed against the Jews was the belief that they had "the right to determine who should and should not inhabit the world". I knew this passage by heart. As Neville seemed to have spoken unambiguously about an ambition to merge the Aborigines into the white population, so that eventually their very existence would be forgotten, did not the sentence Frontier had quoted amount to a claim of a similar kind?

I went to my university's library and discovered a verbatim transcript of the conference where these words had been spoken: the inaugural meeting of state- and commonwealth-government administrators of Aboriginal affairs, held in Canberra in April 1937. I learned now that Neville had not been quoted by Frontier out of context. Like other delegates, he believed that "full-blood" Aborigines were destined to die out. Like them, he believed that the really menacing Aboriginal problem facing Australia was the growth in the number of "half-castes". What was to be done? In his state, as he pointed out, under recent legislation, "full-bloods" were now effectively prohibited from marrying with Aborigines of mixed racial descent. If "half-castes", "quadroons" and "octoroons" were removed from Aboriginal society as young children, they could be educated and sent to work. The girls, in particular, could be prepared in this way for eventual marriage to white males. As Neville accepted a then-current crackpot theory - that the Aborigines were the remote racial ancestors of Caucasians - he believed that under these circumstances the prospect for the birth of babies of increasingly white skin, without any possibility of "throwback" to the black, was good. The problem of the full-blood would solve itself naturally. There was nothing anyone could do. This was what popularised racial Darwinism had taught his generation. There was, however, a solution to the "problem" of the "half-caste": biological absorption through the implementation of a policy known at the time as "breeding out the colour". This was a policy, as I soon discovered, that was supported during the 1930s by the governments of both Western Australia and the commonwealth, which administered the Northern Territory. The Frontier quote from Neville had, in short, led me to the discovery of the existence of a kind of racism in interwar Australia of which I had previously been altogether unaware.

I subsequently wondered whether my visceral response to Neville's 1937 Canberra-conference performance, which plunged me into study of Aboriginal-child removal, had been shared by anyone living at the time. I discovered that it had. In 2006 a stranger approached me in the local newsagency. He wondered whether I might be interested in a book he owned which related to the question of the Stolen Generations. The book, Mt Margaret: A Drop in the Bucket, turned out to be a memoir of an interwar Christian mission to the Aborigines in Western Australia, where the wonderful, maternal feminist Mary Bennett, the nemesis of AO Neville and author of The Australian Aboriginal as a Human Being, worked and lived. It was written by Margaret Morgan, the daughter of the mission head, the Reverend Rod Schenk. Schenk had read the transcript of the Canberra conference 60 years before I had. Like me, we learn from his daughter, he "couldn't believe what he was reading". His interpretation of Neville's words went like this: "Because there was no such thing as atavism in the Aboriginal ... [Neville] advocated education for the part-white so that they would be absorbed into the white race, but was opposed to education of full-bloods because he believed they were dying out." "The report from Canberra" was for Schenk "a revelation of [Neville's] real intent". He informed everyone he knew about it. The word ‘genocide' had not entered the language in 1937. Schenk had to invent a phrase of his own. From now on he spoke about Neville's "‘die-out' and ‘breed-out' policy". His interpretation of the sinister meaning of Neville's words at the Canberra 1937 conference had been, in short, identical to mine.


After the publication of Bringing Them Home, I began to write in Quadrant on the Stolen Generations and, in particular, on the question of the relationship between the policy for the biological absorption of the "half-caste" population and the concept of genocide. So did my friend the philosopher Raimond Gaita. I was by now in my eighth year as Quadrant editor.

From one point of view the magazine was flourishing. Circulation had doubled since I had taken the magazine to Melbourne. Writers who once would not have considered appearing in Quadrant were contributing. From another point of view, however, trouble was brewing. A major cultural controversy had arisen about the decision of the Miles Franklin committee to award its prize to Helen Demidenko-Darville, for a novel about the supposed relationship between Jewish responsibility for the suffering of the Ukrainians in the Stalin famine and enthusiastic Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust. Many regarded the novel as anti-Semitic, jejune and morally cold. I was one of them. I wrote extensively in Quadrant against Demidenko. So did Gaita and others. As it happened, the chair of the Quadrant board, Dame Leonie Kramer, was also the chair of the Miles Franklin Award committee. It was an intrinsically delicate situation. Another supporter of Demidenko was Quadrant's literary editor, the great poet Les Murray, who a little later had been the main eyewitness source for a major Brisbane Courier Mail scoop, which claimed that Manning Clark had been awarded an Order of Lenin and was the Australian spy of the century. As Quadrant editor I might have been expected to support the idea or at least remain neutral. In fact, I treated it as absurd.

