Government defends Aboriginal holocaust

October 16, 1996

By Lisa Macdonald

Two weeks ago, infamous Nazi apologist David Irving decided that the time was right to reapply for entrance into Australia. While most establishment media commentators railed against allowing into this country the man infamous for denying the Jewish holocaust, they have not been so quick to condemn Australia's home-grown equivalents.

On October 1, two days before the conclusion of public hearings by the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, Aboriginal affairs minister John Herron exposed the depth of racism of this government by telling the Australian newspaper that "a lot of [Aboriginal] people have benefited by that [policy of forcible separation]". Within a few days, Herron's statement was publicly endorsed by WA Liberal backbencher Wilson Tuckey.

This goes Irving one better. Irving denies an attempted genocide. The Australian government says that another attempted genocide was good for the victims.

The sincerity of PM John Howard's admission on October 8 that the policy of forced separation was "horrific" is belied by his defence of Herron and comment that "not a lot could be gained from an expensive inquiry on long-past policy".

In April, the government reneged on a former government commitment to provide an additional $400,000 to the inquiry to extend the hearing period in each state to two weeks (the total funding received by the inquiry was only $1.2 million). Then in July, Howard refused an NT government request for funding to prepare a submission to the inquiry. Finally, last week, after all state and territory governments had made submissions, the federal government again pulled out of a scheduled appearance before the inquiry.

In 1989, the inquiry into the death of Malcolm Charles Smith reported "a regime that took young Aboriginal children, sought to cut them off suddenly from all contact with their families and communities, instil in them a repugnance of all things Aboriginal and prepare them harshly for life as the lowest level of worker in a prejudiced white community, is still a living legacy amongst many Aboriginals today" (Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody N20).


The inquiry into stolen children, launched in August 1995 by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), is an acknowledgment of the brutality and injustice of government assimilationist policies. It aims to trace the impact of laws, policies and practices which resulted in the forced removal of children in the past, as well as those which still operate today, and to examine the changes needed to laws and services for the people affected by separation.

The inquiry has travelled around Australia and heard several hundred oral submissions, received more than 1000 through the mail and amassed a wealth of evidence about past and present child removals — although the commissioners believe that the funding shortage means they were able only to scratch the surface.

The forced removal of indigenous children happened and was sanctioned in law in every state and territory from as early as 1885. The practice was not formally abolished in all states until the early 1970s. State and Commonwealth laws granted wide discretionary powers to "protectors", who controlled almost every aspect of Aboriginal life on missions, reserves and settlements.

It is estimated that in NSW alone some 10,000 (more than one third of) Aboriginal children were stolen from their families and placed in white institutions or foster homes between 1885 and 1969. Although an overall figure is impossible to determine, similar estimates have been made in other states and territories.

The laws and policies that stole Aboriginal children constituted genocide in intent if not outcome. They were a continuation of policies which, since the day of British invasion, inflicted wave after wave of massacre, starvation and disease upon Aboriginal people, very nearly obliterating the whole race. As early as 1817, the colonial authorities were predicting that Aborigines would shortly die out completely.

Economic needs

These policies served the economic needs of colonisation. Rounding up Aboriginal families cleared land for settlement, farming or mining. Confining Aboriginal people to reserves and missions created a captive labour force who could be forced to work for rations. Aboriginal children, if taken and trained young, could be used as domestics, nannies, labourers or stockmen and women.

The threat of taking children was used by the "protection" boards to control the behaviour of Aboriginal parents and other adults. Almost every Aboriginal family was affected, either by having children taken or by being forced to make drastic life decisions to avoid it.

The inquiry is revealing that most stolen children experienced horrifying cruelty — sexual and physical abuse, starvation, medical neglect and labour exploitation. Joy Williams from NSW, for example, stolen from her mother who was herself a stolen child, told Green Left that she and others received numerous beatings from the staff at Lutanda Children's Home in Wentworth Falls. Williams later had her own eldest daughter stolen from her and, since the early 1980s, has been attempting to sue the NSW government for neglect, lack of due care, kidnapping, assault and cultural and maternal deprivation.

Lola McNaughton, along with two sisters and a brother, was stolen from her mother in 1951 and didn't see her again until 1980. Over the last year, McNaughton has travelled around NSW with the Aboriginal organisation Link Up and heard hundreds of stories of forced separation and its consequences.

She told Green Left that grief and inter-generational trauma of forced removal are major underlying causes of many mental and physical health problems in Aboriginal communities today, including alcohol and substance abuse, violence, high infant mortality, low life expectancy rates and parental incarceration. Forty-three of the 99 deaths investigated by the Aboriginal deaths in custody commission were people who had been separated from their families as children.

Many of the stolen children were taken from their families for being "neglected". Since missions and reserves were considered places where Aborigines would eventually die out, these were always minimally resourced, thus creating the conditions of neglect for which the children were removed.

Continued separation

The laws sanctioning the theft of Aboriginal children were abandoned 27 years ago. But the continuing effects of that past, combined with grossly inadequate funding for Aboriginal housing, health care, community services and job creation today, and the social consequences of racism, poverty and cultural dislocation, all contribute to a high rate of state intervention in Aboriginal families. This makes Aboriginal children still vulnerable to forced separation from their families. Currently:

  • Aboriginal children in Victoria are five times more likely to be on a protection order and 12 times more likely to be in placement and support services;

  • nationally, indigenous children are 18.6 times more likely than non-indigenous children to be held in detention centres;

  • in WA, indigenous children are 32.4 times more likely to end up in detention.

Indicating that the Coalition's determination to undermine the stolen children inquiry is largely motivated by budgetary considerations, Herron said on October 1 that "money might compound the problem ... the opportunity to talk about ... the hurt and harm that has occurred ... [and] get it out of your system ... can do a lot more".

McNaughton responds: "We're sick and tired of hearing that it's all in the past. It's still affecting Aboriginal people today. It can't just be gotten out of our system at an inquiry — once the bottle is opened, the lid cannot just be put back on. There are a lot of young Aboriginal people very angry about the denial of what has happened."


HREOC's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, Mick Dodson, says Herron's remarks "are an affront not only to Aboriginal people, but to all parents who have had their children stolen from them".

He points out that the inquiry is only examining the principles which might justify and determine the nature of any compensation for those affected. Dodson told Green Left that by raising the compensation issue, Herron is "deliberately trying to muddy the waters" and discredit the inquiry as a money-grabbing exercise.

Compensation is a separate issue which is being taken through the courts (there are currently two cases in progress, including Williams'), and trying to attach it to the inquiry is "not going to stop people from exercising their legal rights", he said.

According to McNaughton, compensation is important: "Past governments had no trouble finding enormous amounts of money to implement their policies of absolute control and genocide of Aboriginal people. The people affected do want compensation, and the Australian government does owe us." Most victims of the separation policy, she says, "simply want the money, even just small amounts, to give to their own children — a gesture that their own parents were never able to make".

Even if the stolen children do win financial compensation through the courts, however, to even begin to right the wrongs of centuries of racial oppression and the persistent discrimination faced by Aboriginal people in all spheres of society will take more than a bit of cash. It demands land rights, Aboriginal control over Aboriginal affairs and preferential treatment in access to social services, education and jobs.