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Stolen Generations

Sunday 2 July  2000 

Produced by Tom Morton

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Program Transcript

SONG: 'Brown Skin Baby'

Tom Morton: Aboriginal lay preacher and country singer, Bob Randall, with Brown Skin Baby, a song which he wrote more than 30 years ago, which is based on his own life.

Hello, I'm Tom Morton, and welcome to Background Briefing.

Bob Randall was born at Tempe Downs in the Pitjantjatjara lands south of Alice Springs. At an early age he was taken away by a policeman and he grew up on Croker Island, far away from his family.

This song was written at the very beginning of a long process of uncovering. It's taken 30 years at least for the history of the stolen generations to become common knowledge.

But as more and more details of that history come to light, the more controversial it becomes. Not long ago, the Federal government itself weighed into the controversy.

John Howard: Let me say very directly to anybody in the Australian community who was in any way offended by that document; I'm sorry about that, and because the document was not designed to offend anybody, the document was designed in good faith.

Tom Morton: Prime Minister John Howard, apologising in Parliament to anyone was offended by 'that document'. The document in question was a Federal government submission to a Senate Inquiry, in which the government explicitly denies the existence of a stolen generation.

Well today, as often on Background Briefing, we're digging in archives and following a trail of documents, but this time, it's Australia's history we're investigating.

That government submission is just part of a larger struggle over who controls our national history and why that history is important.

The government has already spent millions of dollars fighting a compensation claim from Lorna Cubillo and Peter Gunner, two Aboriginal people who were taken away from their parents as children in the Northern Territory. And the government claims it could be up for nearly $4-billion in compensation to indigenous people if the recommendations of the 'Bringing them Home' report are implemented.

The government's submission was made to a Senate Committee which is specifically considering the question of compensation for the stolen generations. Perhaps never before in Australia has the interpretation of our history mattered so much, or caused so much anguish. Here's how the Co-chair of the National Sorry Day Committee, Audrey Kinnear, reacted when she learned of the government's submission.

Audrey Kinnear: Oh I was absolutely devastated, and I think what added to the pain is the fact that this was information coming from the Minister, who has the parliamentary portfolio of Indigenous Affairs, so it's the Minister that we expect to work with us, not against us, and certainly not to trivialise the era of the stolen generations.

Tom Morton: Audrey Kinnear.

The submission's assertion that 'there never was a stolen generation' provoked outbursts of rage and dismay from indigenous people. Senator Aden Ridgway said that it was comparable to denying the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, PP McGuinness, the Editor of Quadrant magazine, wrote that the submission had exposed what he called the 'big lie' of the stolen generations.

ATSIC Chair, Geoff Clark accused the government of cynically pitching for the One Nation vote. But Mr Howard replied that the submission was merely a restatement of government positions that have been in place for some time.

Well this restatement certainly pulls no punches. The submission argues that evidence that indigenous children were forcibly removed from their parents is only anecdotal. It asserts that the treatment of separated children was 'essentially lawful and benign', and that no more than 10% of children were removed across Australia.

And as well as claiming that the stolen generation is a construct, the submission implies that the media have played an important part in creating that construct. In one sense, that's true. It was a journalist who first publicly used the term 'stolen' about Aboriginal children, in Adelaide, in 1924.


Reader: 'I Want my Baby, Aboriginal Mother's Plaintive Cry - State's Shameful Steal

There is at present in Adelaide a young Aboriginal mother breaking her heart because a heartless Parliamentary Act has enabled the servants of the Chief Protector of Aborigines to figuratively, if not literally, drag a babe out of the arms and from the breast of its mother.

The word 'stolen' may sound a bit far-fetched, but by the time we have heard the story of the heart-broken mother, we are sure the word will not be thought out of place, especially by women who know the instincts of motherhood.'

Tom Morton: From The Adelaide Sun newspaper, April, 1924.

The article appeared after government officials removed a baby from his mother at the Point Macleay Aboriginal settlement. An Adelaide solicitor took on the case, which was debated in the South Australian Parliament and widely reported in the press.