Despite our differences, Kramer remained courteous. Murray did not. From late 1996, he began to send from Bunyah increasingly angry postcards of complaint. Around this time, perhaps coincidentally, he also began to choose some very strange pieces for inclusion in the magazine. One was a pro-Demidenko poem of no discernible merit, which accused those who were critics of the novel of being Nazi book-burners. Another was a poem about Pauline Hanson, who had recently become a political force in the land. It read in part: "I've seen her tremble / I've seen her whisper / I've felt her power / Burning before me." Yet another of Murray's recommendations argued, preposterously enough, that Manning Clark was an anti-Semite. I wrote a polite letter to him saying that I was not willing to publish this piece. His reply was angry and insulting. "Our feud", he pointed out, concerned much more "than the attitudes to Jews of traitor Clark". Murray discussed our disagreement over Demidenko, but then moved on to what he regarded as the far more serious matter. According to Murray, I had started taking "the received leftist line on Aborigines". I was "letting Gaita trumpet against dissent on this matter". I had been successfully "duchessed" by the Left. After receiving this letter, I knew our relations had come to an end.

This incident began a process - in which Kramer misled me with an elegant insouciance I could almost admire - that brought about my decision to resign as editor, six months later. What is relevant here, however, is what happened at the final board meeting I attended. I announced my resignation. Then my critics spoke: Kramer, the philosopher David Armstrong and the novelist Christopher Koch. The discussion was dominated by the question of Quadrant and the Aborigines. It became clear that for half the board, the way the magazine had treated Aboriginal matters raised serious questions about my suitability to edit a conservative cultural magazine. On the question of the Aboriginal dispossession in general, and the Stolen Generations in particular, I had crossed over to the enemy camp. It had taken me a long time to understand how fundamental these questions were to the Australian Culture War.


Padraic McGuinness was appointed as my replacement. In my last issue I published a long piece on the Stolen Generations. At Kramer's insistence, I also published McGuinness's first editorial on the future of Quadrant. Nearly one-third was devoted to the Aborigines. Under his editorship there would be no more "mawkish sentimentality" or "pharisaical breast beating". McGuinness meant what he said. Over the next three years Quadrant led a national campaign against the conclusions of Bringing Them Home and against the quest for Indigenous-non-Indigenous reconciliation. Two anti-Bringing Them Home conferences were held. A dozen or more articles on questions connected to the Stolen Generations were published. Keith Windschuttle's revisionist history was launched. The McGuinness-led campaign was soon joined by the increasingly influential right-wing commentariat in the metropolitan press: Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman, Ron Brunton, Michael Duffy, Christopher Pearson, Frank and Miranda Devine. The cultural Right had clearly chosen the question of the Stolen Generations in general, and the apology in particular, as their key battleground in the Culture War.

The campaign went, roughly speaking, like this. Very many of the Aborigines who Bringing Them Home claimed had been unjustly and forcibly separated from their mothers and families had in fact been "half-castes" who had no place in traditional Aboriginal society. Others came from dysfunctional families where they suffered from neglect and abuse. These children had in fact been rescued and not stolen. The claims of the authors of Bringing Them Home, that the children of mixed descent had been removed for racist reasons - that some, for example, had been taken away so that colour could be bred out and others simply to remove part-European children from the degradation of the Aboriginal camp or to rid them of their Aboriginality - were outright falsehoods. The children were separated on conventional social-welfare grounds. The intentions of those who removed the children were almost uniformly benign. The institutions to which the children had been sent were, in general, no different from the institutions to which white children in similar situations were sent. The removal process, throughout the period from 1910 to 1970, had been overseen in every state and territory by courts of law.

