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Thursday, 14 February 2008
Page: 445

Mrs MOYLAN (10:30 AM) —Madam Deputy Speaker, I add my congratulations to those already extended to you. Colleagues, yesterday was a momentous day for all Australians and for this parliament. This House was the scene of a long-overdue but ultimately powerful bipartisan resolve to express our nation’s collective sorrow to the stolen generations, and I fully endorse that motion. I am sure this House was deeply moved, as I was, by the rapt attention with which that scene was viewed yesterday by the whole nation. To understand the depth of hurt and suffering felt by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people requires each of us to open our hearts and to ask ourselves this question: how would we feel if our children or our grandchildren were taken from us because of the colour of our skin or our cultural background? In making that empathetic leap, we discover true sympathy.

The narrative that led to the forcible removal of the children of Indigenous Australians is complex and deeply disturbing. Having been dispossessed of the land, they were then remorselessly driven from every landscape that offered potential benefit to the white man, even from those reservations grudgingly allotted to them by government. No homeland was sacrosanct to the black man if it was capable of supporting agriculture or yielding up precious metals. Gone was hunting, gone was gathering, gone was country and therefore gone were the elements that gave expression to Aboriginal culture. In their place came fringe dwelling, destitution, disease and dependency and, worst of all, a deep and abiding depression of the spirit.

But it must not be assumed, as it is commonly assumed, that Aboriginal subjection and collapse happened overnight. There is evidence in abundance of Aboriginal efforts to participate in the economy of the time. In Western Australia—for I am more familiar with the historical narrative in my own state—not a few took up seasonal work on farms and participated in the arduous clearing and fencing of land for agriculture; otherwise they were left to eke out a meagre living from stripping bark and hunting possums, but not for long. Successive waves of immigration led to increasing demands for lands and, in turn, further marginalisation of Aboriginal communities. Inevitably, tensions with white settlers increased and the relationship became hostage to downturns in the economy.

By 1913 the Western Australian government succumbed to political pressure with a demand ‘to segregate all Aborigines onto state-owned farms and total abolition of private employment of Aborigines.’ Even bark stripping and possum hunting became subject to government sanctions. Deteriorations of relations led to massacres, kidnapping and the selling of Aboriginals, including women and children, into what was tantamount to slavery. Mrs Mary Bennett, publisher of The Australian Aboriginal as a human being report to the Australian Board of Missions, was quoted in the West Australian newspaper:

I have just returned from a year’s investigations in the Kimberley where, as in other parts of Western Australia and the Federal Territory—where women have neither human rights nor protection if they are native or half-castes—slavery is in operation and there is white slave traffic in black women.

Mary Bennett went on to criticise severely the failure of government policy, saying:

…it pays the white man to dispossess the natives of their land wholesale. The compulsion is dispossession and starvation reinforced by violence …

Inevitably relationships between black women and non-Aboriginal men led to increasing numbers of half-caste children, who were left fatherless by state laws which prohibited interracial cohabitation. The quality of the relationship was not considered material. Administrators like AO Neville fervently believed that these children were better off being taken from their mothers and placed in state-run institutions.

Much has been written of government policies administered in Western Australia by Mr AO Neville and subsequently reprised in other states and territories. Though driven in part by the Victorian prejudices and mores of his time and his interest in miscegenation, Neville fought fervently with his superiors for the establishment and retention of state-run institutions and for the proper funding of staffing, supplies, maintenance, education and training opportunities. Not only did his pleas to government fall on deaf ears; they led to flat rejection. Nevertheless he continued to plead successfully for proper funding of his wretched department throughout his long career. In a report to government in 1930, Neville wrote:

… many of the old people were unable to withstand the privations due to hard times and sickness. The loss of child life was greater than ever. Epidemic diseases are bound to cause numerous deaths amongst a people compelled to live under conditions such as those under which our natives exist.

His biographer, Pat Jacobs, in her landmark account gives graphic descriptions of conditions prevailing in state institutions, with inadequate food and unduly harsh punishment, sometimes of very young children. The so-called protectors were anything but.

Throughout the history of tragic events there were many heroes, black and white, who fought for justice and worked in practical ways with Aboriginal communities, writing to ministers and giving evidence before royal commissions. The history of the stolen generation was forensically documented in our time in the Bringing them home report in 1997 by Sir Ronald Wilson, former High Court judge and president of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Who, on reading that report, could not be deeply moved by the harrowing accounts of those who gave evidence? Almost a decade after, we are only now beginning to discern the full extent of the tragedy that has overtaken the Indigenous culture. We are beginning to appreciate that the symbolism of an apology in no way excludes the implementation of practical reconciliation policies. Rather, it facilitates them—yes, indeed, it facilitates them.

It was never a reasonable or fair argument, in my view, to deny an apology for fear of consequences. Justice must be done to our Indigenous peoples, and if consequences follow then they must be faced up to. This is fundamental to our system of law. The proposed bipartisan commission announced by the Prime Minister, the Hon. Kevin Rudd, yesterday is a welcome development to which I give my enthusiastic endorsement. I congratulate the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, who has now left the chamber, for the dignified way in which the proceedings have been undertaken in this House over the last two days.

My enthusiasm I owe in no small part to my distinguished predecessor in the seat of Pearce, the Hon. Fred Chaney, Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, 1978-80. Fred Chaney has dedicated all of his adult life to engaging with Aboriginal people and speaking out for them on matters of social justice. I was pleased to see his presence in this great parliament over the last few days, for this House has produced no more fervent advocate of Indigenous rights than Fred Chaney. It is a privilege to be able to recall his service on this profound occasion.

Author and journalist Stuart Rintoul recalls that in 1909 the Aboriginal travelling protector James Isdell wrote in official correspondence:

I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-caste from its aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief might be at the time. They soon forget their offspring.

Mr Deputy Speaker, and to my colleagues in this place, through you: how could they forget? Yesterday was atonement by all of us who have been guilty of forgetting, denying and delaying. Can anyone imagine, having witnessed the outpouring of emotion by our Indigenous brothers and sisters, that they could ever erase from their memories the cruel and intolerable circumstances, all of them legally sanctioned, that were visited upon them? In such circumstances, would we have forgotten?