It was billed as “the last word” - “a debate about history, truth and memory between Robert Manne and Andrew Bolt on the Stolen Generations”. It happened at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, when the question was posed: “Stolen generations or hijacked history?”
Apparently, there was no answer. John Hirst moderated the debate and in the end declared no winner. Perhaps he thought there was no “last word”. Perhaps he thought the debaters evenly matched; the result a draw. But perhaps, like me, he thought the contest so utterly one-sided that he took pity on Bolt, electing to not embarrass him any further.
This was intended to be no mere debate. It was supposed to be a titanic tussle of the kind we have come to expect in a time of history wars - SuperManne v ThunderBolt. It was a pretty spiteful affair. Bolt weighed in first, accusing Manne of perpetrating a morally bankrupt myth which has contributed to increasing child abuse in contemporary Aboriginal communities. Manne counterpunched by declaring Bolt’s ignorance of the past and decrying his woefully poor research.
There could be no doubt that Manne was the more even-handed and had the documentary evidence under control. There could be no doubt that Bolt dissembled and knew nothing beyond a handful of well-rehearsed set pieces. Indeed, so poor was Bolt’s command of historical facts that he came back to the same ones over and over again. A few cheered, but more groaned. A broken record stuck in the same groove quickly sounds dull. If ThunderBolt thought he could down SuperManne with this pale imitation of Kryptonite, he was surely mistaken.
How strange, then, that Bolt should accuse Manne of perpetrating a myth. What could Bolt mean? If it was simply a matter of getting the facts straight, then Bolt’s story was certainly the more crooked. But that only makes Bolt a poor historian; it doesn’t make him the myth-maker. A myth-maker needs to do something else besides distort history. A myth-maker needs to tell a story which affirms and endorses a group’s moral identity. In other words, the defining characteristic of a myth is not that it is false, but that it is held widely and strongly to be true - like the story of Gallipoli.
When Manne was asked if it was literally true that every Aboriginal child was forcibly stolen from its mother, he said that this was manifestly not the case. However, he added that stories of being “stolen” were symbolically true for many Aboriginal people who had been subject to removal as children. Those people have now adopted the word “stolen” to capture how their Aboriginal background was more or less suppressed during their younger years.
The story therefore endorses their return to a fuller Aboriginal identity. It also endorses the Reconciliation movement which supports that return across Australia’s racial divides. It is certainly a myth, but it is one which, like Gallipoli, is grounded in some starkly real history.
If Manne was frank about this, Bolt was not. All we heard from Bolt was that the story of the stolen generations is evil because it leads to the neglect of children in contemporary Aboriginal communities, with welfare agencies allegedly paralysed into non-intervention for fear of being accused of racially motivated child-theft. Yet Bolt produced no evidence for this.
It’s easy to see why when Indigenous children, who form less than 3 per cent of the total child population in Australia, form about 20 per cent of the total child population in out-of-home care, with most of the removals involving specialist Aboriginal child care agencies. This doesn’t exactly sound like non-intervention, so what might Bolt really be getting at? What’s his story?
Unfortunately, Bolt didn’t tell us what was symbolically true about his version of history. However, he did graphically highlight the recent media reports of sexual and other abuse in Aboriginal communities. He also spoke of the best intentions of those who removed similarly abused children from Indigenous communities in the past. So, there’s nothing to reconcile there, which is presumably why Bolt’s recent book loudly proclaims that he is “still not sorry”.
As for Aboriginal identity, forget it! It isn’t worth remembering, since it is born of a retrograde culture of poverty. But Bolt does want us to remember all the pioneering politicians, missionaries, bureaucrats and welfare officers who nobly sought to bring white civilisation to the black savages who now bite the hand that fed them.
For Bolt and his fellow history warriors, that’s the one true Australian story. It’s a hard one to tell honestly these days. It’s an even harder one to believe in with one’s heart and soul, although Bolt keeps on trying, against all the odds and against most of the facts. Fortunately, he lost the Battle for the Last Word. It’s important that he and his comrades continue to lose the war.