Many South Australians were outraged at the time, both by the individual case and by the Act of Parliament which allowed it. Historian, Anna Haebich.

Anna Haebich: Well it was a piece of legislation that was intended to expedite the removal of children, and it was debated in 1923, and there was a lot of opposition to it during the passage of the debate. Opposition led by an Aboriginal leadership from the south of South Australia, and also non-Aboriginal people who were very concerned that this meant that the State could remove Aboriginal children without any sort of protection from Aboriginal parents, the rights of Aboriginal families.

Tom Morton: Anna Haebich. Her book, 'Broken Circles - fragmenting indigenous families 1800-2000' will be published later this year.

As Anna Haebich was saying, many white Australians at the time were deeply concerned about the removal of Aboriginal children. They wrote letters of protest to the South Australian papers, comparing the practice to the slave trade. Historians like Dr Haebich are rediscovering more and more evidence of opposition of this kind from both black and white Australians. They argue that such evidence gives the lie to another of the government's assertions in its submission, that the removal of Aboriginal children reflected the values and standards of the time.

In other letters to the South Australian newspapers in 1924, the authors refer to the strong bonds of love which bind together Aboriginal families.

When news of the government's submission broke in April of this year, the response from West Australian Premier, Richard Court, who himself has an adopted part-Aboriginal daughter, spoke again of those strong bonds.

Richard Court: It's not a debate about how many numbers that we are talking about, but there is no dispute that there were practices in the past where families were split; people were taken away from families. Family is the most precious thing that we have in our society, in our country, and anything that is done to weaken that family is something that we need to be concerned about.

Tom Morton: Senator John Herron, who presented the government's submission to the Senate Committee, declined to be interviews on Background Briefing. Here he is on 'AM' just after the submission was released, speaking to Fiona Reynolds.

Fiona Reynolds: Senator Herron, isn't Richard Court right? The figures are irrelevant, the fact is Aborigines were forcibly removed from their families as children.

John Herron: There's no question that children were removed and Richard Court is right, we have to be compassionate in our response. I believe we are. But I was asked to produce a submission for the Senate's Constitutional Legal Affairs Committee and I had to get as best I could the facts that are available to us, and that's what I've done.

Fiona Reynolds: How certain are you that only 10% were stolen?

John Herron: Well nobody is certain of figures, that's in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's 'Bringing them Home' Report; nobody is sure.

Fiona Reynolds: Well you've taken the lowest figure, the 'Bringing them Home' Report states it could be as many as one in three.

John Herron: Well again you can't substantiate that. I think it's important we try and substantiate as best we can because recognise that records were pretty scrappy in that era, and figures differed from State to State and from Territory to Territory. Now all of us feel compassionate and compassion for the effects on people that have come through into other families, no question about that, we're not saying that it didn't occur, of course it occurred.

Tom Morton: Senator John Herron.

As you heard, the government doesn't deny that indigenous children were taken away. But it does question the extent of that practice and the degree to which children were taken without the consent of their parents.

The Government Senate submission explicitly rejects many of the findings of the 'Bringing them Home' Report; and that report, you might remember, was the result of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. It was carried out by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, and delivered in 1997.

The government says the 'Bringing them Home' Report got out history badly wrong. Its submission claims the evidence that 'a proportion of those removed fitted within the stereotype of forcible removal' is only anecdotal and it says that evidence hasn't been subjected to proper scrutiny.

Much of the government's argument draws on earlier criticisms of the 'Bringing them Home' Report, in particular, from the anthropologist Ron Brunton. Dr Brunton is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.

Ron Brunton: I accept from my own reading and from talking to Aboriginal people that there were a number of cases where children were removed where there's absolutely no justification whatsoever, but because the Inquiry made no attempt to if you like rigorously scrutinise the people who appeared before it and the submissions it received, I think we really have just a situation where it's very easy for people who want to dismiss what happened in the past to just say, 'Look, the whole report was just simply a propaganda job'.

Tom Morton: What do you mean by 'rigorously scrutinise'?

