Personal and Political: Two Perspectives on the Stolen Generations

“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
–John Donne, Meditation XVII
Since the elections last November, the issue of an apology to the members of the Stolen Generations has been the topic most often discussed when the question of the Rudd Government’s agenda for Indigenous affairs comes up in the mainstream media. Having from the start pretty much ruled out a review of the Intervention and immediate action on any of its programs, Rudd did promise to make the Apology his top priority. It was a brilliant symbolic move allowing him to signal his distance from Howard and to cast off, at least in the area of Aboriginal policy, the “me too” label.

The Apology has never been far from the limelight in the last decade, since the appearance of Bringing Them Home, the report of the inquiry led by Ronald Wilson, President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) and Mick Dodson, its Social Justice Commissioner, on the removal of Aboriginal children from their families across Australia during the period from 1910 through 1970. Thanks to Howard and his right-wing supporters as outlets like Quadrant, the very notion of whether there was a Stolen Generation has been questioned. The issue of whether the Federal Government owed anyone an apology for the practice of child removal has been equally contentious. In the meantime, Sorry Day has become part of the Indigenous cultural landscape, linked to the anniversary of the 1967 Referendum. (The report was tabled in Parliament on May 26, 1997, one day shy of the 30th anniversary of the Referendum.)

Prior to the Second World War, when it was assumed that Aborigines were a dying race, it was feared that “half-castes” were not. In a racist and eugenicist policy framework, children of mixed black and white parentage were removed to missions that were halfway houses to Southern cities and marriages to whites that would “breed out the color.” This was the stuff of The Rabbit-Proof Fence

In the wake of Hitler and Stalin and with the rejection of colonialism as empires were broken apart after World War II, Australian policy towards Aboriginal children underwent a shift as well, with removals often justified as alternatives to neglect and wantonness, or as the preparation of children for assimilation into the new, multicultural Australian community.

I’ve recently finished reading two quite different books that reflect on stories of the Stolen Generations, and I’ve found them to be illuminating and worthy of consideration as the issues surrounding the Apology and related compensation are bruited with sound-bite coverage in the newspapers today. 

The first of these, Quentin Beresford’s Rob Riley: an Aboriginal leader’s quest for justice (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006) is a major biography of an Aboriginal leader who was also a “stolen” child. It tells the story of a generation of Indigenous politics through the lens of one man’s life.

The second is Robert Manne’s In Denial: the Stolen Generations and the Right (Black Inc., 2001), which was originally published as the very first Quarterly Essay. Part history in itself, to three parts polemic, In Denial bears witness to the bitterness and petty warfare the report spawned, on a stage that seems far removed from any one person’s experience. 

In telling the story of Rob Riley’s life, Beresford does not attempt anything so simplistic as reducing the varied and important achievements of Riley’s decades at the forefront of Aboriginal politics to an attempt to work through the childhood trauma he endured as a result of being forcibly separated and kept at a deliberate distance from his family. But there is little doubt that Beresford find the seeds of the anger, the sense of injustice and perhaps ultimately the despair that drove Riley in the experiences of his youth.

Rob Riley: an Aboriginal leaders’s quest for justice is a history of Aboriginal politics in the 1980s and 1990s that is told from the point of view of the Aboriginal participants, most notably, of course, that of Rob Riley himself. Riley’s personal charisma and magnetism has outlived him by more than a decade now, and I suspect that his popularity and the affection people felt for him contributed significantly to the selection of this book as the winner of this year’s Stanner Award. The stories that are told in this book are often familiar in their general outlines, but are made new for me by reading them from the perspective of an Aboriginal insider, rather than a legislator, historian, or journalist, as I have in the past.

Riley’s involvement with the battles for land rights from Noonkanbah onwards and his role in seeking reforms arising from deaths in custody put him squarely in the frame of the largest issues of his time. His work with the Aboriginal Legal Service in Western Australia transformed that organization. On the opposite coast, he was an early and important Indigenous presence in Canberra, as advisor to Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Gerry Hand in Bob Hawke’s government.

In Beresford’s portrait, Riley is not a man easily given to compromise. He was disdainful of a system of land rights recognition that was based on Indigenous people needing to demonstrate continued association with land they claimed, or indeed to justify the right at all. To Riley, land rights counterbalanced dispossession, and he saw the kinds of compromise that eventually became enshrined in Australian law in the 1990s as fundamental failures, especially to Aboriginal people whose connection to the land had been completely severed decades if not centuries earlier.