Members of the Stolen Generations had told their terrible stories to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) hearing conducted by Sir Ronald Wilson and Mick Dodson: they had told of the existence in the past of a generalised Aboriginal fear about mixed-descent children being seized by the police; of being hidden by their parents in the bush, for fear of forced removal; of faces being blackened by charcoal, in order to disguise their colour; of the cruel practices of the institutions to which the Aboriginal children had been sent; of the beatings that had been inflicted; of the contempt expressed for Aboriginal culture and language; of the attempt to instil in the children shame about their Aboriginality; of the casual separation of brothers and sisters, following their removal; of the deliberate severing by authorities of all connection between the children and their parents; of their psychic numbness following institutionalisation; of their lifelong pain, anomie and unassuageable grief. According to the anti-Bringing Them Home campaigners, such stories simply could not be believed. Padraic McGuinness argued that the Aborigines who presented evidence to the HREOC inquiry were suffering from a condition known as "false-memory syndrome". Their stories about the experience of removal were of the same kind as those who spoke about alien abduction or satanic possession. According to Andrew Bolt, even one of the most prominent members of the Stolen Generations and campaigners on their behalf, Lowitja O'Donoghue, was a fraud. She had not been stolen from her mother but placed in an institution by her white father. It was apparently of no consequence to Bolt that because of the actions of Lowitja's father, both she and her mother had been in pain for the rest of their lives.

According to the campaigners - the pioneer here was Ron Brunton - the HREOC inquiry, which had gullibly taken on faith the stories told them by the members of the Stolen Generations, was fatally flawed. It had failed to conduct proper legal interrogations of the Aboriginal witnesses who had appeared before it. It had supposedly refused to allow the administrators of the policy, or even the handful of separated Aboriginal children who were grateful for their removal, to appear. It had presented evidence selectively. During the campaign, Sir Ronald Wilson was, we were told repeatedly, a hypocrite. He had once been on the board of one of the homes which received mixed-descent Aboriginal children after their removal, Sister Kate's. It was apparently inconceivable that since that time his understanding might have grown. He also suffered from a condition known as "moral vanity" - a condition afflicting those who felt deeply about causes of which right-wing cultural warriors disapprove; no one, for example, who was passionate about the Bali bombings would be so described. Other prominent white supporters of the Aborigines - like Sir William Deane ("Holy Billy") and Malcolm Fraser ("the sanctimonious prig") - also suffered from this condition. Yet the moral state of the white supporters of the Stolen Generations was, we were told, even worse than that. Such people were, in Michael Duffy's delightful phrase, "white maggots". They fed upon concocted stories of supposed Aboriginal suffering. They secretly hated their country. Others agreed with Duffy. Was it not weird, Andrew Bolt reflected, "that some Australians wanted to believe racist whites - their own forebears - snatched children from despairing mothers' arms?" The members of the elites who were shocked by the stories revealed in Bringing Them Home were not merely politically correct. They were un-Australian.

For my part, I observed this campaign with growing anger. Eventually, after McGuinness's Quadrant in 2000 published three long articles by Keith Windschuttle suggesting that the Henry Reynolds school of history had systematically fabricated evidence about frontier massacres, and, even more significantly, after the Australian had treated the publication of the articles as a significant cultural event, I decided to take up the offer to write the first Quarterly Essay. My subject was, narrowly, the anti-Bringing Them Home campaign. More broadly, it was the emergence under Howard of what seemed like a novel phenomenon: an authentic Australian version of an international movement on the Right often known as historical denialism. One question interested me more than any other. Why had so much political energy been devoted to the task of denying that in recent Australian history a very serious racial injustice had taken place? The essay, ‘In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right', was launched jointly by Paul Keating and Lowitja O'Donoghue. I was now at the battlefront of the Culture War. I had made some enemies, for life.

I was also interested in the relation of the campaign to the resistance that the Howard government had shown to the conclusions of the Bringing Them Home report. The government did not deny that many Aboriginal people had suffered as a consequence of their removal. It provided money to establish an oral-history project, for a carefully worded memorial in Canberra, for assistance in helping members of the Stolen Generations locate and re-connect with family they had lost. But much beyond that it would not go. The government dismissed the genocide conclusions of the HREOC report with contempt. It refused to consider monetary compensation. It would not accept the name that Indigenous Australians had chosen to describe the collective tragedy that had befallen them: the Stolen Generations. Against the grain of much of the evidence presented to the Bringing Them Home inquiry, it insisted that the intentions of those who had designed and implemented the child-removal policy were in general benign. And in fighting against the legal action brought by Lorna Cubillo and Peter Gunner in regard to their removal, the commonwealth allowed its counsel to defend not only the practice of child removal but also the Hasluck policy with which the postwar removals had been associated, Aboriginal assimilation.

