As though someone had turned the lights out

There now seems to be majority, if not overwhelming, support for the Apology along the ideological spectrum. But it’s clear from comments by several parliamentarians, as well as the resurfacing of an infamous email letter that Hansonism is alive and well. It’s no great surprise to hear right-wing Liberals and National Party members arguing, either to score points with their constituents or because they really believe it, that the indigenous policies in question actually did a lot of good, that they were well motivated, and so on.

But I’ve been surprised by the number of well-educated young fogies, with no reactionary affiliations to speak of, who seem to find some resonance in these arguments. Even those who wouldn’t be caught dead endorsing redneck views, seem drawn to pedantic arguments about the definition of ‘sorry’, and about who is entitled to apologise on behalf of whom, which to me betrays an eerie absence of empathy. I have a feeling that the benign and cosseted world of today’s undergraduate student is so far removed from the rural and outback Australia of the 1950s, that they simply can’t imagine that things could really have been that bad. Thus, they are inclined to give the benefit of the doubt, and look for the most favourable interpretation.

The best antidote for this syndrome is to read Bringing Them Home. Below the fold I’ve quoted a few excerpts from witness testimonies that might constitute minimum obligatory reading. They are not necessarily the most heart-rending stories, but they neatly dispel a few of the misconceptions that seem to exert a particularly powerful grip.

For those of us who have grown up in the suburbs on a diet of healthy propaganda centring on multi-culturalism, equal opportunity and reconciliation, it’s easy to imagine that breaking up families was essentially a product of welfare policies — that is, that children were taken because their families were poor and dysfunctional, and that indigenous families just happened to be overrepresented among the poor and dysfunctional. The story of Jennifer belies this:

Early one morning in November 1952 the manager from Burnt Bridge Mission came to our home with a policeman. I could hear him saying to Mum, `I am taking the two girls and placing them in Cootamundra Home’. My father was saying, `What right have you?’. The manager said he can do what he likes, they said my father had a bad character (I presume they said this as my father associated with Aboriginal people). They would not let us kiss our father goodbye, I will never forget the sad look on his face. He was unwell and he worked very hard all his life as a timber-cutter. That was the last time I saw my father, he died within two years after.

Jennifer goes on to describe her three ghastly years at Cootamundra. She actually spent about half this time in a foster home on a farm, where she and her sister were sent on the basis that they were too white to fit in at the Home itself.

The twenty months Kate and I spent at Narromine were honestly the worst time of my childhood life. I often thought I would not survive long enough ever to see my mother again. The Scottish woman hated me because I would not call her `Mum’. She told
everyone I was bad…She made us stay up late sewing, knitting and darning that pillowcase full of endless socks. Often we weren’t allowed to bed `till after 11 p.m. I was always late for school, the headmaster used to greet me with `Good afternoon Jennifer’. Mrs S. did not allow me to do homework, therefore my schoolwork suffered and myself – a nervous wreck.

When I was thirteen years old Mrs S. called this middle-aged male doctor to the house and said she wanted an internal examination of me. That was terribly shameful for me, I will not say anymore. During the time [with her] I was belted naked repeatedly, whenever she had the urge. She was quite mad. I had to cook, clean, attend to her customers’ laundry. I was used and humiliated. The Board knew she was refused anymore white children yet they sent us there.

Her closing comment:

I still can’t see why we were taken away from our home. We were not neglected, we wore nice clothes, we were not starving. Our father worked hard and provided for us and we came from a very close and loving family.

I feel our childhood has been taken away from us and it has left a big hole in our lives.

The fundamentally racist worldview that motivated policies toward Aborigines is well illustrated by this vignette from another Cootamundra alumnus:

There was a big poster at the end of the dining room and it used to be pointed out to us all the time when religious instruction was going on in the afternoon. They had these Aborigine people sitting at the end of this big wide road and they were playing cards, gambling and drinking. And it had this slogan which they used to read to us and point to us while they’re saving us from ourselves and giving our souls to the Lord. It had, `Wide is the road that leads us into destruction’, which lead up into hell. The other side they had these white people, all nicely dressed, leading on this narrow road, and `Narrow is the road that leads us into the kingdom of life or the Kingdom of God’.

