There was a rather large elephant in the room during the Prime Minister’s apology to the stolen generations, and his name was Sir Paul Hasluck. Actually there was another one as well, another Knight of the Realm, Sir Robert Menzies, but one elephant at a time.
Kevin Rudd’s apology urges all Australians to reflect on the ‘laws and policies of successive governments’ which forcibly removed Aboriginal children from their families,laws and policies which inflicted pain and suffering, and which constitute an enormous injustice, indeed a ‘great stain on the nation’s soul’, and which now demand correction.
One of the barriers to a government apology is identified as ‘the argument that the policy of generic forced separation was somehow well motivated, justified by its historical context’. It is disposed of by arguing that the policy was in fact part of ‘a broader policy of dealing with the problem of the Aboriginal population’. That broader policy appears, from the quotation from A.O. Neville, the Western Australian Chief Protector of Aboriginals, to have been one of engineering the disappearance of Aborigines as a distinct ‘race’.
Without taking anything away from the contribution that the apology has made to repairing some of the damage done by the previous government’s ideologically driven and mule-like approach to the stolen generations issue, I have two reservations about framing the apology in this way. The first is that it’s relatively easy to apologize for an anonymous bunch of ‘parliaments’ and ‘governments’. But parliaments and governments are made up of real human beings, they are not mere abstractions. Their policies and laws are designed by particular people, who argue for them, often very persuasively, sometimes not, who reflect on their negative aspects and on whether they are outweighed by their positive effects.
If we are to apologize, not just for the hurt and suffering experience by Aboriginal families over the years, but also for what Commonwealth and State governments have done to bring that suffering about, I think we need to attach human faces and names to them. Generally this makes apology for historic injustice a lot more confronting and a lot more uncomfortable, but also a lot more realistic.
My second reservation is that I think it’s also too easy, and actually misleading, to see the ‘culprit’ here as a desire to bring about the disappearance of Aboriginal Australians as a distinct race, and to look only at the kind of language people were using up to the 1930s. It’s a simple matter for non-Indigenous Australians today to distance themselves from those sorts of interpretations of the place of Aboriginal people in Australian society. But the removal policies and practices continued, with more or less the same effect, after 1945 under the quite different moral banners of ‘citizenship’, ‘equality’, ‘participation’, ‘health’ ‘education’ and ‘welfare’.
In Rudd’s apology, there were only two characters identified as architects of such laws and policies: the Northern Territoryand Western Australian Chief Protectors of Natives. Their names were Cecil Cook and A.O. Neville, the latter of Rabbit Proof Fence fame. There were many others, but here I’ll concentrate on Paul Hasluck, who was probably the most sophisticated intellect behindAustralia’s assimilation policies, including Aboriginal child removal, for most of this period.
Both in his writing as a historian and journalist for the West Australian, and as Minister for Territories between 1951 and 1963, Paul Hasluck, later to become Sir Paul and Governor-General, was a driving force in Aboriginal affairs. He also was and remains a favourite son of the Liberal establishment, and it’s likely that the protection of his memory had a lot to do with the reluctance around an apology displayed by Howard and others.
If we’re apologizing for the removal policies, we’re apologizing for Hasluck.
To say, as Kevin Rudd did, that Aboriginal children were removed ‘on racial grounds’, and that this is what we are apologizing for, is to oversimplify what was going on. Even if it were true that most of these men and women in strategic policy and administrative positions – with some striking exceptions – basically didn’t much like Aboriginal people, saw the maintenance of Aboriginal culture as impractical romanticism, and would have preferred a fully Europeanised society, this was not all that was at play. If this kind of concern was a ‘motor’ of the removal policy, it was only one of them, and not obviously the most important one.
The kinds of issues that ran through all the discussions, and made it possible to construct removal as a question of ‘welfare’, were health, education, employment, the basic standards of childcare, and the regulation of sexual conduct. People like Neville and Cook simply couldn’t have stood up and said: ‘I think we should try and eliminate Aboriginal people because they’re an offensive race’ – they had to say other things, like they’re poor and likely to stay poor, their health is dreadful, the crime and imprisonment rates are too high, and so on.
Indeed, after World War II, the explanation for Aboriginal child removal had shifted to the apparently impeccable concern with Aboriginal citizenship and full inclusion in white Australian society. In 1950 Hasluck told the House of Representatives that ‘Their future lies in association with us, and they must either associate with us on standards that will give them full opportunity to live worthily and happily or be reduced to the social status of pariahs and outcasts living without a firm place in the community’. Hasluck would have been in full and absolute agreement agreed fully with the aim articulated by Rudd, of closing ‘the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity’.
But, Hasluck believed that a distinct Aboriginal cultural identity could only exist in complete isolation from European culture. Upon contact with Europeans, Hasluck thought that Aboriginal culture had “decayed” and “disintegrated”. In association with white Australians, they were for Hasluck no long ‘real’ Aborigines, but “a mid-way people facing all sorts of difficulties peculiar to themselves, enduring all sorts of confusions in their minds”. He estimated that around two-thirds of the Aboriginal population were “living a life which, having lost its ancient nourishment in an aboriginal culture is not yet fully sustaining itself from new sources”. Aboriginal culture and its way of life, especially once it had encountered European civilization, was presented by Hasluck and almost every other administrator in Aboriginal affairs as inherently flawed, producing only illness, disease, drunkenness and degeneracy in, as Hasluck told the Commonwealth Parliament, the ‘thousands of degraded and depressed people who crouch on rubbish heaps throughout the whole of this continent’.