Perhaps most importantly of all, while the government was willing to describe the dispossession of the Aborigines as the most "blemished" chapter in Australia history, and while it was willing to express its "regret" about certain actions that had happened during that chapter (which Pat Dodson wittily described as the "Paddy McGuinness apology"), because it advanced the radical proposition that the present generation had no responsibility for acts done in the past, it was utterly unwilling to say sorry to the members of the Stolen Generations. An apology was also at the heart of the long quest for a symbolic act of reconciliation on the centenary of federation. In May 2000, this collapsed at the Sydney Opera House, when the Document Towards Reconciliation was presented to the government. The campaign against Bringing Them Home now gradually lost momentum. Its destructive work had already been achieved. Because of it, the Howard government's resistance to so many dimensions of the Bringing Them Home report had been made far easier. So had its capacity to turn its back on reconciliation without significant political cost. When right-wing commentators spoke about symbolic reconciliation, they now routinely sneered. The quest for reconciliation had become intimately, inescapably connected with the question of the full recognition of the injustice that had been visited upon the members of the Stolen Generations. With the repudiation of the spirit of Bringing Them Home, the quest was dead. Or at least, during the second half of the Howard government, that was how it seemed to me.


This was a far-too-pessimistic reading. Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians had walked across the bridges of the capital cities in 2000 in support of reconciliation. Their hopes were still alive. No less importantly, at the same time as the Right and Left continued to exchange fire on the battlefield of the Culture War, more quietly, following the publication of Bringing Them Home, a genuine national conversation was being conducted in which our understanding of both the history of Aboriginal-child removal, and the problem of how contemporary Australians ought to respond to that history, had been deepened.

As with most conversations, this often concerned the refinement of distinctions. Those Australians who opposed a national apology often resisted on the grounds of the incoherence of the idea of collective guilt. In the context of this debate, so far as I am aware, Raimond Gaita was the first to point to the vital distinction between guilt and shame. While it was morally confused and even wrong for individuals to admit to guilt over acts in which they had played no part, this did not apply to the question of collective or historic shame. Nations were not arbitrary collections of individuals or families living in a permanent present. They were, in the famous phrase of Benedict Anderson, "imagined communities", where the present generation inherited a past and was responsible, as the nation's custodian, for what was then bequeathed to the future. In a nation's past there were episodes in which the present generation took a justifiable pride. There were also episodes for which they experienced the burden of shame. This argument had particular relevance for Australian conservatives. If they believed strongly, as they did, that Australians ought to feel pride in the achievements of the pioneers or the sacrifices of the young men who served their country at war, how could they reasonably claim that these same Australians should not feel shame about the dark deeds of their country's past? To feel pride at Gallipoli but no shame at the events that had occurred during the long dispossession of the Aborigines simply made no sense. The implication of this for the discussion of the present generation's responsibility for Aboriginal children having been forcibly removed from their families was clear. Gradually, the power of this argument shifted national consciousness. In its publication of the speech delivered by Dr Brendan Nelson on the occasion of the apology to the Stolen Generations, the Australian chose as its headline, ‘We look back with pride, but occasionally shame'. In the national conversation, something significant had, by now, been settled.

So, I believe, had a contiguous question. In the parliament in 1999, as we have seen, the prime minister, on behalf of the nation, had expressed regrets about the most blemished chapter in the nation's history, the dispossession of the Aborigines. He had, however, time and again refused to offer an apology to the Indigenous people in general, or the Stolen Generations in particular. His justification was clear. The government denied what came to be called inter-generational responsibility. The present generation, we were told a hundred times, was not responsible or accountable for the deeds of earlier generations of Australians. Just as the prime minister no doubt regretted that the Holocaust had occurred or that millions had died in the Irish potato famine, so did he regret what had happened to the Aborigines during and after their dispossession. And just as he could not apologise for the Holocaust or the potato famine, so could he not apologise for the dispossession.