It’s also easy to assume that separating mothers from infants was an unfortunate by-product of measures intended — whether advisedly or not — to improve the children’s circumstances. The story of Peggy makes the point that physical separation was an end in itself. At the behest of her grandfather, she and her mother went voluntarily to Cherbourg Mission, where they were initially housed in dormitory.

But when I turned 4, and because I was such an intelligent child, sneaking off to school because all the other kids are going … matron made the decision that, ` Peggy has to go to school’. And so immediately that decision was made, I was transferred over to this section. I was taken away from her. Separating her from me was a grill. There was chicken wire across there. That was the extent of how far you could go to this [other] side.

Once you were separated from your Mum, you’re not to go back to her again. Absolutely no interaction. You have a bed on your own. No contact during the day. I’m out of her control. She is no longer actually my mother type of thing. So you go under the care and control of the Government. That’s what happened. No-one said anything to me. No-one said anything to her but everybody else in that section knew that this is what happened. And most of those women, my mother tells me, kept their children on the breast for a long, long time, because that bonding was going to be broken at some stage and so keeping their children close to them was the only thing that they had…

But I can remember sitting here at this grill on that side waiting for her to come out of the door of one of these wards here so that I can just see her. She wouldn’t come out because it hurt her to see me over this side. I turned 5 around about July. I went to school, but then she had to go to work. So we had that removal from our grandparents, her family, then I was removed from her and I then became the victim.

She ate on this side and I ate on that side. Birthdays were arranged. No, I never saw her on birthdays. I got a cake every birthday that was arranged by the Government – only because she fought for it.

Finally, one also encounters the argument that, while breaking up families might have been tough on the mothers and the kids at the time, it was all to the good in the final analysis. Anyone who thinks that might think twice after reading the story of Penny, Murray, Judy and Olive.

After a decision by the Cairns District Childrens Court, ‘it was determined by the court that we be made wards of the State and as such we were to be placed under the care and protection of the Queensland State Childrens Department [shared with the Department of Native Affairs]. We were transferred via train to the State Childrens Orphanage at Townsville.’

It was as though someone had turned the lights out – a regimented existence replacing our childhood innocence and frolics – the sheer snugness, love, togetherness, safety and comfort of four of us sleeping in one double bed – family! Strange how the bureaucracy adopts the materialistic yardstick when measuring deprivation/poverty/neglect.

Penny’s story ends on this note:

Judy had the resources to seek psychiatric care. Murray’s got psychiatric care. Trevor’s still under psychiatric care and been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. His psychiatrist says he attributes all the things that happened to him in his childhood to bring him to that state he is in today. Sometimes he gets suicidal. He rings up and wants to kill himself. And I say, `Don’t let your life pass into nothingness’.

People probably see on the surface that we’ve lead successful lives. But that’s on the surface. Nobody knows that Trevor, who until six year ago has never been out of a job in his life, owns his own home, got his own car. They look at that and say, `He’s achieved the great Australian dream’. And they don’t look behind that. Is that what it’s all about. They look at us and say, `Well, assimilation worked with those buggers’. They see our lives as a success.

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steve at the pub
13 years ago

The “Bringing them Home” report is the most one-sided piece of biased hearsay in print. Authored by one of the most biased old goats with whom I have the misfortune to share citizenship.

Nothing in it meets the standard of evidence.

There is plenty of opposition to an apology among die-hard ALP voters & members. Holding an opinion contrary to the Green/Left orthodoxy does not mean a voter is a “Hansonite”, or misguided or “core-National Party” or anything else.

It just means they have a mind of their own.

David
David
13 years ago

I heard Rudd (I think – I was making dinner at the time and not attending fully) say last night that the question he’d asked himself was, “How would I feel if it had happened to me?”

That says it all, really.

hc
hc
13 years ago

James,

You provide strong support for the apology. Indeed to you anyone who even questions this exaggerated nonsense is a ‘Hansonite’ or a ‘redneck’.

You will only leave convinced those whose minds are closed to a comprehensive view of the truth.

Greeensborough Growler
Greeensborough Growler
13 years ago

Eloquently said, Jacques.