He is also a driven man, who knows little relaxation over two decades, and seemingly less peace. His life as told in these pages has a relentless quality to it. Perhaps because Beresford chooses to open the book, literally in the first paragraph, with Riley’s suicide, there is an air of inevitability, of prediction, and of inescapable fate in all that follows. In the end, I think it is unfair to the complexity of Riley’s personality and undercutting of his achievements to predicate the entire story of his life on its end like this. Beresford comes much closer to the critical point in the final paragraph of his introduction than he does in its first:

Rob’s story has much to offer contemporary Australia. It sheds light on the still unresolved intergenerational impact of past racial policy, while opening up to closer scrutiny Australia’s response to Aboriginal demands for political change. The life Rob chose in confronting white Australia with the demand for understanding and justice provides many insights into the challenges faced by Aboriginal activists of this era. Despite the tragedy of his death, his life is a story of survival against great odds. Rob triumphed against a childhood ravaged by emotional and material deprivation. Forged by the history of racial oppression, he sought to change the course of history so others would have opportunities historically denied Aboriginal people (p. 8)

Manne’s essay begins with a combination of historical perspectives on child removal and brief biographical sketches of individuals, like Riley, who suffered at the hands of bureaucrats well-intentioned or not. His scale is generational rather than individual, however, and his arena is most decidedly political rather than personal. In a way, he is more concerned with Bringing Them Home, the report and investigation, that he is with the generations themselves.

It is useful to be reminded that the HREOC inquiry was not an investigation with the status of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The overall budget was much smaller for one thing; the HREOC had no subpoena power for another. It is likewise useful to read reports of the manner and motivations of removal across the country, and to remember that were individuals with complex motivations, some contradictory, on the government and mission side of the story.

It is also important to understand Manne’s conclusion: that no matter what the circumstances, no matter what the motives, no matter what the outcomes, the greatest horror in the story of the Stolen Generation is the absolute refusal, if not the inability, to recognize the terrible human cost of separating mother and child. The failure to imagine not just the consequences, but the action itself from the Aboriginal point of view is the most damning judgment that can be placed on the perpetrators.

It seems a shame–an understandable one, but nonetheless misplaced energy–that Manne spends so much of his time in this essay not simply documenting the shoddy arguments by which those on the Right tried to talk away the import of Bringing Them Home but attempting to refute them as well. Perhaps it was important to fight against denialism at that moment in time, when Keith Windschuttle had just appeared forcefully on the scene to redirect the controversy over the Stolen Generations into a larger disputation about Aboriginal deaths on the frontier.

But in some ways it now seems that Manne got himself trapped in the terms of debate framed by the Right. . He gets trapped in the very nit-picking, legalistic, point-scoring kinds of arguments he accuses his opponents of indulging in. Worst of all is the argument over whether the policies of removal represent an Australian instance of genocide.

In the end, whether 25,000 children constitute a generation, whether breeding out the color or breeding out the savagery was the motive, whether the revelations of Nazi programs of racial eradication changed the policy in Australia, or simply the way it was defined seem ultimately beside the point. Casting “Aboriginal Protectors” in the mold of what has become the archetypal evil of modern times–making Neville and Cook the confreres of Eichmann and Mengele–ultimately seems to me to buy Manne nothing but more ammunition for his opponents to lob at him. If a refusal to acknowledge something as genocide can be transmuted into a refusal to offer an apology at all, more harm than good has been done.

That thousands and ten of thousands of individuals suffered as a result of the policy of removals has been and can be amply demonstrated. Whether that harm has been fully understood is debatable; I suspect that it has not. The time has come to attempt such an understanding without allowing the shadows of ideological debates to dim the light that needs to be cast. Works of individual biography like Beresford’s Rob Riley can help further that understanding. 

One hopes that an apology will as well. To apologize sincerely requires humility, and I am reminded once again that humility is a very complex virtue. And it will take courage as well as humility to guide us away from the Manichaean battles of Robert Manne and Andrew Bolt and toward a nuanced model of compassion for future generations.

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4 Responses to Personal and Political: Two Perspectives on the Stolen Generations

  1. bluegum3 says:

    Hi there, I wish to cite the article “Personal and Political: Two Perspectives on the Stolen Generation” in my university essay. Can you please tell me who authored this article? Thank you and Regards
    Daniela Bücheler-Scott

  2. Jaafar says:

    Yea its Alright

  3. lendrum says:


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