Ron Brunton: Well I think scrutinise in terms of cross-examination of people appearing before it. Also scrutinise in terms of trying to reconcile the cases that it examined with the official documents that may exist, or have existed, relating to those particular individuals. And the problem is dealing with an issue that is so sensitive means that you can't really wear your heart on your sleeve. I mean this is the terrible problem, that you're dealing with something that is a great pain to the people who've experienced it, yet at the same time if you're wanting to establish the case, if you want to establish the facts that really occurred, you have to be quite ruthless in terms of subjecting the claims to proper scrutiny.

Tom Morton: Ron Brunton.

Like Brunton, the Commonwealth government argues that none of the more than 500 witnesses who appeared before the Inquiry were cross-examined. So, says the government, it's impossible to know whether all of those individual witnesses had in fact been taken forcibly from their parents. Their evidence is 'only anecdotal'.

Sir Ronald Wilson was the President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission and a Commissioner on the Inquiry. Sir Ronald Wilson.

Ronald Wilson: The critics say that we did not cross-examine them. It was impossible to cross-examine in the ordinary understanding of the word when a person was speaking in words which were being literally coming out of their heart, with tears running down their face, and we listened, and I don't deny we listened sympathetically because we were there to hear their stories. They had sought this Inquiry for the best part of 20 years in order that they could tell their stories. But when it comes to the credibility of those stories, there is ample credibility, not from the cross examination of the children themselves, but from the governments whose laws, practices and policies enabled these forced removals to take place. We had the support of every State government; they came to the Inquiry, came with lever-arch files setting out the laws from the earliest days right up to the end of the assimilation policy, that is up to the 1970s and more importantly, senior government offices attended. In every case, these senior officers acknowledged that there was a lot of cruelty in the application of those laws and policies.

Tom Morton: Now as you heard before, the government's submission, and the anthropologist, Ron Brunton, also criticised the 'Bringing them Home' Report for not cross-checking the testimony of witnesses with government records.

The implication here is that in some cases at least, those witnesses may not have been telling the truth about how and why they were taken from their parents, or that their personal memories may not have been borne out by what's in the official records.

Ron Brunton.

Ron Brunton: It is, it seems to me, becoming clear from particular cases that are appearing now before the courts and from accounts of other people who witnessed some of these removals, that certainly people are now saying things that really have very little basis on terms of what actually occurred. I've certainly been contacted since I've been working in this area, I've certainly been contacted by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people saying to me that so-and-so's claiming to be a stolen child, but I happen to know the facts of that case and what that person is now saying is very different from what occurred.

Now I just don't believe that the people conducting the inquiry really understood just how important it was that the document that they prepared had to be if you like, as beyond criticism as possible. On the contrary, I mean they have just produced an over-the-top tendentious account that's just completely easy to dismiss.

Tom Morton: Sir Ronald Wilson says that the Inquiry simply did not have the time or the money to check the testimonies of each individual witness against the government records.

Unlike the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, which has a budget of $30-million and sat for four years, the 'Bringing them Home' Report had a budget of $1.5-million and sat for a little over one year.

The Royal Commission investigated the deaths of around 100 Aborigines who died in custody; the 'Bringing them Home' Report heard 535 personal testimonies and took evidence from another 232 witnesses. And Sir Ronald Wilson says that the Inquiry encountered a further obstacle: lack of co-operation from the Commonwealth government.

Ronald Wilson: Of all the governments in Australia, there was one government that did not assist the Inquiry with the evidence of their laws, practices and policies, that government was the responsible government for the Northern Territory until 1976 or '78 when self-government came, and the Commonwealth government, when we asked for its co-operation in providing the laws, practices and policies of their administration of the Territory, simply replied that they were unable to provide the information, but that we could go and look for it ourselves if we wished.

Tom Morton: Sir Ronald Wilson.

