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A Journey through Whitefella Past
By Stephen Gray
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2011 Stephen Gray
All rights reserved.
THE MEANING OF SAYING SORRY
I went to a family reunion one weekend not long ago and saw a branch of the family I had not seen for over twenty years. They are a high-minded, God-fearing lot. They live in a fine house in an upper-middle-class suburb of Melbourne. From the front verandah, through a double-glazed window four metres wide, you could see into their formal dining room and beyond to the rolling hills of north-eastern Melbourne with the Dandenongs in misty oyster-blue behind. We sat at a long dining table, looking out over a spacious back garden in which the hibiscus and the well-tended roses were in bloom. It was easy to feel a sense of satisfaction, a feeling that nothing could be too far wrong with the world.
Lunch was tasty, and unpretentious. After a fluttering of female hands and a hasty consultation with Father on the matter of bottles in the cellar, there was even a concession of wine. Only after a happy melee of dirty dishes, and small children disappearing into the back garden, did the patriarch lean forward, pinning me with the family grey-blue eyes.
He asked what I'd been doing. I told him I'd been working on the so-called 'stolen wages' issue. It's a legal debate, I said, about Aboriginal people who worked on cattle stations or as domestics, and so on. Often they weren't paid wages. When they were, their wages were often taken from them and put in government trust accounts. They were often the same people who'd been taken from their families as children. You know, the so-called Stolen Generations.
I noticed, as I was talking, how I used little phrases — 'so-called', and so on. They are reassuring, subtly derogatory words. They downplay the issue and make it safe.
I could see him thinking, turning it over. He is a Baptist, from Adelaide. All his life he's been a churchgoer, and he has that Protestant high-mindedness about him, a refusal to be distracted from the subject at hand.
At length he cleared his throat and named a very well known Indigenous woman, a prominent public figure. I will call her X. 'I met X a few years ago in Adelaide,' he said. 'It was at a Baptist reunion. She was one of the so-called Stolen Generation. We spoke for a good half an hour. She told me her father had released her. Taken her to the Baptists because he couldn't look after her himself. She told me they'd looked after her well.'
He paused. He is a man not used to being interrupted. He chose his words with the same care he had spent on his food, his family, a whole career devoted — as far as I could see — to public service and his conception of the good.
'What hurt me,' he added, 'was that later, when she came out with all those public statements, she never once acknowledged what she'd told me. She must have been grateful to the Baptists. She would never have come to that reunion if she felt they had stolen her. She was there because she wanted to be there. She never once acknowledged any of that.'
We finished the discussion uncomfortably. He wanted me to agree that the Stolen Generations debate had been biased — biased in favour of the Aboriginal advocates, he meant, and against the administrators and the church. I thought the bias had been, if anything, the other way around. It was a fairly pointless discussion. Neither of us was likely to convince the other they were wrong. In the end we agreed that yes, there had been injustices, and that yes, some Aboriginal people were stolen. No doubt he felt this was a generous concession, while I felt it sold the facts some way short.
I knew there was something more to the story about X, but I could not remember the details. Was her father European? Did she ever claim she personally was stolen? I was in no position to debate these things, and in any case this was not the point he had wanted me to understand. The point he wanted me to understand was about respect. Respect for your elders. A very Aboriginal concept, as I imagine he was quite well aware. In my relative's opinion, the public statements X had made showed a lack of respect to her elders. The people who'd brought her up. The ones she owed a debt to. Her white elders.
Later I jumped on the internet and looked up the X story. As I had vaguely remembered, it was a lot more complicated. It seemed the young X may have been abandoned by her white father, who had taken her away from her Aboriginal mother. The debate had got very nasty, particularly after a Herald-Sun article appeared by the well-known right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt. Bolt had effectively accused X of participating in a cover-up, because she had used the term 'Stolen Generations' to refer to the practice of Aboriginal child removal, whereas technically she was not prepared to say that she had been 'stolen' herself.
As I read more about it, I thought, I don't want to touch this. I started to feel, as anybody would, a sympathy with this woman whose private life and childhood had been dragged through the mire of publicity in this way. I felt a sense of guilt, or perhaps shame, that at the touch of a button I could read about these details without her knowledge or consent. And I started to feel that what my relative had said about X had been far from fair. X had never come out with 'those public statements' about being stolen. She had blamed her father, and not the Baptists, for taking her away. No doubt my relative had told this story to others. And in an age when information is so easy to come by, he had never taken the trouble to find that information out for himself.
