Well, the speeches have been made, the protests have been held, the emotions have poured forth and the rhetoric has been sprayed over wide areas. Time will tell whether today’s historic gesture will achieve anything of real value, for blacks as well as for whites. It is hoped that some genuine good will come out of it all.
Of course whole oceans of ink have been spilled on all this. As would be expected, it is of mixed quality. There were however two recent pieces – both appearing in the Australian – which I thought were especially noteworthy.
The first appeared yesterday and was written by Noel Pearson, director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. It was a significant piece and deserves careful reading. I here offer some snippets from this incisive and nuanced article.
Pearson, unlike so many “experts” and commentators on this issue, realizes what a complex and multifaceted issue this is: “The truth is the removal of Aboriginal children and the breaking up of Aboriginal families is a history of complexity and great variety. People were stolen, people were rescued; people were brought in chains, people were brought by their parents; mixed-blood children were in danger from their tribal stepfathers, while others were loved and treated as their own; people were in danger from whites, and people were protected by whites. The motivations and actions of those whites involved in this history – governments and missions – ranged from cruel to caring, malign to loving, well-intentioned to evil.”
He does not buy the ‘white men evil, black men good’ myth, or the idea of the noble savage. He realises mistakes have been made all around, and just as the past has been complex, so too the way ahead will be complex. He does for example think that a case might be made for compensation. It seems to make sense, if we have in fact done something wrong. If we say sorry, we must believe something bad has taken place. Keith Windschuttle brought this up recently. Pearson takes note of it:
“A second way the apology might be considered is from a philosophical angle, and my argument here has been pre-empted by Keith Windschuttle, writing in The Weekend Australian. Which is more sincere: to say ‘we will not apologise to the Stolen Generations and we won’t pay compensation’, or ‘we will apologise but we won’t pay compensation’?”
Of course that issue is a minefield which I here cannot enter into. Pearson also expressed concern about how an apology would be taken: “One of my misgivings about the apology has been my belief that nothing good will come from viewing ourselves, and making our case on the basis of our status, as victims. We have been – and the people who lost their families certainly were – victimised in history, but we must stop the politics of victimhood. We lose power when we adopt this psychology. Whatever moral power we might gain over white Australia from presenting ourselves as victims, we lose in ourselves. My worry is this apology will sanction a view of history that cements a detrimental psychology of victimhood, rather than a stronger one of defiance, survival and agency.”
He even questions the celebrated “Bringing Them Home” report: “Then there is the historical angle on the apology. The 1997 report by Ronald Wilson and Mick Dodson is not a rigorous history of the removal of Aboriginal children and the breaking up of families. It is a report advocating justice. But it does not represent a defensible history. And, given its shortcomings as a work of history, the report was open to the conservative critique that followed. Indigenous activists’ decision to adopt historian Peter Read’s nomenclature, the Stolen Generations, inspired Quadrant magazine’s riposte: the rescued generations.”
He acknowledges the good whites have done in the past: “The 19-year-old Bavarian missionary who came to the year-old Lutheran mission at Cape Bedford in Cape York Peninsula in 1887, and who would spend more than 50 years of his life underwriting the future of the Guugu Yimithirr people, cannot but be a hero to me and to my people. We owe an unrepayable debt to Georg Heinrich Schwartz and the white people who supported my grandparents and others to rebuild their lives after they arrived at the mission as young children in 1910.”
Christians in particular did much good: “This history cannot be understood simply through the specific policy intentions of the governments and the missions. It must be understood by reference to the severe life options available to Aboriginal people in the wake of European occupation and indigenous dispossession. The life options of the Guugu Yimithirr on the frontiers of Cooktown in the 1880s had near collapsed. Without the Cape Bedford Mission, the Guugu Yimithirr had no good survival options. Yes, like missions throughout colonial history, the Cape Bedford Mission provided a haven from the hell of life on the Australian frontier while at the same time facilitating colonisation.”
The second article worth noting appeared today. It agreed that a government apology was needed: not for so-called stolen generations, but for the appalling way past governments have handled Aboriginal welfare. He begins this way:
“Today, the federal Government says sorry to the Stolen Generations. But others who share responsibility for the problems in indigenous communities should also apologise. And it should be a sincere sorry, with a real outcome. The sorry debate has been hijacked by a misunderstanding of the sources of present dysfunction in Aboriginal Australia. It’s been hijacked by those who want to salve their consciences but who can’t stomach the hard decisions that have to be taken. Most remote Aboriginal dysfunction has absolutely nothing to do with the Stolen Generations and Ronald Wilson’s Bringing Them Home report. Although some of those people have been wounded, it’s not the basis of wider dysfunction.”
He continues, “It’s easy to apologise for what someone else did. And to tut-tut about failures of the past. But the problems a 10-year-old raped child in Aurukun is facing today were not created by the policies of removal in the early 20th century: they were fertilised in failures of the present generation and those who lead us.”
He says there is a place for apologies: “The people who should be apologising are those who during the past 40 years presided over deeply flawed indigenous affairs policies that created separatism, nepotism, welfarism and isolationism: dysfunction and despair; the wide-scale abuse and neglect of Aboriginal children and the poorer health outcomes of Aboriginal people in general. The apology should be from the Government, because it still has people who want to return to the failures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and some who participated in the politics of nepotism. It should be from the Howard government: after all, it persisted with those failed policies for much of its time in office as a political holding strategy because it was afraid, until its last year or so, to really do something. It should be from the Keating and Hawke governments, which fostered and cultured the policies of separatism and gave real succour to the Aboriginal industry by building ATSIC into the monster it became. And it did so not because it didn’t know this caused problems, it did it because it didn’t want to face the political challenge that really tackling Aboriginal poverty would create in its own ranks.”
He concludes, “A symbolic apology for something we haven’t done is meaningless. Only real and sincere regret, a genuine apology and a steely determination to take the hard decisions will ensure we don’t lose more generations of Aboriginal Australians in the future.”
These thoughts on the issue are not the last word, nor even a major part of the story. But they do offer some perspective which is often lacking in much of the mainstream media. The simplistic slogans and heated rhetoric need to be replaced by careful reflection and sober judgments. Reading these two pieces will hopefully help toward that end.