Pavlov's Cat
13 years ago

SATP — there’s a very big gap between the ‘standard of evidence’ and things not actually being true. Apart from anything else, this is neither a court nor a trial we’re talking about.

Are you saying that all the people quoted in James’s post are making it up?

If not, what are you saying?

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

Thanks for the post James.

bruce
bruce
13 years ago

I’m sorry but the Bringing Them Home stories can be as heart-wrenching as inhumanly possible and yet that would not address the issue for many people about the demands for an apology; nor is it enough to dismiss people who demand that words (and their meanings) be use correctly, particularly by Prime Ministers when claiming to speak on behalf of the nation, as pedants or lacking in empathy.

As has been pointed out before, one can be very sorry (in the regretful and empathising sense of the term) about what happenned to the people in Bring Them Home, just as one can be very sorry about what happenned to the Jews in Auschwitz, but unless one acted in some way to cause these things to happen then one simply cannot apologise (in any honest and meaningful way); nor can the Government meaningfully apologise on such people’s behalf. It may be able to accept responsibility on its own behalf, or on behalf of earlier government in a legal sense, and if that is all that is intended then I think many people who object to this sorry business would be less concerned.

All that said, and notwithstanding Jame’s conflating of empathy and mushiness, it was still a worthwhile post.

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

Bruce, who has ever claimed that it is anything more than the Government apologising for the actions of its past incarnations, just as the German government apologised to the Jews? *

It is not apologising on behalf of the people. Though no doubt many will consider the apology to be the government expressing regret on their behalf (I’m happy to see it that way personally).

* Interestingly enough when East Germany agreed to the apology in 1990, only about 2/3rd of the ~380 strong Cabinet agreed to it. I hope we can do better than that.

trackback

[…] ….about what today is all about at Club Troppo: […]

Patrick
Patrick
13 years ago

@9, too true NPOV, Bruce ignores the institutional or corporate life of the nation as lived through the government. The criterion that one had to be there to take part would exclude all of us from celebrating all but the most recent events in our history. I mean I wasn’t on the track when Cathy Freeman ran in Sydney, I wasn’t even in the stadium and I certainly wasn’t in Newport in ’83(?), yet I seem to recall many speeches made on our behalf post events that exalted the Australian character and spirit. Why don’t we treat this injustice in the same way? We are a curious organism.

David Coles
David Coles
13 years ago

The policy of removal of mixed race children from Aboriginal families was in place in all States. The Commonwealth Parliament endorsed the same legislation and enforced it in the NT. The country agreed with it and supported it, election after election. Churches were heavily involved through their mission work.

‘Bringing Them Home’ allowed a lot of people to get their story on the record. It wasn’t evidence. But there is evidence. It sits quietly on files in the Australian and various archives.

As a nation we made a mistake that was based on a view of a race of people that is today abhorrent. In the context of the times this was a reasonable view supported by academics and governments. It was wrong and people were badly hurt. Surely we have the grace, as a nation, to say sorry.

Alan Kennedy
Alan Kennedy
13 years ago

[snipped by editorial fiat -Jacques]

Good to know they in a smelly minority that only deserves contempt.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
13 years ago

Quite right Jacques in comment 4. The Sorry agenda has completely derailed more serious work, and it will be good to put it behind us. If it makes folks on both sides feel better about themselves and each other, it is a good thing.

..Provided it does not lead to a bunch of compensation claims which leads to people feeling bad about themselves and each other. Ken or Helen could perhpas clarify the extent to which saying sorry leaves the feds open to litigation. I recall hearing (on the ABC) that the word sorry, at least in some contexts, is treated as admission of guilt. When one wants to apologise without legal prejudice, the convention is to use the word “regret”. It can’t be that simple though, since the states have all said sorry.

Phil
Phil
13 years ago

I have just seen Rudd kneeling in front of an elder woman in Parliament today…
What a shame. All this stolen generation is a mockery ! Genocide ? They breed like rabbits thanks to Howard birth bonus…And I am sick of you calling me a redneck. You are dividing this country. Them and us. Shame Rudd, shame.