Bob Randall: When I think of love I see your young black mother holding a brown skinned baby over a burning, smoking fire; she's trying to darken its skin so that the baby will not be taken away from her, although she used charcoal, dirt and the smoke from the fire, it didn't do any good, because the day the policeman came it just happened to rain and the light-skinned babies' skins shone out like gold amongst coal. When I think of love.-

Tom Morton: That's Bob Randall, the man who wrote 'Brown Skin Baby', which we heard at the beginning of the program. Bob is speaking there on an ABC-TV 'Chequerboard' program made in 1970.

Bob Randall was born in 1934 and taken from his family at Tempe Downs south of Alice Springs when he was a baby. His mother was an Aboriginal woman, and his father a white station owner.

Over the 30 years since that 'Chequerboard' program was made, indigenous people and historians have been slowly uncovering the larger context for stories like Bob Randall's, the government policies which allowed, and in some cases encouraged, the separation of children from their families.

Here, for example, is an extract from a Report to the Commonwealth government in 1928, just six years before Bob Randall was born.

Reader: The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia.

The Aboriginals and half-castes of Central Australia and North Australia. Report by J.W. Blakeley, Chief Protector of Aboriginals, Queensland, 1928.

Policy Necessary: A definite policy framed upon understanding of the peculiar position and characteristics of the half-castes, and aiming at what is likely to be best for their future happiness and usefulness, should be formulated. All half-castes of illegitimate birth, whether male or female, should be rescued from the camps whether station or bush, and placed in institutions for care and training. Even where these children are acknowledged and being maintained by the putative fathers, their admission to an approved institution for education should be insisted upon.

On completion of their training, those recommended as suitable for outside employment should be transferred to the control of the Chief Protector who would satisfactorily place them and exercise supervision as long as might be necessary.

Tom Morton: In the early '30s, the Protectors of Aborigines in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, Cecil Cook and A.O. Neville, made frequent public statements about the need to breed out the colour from the half-caste population.

In 1937 the first Conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities passed a resolution calling for the ultimate absorption of half-castes by the people of the Commonwealth. Now here's a little more of that 1970 'Chequerboard' program. Bob Randall is speaking to the reporter, David Roberts.

David Roberts: Why were you taken away from your parents?

Bob Randall: Yes, I was taken away from my mother as a baby.

David Roberts: Did this just happen to you, or who else did it happen to?

Bob Randall: Oh quite a number of children.

David Roberts: Did your mothers mind you being taken away, did anyone try to prevent it?

Bob Randall: Oh yes, they did. Well they tried. They tried to hide children, they tried to camouflage them by painting their skin black and some was even put over smoking fires to darken their skin.

David Roberts: Whose policy was this to take you away, or who took you away?

Bob Randall: Oh well a policeman came and got me, and some others I know. It was the then government policy to have this round-up of all coloured children, and most of them entered this one place, and they split them into three church denominations I think.

Tom Morton: You can hear the bewilderment in the reporter's voice as he asks Bob Randall why he was taken away.

One of the enduring questions about the history of the stolen generations is why it took so long to become public knowledge when even 30 years ago, stories like Bob Randall's were being told on national television.

In a sense, this is the question which the government is raising too: individual stories may tug at our heart strings they say, but do they constitute evidence of a deliberate policy, one that was racially targeted at indigenous people.

The historian Peter Read has been examining another kind of evidence over the last 20 years. It was Read who first used the phrase 'stolen generations'. Peter Read.

Peter Read: It wasn't until I got into the private government records that I began to realise how concerted had been the effort of governments throughout the nation to remove children on a massive scale. Now that's the secret, that's where the information lies, and it wasn't until the early 1980s when I was writing a thesis on the history of the Wiradjiripeople of New South Wales and I began reading the entire sequence of government records, really everything that the New South Wales government had kept on Aboriginal children through the Aboriginal Welfare Board and the old Aboriginal Protection Board from the records stretching over about 90 years. I could say I read everything.

Tom Morton: When you say you read everything, how many documents, how many files did you read?

