Part Six of a history of European occupation, rule, and brutal imperialism of Indigenous Australia, by Dr George Venturini.
Turning ‘protection’ into ‘assimilation’
In 1928 the Australian Government asked J. W. Bleakley, Queensland Protector of Aborigines, to report on policy, including ‘half-caste’ policy, in the Northern Territory. His report proposed “blood quotas” as a guiding principle. Those who possessed fifty per cent or more of ‘native blood’ would “drift back” to the black “no matter how carefully brought up and educated.” Those with less than fifty per cent of ‘native blood’ could “avoid the dangers of the blood call” if they were segregated as the prelude to “their absorption by the white race.”
In 1937, 1951 and 1961 official conferences adopted policies aimed at the assimilation of Indigenous People into the ‘mainstream’ of society.
Tatz points out that these policies were directed towards ensuring the disappearance of Indigenous People ‘as a race’. Terms such as “breeding them white” indicated a biological solution.
‘Assimilation policies’ were not entirely new. Under the Victorian Aborigines Protection Act 1886 “aid” was restricted to ‘full-bloods’ and ‘half-castes’ over the age of 34. All others, regardless of their marital or sibling status, were forcibly expelled from missions and reserves. Children were not exempt. They faced relocation to white foster parents, white adoptive parents and ‘half-caste’ or ‘assimilation’ homes.
Tatz cites three senior officials to illustrate the thinking behind ‘assimilation’. One was O. A. Neville, the Chief Protector in Western Australia between 1915 and 1940. He could do nothing for Indigenous People, “who were dying out.” However, he could “absorb the half-castes”. Neville had a three-point plan. First, the ‘full-bloods’ would die out. Second, the ‘half-castes’ would be taken from their mothers. Third, ‘half-caste’ marriages would encourage intermarriage within the white community. The Chief Protector promoted the attractiveness of such arrangements. “The young half-blood maiden is a pleasant, placid, complacent person as a rule, while the quadroon [one quarter ‘native’] is often strikingly attractive, with her oftimes auburn hair, rosy freckled colouring, and good figure.” Elevation of these people “to our own plane” he deemed wise. To this end, Neville established, in 1933, Sister Kate’s Orphanage. Its guiding principle was to take in hand those “whose lightness of colour” could lead to assimilation and intermarriage.
The indignities suffered by those taken in hand would have been obvious and many, but a proverbial carrot was dangled before them. The Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act 1944 (W.A.) made it possible for an Indigenous person to apply, before a magistrate, for a Certificate of Citizenship. The successful applicant would have to show how ‘white’ he or she had become. Dissolution of tribal and native association was only the beginning. He or she had to have an honourable discharge from the armed forces, or be deemed a “fit and proper person”.
“Fit and proper persons” had to have “adopted the manner and habits of civilised life” for two years and be able to speak and understand English. They had to be of industrious habits and be of a good reputation and correct behaviour. Those suffering from active leprosy, syphilis, granuloma and yaws (framboesia) were denied citizenship.
This outlook formed the basis of Commonwealth policy from the 1930s. The Northern Territory Administrator’s report of 1933 said: “In the (Northern) Territory the mating of an Aboriginal with any person other than an Aboriginal is prohibited. The mating of coloured aliens with any female of part Aboriginal blood is also forbidden. Every endeavour is being made to breed out the colour by elevating female half-castes to the white standard with a view to their absorption by mating into the white population.”
The diabolical plan was to give way to ‘the stolen generations’.
Under this new ‘policy’ Indigenous children were taken from their families. In a 1983 monograph, historian Peter Read cited annual reports of the New South Wales Board: “This policy of dissociating the children from [native] camp life must eventually solve the Aboriginal problem.” By placing children in “first-class private homes”, the superior standard of life would “pave the way for the absorption of these people into the general population.” Further, “to allow these children to remain on the reserve to grow up in comparative idleness in the midst of more or less vicious surroundings would be, to say the least, an injustice to the children themselves, and a positive menace to the State.”
Tatz commented: “In sharp contrast were the memories of the salvaged ones: there was little that was wonderful in the experience; there was much to remember about physical brutality and sexual abuse; and for the majority the homes were scarcely homes, especially in the light of the then healthy practices of kinship, family reciprocity and child rearing in extended families. There is considerably more recorded and substantiated evidence of abuse in the safe homes … In 37 years of involvement in Aboriginal affairs, I have met perhaps half a dozen men who liked Sister Kate’s or Kinchela Boys’ Home. I have yet to meet an Aboriginal woman who liked Cootamundra Girls’ Home or Colebrook. No one failed to mention the incessant sexual abuse, or the destruction of family life.”