Information, perhaps, but not truth. Clearly I have no way of finding out if my relative's story is true. Equally clearly it is something he genuinely believes. He is an honest, upright man. He has done the right thing within his own family and society, he has devoted a part of his life to helping others, as best he knew how. Who am I to judge him, anyway? For this is what it is about, this business. It is a question of judgement — and this man knew it, I could see it in his eyes as he looked at me, no doubt reading the scepticism on my face.
It is almost as though there are two tribes here, and they are at war — no longer literally, but a war of words, perspectives, views of the world. It is hard, as a writer searching to write the truth as best I can discover or express it, not simply to choose one side or the other. But nowhere near as hard as it would be to be a member of the victims' side — to have suffered as X has done. For whatever else you may say about the rights and wrongs, the complexities and the best of intentions, one tribe — my tribe — is the tribe of the comfortable here. The ones who have done quite well out of all this in the last two hundred years. And you cannot help feeling that, however hard it is to prove cause and effect as a court would demand, the circumstantial evidence — the link between Aboriginal poverty and the wealth of the land — is there. It is there in the upper-middle-class houses of the land — the places where the judges and bishops and heads of department reside — just as it is there on the other side of the fence.
After all, Aboriginal people worked in many of those houses, back in the old days.
* * *
On 13 February 2008, the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, apologised to the Stolen Generations. His apology gave dignity and weight to the sufferings of the Aboriginal people. While he said little directly about the intentions of those who carried out the policies, he did allude to racism and even eugenics, the theories of racial superiority that reached their height in Australia in the 1930s, as they did in Europe. His apology was accepted, for the most part, in the spirit in which it was meant, as an expression of genuine sorrow and an admission that the policies that led to the Stolen Generations were wrong — wrong in their intention, wrong in their execution and wrong in their effect.
The then opposition leader, Brendan Nelson, also apologised. As the prime minister had, he too talked about the profound negative consequences of the Stolen Generations policies. However, his take on the question of intention was quite different. The opposition leader emphasised the good intentions of those who had designed and implemented the policies, how they believed they were acting in the best interests of the Aboriginal children they removed. He also reminded us of the sufferings of our wartime dead, and the hardships endured by the early convicts and colonisers of the land. As clumsy and even insulting as those references seemed to many in this context, they were clearly designed to appeal to a specific audience — those white Australians who feel aggrieved, who feel that the apology undervalues or demeans their contribution and that of their ancestors to Australia's past.
What is an apology, exactly? What does it mean to say sorry? When you have hurt somebody, you generally apologise. If you hurt them accidentally, you would apologise for having unintentionally caused the injury. Even if the hurt was deliberate, you would still apologise if you came to recognise that your intentions and actions were wrong. But what if you believe your actions were quite right? What if, given the same set of circumstances, you would do the same thing all over again? In that case, an apology seems at worst hypocritical, and at best an act of an entirely different moral order — a shrug of the shoulders, a sort of generalised mea culpa, an admission that the whole world is out of joint. In a relationship, it is probably not the sort of apology likely to put the bitterness and anger to rest.
Clearly the bipartisanship on the Aboriginal apology issue conceals a deeper divide. It is a divide which first became apparent during the 'history wars' of the Howard years, in which historians such as Keith Windschuttle and Henry Reynolds debated the facts and interpretations of frontier history, while Howard himself derided the so-called 'black armband' view of history, which supposedly prevented white Australians from being proud of their past. It was not simply an academic debate. It had profoundly practical consequences, for it became increasingly clear that the Howard agenda of 'practical reconciliation' meant rolling back the developments of the last thirty years. As far as Howard was concerned, self-determination had been a failure. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) had to be abolished. Native title had to be minimised and hedged about. Aboriginal leaders needed to look to the future, not sit down and lecture white Australians about the past.
If this was not already apparent, it became starkly and disturbingly clear in July 2007, when the Liberal government announced an 'emergency response' to a report by Rex Wild QC and an Aboriginal leader, Pat Anderson, into child sexual abuse on Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. Using language redolent of wartime, the government announced it would send soldiers into dysfunctional communities to enforce 'normal' community standards and social norms. The old system of 'government handouts' was to be replaced by 'real jobs'. From a Dantesque vision of hell, Aboriginal communities would come to resemble what Nicolas Rothwell of The Australian termed 'pleasant, industrious re-education camps'. If necessary this would require tough love. A biometric fingerprint scanner for work-for-the-dole participants was reportedly considered, then rejected. Newly appointed 'government business managers' were to be empowered to order police officers to force children who miss school to work collecting rubbish 'until they are visibly tired'.