Amanda
13 years ago

I have just seen Rudd kneeling in front of an elder woman in Parliament today
What a shame.

Never seen a Royal visit before, Phil?

Phil
Phil
13 years ago

That Elder is just one of the “tribes” who are fighting between them to find out which is the one who owns the Government House land…Keating just put his hand on the back of the Queen of Australia when she visited then…He did not kneel for his Queen and his wife did not bow either…
Back to your Chardonnay girl…

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
13 years ago

That Elder is just one of the tribes who are fighting between them to find out which is the one who owns the Government House land

Privatise the land which Government House is built on? What a wonderful idea!

Caroline
13 years ago

My thoughts too Patrick–more or less. Its bigger than all of us, something we needed to do as a nation.

An historic day in Parliament too, with the first ever Welcome to Country, it could be said that ignoring this custom, (before today), we weren’t exactly. One too, that (oh how I loathe this expression, JWH I’m lookin at you), sends a clear message to the rest of the world about a more sincere attempt to be on a much better footing with traditional land ‘owners’ by recognising them as such. Its only taken a couple of hundred years, but its a start.

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
13 years ago

SATP theres a very big gap between the standard of evidence and things not actually being true. Apart from anything else, this is neither a court nor a trial were talking about.

Good grief, can this creature actually vote? How can so many people graduate from university with such low level critical reading skills? Bringing Them home is a scandalous and largely mendacious work of ethical transgression, misrepresentations of facts and law, lies, and fantasy.

Clearly , there is a useful idiot born every minute.

Amanda
13 years ago

Back to your Chardonnay girl

$5.95 cleanskin from Liquorland
2006
Merlot
South Eastern Australia

I should have got 2.

Patrick not the Patrick above
Patrick not the Patrick above
13 years ago

Thanks Jacques for that editorial fiat. But I would have thought it harmless enough to us to leave it.

I agree with Jacques’ position as well. I’m glad its over with.

I don’t think it really exposes us to a skerrick of liability. First, we have a vastly more sensible judiciary than Canada, secondly, we haven’t actually signed any agreement etc, thirdly, our Government can simply legislative its liability away if the courts do turn Canadian.

James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

Did either of you Patricks ever wonder why surnames were invented?

bruce
bruce
13 years ago

As an example of the mushy-headed thinking surrounding this issue, consider David Coles’ comment (no. 12):

As a nation we made a mistake that was based on a view of a race of people that is today abhorrent. In the context of the times this was a reasonable view supported by academics and governments. It was wrong and people were badly hurt. Surely we have the grace, as a nation, to say sorry.

First of all, who is this “we” being spoken of? Certainly not me or my age peers: indeed, me and my age peers had absolutely no hand in the ‘mistake’, whether as part of a nation or individually.

The truth is that, if one accepts the notion of ‘nation’, it was the people at the time of the mistake that made that mistake. They can apologise if they feel it is warranted, or people today can argue that they should apologise or that what they did was wrong, but people today cannot legitimately apologise for the (mis)deeds of others, any more than people today can legitimately claim the credit for the good deeds done earlier by others.

Second, consider David’s view that what wa done in the context of the times was “reasonable”. If one really believes this, then the idea that even the people who made the ‘mistake’ should apologise is, at a minimum, very contestable.

To see this, consider the hypothetical situation of 50 years hence in which the people of that time have overcome today’s currently fashionable political correctness in relation to differences in race and see that the “sorry business” of these years was wrong-headed and had led to a failure to address – and correct – the true causes of aboriginal disadvantage. Imagine in that situation that, even though what we are doing today is seen to be right by the standards of today, it is seen then to be very wrong, and so the PM in 2060 issues an apology for what we today are doing. Would that be reasonable? Would we think that that future PM would have a right to apologise on our behalves? Not a chance.

James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

Bruce, I don’t know how thorough a reader of this blog you are, but I responded to that kind of argument here.

You should also read Andrew Bartlett’s post.

I don’t know what you mean by ‘mushy’. Since you’ve used it twice, you must be under the impression that it’s a killer put-down, but it really just illustrates the very point I was making.