It was always obvious to me that this contention was inauthentic. If inter-generational responsibility did not exist, it would not be possible for the present chancellor of Germany to offer an apology to the Jews for the Holocaust. Was this what Howard genuinely believed? Some time before Howard became prime minister, President Reagan had apologised to those Japanese-Americans who had been interned during World War II. Did Howard believe such an apology should not have been given? During Howard's prime ministership, Tony Blair successfully demanded that the prime minister of Japan apologise to the British prisoners of war the Japanese had brutally mistreated during World War II. Our deputy prime minister, Tim Fischer, thought a similar apology was due to the surviving Australian prisoners of war. Did Howard think the request unreasonable? Given that the view about the incoherence of the idea of inter-generational responsibility Howard expressed in 1999 and a hundred times thereafter was out of step with almost all contemporary political thinking - even that of his own deputy prime minister, of his hero Ronald Reagan and of his close Iraq ally Tony Blair - by what line of argument was it justified? I have examined closely all Howard's statements to the parliament on this matter. The simple truth is that Howard stated his belief as an axiom. No argument was ever made. In the prelude to the Coalition's recent decision on whether or not to support the apology, Dr Nelson tried to hold the line on inter-generational responsibility, again without advancing anything that looked like an argument. With the Coalition's agreement to support the apology, the always-threadbare case collapsed. By now, another aspect of the national conversation concerning the Stolen Generations had been settled.

So had some, although by no means all, of the historical questions that had been raised but not resolved by the authors of Bringing Them Home.

 For almost a decade, the Right staunchly defended the reputation of the Western Australian chief protector, AO Neville, and denied that either the government he served or any other had ever supported a policy of "breeding out the colour". This was the position taken by Paddy McGuinness in Quadrant, by Paul Sheehan in Electronic Whorehouse, where it is at the centre of his wild personal attack on me, and by Keith Windschuttle in his March 2003 debunking of the film Rabbit-Proof Fence in the American neo-conservative cultural magazine New Criterion. Here Windschuttle argued that Neville was a humanitarian hero whose memory had been cherished by the Western Australian Indigenous population, 500 of whom supposedly had sent his widow letters of gratitude following his death. He also argued that Neville had been seriously defamed in Rabbit-Proof Fence by typical "anti-Australian" "fabrications" of the Left, like the scene in the film where Neville, ludicrously enough, "explains to a group of white ladies that his objective is to ‘breed out the colour' by separating half-caste children from other Aborigines". Since that time Windschuttle has apparently done some reading. In the Weekend Australian of 9 February 2008, he argued:

In Western Australia and the Northern Territory, the two greatest villains in this story were AO Neville and Cecil ‘Mick' Cook. Both publicly endorsed a program to "breed out the colour" with the ultimate aim of biologically absorbing the Aboriginal into the white population. This was an obnoxious policy that well-deserved Kenneth Branagh's portrayal of Neville as a fastidious, obsessive bureaucrat in the film 'Rabbit-Proof Fence'. 

If, on the extreme right of the spectrum, Windschuttle now accepts that an obnoxious government policy of "breeding out the colour" did in reality once exist, there is no one left to doubt it, except of course the Herald Sun sage Andrew Bolt.

On the other hand, I also think it true that there is almost no one who would now support the way Bringing Them Home arrived at the conclusion that Aboriginal-child-removal policies involved the crime of genocide. According to the relevant international convention, the crime of genocide involves the intention to destroy a people. According to it, moreover, one of the means by which that intention can be realised is by the removal of the children of the targeted group. In the 1930s, in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, there was an intention to biologically absorb the mixed-descent Aborigines, through the removal of "half-caste" children, at a time when it was generally assumed that the "full-blood" Aboriginal population was destined to "die out". Historical research has made clear that the policy of biological absorption was restricted to Western Australia and the Northern Territory, and to the 1930s. There is no evidence that such a policy existed in any other state. More importantly, even in Western Australia and the Northern Territory the policy of biological absorption was always unrealisable. The key administrators altogether lacked the resources even to begin to fulfil their four- or five-generation dream. At most they were guilty of what I have called "genocidal thoughts". Following the World War II, the policy of biological absorption was replaced by the policy of socio-cultural assimilation. Child removal took place within this policy framework. Assimilation has never been regarded in law as equivalent to genocide. The authors of Bringing Them Home argued that, following Australia's signature of the Genocide Convention in 1951, Australian authorities had committed the crime of genocide in their Aboriginal-child-removal policies. It is now generally acknowledged that they were wrong.

Many historical questions, of course, still remain unresolved. Between 1900 and 1970, how many Aboriginal children were separated from both parents? On the basis of extrapolations from New South Wales, Peter Read estimates 50,000. On the basis of an ABS survey conducted in 1994, I think a figure of 20,000 to 25,000 more likely. All generalisations made about Aboriginal-child removal are fraught with danger. Each state and the Northern Territory had its own policies and practices. Policies and practices also shifted in each state and in the Territory from one decade to the next.