In their public pronouncements, Liberal government ministers appeared to be carefully avoiding the term 'assimilation'. Nevertheless, the emergency response was an unequivocal statement of the Coalition's view that self-determination had failed. Take, for example, the following reminiscences from Liberal Senator Ian MacDonald:
My parents used to tell me that back in the old days — this was even before my time — Aboriginal stockmen in the Northern Territory and Northern Queensland were reputed to be amongst the best stockmen in the world. They were highly regarded, they were happily employed — not at full rates, I have to say — they were not involved in grog and pornography and gambling and they did their work and did it well. Some of the money that they were paid was taken from them by their employers, who are now berated as 'horrible' — and every term that can be thought of by the bleeding hearts. But they used to take out some of their pay before it went to the stockmen, and that was used to feed and clothe the women and the children who lived at the stations in safety. It was used to help educate the children in a very basic way.
Then we had Mr Whitlam and that Labor government that we would like to forget come in and say: 'It is contrary to human rights that this should happen. These people can't be paid a lesser wage' — and I understand it was not much less — 'so they will get paid the full wage'. As a result, employment of Aboriginal stockmen over a period of time disappeared and a lot of the problems that we now see in Indigenous communities started at that time.
The problems started at that time. If Senator MacDonald's view is correct, the aim of the apology is all wrong. It is not owed at all by the older generation — the politicians and bureaucrats and patrol officers who administered the Stolen Generations policies and the like. It is owed by the younger. The post-1972 generation, the bureaucrats of the Whitlam years and beyond, who foisted land rights and open-slather liquor laws and outstations and bilingual education and sit-down money on Aboriginal people, until their heads were spinning from all these new rights. They should apologise to their elders and betters — the older generation of white administrators — as well as to Aboriginal people themselves. This, perhaps, is the core of conservative white Australia's complaint about the apology — for, no doubt, Brendan Nelson's uncomfortable hedgings around the question of intention were a nod to the conservative rump of his party, who might otherwise openly break with the bipartisan facade.
Mainstream Australia is equivocal about the apology at best. In particular, this is true of older people associated with the removal policies, many of whom remain angry and resentful at the alleged 'appalling slur' on their reputations contained in the original Stolen Generations (Bringing Them Home) report. A former protector of Aborigines, Leslie Marchant, railed in the right-wing literary magazine Quadrant, against the unfairness of robbing 'generations of public servants' of their reputations, 'with as little chance of defending themselves as Senator McCarthy's victims, who were condemned and robbed of their reputations in his crusade'. Before the Stolen Generations inquiry this attitude was less evident. During oral history interviews conducted in the 1980s, according to Robert Manne, senior Northern Territory patrol officers 'expressed shame and regret at the policy they had been required to implement'.
Who were these people? Why are they so angry? What right do I — a member of a post-assimilation generation of white Australians — have to sit in judgement on my elders and betters, whose labours have formed me, and who knew conditions and privations I have never known? These are difficult questions. They cannot be answered easily. They are personal, but at the same time they are questions of profound historical weight, and it may be that these two aspects — whether to judge, or whether to try to understand — cannot be reconciled.
In part, I want to take a sidelong glance at the history. I want to look mainly at the Northern Territory, because the Territory has always been a crucible for white Australia's relations with Aboriginal people, and it is also the area I know best. I want to look at men like Chief Protector Cecil Cook, who, influenced by prevailing ideas of eugenics, pursued policies designed to absorb the 'half-caste' into the European community — or at former Director of Welfare Harry Giese, who devised work programs designed to teach 'habits of industry' to Aborigines. I want to look at the pastoralists, protectors and patrol officers of that time — men whom some see today as agents of cruelty, oppression or even genocide, and others as well-intentioned and dedicated victims of today's version of McCarthyism, the vilification and slander of the dead white man.
Were these men idealists, I wonder? Or were they politicians, in thrall to majority public opinion and the mythical 'beef barons' and absentee English lords often supposed to direct the Territory's economy from behind the throne? What was their character? What were the influences that formed them, and how do they compare with the men and women who have designed and administered Aboriginal policy in more recent times? In considering this question I will look at archives, Aboriginal accounts and official reports, as well as literature — pioneer accounts, the tales of journalists such as Ernestine Hill and Arthur Vogan, the romance of Herbert's Capricornia, this last especially because fiction is the best way I know to imagine your way into the soul.
Excerpted from The Protectors by Stephen Gray. Copyright © 2011 Stephen Gray. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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