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Figure 1 Grandmothers against Removal

How Australia Forgot:
social narratives for forgetting Indigenous histories.

By Timothy Richard Bamford
Student ID: 18922906

La Trobe University Subject: 2018-HIS3MHI-Making History
Subject Coordinator: Roland Bourke
Tutor: Claudia Haake
“We had our arms round our mother, and refused to let go. She still had her apron
on, and must have run the whole one and a half miles. She arrived just in time, due to
the kindness of Mrs Hill. As we hung on to our mother she said fiercely, ‘They are my
children and they are not going away with you.’
The policeman, who no doubt was doing his duty, patted his hand cuffs, which were
in a leather case on his belt, and which May and I thought was a revolver.
‘Mrs. Clements,’ he said, ‘I’ll have to use this if you do not let us take the children
now.’ Thinking the policeman would shoot Mother, because she was trying to stop
him, we screamed, ‘We’ll go with him Mum, we’ll go.’
I cannot forget any detail of that moment, it stands out as though it were yesterday”1

Introduction

From 1910 to 1970, state and territory governments across Australia would forcibly remove

thousands of children from their biological families and traditional lands. These children would come

to be known as Australia’s stolen generation. Acting with the blessing of the federal government, the

states and territories would take part in the systematic process of child removal and, in doing so,

expose a generation of children to a lifetime of emotional, mental and physical trauma. Much has been

written on the plight of these Indigenous children and their families in the last decade, coinciding with

great strides which have been made in emancipating Indigenous Australians from the lives of

oppression they were so often subjected to in the twentieth century. This essay will not seek to add

to the existing scholarship which describes and explores the events of the stolen generation itself, but

will look further forward in history to the aftermath of said events. Much has also been written which

argues that in response to the trauma inflicted upon Australia’s Indigenous children over this period,

Australian society would engage in a process of “national forgetting” regarding key facts surrounding

1
Margaret Tucker in Tony Barta, ‘Sorry, and not sorry, in Australia: how the apology to the stolen generations buried a
history of genocide’, Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 10, No. 2 (2008), p. 201.
this period in the nation’s history.2 It is on precisely this claim that this essay will expand upon. While

historians such as Anna Haebich and Peter Read appear to have identified that Australia forgot, this

essay will seek to identify the social narratives which were utilised in order to achieve this end. More

precisely, it will be explored how Australia forgot. A discussion of three particular influences on the

public’s memory of the stolen generation will be considered. First, the structurally driven narratives of

forgetting will be presented as an instance where histories have been deliberately supressed and

replaced; this will be referenced as active forgetting. Next, it will be discussed how a culture which has

so heavily encouraged – and sometimes forced – Indigenous assimilation has contributed to a case of

passive forgetting. And finally, it will be explored how long-standing negative social attitudes were

adapted to contribute to another case of passive forgetting.

That Australia forgot

Peter Read (figure 2), an Indigenous history academic from the Australian

National University, published a landmark account of the policies of child

removal in the twentieth century and, importantly, the effects of said

removal on children and their families. Read’s book, titled ‘A Rape of the

Soul So Profound’, was written in an attempt to fix what Read identified as

a serious lack of publicly known information surrounding the events of the
Figure 2 Peter Read

stolen generation.3 Indeed, it was during Read’s research efforts that he

coined the term ‘stolen generation’ in order to describe what he was uncovering.4 Read would publish

2
Anna Haebich, ‘Forgetting Indigenous Histories: Cases from the History of Australia’s Stolen Generations’, Journal of
Social History, Vol. 44, No. 4 (2011), p. 1034.
3
Peter Read, A Rape of the Soul so Profound (New South Wales, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1999), pp. i-ii,
4
Peter Read, ‘”A Rape of the Soul so Profound’: Some Reflections on the Dispersal Policy in New South Wales”,
Aboriginal History, Vol. 7 (1983), p. 24.
details which had simply never been discovered; such as his estimate that up to one-hundred thousand

children were removed from their families for some period of time between 1910 and 1970.5 Perhaps

what made Read’s work so historically significant, was that he was entirely research focused. Read

presented historical facts and testimony independent of any kind of political commentary. Of course,

Read’s views on child removal policy are made clear from the title of the book; he certainly does not

think that forced child removal is a policy in an apologist. That being said, the factual and testimonial

evidence Read provides in his book do not inform some kind of preconceived conclusion regarding the

ethics of the events he is describing; indeed, the opposite appears to be true. Precisely, the events

Read describes can lead to only one possible moral conclusion regarding this period in Australian

history; that a generation of children were stolen, and that Australian society was to blame.

