In April 2004, I was effectively banned by Michael Atkinson, the Attorney-General, from accessing the correspondence files of the Aborigines Department in South Australia. Luckily, I had already spent hundreds of hours over several years systematically reading those files. In 2009, Wakefield Press published the fruit of that labour, The Last Protector. The Last Protector is the first book to show that an Australian government - in this case the South Australian Government - acted illegally in removing or withholding Aboriginal children from their parents.
Then, late last year, Keith Windschuttle’s lastest installment of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History was published. Volume 3 looks at the Stolen Generations and concludes that “almost all” removals of Aboriginal children were conducted “on the same child welfare policies that applied to white children”, and were “neither racist nor genocidal”. There are, he argues, “no ‘Stolen Generations’”. Now Andrew Bolt has repeated this claim in The Advertiser. Let me respond to Windschuttle.
Windschuttle devotes part of a chapter of his 600-plus-page book to the practices of Aboriginal child removal in South Australia. He argues that the laws passed by the South Australian government in the 20th century make it “very difficult for anyone [now] to argue that the government had any intention of stealing Aboriginal children” (Windschuttle, K 2009, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume 3: the Stolen Generations 1881–2008, Mcleay Press, Paddington, p593).
He’s wrong. South Australia was the last of the mainland Australian states to introduce legislation to “protect” Aboriginal people. The Aborigines Act 1911 was based very closely on legislation already passed in Queensland (1897) and Western Australia (1905). In both these states, the consensus among lawyers and historians is that their Acts did allow their protectors or boards to remove Aboriginal children and place them where they saw fit.
(See Buti, AD 2004, Separated: Aboriginal childhood separations and guardianship law, Sydney Institute of Criminology, University of Sydney, p90; Haebich, A 2000, Broken circles: fragmenting Indigenous families 1800-2000, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, p314; Bringing them home: report of the national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children from their families, April 1997, p256.)
In South Australia, as in Queensland and Western Australia, the chief protector was the legal guardian of all Aboriginal children. Here, the Aborigines Act allowed the chief protector to keep “any aboriginal or half-caste” within the boundaries of any reserve or Aboriginal institution. When the Act was being debated in the South Australian parliament in 1911, the Premier, John Verran, agreed that this clause allowed Aboriginal children to be removed from their parents and sent to an institution. (South Australia, House of Assembly 1911, Debates, vol. 1, p417.)
The problem was in the application of the legislation. It just hadn’t been thought through properly. In allowing confinement only at a reserve or Aboriginal institution, the Act failed to satisfy those who wanted Aboriginal children to be removed entirely from Aboriginal society and influence.
But, without the support of the Children’s Welfare Board, there was little the Aborigines Department could do. They embarked on a prolonged program of removing Aboriginal children by stealth, usually keeping them in children’s homes run by missions, against the wishes of their parents. This was illegal. Windschuttle and Bolt would have known all this if they’d read The Last Protector.
Windschuttle also argues that the practice of Aboriginal child removal in South Australia “did not involve any attempt to bring up children to make them believe they were white” (Windschuttle, K 2009, p591). He argues that the children who were separated “were encouraged to retain contact” with their parents.
My work clearly shows that those Aboriginal parents who were unlucky enough to have their children institutionalised against their wishes were barred at every opportunity from making contact with their children. The Aborigines Department consistently misled Aboriginal parents as to their rights and systematically colluded with missions in their illegal holding of Aboriginal children. At Koonibba Mission, on the far west coast of South Australia, Aboriginal “girls” were kept as virtual prisoners of the “children’s home” until well into their 20s. When an Aboriginal woman tried to have her 29-year-old sister released to spend a holiday with her, she found that Traeger, the missioner-in-charge, wouldn’t co-operate. She wrote:
… my poor sister dreads to think, she’s to spend all her days in the Mission Home. (Raynes, C 2009, The Last Protector: the illegal removal of Aboriginal children from their parents in South Australia, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, p63).
A month later, Penhall advised the woman that Traeger had “authorised” her sister to spend one month with her (Raynes, C 2009, p63). Of course, neither Traeger nor Penhall had any such authority over the woman’s movements.
Windschuttle’s own rehashing of Bruce Trevorrow’s childhood shows that, far from being encouraged to retain contact, Bruce’s mother was lied to and prevented from having access to her son for years. Bruce was not told of the identity or whereabouts of his natural family until the age of ten. By this time, the Aboriginal Affairs Act 1962 was operating and any guardianship the Aborigines Department may have enjoyed over Trevorrow had dissolved.
In 2007, in the Supreme Court of South Australia, Justice Gray found that Bruce Trevorrow’s removal from his family was illegal; that the State breached its duty of care to him; and that he was falsely imprisoned (Trevorrow v State of South Australia (2007) 5 SASC 285 para. 1228). And yet Windschuttle argues that the removal of Trevorrow actually proves the non-existence of the Stolen Generations in South Australia. If there really was “a project to end the Aboriginality of those like him”, Windschuttle asks, why weren’t his older siblings removed as well? (Windschuttle, K 2009, p589.)
It’s a fair question. The answer is this. By 1957, the “project” had all but been abandoned. In that sense the removal of Bruce Trevorrow is a relatively isolated event and perhaps cannot be seen as part of a project or program: or, if it can, as one of the final “kicks” of that program’s death-throes. In any case, the program of child removal in South Australia was always of a stop-start, opportunistic nature. The Aborigines Department was always constrained by the ability of the missions to accommodate children and by the fact that it was engaged in a covert operation. As such, it removed Aboriginal children surreptitiously and in small numbers, and preferred to target parents who lived in remote locations, away from the public gaze.
They had to - the department was aware that their actions were of questionable legality. The program faltered in 1949, when they finally received confirmation from the crown solicitor that what they were doing was illegal. Faltered, but didn’t entirely halt, as the Trevorrow case reveals. This explains why Trevorrow’s siblings weren’t also taken.
And finally, the question of genocide. Windschuttle contends that Aboriginal children “were never removed from their families in order to put an end to Aboriginality” (Windschuttle, K 2009, p17). He writes:
There was no unequivocal statement by anyone in genuine authority that child removal was intended to end Aboriginality (Windschuttle, K 2009, p20).
How then does Windschuttle explain this? In their annual report of 1911, the State Children’s Council wrote on the proposal to remove “half-caste, quadroon and octoroon” Aboriginal children, paying “special attention” to the girls:
The Council is fully persuaded of the importance of prompt action in order to prevent the growth of a race that would rapidly increase in numbers, attain a maturity without education or religion, and become a menace to the morals and health of the community [emphasis added] (South Australia, Parliament 1911, Annual Report of State Children’s Council, Parliamentary Paper no20).
In 1911, the State Children’s Council was the peak body in South Australia concerned with the welfare (and removal) of children. It had “genuine authority”. Its “unequivocal statement” clearly shows that its intention was to “put an end to Aboriginality” or at least to a significant manifestation of it.
Well, Mr Windschuttle?