Peter Read: Well there's about 22,000 files. Some are just about blankets, and who's been thrown out of the house because they haven't paid their rent although that's important stories of their own, and sometimes they're enormous files of perhaps 100 pages on single individuals. And in addition to that, there's 800 one-page records of individual Aboriginal children removed between 1916 and 1928; there are some one-name entires for another sort of 800 children up to about 1935, so there's a lot of files there and a lot of work. But in the end there's not much doubt at all in the New South Wales records of how massive a program that was for removing children for the benefit of the wider society.

Tom Morton: Dr Peter Read, who's currently a Fellow in the Research School of Social Sciences at the ANU.

Peter Read's research in New South Wales government archives has been duplicated for Western Australia by Anna Haebich, and in Queensland by Ros Kidd.

In all these cases, the historians found evidence of a systematic government policy of removing indigenous children from their families.

But it's precisely this assertion which is so vigorously contested by the Federal government in its Senate submission, that the removal of Aboriginal children was carried out not for the benefit of individual children with their best interests in mind, but as part of a racially based policy of assimilation.

The 'Bringing them Home' Report found that that policy amounted to genocide.

It's this finding which has attracted the strongest criticism of all, both in public debate and in the government's submission to the Senate Inquiry.

Hal Wootten, QC, has been both a staunch defender and a critic of the report. Wootten, you might recall, was a Commissioner on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

He describes the government's Senate submission as a mean and shabby document; but he also believes that there were serious flaws in 'Bringing them Home', amongst them, the finding of genocide.

But first Hal Wootten is keen to underline what he believes was the Report's great achievement.

Hal Wootten: Well I'm reluctant to criticise it because I think it did something that was tremendously important and tremendously valuable. People who've been close to the Aboriginal community knew that there was tremendous anguish about the effects of children being taken away over most of the century. Now around Australia there were thousands of people who had these stories, and were very burdened by the stories and anxious to tell them. And the Report brings those stories to a wide audience. It's had a tremendous impact on the white population, and greatly increased their understanding. That's one of the reasons I think why we've got hundreds of thousands of people walking across the Bridge.

Tom Morton: However, Hal Wootten also thinks that the 'Bringing them Home' Report went too far in its findings. He argues that it tried to speak with the authority of a Royal Commission but without having had the time or resources to carry out the breadth and depth of research which a Royal Commission would have had to undertake.

In particular, Wootten is critical of the Report's treatment of the history of government policy. Hal Wootten.

Hal Wootten: Well it talked as if it was giving a very thorough and exhaustive history whereas it was only a very superficial and selective history. It didn't try to bring out the very real problems that confronted people who were implementing policy; it didn't give enough credit to the complexities of policies and the way they were different at different times in different places; and there was this insistence on making the highly technical legal finding of genocide being committed between 1946 and 1980 that was procedurally in denial of natural justice, and wasn't justified by the evidence. And I think that's a particularly unfortunate thing, because that was a dramatic and hurtful finding that's allowed critics to hijack the debate, and it only distracts attention from what are the real horrors of our history.

Tom Morton: Hal Wootten.

In his Royal Commission Report on the death of Clarrie Nean, who died in 1982 in Dubbo at the age of 33, Hal Wootten speaks of the need to understand Clarrie's short life and untimely death, in a larger context; what Wootten calls 'The story of dispossession, pauperisation, and dependency inflicted on Aboriginals.'

Clarrie Nean was removed from his parents as an infant, after they took him to Walgett Hospital suffering from malnutrition. He didn't see his family again for seven years.

In that Report, Hal Wootten painstakingly assembles a picture of the circumstances which surrounded Clarrie's separation from his family. He notes that the officials who made Clarrie a Ward of the State did so because of genuine concerns about his survival. And Wootten rejects the view that Clarrie's removal was part of a deliberate policy of separation or still less of genocide.

But ten years after he wrote that report on Clarrie Nean, Hal Wootten says the real question we need to confront is still the same: how it was that Aboriginal people like Clarrie's parents came to be dispossessed, pauperised and dependent on whites.

