This was an article I wrote ten months ago after comment by The Anglican Archbishop of Adelaide in the Church Guardian of March 2008 that Anglicans welcomed the Prime Minister’s apology to indigenous people for the stolen generations. The announcement of Mick Dodson as Australian of the Year seemed an appropriate context in which to dust it off and re-post:

I was a little surprised to read in the March edition of The Guardian that “Anglicans Welcome PM’s Apology.”

Perhaps there has been some specific research I am not aware of to gauge Anglican thought on the matter. Polls of the general public returned varying results. Some groups claimed to find a majority in support, but a Channel Ten poll with 10,000 respondents found that 76% disagreed. Yahoo/Channel Seven reported that a poll of 23,000 showed 62% disagreed. Whatever the actual figures, it is difficult to view the Prime Minister’s apology as an act expressing or contributing to a sense of national unity.

The Archbishop said that people reluctant to apologise complained that it should not be necessary to relive the events of the past before we can move on. This is an argument I have more often heard from Church leaders. Following some disaster in a parish, or some injustice against a lay person or member of the clergy, we frequently hear urgings along the lines of “Well yes, it was terribly sad, but it’s all the past, too much water under the bridge, can’t do anything about it now, we need to forgive and forget, let’s move on together.” Of course the Archbishop is right to point out that such arguments are complete nonsense. The extent to which peace and reconciliation are possible depends on the extent to which there is a commitment to truth and justice.

Far from trying to avoid looking at the past, those who are opposed to the offering of an apology have asked that we take the past seriously. This is important because to apologise for something is to take responsibility for it. If you apologise for something for which you were not responsible, even if you think it may make you feel better, or encourage people to be nice to you, you are lying, and lies don’t work. It is the truth that sets us free. Despite the Archbishop’s claims, reconciliation is not something contrary to reason that comes from above. It is the fruit of a commitment of the will, in co-operation with the Holy Spirit, to find the truth and on the basis of that truth, to see justice done.

If the Federal Government was not responsible for the forced removal of aboriginal children to eradicate their aboriginality (as opposed to caring for them at the request of their parents or rescuing them from abuse), then it not only makes no sense to apologise, it is dishonest to do so. Mr Rudd might just have reasonably apologised to Britney Spears for the fact that her children were removed. Of course neither he nor we were responsible for that in any way, and that is just the point. We can feel sorry for Britney, even believe things should have been done differently, but if we didn’t remove her children from her care, we cannot meaningfully apologise for their being taken.

On the other hand, if the Federal Government did deliberately remove indigenous children simply because they were aboriginal, then it is right for the Prime Minister to take responsibility and apologise. But if we are serious about this, it is wrong to insist, as the Prime Minister has done, that this creates no liability for compensation. To take responsibility for past actions by apologising, and then to refuse to acknowledge any liability for those actions, means that the apology is simply a empty gesture, with no real commitment to making things right. Aboriginal Australians would be right to be angry about this.

However the Federal Government had no power to legislate for indigenous people except in the territories until the 1967 referendum. In the case of Lorna Cubillo (Northern Territory), the Federal Court found that the “evidence does not support a finding that there was any policy of removal of part-Aboriginal children such as that alleged by the applicants”. It was the same in Victoria (although legislation there was not the responsibility of the Commonwealth), where the Government’s Stolen Generations Taskforce admitted it couldn’t find any stolen children and noted that there had been “no formal policy for removing children” from Aboriginal parents.

Many indigenous children were taken from their communities or families. Peter Gunner, Lorna Cubillo and NSW aboriginal woman Joy Williams were among them, and took their respective state or territory governments to court to claim compensation. But it was shown that Lorna Cubillo’s mother and grandmother had died, her father had disappeared, and that she was uncared for. Joy William’s mother had given her up to authorities voluntarily because she was unable to care for her, while Peter Gunner’s mother had asked that he be taken to a home in Alice Springs so he could get an education.

In the recent case in South Australia, Bruce Trevorrow succeeded in gaining compensation for being taken from his home, not because there was any government policy of removing indigenous children, but precisely because his removal was contrary to governing legislation. Justice Gray noted:
Mrs Angas may have been well-intentioned … but was well aware, or ought to have been aware, that the removal of the plaintiff from his family, and his placement with the Davies family, was undertaken in circumstances that were understood to be without legal authority, beyond power and contrary to authoritative legal advice.”

Looking at the family situation, it is easy to understand why the care worker believed Bruce needed to be removed. It would not be appropriate to give details, but perhaps it helps to understand her dilemma to know that a few months after ten year old Bruce was returned to his mother she beat him so badly that he had to be removed by police. She refused to take him back.

My wife and I cared for foster children over a long period of time. In almost every case, despite the abuse, beatings or neglect those children had suffered, they insisted that their parents loved them and could care for them, that it was all a misunderstanding, that the people who took them were at fault. It would not have been kind or generous to have accepted this view. Instead, by encouraging resentment and misunderstanding, it would have been destructive of any hope they might have had for the future.

Some indigenous children who taken into care were subsequently abused, or placed in situations where it is hard to imagine that they could have been worse off if they had been left where they were. It is right that those children should be angry, that they should expect an apology from those responsible for their care, that they should receive compensation where there has been lasting harm, and that those who perpetrated abuse against them should be dealt with according to the law. The same is true of members of any other ethnic group or community who have been taken into care and suffered abuse at the hands of those who were responsible for their safety.

It is easy to find examples of racist comments from government officials, MPs, and even church leaders. Some of these are truly appalling. But they are not evidence of a long running government policy, only of individual stupidity and selfishness. Despite years of trying, no one has been able to produce a single example of Australian legislation, regulations, or even official guidelines, that permitted the removal of aboriginal children from their homes and communities simply because they were aboriginal. Nor despite similar years of trying, has a single indigenous person been able to show that they were removed for that reason, and not because of concern for their welfare, or their family’s request.

Truth is important for its own sake. It is also important because solutions to past and present problems can only be just and lasting if they are based on truth. Our understanding of the past affects the way we behave now and in the future.

For example, aboriginal leaders have complained that Australian society tolerates a much higher level of abuse of Aboriginal children than of white children, because of a fear of repeating the stolen generations. Sally Jo Scherger, then Family Services Co-ordinator at the Mildura Aboriginal Co-operative, said in an article in the Age on 9/5/2001:
Things have to be a hundred times worse for Kooris before the department will become involved. If Koori kids witness their dad belting their mum, the department says `Oh it’s just their way.’ Or if a Koori toddler is running around in underpants out on the street on a freezing cold night after dark again the attitude is, `It’s just their way’.”

The belief that abuse and neglect are acceptable because “it’s just their way.” is just as racist, and just as harmful, as any attitudes expressed by our forebears. Aboriginal people are not inherently more likely to be violent or abusive, and even if they were, it would not make abusive behaviour any more acceptable.

Despite this reluctance to intervene, more aboriginal children are being removed from their homes now than in the period of the so called stolen generations. They are being removed for the same reasons. The tragedy for all Australians is that it still necessary to do so.