Forgetting Indigenous Histories: Cases from the History of Australia's Stolen Generations

By Haebich, Anna | Journal of Social History, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Forgetting Indigenous Histories: Cases from the History of Australia's Stolen Generations


Haebich, Anna, Journal of Social History


The Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples by the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in Parliament House on the 13th of February 2008 on behalf of the Australian nation was a profoundly moving ceremony. (1) The apology had been a long time coming. It was first mooted in 1997 in the Bringing Them Home Report prepared by Commissioners Mick Dodson and Sir Ronald Wilson from the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. This document was destined for controversy. It gave unprecedented primacy and authority to Indigenous testimony in its conclusions, which were collated from thousands of hours of interviews. The findings that between one and three of every ten Indigenous children had been forcibly removed from their families and the litany of unhappy lives spent in institutions, foster homes, adoptive families and forced employment rocked the nation. There were also tragic disclosures of the ongoing medical, psychological and emotional problems, addictions, mental illness, incarceration, violence, self-harm and suicide that haunted the Stolen Generations.

For parochial Australians the language of international human rights that framed the report was inflammatory. Particularly shocking was the conclusion that the forcible transfer of Indigenous children constituted cultural genocide under the United Nations Genocide Convention 1948 (ratified by Australia in 1949), which the Australian public associated with the extermination policies of Nazism. Other citizens were concerned about a blow out of compensation payments with the report's recommended use of the United Nations' van Boven principles for victims of gross violations of human rights, which advocated a full range of reparation measures, including restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of not-repetition. The recommendation for a national apology was made in this context.

The apology was swept along in the acrimonious debates and vigorous personal attacks and counter-attacks that clouded public understanding of the issue. The report was condemned for its lack of rigour and objectivity in using Aboriginal testimony without cross-examination and corroboration with government records, leaving its credibility in tatters. The charge of cultural genocide was deemed contemptuous and further cause for ridicule. There was a public outcry over the proposed reparations package and compensation payments that promised to billow out into millions of dollars of taxpayers' money.

At the centre of this turmoil the then conservative Prime Minister John Howard and his government resolutely refused to make a national apology. They denied that there had ever been a Stolen Generation, arguing that the children had been rescued from physical and moral danger and that their treatment was humane by standards of the times, and rejected any notion of generational responsibility for practices sanctioned by previous governments. There would be no compensation payments. Yet there were many Australians who supported an apology, albeit shorn of the report's more controversial findings and recommendations, as a symbol of national reconciliation and healing. Finally, after eleven years, Prime Minister Rudd delivered an official apology stripped of the international human rights contexts that laid such heavy responsibilities on the Australian nation. These were conveniently forgotten, allowing the nation the luxury of expressing sorrow and remorse to the Stolen Generations without being troubled by the unpaid debts still owed to them.

Denial and forgetting have a long history in white Australia's responses to the claims of Indigenous history. In debates over the Bringing Them Home Report it was the conflict between denialists and historians over the truth of Indigenous memory and historical integrity that captured the media spotlight. This eclipsed another widespread response epitomised in the genuinely felt tears and apologies expressed by many shocked Australians who responded with the heartfelt words, "I'm sorry, I just didn't know. …

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