Hal Wootten: From 1788 on, white people came here, broke up an effectively functioning Aboriginal society and nearly wiped it out with introduced diseases and massacres, drove people off their land and destroyed their food supply, made no other provision for them for many years, and ultimately gave them the choice of living in pretty deplorable conditions on reserves that were little better than concentration camps, or living on pastoral properties where they got virtually nothing except rations that were a dietary disaster, and living in improvised accommodation without any hygiene. Well surprise, surprise, after all that you find that some nice white people come along and say, 'Oh isn't this terrible, we can't allow children to be living in these terrible conditions, we must take them away and give them a chance in a home where they can grow up and eventually be able to come out and work for white people.'

Now that's what I mean by the real story. What we have to answer for and what we should be facing up to is taking responsibility for our nearly 200 years of blind selfish racial treatment of Aborigines.

SONG: 'Brown Skin Baby'

Tom Morton: In the early 1950s, around the time that Clarrie Nean was removed fro his family, an important shift occurred in government policies concerning Aboriginal people.

Paul Hasluck became Minister for Territories, and his views on assimilation became enormously influential, both in the Northern Territory and around Australia.

Hasluck rejected the racially-based ideas of the pre-war era. Hasluck believed that all Aborigines should be given the same status and rights as other Australian citizens. And the new policy also gave back to Aboriginal people the legal guardianship of their own children. Previously, in many parts of Australia, the State or its representatives had been the actual legal guardians, not the parents.

But according to Anna Haebich, there was a tragic irony about the new policy, because the number of Aboriginal children taken away actually increased.

Anna Haebich: Yes, overall in the 1950s and '60s, in most States there was an increase in the removal of children. Aboriginal families were being subjected to the mainstream white standards of housing and of parenting of children, and what this meant in practice was an increase in interventions and surveillance of Aboriginal families because the family was to be changed, there was a focus on the family as a unit to mould the extended Aboriginal family networks into small nuclear chunks. In this case Aboriginal children were far more likely to be removed than white children from the living conditions that for many were still deplorable, because the State and Federal governments simply wouldn't put enough money into improving housing and so on for families. And there was also a strong focus on educating Aboriginal children, getting them into the mainstream State education system which was an advantage, but which also brought increased surveillance to ensure that children were attending school and that they were living in conditions that were conducive to their learning.

So you find a lot of children being separated because you could argue here about parental agreement or not, but it's certainly evident from the files here in Western Australia, that parents were pressured by local welfare officers to send their children in, and this contributes to ongoing removal and institutionalisation of Aboriginal children.

Tom Morton: Anna Haebich.

The Commonwealth government has argued in its Senate submission that many of the child removals which took place during the 1940s and '50s were for the purposes of giving children the benefit of a proper education, the same education given to white children, and they also argue that Aboriginal parents gave their consent to the removal freely.

Now this is the same argument that the government is making in a controversial court case involving members of the stolen generation.

Lorna Cubillo and Peter Gunner, two Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory, are suing the Commonwealth for damages for the suffering and illness which they say were caused by their removal as children. The case is enormously complex; the final submissions alone amount to more than a thousand pages of transcript. And the Commonwealth has already spent millions of dollars on legal costs in defending the case.

In the defence case, the Commonwealth's lawyers argued that both Lorna Cubillo and Peter Gunner's parents had consented to their removal, and that there could thus be no question that the removals were forcible.

We'll have to wait until later this year for the judgement in that particular case. But another document from the archives throws some interesting light on the broader question of parental consent, at least in the Northern Territory.

Reader: It has always been the policy of the Native Affairs Branch in the Northern Territory to remove part-Aboriginal children from their native environment into institutions where they may receive education, vocational guidance and in general, fit them for their absorption into the community on attaining adult age.

Patrol officers under my direction, are requested from time to time to endeavour to remove certain part-Aboriginal children from their native environment on cattle stations and other places and these officers prepare the mothers of these children for the eventual separation.

It is impressed upon them the advantages to be gained by the children and the disadvantages of allowing them to remain in the camp. The matter is discussed with the tribal husbands. If at the first visit the parents are loath to part with the child, the matter is left until the next visit when another attempt is made and the process of educating the parents is continued. Eventually, and a period of two years may elapse between the first attempt and the final success, the child is willingly handed to the custody of the patrol officer.

