From `Australian Aborigines' to `White Australians'

By Thomas, Cora | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

From `Australian Aborigines' to `White Australians'


Thomas, Cora, Australian Aboriginal Studies


Abstract: There is a general inadequacy of published research on the historical specificity of Australia's culturalist or assimilation policies as they directly affected its Indigenous people and, in particular, on the ideas of Paul (later Sir Paul) Hasluck. As Federal Minister for Territories during the greater part of the Menzies government in the 1950s and early 1960s, the high point of assimilationism in Australia, Hasluck was the main architect of these policies as they directly affected Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and was in a coordinating and influential role over the state authorities at that time. Despite his unquestionably impressive record in public office over a period of more than 30 years, few worthwhile studies have been made. It is noteworthy that, while the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's 1997 Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families asserts the growing intrusiveness and increased control over Aboriginal lives brought about by Hasluck's administration, specifically the Welfare Ordinances of 1953 and later, and the inhumanity of policies aimed at the destruction of cultural identity (HREOC 1997:144-6, 204-5), there is little offered in the text or the bibliography for the reader wishing to pursue an understanding of the historical specificity and philosophical traditions informing Hasluck's assimilationism.

In recent years we have seen the re-emergence into political currency of assimilationist ideas. In 1996, two books received publicity in extolling the virtues of assimilationism and attacking the self-management direction federal governments have taken since the 1972 federal election (Griffiths 1995; Partington 1996). The most recent of these publications, by Geoffrey Partington, calls for a return to the policies of `one nation for one continent' of the assimilation period and posits that the Aborigines made more `real progress' during that period than at any other time. Of great concern to many was the fact that the then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Senator John Herron, agreed to launch this book and expressed pleasure at what he termed an `interesting and exciting thesis' (Australian, 29-30 June 1996; see also Rowse 1996).

Response to Partington's book was generally one of outrage. Australia's shameful record of human rights abuse from the assimilation period (which is established in the HREOC report), as well as the `fatuous, shallow and cheap' arguments used by Partington, were attacked with passion and ire by Aboriginal academic Pat O'Shane (Australian, 3-4 August 1996). Regular contributors to the Melbourne Age and the Australian, Judith Brett and Gerard Henderson also responded with indignation to both the political direction of Partington's book and Herron's apparent interest in Hasluck's policies, reminding the reader (and indeed Herron) of the worst aspects of assimilationism: the forced separation of children from their families and, in the case of Brett, the rejection of the worth of Aboriginal culture (Australian, 2 July; Age, 5 July 1996).

However, neither of these respected commentators offered a sustained critique of Hasluck's ideas and the inhumanity of his contribution to Aboriginal policy. Indeed, Brett views him as a `progressive' reformer in his time--a man who believed `deeply in equality'. For Henderson, any perceived limit to Hasluck's empathy and concern for the Aborigines reflected in his policies was imposed by factors that were external to him. It was simply the lack of available knowledge of Aboriginal `culture, tradition and history' during the 1950s when Hasluck was Minister for Territories and still in the mid-1980s when he wrote his valedictory work on Aboriginal policy, Shades of Darkness, that determined the monoculturalism of Hasluck's vision, argues Henderson. It is noteworthy that Hasluck's 1988 publication was described in a contemporary review as a `polemic against Aboriginality and Aboriginal land rights, an apologia for assimilationism' (Rowse 1989b). …

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