Yet even so, there are some generalisations which would probably be accepted by those who know the evidence. Before World War II the reasons for removal were overwhelmingly determined by motives we would now regard as racist: to rescue part-European children from Aboriginality; to draw Aboriginal children away from the degradation of life in a camp or on a reserve, into the world of work; to solve the "problem" of the "half-caste" by "breeding out the colour". After World War II the motives became more complicated. While the numbers of removals increased, separate legislation determining the removals was abandoned. Old racist ways of thinking about Aborigines and new welfarist considerations became intertwined. Since the publication of Bringing Them Home, as a consequence of the national conversation, even the discussion of the intentions of those who administered the policy has gradually become more nuanced. It was interesting to me that at the time of the apology to the Stolen Generations, both Noel Pearson and Pat Dodson made a point of acknowledging that some of those who looked after the Aboriginal children who had been separated from their families were genuinely good people and that others were real brutes. It has also become obvious that the good intentions of many of those who designed policy or who worked in the homes or who became foster parents were often fatally corrupted by the racist thinking in which the policy and practice of child removal was thoroughly entangled.

Yet the most important point is this. One generalisation has withstood all the often-bitter argument that has taken place since the publication of Bringing Them Home. The grief of the children who were taken from the warmth of family, and of those from whom their children were taken, was unfathomably deep. It was etched in the faces of the many surviving members of the Stolen Generations who came to Canberra for the opening of the new parliament last month.


The speech Kevin Rudd delivered to the parliament on 13 February was, in my view and in the view of many others, one of the most important in the history of Australia. Our finest achievements as a nation were, for the greater part of our history, accompanied by the dark shadow of racism. Australians have found this dimension of their history exceptionally difficult to face. Over the past decade, the question of the Stolen Generations has become the main focus of this moral challenge - perhaps because it occurred so recently, perhaps because it involved a violation universally understood, the separation of mother and child. Kevin Rudd spoke about the "great stain" on the "nation's soul" that had to be removed. He rightly identified that resistance to this simple truth - the "stony silence" of the parliament; the bitterness of those who spoke of "black-armband history" and prosecuted the Culture War - had sullied the Howard years. Rudd understood the depth of the pain that the policy of child removal had delivered. He recognised that the infliction of this suffering was an assault on "our most elemental humanity". He acknowledged that the pain had been inflicted by the policies of previous Australian parliaments and governments. The stories cried out for a national apology. Without this apology, the opening of a new chapter in the nation's history would not be possible. With gravity, the unqualified apology was delivered. If we opened our eyes, the prime minister continued, we would be able to see truly not only what had been done to the Indigenous people of Australia, but also, and with a proper "awe", the "great and ancient cultures" the British settlers had stumbled upon, two centuries ago. Only in this spirit would the daunting challenge confronting policymakers concerned with the dreadful problems facing Aboriginal Australia have any prospect of success. Symbolic reconciliation and practical advance were not alternative possibilities, as his predecessor had claimed. One relied upon the other. The Rudd government supports the commonwealth intervention in the Northern Territory, as do I. The prime minister's speech provided the intervention with the moral foundation it had always needed.

Kevin Rudd delivered his speech in the presence of every living prime minister, except John Howard. He delivered it in the presence of large numbers of members of the Stolen Generations. In the lobby of the parliament, and in the public space between the old house of parliament and the new, thousands more Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians listened to each word with rapt attention. Following his final words - "Let us turn this page together ... let's grasp this new opportunity to craft a new future for this great land, Australia" - a huge cheer erupted. It was the sweetest sound in public life that I have ever heard. In the politics of nations there are few transcendent moments. This was one.

Thinking back on my own involvement in the question of the Stolen Generations over the past decade, one memory stands out more than any other. For a brief period I was a member of a body that was called the Victorian Interim Stolen Generations Task Force. At its meetings not much seemed to be achieved. But the conversation was absorbing. Most people serving on the committee were members of the Stolen Generations. They talked and talked about family. At one meeting, at my university office, I was taken by surprise. An Indigenous woman whom I had come greatly to admire asked me to speak about my grandparents. Somewhat inaccurately - for one had actually committed suicide after the Germans had occupied Austria - I said that they had been murdered by the Nazis. The woman who had asked the question burst into tears and had to leave the room for several minutes.

My life experience and hers could have hardly been more different. Yet at the most important level we were linked. Common humanity is not just a phrase.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent book, The Mind of the Islamic State, will be published in the US this month by Prometheus Books.  

Cover: March 2008

March 2008

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