The Aboriginal way of life was constructed simply as a ‘primitive social order’ composed of ‘ritual murders, infanticide, ceremonial wife exchange, polygamy’, so that for Hasluck and most white Australians, the permanent elimination of Aboriginality from the fabric of Australian social life was self-evidently synonymous with civilization and progress itself, a crucial element of the truth that ‘the blessings of civilization are worth having’.
The retention of any distinct Aboriginal cultural identity Hasluck saw as an entirely romantic idea – “the same sort of thing which, with all due respect to the tradespeople who benefit, is expressed in the Moomba Festival in Melbourne, in the vogue of the Central Australian paintings and in the sale of factory-made koala bears and boomerangs.” He thought that virtually complete assimilation into white Australian society and “the loss of any valid and distinctive aboriginal culture” was “certain in the course of time”, leaving only a “cultural pride” that fell into the same category as people of Scottish ancestry getting dewy-eyed at the sound of bag-pipes – perhaps he was thinking of his Prime Minister.
What about forced removal? Hasluck showed little of the concern for the relationship between parent and child animating the Prime Minister’s apology. He spoke of “the Aboriginal mother”: no faces, no names, just some inconvenient emotions getting in the way of progress. In 1988, looking back over his period as the responsible Minister, he talked of children being removed, not from their mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles, but from “the aboriginal environment” and “the blacks’ camp”. It was a matter of “giving them a chance” to be put in an institution or “a home brought up like European children”.
Hasluck did also argue that Aboriginal children shouldn’t be removed wholesale, and that attention should be paid to their welfare as individuals, but “welfare” was understood in such a way as to lead pretty inexorably to removal. The policy concern which exercised his mind was not whether Aboriginal children – especially those of mixed parentage, the “half-castes” – should be removed, but where they would end up, and how effectively they would be assimilated into white society.
A good example of Hasluck’s thinking comes with his response to one of the criticisms of Aboriginal child removal in 1951.Dr Charles Duguid was a medical practitioner, born in Glasgow, who work extensively among remote Aboriginal communities, and led the campaign against the Woomera rocket-testing. Duguid was critical of the removal of3-4 month old part-Aboriginal babies: ‘I am not satisfied, wrote Duguid, that ‘we are right in taking such young babies from their mothers. It leaves the mothers broken hearted and it cannot be in the interest of the children to become institutionalised so soon. In all enlightened countries today it is recognised that early separation of mother and child is a real misfortune’. These comments had been reported in the press, and Mrs Edna Rockliff, Joint Secretary of the Status of Women Council of the Australian Association for the UN (Tasmanian Division) wrote to FH Moy, the Director of Native Affairs on 1 November 1951 asking for clarification – the letter was referred on to Hasluck for a response, and he wrote back on 23 November.
He began by outlining ‘the policy’, saying that for a number of years government policy had been that ‘where half-caste children are found living in the camps of full-blood natives, they should, if possible be removed to better care so that they may have a better opportunity for education’. The ‘theory’ behind this policy, suggested Hasluck, was that ‘if the half-caste child remains with the bush tribe, he will grow up to have neither the full satisfaction in the life which the tribal native has nor the opportunity to advance to any other status’. In relation to the concerns about taking babies from their mother’s arms, he reassured Mrs Rockliff that this policy was applied ‘with care and discretion and a full recognition on the part of the Administration that the aboriginal mother has the same affections as every other woman.’ He repeated this point at the end of the letter, saying “I have again asked the Administrator to ensure that, in the application of this policy, every care and sympathy must continue to be shown for the natural feelings of the people concerned.” So far so good.
Things go a little wobbly, though, when you look more closely at what gets said in-between. Patrol officers, he assured Mrs Rockliff, ‘endeavour to prepare the aboriginal mother for the eventual separation and to impress her with the advantages which her child will gain,’ with the objective being ‘to have the child willingly handed over,’ something which was achieved ‘in most cases’. In fact Hasluck’s concession to the sympathies of Aboriginal mothers only extended to exactly when and how, but not whether, their child was to be removed. He claimed that he had been ‘informed’ that “in most cases, the mothers are quite willing that their children should receive education and go to an institution for that purpose, but they prefer that the child should stay with them until it is about 4-5 years of age”. Of the 42 children removed in the previous two years, he said that ‘only 9’ were under 4 years, ‘and those were cases in which early action was considered to be essential’. He didn’t say what those ‘essential’ reasons were.
Let’s be critical our past by all means, but we also need to be clear-eyed about what and who we are criticizing. It’s not good enough to confine ourselves to easy scapegoats like unknown State Protectors of Natives, or anonymous ‘parliaments’. We’re actually in the business of rethinking our heroes as well, good blokes like Paul Hasluck drawing on ideas not that different from our own today. Many bad things are done in the name of doing good, civilization and barbarism go hand in hand – we need to understand that we’re apologizing for aspects of our history that we would otherwise defend.
The other elephant will have to wait his turn.