Anna Haebich (figure 3), another Australian historian, sought to

investigate why research such as that conducted by Read is

necessary at all6. Haebich’s highly influential article, ‘Forgetting

Indigenous Histories’, was written to identify why it would take

an historian to uncover details about a period in Australian

history which ought to be remembered by the public if for no

reason other than shame. To dismiss the details of this period in

our history, says Haebich, amounts to an attempt to absolve
Figure 3 Anna Haebich
oneself of responsibility for these wrongs7. Haebich writes

following Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples on the 13th

5
Peter Read, A Rape of the Soul so Profound (New South Wales, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1999), pp.26-27.
6
Anna Haebich, ‘Forgetting Indigenous Histories: Cases from the History of Australia’s Stolen Generations’, Journal of
Social History, Vol. 44, No. 4 (2011), pp. 1033-1034.
7
Ibid., pp.1036-1037.
of February 20088, which itself was first suggested within the Bringing them Home Report in 1997 from

the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their

Families9. The language which framed the Bringing Them Home Report was confronting to Australians.

In particular, the Report’s conclusion that the removal of Indigenous children on such a scope and

scale constituted a cultural genocide under the United Nations Genocide Convention 1948; a

convention ratified by Australia in 1949.10 The report was targeted by criticism of the unprecedented

primacy11 granted by the report to the testimonial voices of Indigenous Australians. Critics of the

report took issue with the acceptance of Indigenous peoples’ testimony without cross-examination12.

Others, such as conservative historian Keith Windschuttle, argue that the report was built on

‘misrepresentations’, even going so far as to argue that parts of it ought to be brought back into

contemporary government policy13. These kinds of responses demonstrate what Australian

anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner described as a “cult of forgetfulness, practiced on a national scale”.14

Forgetting on such a scale is not done easily, and requires a carefully arranged collection of social

narratives in order to be achieved.

8
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, MP, ‘Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples’, speech in the Australian Parliament, House
of Representatives, 13/02/2008, https://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/our-country/our-people/apology-to-
australias-indigenous-peoples, accessed 22/09/2018.
9
Australian Human Rights Commission, Bringing them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of
Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Children from their Families (1997),
https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/bringing-them-home-appendix-9-recommendations, para. 5a – 5b,
accessed 24/09/2018.
10
Anna Haebich, ‘Forgetting Indigenous Histories: Cases from the History of Australia’s Stolen Generations’, Journal of
Social History, Vol. 44, No. 4 (2011), p. 1033.
11
Ibid.
12
Ibid.
13
Imre Salusinszky, ‘Windschuttle attacks Stolen Generations report’, The Australian, 8/2/2008,
https://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/aboriginal-genocide-claim-denied/news-
story/b362cf0eb20ac03aa4c248b0b825f225, accessed 24/09/2018.
14
William Edward Hanley Stanner, After the Dreaming (Sydney, Australia: Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1969),
pp.24-27.
How Australia Forgot: structurally driven narratives

Accepting responsibility for the policies of child removal is not a simple gesture for a government. By

accepting the findings of the Bringing Them Home Report in full, a federal government would be forced

to accept that what had been committed by their predecessors was not just an appalling policy

decision, but amounted to a cultural genocide. Under the United Nations Genocide Convention 1948,

victims of genocide were entitled to reparations relative to their suffering15. This fact likely influenced

the presiding government’s opinion on the recommendations of the report. Prime Minister John

Howard, MP, outright refused to apologise to Australia’s Indigenous peoples. Moreover, Howard did

not accept the conclusion of the report that a genocide had been practised against the Indigenous

people16. Howard would deliver an opening address to the Australian Reconciliation Convention in

Melbourne which would shed some light on precisely how he justified his position on the topic.