Tom Morton: F.H. Moy, the Director of Native Affairs, writing to the Administrator of the Northern Territory in 1951.

Dr Gillian Cowlishaw, an anthropologist who's worked in the Territory for many years, came across that document while doing research in the government archives. Gillian Cowlishaw.

Gillian Cowlishaw: Well I think it shows a degree of enticement and bullying of parents and parents who in a sense had to trust the patrol officers, because they were dependent on them for protection from pastoralists and for a link into other services, I mean very few though they were. And it seems to me that a lot of these things are kind of examples of awkward strategies to relieve the distress and the agony caused by the surgery, the social surgery that the officials saw themselves as performing.

I think another point to be made is that the conditions in the camps, these were on pastoral stations in the main, and these pastoral stations were not being monitored properly to ensure that they had proper living conditions and so on. Now these were nomadic people who perhaps had quite happily lived in camps in the bush and so on without housing, but they were no longer in those nomadic conditions, they were confined on pastoral stations, sometimes with no proper water for instance, sometimes with very little food, so the conditions from which these children were being taken were ones actually created by colonial relations.

DIDJ ' Poor Bugger Me'

Tom Morton: Gurindji Blues, a song written by the white country singer Ted Egan, and recorded in 1971 by Egan and Galarrwuy Yunupingu.

Ted Egan says that he was moved to write Gurindji Blues after he heard Peter Nixon, who was then Minister for the Interior, say in parliament that if the Gurindji wanted land, they should save up and buy it, like any other Australian.

Gurindji Blues, and many other songs like it, feature in a new film and book about the history of Aboriginal country music released recently at the Sydney Film Festival. They're both called 'Buried Country'.

It's true to say that for much of the 20th century, the story of the stolen generations has been buried too, buried in the country of our collective mind.

In many ways, our fierce political struggles over the unearthing of this history, and what it means, involve clashes between different kinds of remembering, between oral and written culture, between personal testimonies and documents locked away in the dusty memory banks of government.

The government itself has argued in its submission that the 'Bringing them Home' Report failed to consider the testimonies of Australians still living, who were involved in the removal of indigenous children, government officials, patrol officers, welfare workers and so on. One of those officials was Reginald Marsh who was Assistant Administrator of the Northern Territory from 1957 to 1962.

Last year Mr Marsh, who's now 92, wrote an article for Quadrant magazine in which he claimed that in all the time of his service in the Territory, he had seen no evidence that Aboriginal people protested against the removal of their children.

Reginald Marsh: I also said that I have found no record of any traditional community complaining about the removal of a child. Now if children were removed against the will of the people there surely would have been some record of complaint. But I've seen thousands of files and never seen a complaint about that matter.

Tom Morton: Did you ever accompany any of the patrol officers or visit any of the communities at the time that children were being removed?

Reginald Marsh: I don't know that I ever was actually on a trip when a child was removed, I was on many trips where a welfare officer would be making inquiries and so on, but I don't remember that I was ever present when someone was taken into care.

Tom Morton: Reginald Marsh.

And now, another kind of memory, from the Australian Archives. This is a letter which was written by a Patrol Officer to the District Superintendent of Native Affairs in Darwin in 1954, that was three years before Reginald Marsh took up his position in the Territory.

Reader: Without exerting a certain amount of pressure, I do not anticipate getting the parents' permission to remove the half-caste girl at Elsey Station. However if she is not moved within a couple of years, she will be married to an Aboriginal. The objection to the latter is mostly one of appearance. Even a person completely devoid of colour prejudice must deplore the sight of a white woman (and half-caste girls look very fair when in a native camp) living with a group of black people.

Tom Morton: And now, yet another form of memory. Here's an excerpt from the Radio National Breakfast program. Peter George is speaking here to Lang Dean, the son of a policeman who was involved in removing Aboriginal children in Victoria in the late '30s. Lang Dean contacted the Radio National Breakfast program in the week after the government's submission on the stolen generations was made public.