In 1990 the Secretariat of the National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care demanded an inquiry into child removal. A blank spot in Australian history was referred to: “the damage and trauma these policies caused are felt every day by Aboriginal people. They internalise their grief, guilt and confusion, inflicting further pain on themselves and others around them. We want an inquiry to determine how many of our children were taken away and how this occurred. We also want to consider whether these policies fall within the definition of genocide in Article II (e) of the United Nations Convention.”
On 11 May 1995 the Attorney-General of the Keating Labor government established the “National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families.” It was aimed at informing a wilfully ignorant public of the history of forcible removal which was contributing to hindering the recognition of the needs of its victims and their families and the provision of services.
Tatz pointed to the ambiguities of this inquiry. The use of the term “separation” presupposed a degree of agreement by the families with the removal of their children. Further, “separation” suggests that the removals were of a temporary character with a door remaining open for reunification. This could not be farther from the truth. The Bringing them Home Report was tabled in Parliament on 26 May 1997. It concluded that between 1910 and 1970 between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities.
It marked a pivotal moment in the controversy which has come to be known as ‘the stolen generations’.
By 11 March 1996, however, there had been a federal government of different persuasion: the Howard Government which would last until 3 December 2007.
On 15 April 1997 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission published the results of the inquiry in Indigenous deaths in custody. (Indigenous Deaths in Custody, 1989 to 1996. A Report prepared by the Office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, 1996).
In a powerful editorial endorsing all 339 recommendations, The (Melbourne) Age called the Report “a judgment in black and white.” At the time, a distinguished prominent barrister, Ron Merkel Q.C., who was also the president of the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties, sounded one note of caution. In a letter to that newspaper, he wrote that the inquiry delivered a “unique catalogue of the destruction of the culture, spirit and lives of Aboriginal people”; examined a wide range of policies designed to avoid the failures of the past; and proposed a “blueprint” for tackling the underlying causes of the disintegration in Aboriginal society.
In particular, what outraged Merkel was that a mere 150 copies of the report were made available for public sale – while another 200 were offered in response to complaints, denying an invaluable resource to the scores of agencies, government departments and organisations which desperately needed one.
“It is no small irony that the principal finding as to the cause of so many of the problems investigated was the failure to educate the Australian public about Aboriginal people,” Merkel wrote.
The vast majority of Australians – the word being henceforth used in a generic fashion, from the original invaders, to their followers, down to the so-called old Australians and ‘new’ Australians – are only vaguely aware of the grim reality, and most of the politicians, particularly those in the anti-Labor Coalition, seemed comfortable and relaxed with things as they have been ‘traditionally’.
The Howard Government remained unmoved.
The new invasion of the Northern Territory
In June 2006 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation programme Lateline aired a sensational interview with a man whose face was concealed. He was described as a “ former youth worker” who had lived in the Indigenous community of Mutitjulu, a tiny town of around 400 situated, literally, in the shadow of Uluru. He made a series of bizarre, false, indeed lurid allegations.
The man in disguise, and whose voce was digitised, purported to have been once based in Mutitjulu and to have worked in a joint community development project for the Northern Territory and Commonwealth governments. He was interviewed at his new home on the outskirts of Canberra. As it turned out, the man was never a youth worker, and he had never lived in Mutitjulu.
For the truth, he was one Gregory Andrews, an Assistant Secretary in the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination, and the senior public servant who was advising the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough – who is reputed to be of partial Indigenous ancestry – specifically on violence and sexual abuse in remote Indigenous communities, and in Mutitjulu in particular.
Andrews wept openly on camera as he described how he had made repeated statements and reports to police about sexual violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and children during his time in Mutitjulu. But, he claimed, he had withdrawn those statements after being threatened by men in the community. Nothing of this turned out to be true.
Despite having moved several thousand kilometres away to Canberra, Andrews maintained that he feared for his safety, and that of his family.
Chief Minister Clare Martin later revealed in parliament that during his employment, Andrews never once made a single report to police about violence against women or children.
His ‘withdrawn police statements’ were not the only part of his story which collapsed.
Subsequently, Andrews would be exposed and discredited by the Australian Crime Commission and by the Northern Territory Police.
Actually, Lateline had taken an early interest in Indigenous affairs in the Northern Territory. In early 2006 the A.B.C. broadcast an interview with Dr Nanette Rogers who had been Crown Prosecutor in Alice Springs for more than 12 years.
Dr. Rogers outlined shocking cases of sexual abuse of Indigenous children which, over a period of more than a decade, had made their way through the Northern Territory courts. She described toddlers and babies being raped; cases of incest; men using traditional law to escape serious punishment. Dr Rogers referred to a case in which an 18-year-old petrol sniffer simultaneously drowned a young girl while he was raping her.
For many Australian television viewers the interview with Dr Rogers appeared seemingly ‘out of the blue’. It sparked massive media interest, which continued for a while. That was rather surprising, having regard to the paucity of government reports on Indigenous affairs. Dr Rogers’ revelations came as nothing new. They were in fact no news.