Howard begins his speech by suggesting three objectives which underpin reconciliation as he sees it.

First, he believes reconciliation ought to aim

to raise the living standards and

opportunities of the “most disadvantaged

group in Australian society”17; interestingly,

Howard still insists on mentioning that this

objective must be done while considering a

“broader commitment to providing equality
Figure 4 John Howard's opening address transcript

15
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, opened for signature 9/12/1948, General
Assembly resolution 260 A iii (entered into force 12/1/1951).
16
Helen Davidson, ‘John Howard: There was no genocide against Indigenous Australians’, The Guardian, 22/09/2014,
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/22/john-howard-there-was-no-genocide-against-indigenous-
australians, accessed 24/09/2018.
17
John Howard, MP, ‘Opening Address to the Australian Reconciliation Convention – Melbourne’, speech at the
Australian Reconciliation Convention, 26/05/1997,
https://pmtranscripts.pmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/original/00010361.pdf, accessed 23/09/2018.
of opportunity to all Australians”18, as if providing assistance to Indigenous Australians in isolation

would somehow constitute an injustice. Howard continues to state that the second objective of

reconciliation must be a “realistic acknowledgement of the inter-related histories of the various

elements of Australian society”19. And, finally, Howard states that the final objective of reconciliation

as he sees it is to ensure a “mutual acceptance of the importance of working together to respect and

appreciate our differences and to ensure that they do not prevent us from sharing the future”20.

Howard continues to insist that reconciliation must “focus on the future”21, a potentially agreeable

statement, but one which ultimately seeks to achieve the erasure of histories which are inconvenient

for him, his government, and the Australian public. Howard insists that reconciliation “will not work”

if it involves exposing non-Indigenous Australians to a sense of “national guilt and shame”22. Wetherell

and Potter identified in an interesting discursive study that racial prejudices can be organised

rhetorically in order to avoid or deny racism23. In other words, when a person with racial prejudices is

speaking regarding said prejudices, they often arrange their rhetoric in a specific, yet extremely

common, way in order to ensure their prejudices avoid detection. Howard utilises a number of these

techniques within his address. The argument that the present generation ought not to be responsible

for the crimes of the past is one that is specifically identified by Wetherell and Potter24. Another

argument made by Howard and predicted by Wetherell and Potter include his insistence that

reconciliation efforts are not just targeted at Indigenous Australians but, indeed, all Australians25.

18
Ibid.
19
John Howard, MP, ‘Opening Address to the Australian Reconciliation Convention – Melbourne’, speech at the
Australian Reconciliation Convention, 26/05/1997,
https://pmtranscripts.pmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/original/00010361.pdf, accessed 23/09/2018.
20
Ibid.
21
Ibid.
22
Ibid.
23
Margaret Wetherell and Jonathan Potter, Mapping the Language of Racism: Discourse and the Legitimation of
Exploitation (New York, New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), pp. 89-92.
24
Ibid.
25
Ibid.
These arguments culminate for Howard in his overarching and long-standing claim that current

Australians cannot be held responsible for the crimes of their predecessors26; another argument

mentioned by Wetherell and Potter. This claim is not made merely more moral reasons. Howard is

attempting, within this argument, to deflect blame for the policies of child removal away from his

government. The result of this kind of argument is clear; if the public does not feel they hold some

responsibility for the crimes of the past, they will not take strides to assist the plight of Indigenous

Australians who are still suffering as a result of child removal policies. Importantly, Howard shifts the

blame for the suffering of Indigenous Australians not to the lawmakers of the past, but to the

Indigenous members of society who engage in “dependency rather than individual initiative and

personal responsibility”27. In other words, Howard appears to be blaming the victims of child removal

for suffering. It is easy to imagine how the public, when informed with this kind of rhetoric, would go

on to dismiss concerns regarding the current safety and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians, and

continue to dismiss any suggestion of their personal responsibility to remember the atrocities of this

period.

