EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
The "stolen generationÂ“
, April 22, 2000
It has not been a good few weeks for the Federal Government, with Aboriginal leaders threatening protests and even violence during the forthcoming Olympic Games in Sydney. The Games, intended to be a showcase of the nation's achievements and way of life, threatens instead to become a focus of bitter divisions over the treatment of indigenous Australians, bringing Australia's reputation crashing down.
No government could have anticipated the way in which the issue of mandatory sentencing laws would fuse with the "deaths in custody" issue, arising from the suicide of an Aboriginal teenager in the Northern Territory. Despite Mr Howard's aversion to the Northern Territory law, his unwillingness to override his Northern Territory colleagues, who had just won a by-election on the issue, left him vulnerable to accusations of weakness and indecision.
A threatened backbench revolt was narrowly quelled when the Northern Territory leader, Denis Burke, agreed to amend the legislation, so that the age limit for the stricter mandatory detention provisions for adults is to be lifted from 17 to 18, and greater emphasis is to be placed on diversionary programs for juveniles, especially for the more minor property offences.
It is obvious that juveniles who are repeatedy convicted of property offences before they turn 18 are fundamentally disordered, and most probably, suffer from a socio-pathological illness. Diversionary programs should be used wherever possible, and even when detention in a juvenile facility is judged necessary, it should be accompanied by rehabilitation programs which treat the underlying problem.
Mandatory treatment, of a type appropriate to convicted drug addicts in an effort to treat their addiction, is entirely appropriate in these circumstances.
The success of the media in embarrassing the Howard Government over Senator Herron's statement that "there never was a 'generation' of stolen children", could have been anticipated. The statement, taken out of context in most media reports, occurred in a detailed submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Stolen Generation.
The Prime Minister and Senator Herron have eached apologised to any Aboriginal people who were forcibly removed from their mothers, and who were offended by this statement.
They have made it clear that the Government is not denying that forcible removal occurred, nor is it defending the practices of the past. However, they are both standing by the validity of the Government's submission, and its critique of Sir Ronald Wilson's report on the removal of Aboriginal children from their families.
The Government has correctly pointed out that Wilson's upper figure of one in three Aboriginal children separated from their families is unsustainable and based on a misreading of the statistical sources. The more accurate figure of one in ten includes all those separated from their parents in the period 1910 to 1970, with the consent of the parents or otherwise, for good reasons or otherwise.
These fall into three quite distinct categories which Wilson misleadingly blurs together.
One category is represented by Charles Perkins, former head of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, who recently called for violent protests during the Olympic Games. It happens that Mr Perkins' mother voluntarily put her sons into the care of an Anglican priest, Fr. John Smith, whose life was spent in heroic service to the people of the Outback, including Aborigines.
Mr Perkins obviously feels a deep sense of grief and anger over being removed from his mother; but his removal from his family has nothing to do with any government, and neither apology nor compensation is appropriate in the circumstances. It should be remarked that while separation of mothers from their children today occurs very infrequently, it was far more common when government support services to parents, particularly single parents, were almost non-existent. This was not confined to Aboriginal children.
A second category of Aboriginal children separated from their parents were those in real danger of death or injury. The best-known of thesewas the plaintiff in a recent compensation case, whose mother had left him as a baby to die in a rabbit burrow. Very fortunately, Aboriginal relatives of the baby retrieved him, and handed him over to the care of government welfare officers.
The third group of Aboriginal children, who could rightly be called "stolen", were forcibly removed from their parents, as a matter of government policy in separating half-caste children from their Aboriginal mothers. Wilson's allegation that this was intentionally genocidal is inflammatory and unjust.
Whatever the motivation of government officials who acted in this way - either in the mistaken belief that Aboriginal mothers did not love their children and would not care for them, or the view that such children should be brought up in white society - it was and remains fundamentally wrong to separate children from their families unnecessarily. This is not a problem confined to Aboriginal children.
Where the facts are proven, and government actions have caused quantifiable damage, compensation should be paid. However, blanket compensation to those Aboriginal children separated from their parents for justifiable reasons is not warranted.
In the meantime, what is needed is light, rather than heat.