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Minister defends submission to Senate committee which queries the term 'stolen generations', argues only 10 per cent of Aboriginal children were separated from families, therefore not constituting a generation.

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PETER GEORGE:  As we have been discussing this morning, the federal government is being heavily criticised today for querying the term ‘stolen generations’ in its submission to a Senate inquiry. The government says there was never a generation of stolen people, arguing only 10 per cent were separated from their mothers and that 10 per cent does not constitute a generation. But that has angered Aboriginal people around the country who describe it as mean-spirited and yet another nail in the coffin of reconciliation. Aboriginal affairs minister, Senator John Herron, says it is not mean-spirited, it is simply fact, and we have got to get the facts right. The minister is in our Canberra studio now to talk to Fran Kelly.


FRAN KELLY:  John Herron, welcome to the program.


JOHN HERRON:  Thank you.


FRAN KELLY:  Why would you bother, when this issue is so painful and so sensitive for indigenous Australians, why would you bother quibbling over the definition of ‘generation’ in an effort to play down the extent of this issue?


JOHN HERRON:  Now, I am required by the Senate Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee to produce a submission to go before that. Now, I can do no more than produce the facts, and that is what I am doing - it is up to them then to make further inquiries. But I have gathered the facts together; I am putting them to the Senate Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee and then it is up to them to question me on those facts - and I can substantiate them.


FRAN KELLY:  All right. Well, I guess there is a lot of interpretation about facts. Let me start: have you read the Bringing Them Home report?


JOHN HERRON:  Oh yes, I have.


FRAN KELLY:  Then you have read the experiences of the people affected by the separation policies. Where is the compassion for those stories in this quibbling over the term ‘stolen generations’? What has that got to do with the facts, when the facts are those stories?


JOHN HERRON:  Well, unfortunately, not the full report has apparently been released yet. I do not know what has been leaked. But within that, you will see it is a very compassionate ... it is heart-rending, the stories that are in the report, the Bringing Them Home report - no question about that - heart-rending. You would have to be heartless not to be affected by them. But having said that, it is all one-sided, that report. There is not one person in that report who was responsible for doing those policies or the people that were bringing them about at the time - separating children from their families - not one.


FRAN KELLY:  But, Minister, let’s go to some of the other ... I’ll go back to the 10 per cent because that is very important, but your submission also talks about the report and says it did not involve a critical appraisal or testing of the claims put before it. Does that mean you do not believe the personal accounts given as evidence in that inquiry?


JOHN HERRON:  Oh no, not at all. I believe the people that came forward and said that, but it was not tested. For example, some children, even today, are taken away from their families for adequate reasons. Now, those figures, whether it be 10 per cent or more or less than that, have never been tested, and I think you have got to test them before you give out cash compensation. So I have produced the facts. Now, as I say, the facts need to be interpreted, but they are the facts.


FRAN KELLY:  All right. Let’s go back to the what you say is the fact that as many as 10 per cent were taken away and only as many as 10 per cent. I mean, do you have a number of people stolen from their parents? What constitute that 10 per cent, what number does it make up?


JOHN HERRON:  Again, ‘stolen’ is an emotive response. You see, children ... if you are using that to mean that children were taken from their families, children are being stolen today under the criteria that have been established by governments around Australia. So if they are subject to family violence or abuse or that sort of thing, they are separated from their families today under the criteria.


FRAN KELLY:  Well, what does your 10 per cent make up? Does it make up those forcibly and unforcibly taken?


JOHN HERRON:  Yes. That is where those figures ... those figures are rubbery - there is no question - because nobody is exactly sure because the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report did not test the accuracy of the statements. Now, I have no doubt that the people that came forward were speaking with what they believed occurred, but you do not know whether their memories were accurate or not as children.


FRAN KELLY:  But, Minister, if the figures are rubbery, why bother including them in this submission as fact? I mean, it is a meaningless figure, in a sense.


JOHN HERRON:  It is a figure that was done by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as well...


FRAN KELLY:  And challenged immediately in the report as being an understatement.


JOHN HERRON:  Yes. Well, when I ... I am just saying that we cannot be absolutely certain because some of those children were taken away for reasons that were legal at the ... or all of them were taken away for legal reasons at the time and with benign intent. I mean, you cannot say that the churches....