Lang Dean: He was ordered by Sergeant on occasional days during the 1930s to accompany welfare officers to a mission station in Victoria called Cumagunja over the river from Barma and it was his duty, not to protect the Aboriginal children, but to protect the welfare officers, give them bodily protection as they tore the 7, 8, 9, 10, and older children from the arms of their loving parents who lived in shacks, but lived decently and properly and were loved and fed, tore their little ones out of their arms and put them in commandeered taxis and took them to the Echuca railway station and they were sent to all parts of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland where they were farmed out and fostered out to pastoralists and wealthy businessmen.

Tom Morton: Lang Dean.

Each of those personal testimonies we've heard, from Lang Dean, from Reginald Marsh and Patrol Officer Ryan, are a part of our national memory, threads in the fabric which we call history.

Sometimes those individual testimonies are irreconcilable. But what they all make plain is that that history is a recent history, the history of our living memory as a nation. And it's perhaps for this reason that the public debates about the stolen generations have been so acrimonious and so painful.

In its initial response to the 'Bringing them Home' Report in 1997, the government argued that 'We do not believe our generation should be asked to accept responsibility for the acts of earlier generations.'

But as Dr Mick Dodson argued in a speech at the recent Corroboree 2000 celebration, many of those acts occurred within the lifetimes of generations now living.

Mick Dodson: Who are these people, who is this generation that took my grandmother, my father, my mother and my grandfather and my two sisters? Who is this generation that tried to take me from my family in 1960? What generation do we look to if Mr Howard says it wasn't this one? Where is this mythical group of Australians who made these laws, adopted these policies, put them into practice, who took the kids? I'm at a loss for an answer; perhaps someone can tell me later.

Tom Morton: The Federal government and other critics of the 'Bringing them Home' Report believe the report demonises the white officials who were involved in removing indigenous children.

The Editor of Quadrant magazine, P.P. McGuinness, reiterated this point in a recent editorial.

'To denigrate the honest and sincere efforts of so many people who thought they were doing the right thing', says McGuinness, 'is merely ahistorical ignorance.'

But according to the philosopher Raimond Gaita, this view represents a kind of moral blindness about what's closest to home: our immediate past.

Raimond Gaita: I don't get a sense in John Howard or other members of the government, nor in the people who now write for Quadrant, that they're trying to hide from a terrible truth that they've actually perceived. I think that they find it genuinely incomprehensible that people should think the terrible things that occurred in Australia's past, really terrible things, and I suspect it's because Australia has been for so long isolated from the terrible events of the century, that there's a kind of moral stupidity which is this: I suspect people think if someone's to be accused of something terrible, or to have been part of something terrible, or party to something terrible, the terribleness must go right through and through their character somehow, you know, that they think 'Oh, we knew so-and-so, he was a decent bloke', as though we haven't learned from Germany. I mean does anybody seriously think that every German who was in some sense complicit with the Holocaust was rotten through and through?

But somehow I think this sort of terrible lesson of the last century of how good and decent people measured by any ordinary criteria could get caught up and sometimes seriously caught up in terrible evil, we haven't lived there, I think and I think that's one reason why people just find it unintelligible that people that they grew up with and knew and so on in the '50s could have been caught up or be complicit with or seriously shut their eyes to the terrible crime in their midst.

Tom Morton: You've been listening to Background Briefing. Our Co-ordinating Producer is Linda Mcginness; Technical Operator on this week's program was Mark Don; Research was by Paul Hughgonson; and our Executive Producer is Kirsten Garrett. The readings were by George Whaley and Stafford Sanders. I'm Tom Morton.

SONG: 'Poor Bugger Me'

Further information

Message Stick: the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Indigeneous Online gateway
"Bringing Them Home": Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People from their Families.
Bringing Them Home Oral History Project (National Library of Australia)
Bringing Them Home taskforce pages
Link-up Services to assist in the process of family tracing and reunion for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
More information on the "Bringing Them Home" Inquiry, courtesy of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC)
Federal Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Senator John Herron)
Indigineous Fact Sheets compiled by the office of the Federal Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (need Acrobat Reader)
Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation
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