In 1989 (now Emerita) Professor Judy Atkinson, whose heritage derives from the Jiman people of the Upper Dawson in Central West Queensland and the Bundjalung of Northern New South Wales, wrote a landmark report on Indigenous violence, and in particular child sexual abuse. She wrote another one for the federal government in 1991.
Professor Boni Robertson, who has held the position of Director of the Gumurrii Centre, Griffith University since 1995, also completed substantial reports throughout the 1990s, and headed a major inquiry in 1999 which involved fifty senior Indigenous women and represented every community in Queensland.
Both Atkinson and Robertson warned politicians on numerous occasions of the problems in Indigenous communities, and showed that the causes of family violence were rooted in a failure of government to provide basic services, investment and infrastructure.
Their reports were largely ignored, although, of course, they were not the only ones trying desperately to focus national attention on the growing problems in Indigenous communities.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner, an Indigenous-elected government agency which would to be abolished by the Howard Government, had also prepared numerous reports in the 1990s, and in 1999 Dr Paul Memmott had released a major report into violence in Indigenous communities, revealing precisely the sorts of cases detailed by Dr. Rogers, including the rape of young babies.
Dr Memmott’s report was simply ignored by media, due in no small part to the fact that when it was finally made public it was not saying anything new. The Howard Government in which Senator Amanda Vanstone, at a time Justice minister, would serve as Indigenous Affairs minister, practically ignored the report for eighteen months.
A few years later, in July 2003, the Howard Government organised a ‘roundtable summit’ of Indigenous leaders to address the issue of family violence. It turned out to be another gesture without consequence or follow up.
Indigenous communities themselves, of course, had been crying for help for decades. But for whatever reason, in 2006 the Australian media – and the Howard Government – suddenly found violence in Indigenous communities compelling.
Maybe what generated renewed interest in violence amongst Indigenous People was the kind of sensationalism which covered the issues. In addition, Dr Rogers revelation found a new wind, as it were, which took the news overseas. That also encouraged Lateline in pursuing the original interest; more stories followed the original interview.
Commercial television realised the value of such subjects as Dr Rogers had touched. The media frenzy around sexual violence in Indigenous communities grew. And this attracted the attention of political representatives who had done absolutely nothing about the problems for decades.
Six weeks into the frenzy, on 21 June Lateline broadcast perhaps the most horrifying as well as titillating revelation of them all: it dealt with ‘Sexual slavery reported in Indigenous community.’ The programme alleged that young Indigenous children were being held against their will in Central Australia, and traded between communities as sex slaves. Some of the children were given petrol to sniff, in exchange for sex with senior Indigenous men.
The story centred on the community of Mutitjulu.
Lateline claimed that senior men in the community had created an environment where a predatory paedophile was able to abuse women and children with impunity. The elderly man relied on his kinship connections for protection, claimed Lateline, and was one of the men trading petrol for sex with young children.
Media coverage had thus far been feverish, but with Lateline’s fresh ‘revelations’ it went into overdrive. And so did the Northern Territory Government, which was bearing the brunt of critical media reporting. The Howard Government, in office for more than a decade, and at the time responsible for the funding of remote Indigenous communities, was escaping media scrutiny largely unscathed.
In August 2006, the morning after Lateline’s latest claim, Ms Clare Martin, the first female Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, announced that her government would hold a major inquiry into violence against children in Indigenous communities. The Chief Minister commissioned research into allegations of serious sexual abuse of children in Indigenous People communities.
The resulting report, ‘Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle’ Little children are sacred, took almost a year to complete, ran to more than 300 pages, and contained 91 recommendations, and was released on 15 June 2007. The title ‘Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle’ is derived from the Arrandic languages of the Central Desert Region of the Northern Territory.
Though its investigations were launched on a fraudulent pretext, the report itself was excellent. Responsible for it were Rex Wild Q.C. and Ms Pat Anderson, an Alyawarre woman known nationally and internationally as a powerful advocate with a particular focus on the health of Indigenous People. Pat Anderson and Rex Wild dealt with the issue of sexual assault in Indigenous communities competently, respectfully. As reported, they were “impressed with the willingness of people to discuss the issue of child sexual abuse, even though it was acknowledged as a difficult subject to talk about. At many meetings, both men and women expressed a desire to continue discussions about this issue and what they could do in their community about it. It was a frequent comment that up until now, nobody had come to sit down and talk with them about these types of issues. It would seem both timely and appropriate to build on this good will, enthusiasm and energy by a continued engagement in dialogue and assisting communities to develop their own child safety and protection plans.”
Continued Friday with: The new invasion of the Northern Territory (Part 2)
Previous instalment: A constitution for the 19th century (Part 2)
Dr. Venturino Giorgio (George) Venturini, formerly an avvocato at the Court of Appeal of Bologna, devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reach at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.au.