Mark U
Mark U
13 years ago

Put at its simplest, the Government/parliament should apologise because that is what the aborigines want them to do. It is a way of all of Australia as a nation showing aborigines some long overdue respect. We are saying sorry for the “results” of our actions, regardless of the “intentions” underlying them.

bruce
bruce
13 years ago

James,

In the post you linked, you asserted that:

It’s also reasonable in cases of systematic mistreatment of a minority to apologise on behalf of a nation, if a broader set of institutions (rather than merely the central apparatus of government) were involved, and if the citizens in general approved or behaved as if they approved.

Well, what you asserted is actually part of what’s at issue, isn’t it? It is really reasonable? For exammple, would it be reasonable for the PM of 2060 to make the “apology” I set out in my hypothetical? Or would it only be reasonable for him to say something along the lines of: “By 2060’s standards, what Kevin Rudd did in 2007 was mushy-headed and wrong, as we regret that he did it and the subsequent harm it caused.” I strongly suggest to you that only the latter would be a legitimate statement for our future PM to make.

Bruce

bruce
bruce
13 years ago

No Mark, “we” are saying sorry for the results of someone else’s actions.

Now, if by sorry we mean that we regret that they undertook those actions, there is no problem here; but the sorry campaigners keep using the term in the apology sense, not the regret sense. They are therefore demanding that statements that the people of today cannot legitimately make, any more than the PM of 2060 could legitimately “apologise” for the speech Kevin Rudd will make tommorrow.

James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

Your hypothetical is premised on a non-sequitur, so why don’t we pose a more realistic one? Suppose it’s realised, finally, in 2060, that the fashionable right-wing policy of incarcerating refugees in Nauru, and locking children in Baxter and Villawood, did devastating psychological harm, would it be reasonable for the government of that day to apologise to those incarcerated? Yes, if the victims, or even their children, were alive to hear it.

bruce
bruce
13 years ago

James,
Nice try. However, even leaving aside that you failed to substantiate your non-sequitur claim or demonstrate how it undermines the validity of the hypothetical I posed, I strongly put it to you that my hypothetical remains more relevant to the aboriginal sorry business than yours, because in mine the current generation is unaware that its actions will be viewed so differently in 50 years time, whereas in yours, many of the current generation knew or felt at the time that the actions in question were wrong.* So, please answer the question, rather than eeking to avoid it, or concede the point.
Bruce

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

Bruce, I don’t see any prospect of a convergence here. If you can’t relate to the spirit of tomorrow’s occasion, just have a nice day at the beach and give the rest of us the benefit of the doubt that it’s something meaningful to us. It won’t cost you anything.

bruce
bruce
13 years ago

While its your perogative to withdraw from this debate James, I reject your attempt to rationalise it on the basis that I can’t relate to the spirit of tommorrow’s occasion. What I have been debating with you is not particularly about tommorrow’s occasion: its about the circumstances in which it is legitimate to apologise for an action, as distinct from expressing regret about it. And as my hypothetical of a future PM apologising for Kevin Rudd’s mushy-headed act tommorrow brings home, its not only those being apologised to or by who have an interest in – or take meaning from – such an act.
Bruce

NPOV
NPOV
13 years ago

Bruce, if by 2060, it was accepted that the government policies and actions of today had caused considerable harm to some group of people, that group of people felt they were owed an apology, then yes, it’s perfectly reasonable for the government of the day to apologise. I’m not sure why anyone would think otherwise.

It’s purely a apology from the government to an aggrieved people based on the fact that the government had previously mistreated those people. The fact that the individuals that make up the government are different is not relevant.

Basically, the apology has nothing to do with you.

aw
aw
13 years ago

bruce:

Nice try. However, even leaving aside that you failed to substantiate your non-sequitur claim or demonstrate how it undermines the validity of the hypothetical I posed,

How about you and all your little friends stick a cork in it and stop pretending you actually care about right and wrong.

At the risk of spoiling that beautiful bi-partisan atmosphere…. Anything which can make all these pompous, hair-splitting, self-satisfied, self-centred right-wing fat-heads puke so much must be doing something right.

Did anybody see Wilson Tuckey on the TV? He was practically crying with rage. It was absolutely hilarious.