FRAN KELLY:  Well, you say ‘with benign intent’, Minister, but is it benign to talk half-caste children away with the aim of breeding them white and allowing the full-bloods to die out? Is that benign?


JOHN HERRON:  No, of course it is not. And if that was....


FRAN KELLY:  That was one of the intents.


JOHN HERRON:  Well, we do not know, you see.


FRAN KELLY:  We do know, Minister. There is documentation of that as being ... espouses government policy at the time.


JOHN HERRON:  Yes, I appreciate that, I understand that. But I am saying that people that came forward ... your previous question was people who came forward to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, and we do not know in each individual whether that was correct, whether that statement was correct. The policy, as you state, was one that was proposed at that time and brought into effect. There is no question....


FRAN KELLY:  And not benign?


JOHN HERRON:  Well, not benign, no, by current standards.


FRAN KELLY:  Well, the whole argument now - and your submission argues that the generation of those taken away, separated from their parents, comes to 10 per cent - what does that say for those who were affected by it, but not necessarily taken away? I mean, I will read you one story from the report of a woman in the 1930s. She says that ‘Every morning our people would crush charcoal and mix that with animal fat and smother that all over us, so when the police came they would only see black children. We were told to be always on the alert. If white people arrived, to run into the bush and hide. There was disruption to our cycle of life because we were continually scared to be ourselves. You can understand the terror we lived in and the fright.’ I mean, Minister, can you understand that the impact of these policies was wider than just the allegedly 10 per cent taken?


JOHN HERRON Oh, certainly. One can feel nothing but compassion for that person that gave that report. and that is appalling that it occurred.


FRAN KELLY:  And that would impact on your life beyond that moment, wouldn’t it?


JOHN HERRON:  Oh yes, no question that that would do so, and I recognise that. I mean, all of us feel compassion for people that are affected in that manner. It is horrific. No question about it.


FRAN KELLY:  Then why not allow a term like ‘stolen generations’ which indicates a whole time of people that were affected, not just the ones taken away - the ones who had to hide, spend their youth hiding, frightened, the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters, weren’t they all impacted?


JOHN HERRON:  We have to be honest.


FRAN KELLY:  But isn’t that honest - weren’t they all affected?


JOHN HERRON:  We have to be honest and we have to be honest in that all were not stolen and it was not a generation. By definition, the word ‘generation’ is that all people born about the same period. That is what generation means.


FRAN KELLY:  We are talking about generations, I think the term is actually ‘stolen generations’.


JOHN HERRON:  Well, if you can use ... but that means all people. Now, not all Aboriginal children were separated from their families.


FRAN KELLY:  Weren’t most of them affected by that process, though, by these policies?


JOHN HERRON:  Most of those whose relatives were taken away, yes, but not all Aboriginal children, not all Aboriginal people. I mean, you have got to be honest in this game.


FRAN KELLY:  But Minister, it is not honest to say that it is only 10 per cent then, is it, because that is just those, by your reckoning, that were taken. Other reckoning says it is one in three at times.


JOHN HERRON:  Well, that is up to the Senate Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee to try and get some accurate figure. As I say, nobody knows. I mean, I wasn’t around in that period and aware of it; nor were you. And I would think the majority of Australians are in that position. We want to get to the bottom of this and we are producing the facts as they are available to us today.


FRAN KELLY:  Minister, you keep saying you are producing the facts, but then you concede the figures are rubbery, nobody knows, and that those beyond those taken were impacted. Doesn’t that all add up to this being a pretty meaningless definition in your submission?


JOHN HERRON:  Not at all. I think we have got to produce those facts so that they can be interpreted. It is the Senate Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee that put up those references. I have responded to them and it is up to them to determine the basis of that. I wouldn’t put forward something that I didn’t believe. I mean, what would be the point in doing that? There is no point in doing that, so I am producing those facts for people to interpret so that the Senate Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee ... that is their responsibility to do that, and I am looking forward to that.


FRAN KELLY:  Senator Herron, thanks for your time.


JOHN HERRON:  Thank you.


PETER GEORGE:  Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Senator John Herron, talking to Fran Kelly.