How Australia Forgot: A Culture of Assimilation

Assimilation of Indigenous Australians into white culture is not a particularly controversial idea prima

facie. The idea that we ought to include Indigenous Australians in mainstream white culture is not

necessarily immoral. Assimilation was, however, one of the primary objectives of the policies of child

26
John Howard, MP, ‘Opening Address to the Australian Reconciliation Convention – Melbourne’, speech at the
Australian Reconciliation Convention, 26/05/1997,
https://pmtranscripts.pmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/original/00010361.pdf, accessed 23/09/2018.
27
John Howard, MP, ‘Opening Address to the Australian Reconciliation Convention – Melbourne’, speech at the
Australian Reconciliation Convention, 26/05/1997,
https://pmtranscripts.pmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/original/00010361.pdf, accessed 23/09/2018.
removal. Auber Octavius Neville, chief protector of Aborigines in Western Australia from 1915 to 1940,

wrote a book titled ‘Australia’s Coloured Minority: Its Place in the Community’ which outlines his hopes

for assimilation policy and precisely why he believes it to be important. Neville believed that if he could

target and remove what he termed ‘half-caste’ children – children of part Indigenous and part white

heritage – from their communities and have them ‘breed’ with ‘pure European’ partners, he could

essentially eradicate most of the Indigenous population through a process of selective breeding.28

Figure 5 Australia's Coloured Minority

Indeed, Neville believed that he could ‘breed out’ the Aboriginality in a bloodline within three

generations (see figure 5). Contemporary assimilation culture rarely includes this kind of blatant

eugenics, but it is not entirely innocent either. One could plausibly argue that beneath the insistence

that Indigenous Australians are introduced in white culture, is an implication that their own cultures

28
Auber Octavius Neville, Australia’s Coloured Minority: Its Place in the Community (Sydney, Australia: Currawong
Publishing Co., 1947), pp. 50-54.
are providing insufficient means to achieve a good life or, at the very least, that white culture is

somehow more ‘successful’ than the culture of any individual Indigenous person. The narrative of

assimilation would go on to allow the public to further excuse themselves from responsibility. The

policy of assimilation aimed to merge Indigenous Australians into white culture with the ultimate goal

of removing Indigenous culture from memory all together.29 With Indigenous Australians supposedly

assimilated into white culture, the public is made to feel that they no longer have an obligation to

remember or act on the horrors of the past. By assuming Indigenous people were now part of a more

successful culture, the plight of those who remain on their traditional lands and with the physical,

emotional and mental scars of child removal are conveniently forgotten.30

Conclusion

The policies of child removal throughout the twentieth century are a blight on Australian history. While

great strides have been made in the last decade to ensure the specifics of this period in our history

are not forgotten, the process of ‘national forgetting’ which took place immediately following the

conclusion of child removal mean these efforts have largely been limited to academia. Peter Read’s

ground-breaking book brought key facts to the surface and aimed to introduce them to a previously

ignorant public. Anna Haebich examined why it was that the public did not know of these facts already.

It has been established, in this essay, that structurally driven narratives which shifted responsibility for

the stolen generation away from the government and onto the very people who were targeted by

child removal aimed to present a contrasting history to the public. Then, the policies of assimilation

29
Tony Barta, ‘Sorry, and not sorry, in Australia: how the apology to the stolen generations buried a history of
genocide’, Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 10, no. 2, p. 208.
30
Richard Trudgen, Why Warriors Lie Down & Die: towards an understanding of why the Aboriginal people of Arnhem
Land face the greatest crisis in health and education since European contact: djambatj mala (Darwin, Australia:
Aboriginal resource & Development Services Inc.).
were examined in relation to how the public has been made to consider Indigenous Australians and

their continuing plight in contemporary Australia. Ultimately, while this essay has examined two key

narratives which informed and facilitated the public’s efforts in forgetting an uncomfortable and

horrific history, the numerous other narratives which have allowed Australian society to engage in this

forgetting on such a scope and scale ought to also be examined and brought to light.

Bibliography

Images
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Salusinszky, Imre, ‘Windschuttle attacks Stolen Generations report’, The Australian, 8/2/2008,
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Trudgen, Richard, Why Warriors Lie Down and Die: towards an understanding of why the Aboriginal
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djambatj mala (Darwin, Australia: Aboriginal Resource & Development Services Inc., 2000).
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Legitimation of Exploitation (New York, New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992).