The Reconciliation Debate – New Dimensions


This is perhaps the most significant time for inter-racial relations in our history. As a nation we are considering, perhaps for the first time, the whole of our history, the black history with the white history. Perhaps we could also reflect that the last 200 years which has been dominated by the European newcomers, pales in comparison with guardianship of the original occupants which has continued for around 60,000 years.

In the ten years since the push for a formal reconciliation process was born in the ashes of the Royal Commission into Deaths In Custody, much has been achieved. Hundreds of groups throughout Australia have brought together locals who may not otherwise have communicated, to air experiences which had endured unspoken, to substitute ignorance with understanding, to bring humanitarian warmth to the cold separations of history. Thousands of individuals have signaled their commitment through the Sea of Hands, giving substance to their belief in reconciliation. Millions more have signed the Sorry Books, extending their sympathy and regret for the appalling suffering which has underwritten the prosperity of Europeans in this Lucky Country at the expense of those whose land it is.

As whites we are, finally, awakening from our stupor of ignorance and denial to accept our unhappy past, an acceptance without which we cannot move honestly into the future. This should be a cathartic moment in history; a moment of truth, a moment to release the pains of the past and move confidently to the promise of the future. Why then, is their so much confusion, so much division, so much denial?

To understand best where we are now we have to understand where we are coming from. If I have learned one thing from my long studies of official files, I have learned that history comprises many stories, many truths. In terms of reconciliation, of reconciling the past with the present, the Aboriginal with the European, there are also many stories, many truths. I have read thousands of letters – from townsmen and women, from Aboriginal mothers and children, workers and pastoralists, missionaries and doctors, bureaucrats, police and politicians – and each of them carries its own truths, its own convictions. These letters do not originate in a vacuum; they are located at particular points in a range of life stories, expressing needs and fears, demonstrating compassion and malice. So my perception of our shared history, my attitude to the reconciliation process, is shaped by my absorption of this wealth of information.

But for many Australians, perhaps for most Australians, there is a very limited knowledge of our history, a limitation which compromises their view of the reconciliation process. This is to be expected. After all, our attitudes and opinions can only derive from our experiences and our knowledge. And when it comes to information about inter-racial relations, about how Aboriginal lives have been ordered and controlled by governments, most Australians have only the official story to guide them.

They say it is the winners who write the history. Probably this is nowhere so true as in Australia, where the dominant culture not only did almost all the writing until the last twenty years or so, but also set out the story lines and took over all the good-guy characters for themselves. Even the few bad guys were written up as misguided, misunderstood men of their times, or, when really pressed, an aberration to be deplored. Aboriginal Australians were effectively excluded from this history, their voices shut out by the so-called ‘protection’ policies, their actions translated through closely controlled media statements. It is not surprising, then, that the average Australian knows so little of the truth.

For anyone over the age of about 25 the last few years have been a steep learning curve. The irrefutable evidence that Australia was not peacefully settled, that the thousands of original inhabitants bitterly contested white occupation of their lands, that senseless and needless atrocities were inflicted not only in heated clashes but on families living quietly in camps or out getting food – these facts, although common knowledge in the nineteenth century, were omitted from the histories of the twentieth. They remained unknown even to those, like myself, who considered themselves well educated and widely read. Only in the last 20 or 30 years has this re-learning of our history impacted on our consciousness. Only in the last decade or so have the voices of the disbelievers shrunk to a diminishing minority.

But of course this is only a part of our re-learning, only part of our coming of age as Australians. Because it is not only the circumstances of our birth as a European nation that must be faced; we are now challenged to question the conduct of those who guided our development and prosperity. While Europeans prospered in this Lucky Country the original inhabitants were rendered all but invisible until only 30-odd years ago. Those like myself who are only now coming to appreciate the depth, the deliberation, and the desolation of this exclusion are horrified and incredulous. We cannot imagine how this distressing story has coexisted with our sunny memories. And it is not only our sense of national history that is challenged; our sense of ourselves as pioneering achievers in the land of the ‘fair go’ is shown to be a distortion.

For many people this is a bitter pill to swallow. The invisible have found substance and voice to disrupt our equanimity, to demand their place in our history, their say in our present, their share of our future. Millions of Australians are absorbing these messages, altering their perceptions, embracing the larger picture and the expansion of their histories and community. But millions have baulked at these hurdles, judging what they are seeing and hearing by their old beliefs, expounding the language of separatism, stuck in the mindset of a backward race, a well-intentioned state, a puzzling cultural contradiction.

This paints Aboriginal conditions as an accident of history; an accident that happened despite all the good intentions of legislators and officials. Why, after decades of well-intentioned ‘protection’ does Aboriginal poverty and social distress continue? Answer: because of the accidental anomalies of Aboriginal culture – an inability to compress thousands of years of civilisation into 200 years of contact, disinterest in planning for the future, a failure to commit to regular schooling, regular work – all seemingly insoluble problems that generous funding has not resolved. In other words, deficiencies in Aboriginal people which seem to undermine all the best philanthropic intentions, which leave us waiting, exasperated, for them to catch up. Current media responses are full of such assertions, which feed a range of resentful questions. Why should we be the ones to apologise for their shortcomings? What difference will an apology make? Why should we be sorry for something we didn’t do?

This is the official government story today – well-intentioned ‘protection’ in the past, and a ‘practical’ commitment to redress the deficiencies of the present. But destitution and devastated health are not racial anomalies. They are socially constructed. They result when families are deprived of access to the basic necessities of life – safe water, sufficient food, adequate shelter, standard education, meaningful employment and wages, and an active role in the fabric of society.

Many white families, through accident or misfortune, also suffer social deprivation. But the difference for Aboriginal families is that until very recently they were not allowed to run their own lives like other Australians. Against their will, at the turn of last century this power was taken over by state governments.

In depriving Aboriginal people of freedom of choice, in setting regulations regarding where people lived and worked, care of children and access to income, not only did governments make themselves responsible for this whole range of private and social conditions but they specifically denied Aboriginal individuals the right to exercise this responsibility for themselves. Indeed those who were too assertive, those who sought to evade the regulations and run their own lives were punished for doing so.

The government seems very keen to focus debate on percentages and semantics. How distasteful were Aboriginal living conditions before you took the child? How many children do you confiscate before it damages a generation? No-one seems to have asked: What exactly happened to those hundreds of little children confiscated from their families and denied their own language and culture?

It seems to me that in focusing debate on terminology and times past the government is seeking to hide this massive, disastrous, social experiment under the cloak of philanthropy, and draw from that claim of well-intentioned past policies a direct link to the ‘generous’ funding of the present. This is Howard’s ‘practical’ response. It carries a hidden message that dissenters are unappreciative whingers. But this funding, desperately needed as it is, is not a philanthropic ‘gift’ of government to the cause of reconciliation. It is long-overdue reparation for decades of calculated, deadly, underfunding. It equates to the millions of dollars which has been poured for decades into hundreds of financially deprived remote white communities in rural Australia but was withheld from the Aboriginal communities set up by government decree under government control on government reserves.

Tying the philanthropy of the past to the philanthropy of the present neatly closes off this period in between. What we need to know now, what governments are fervently hoping we will ignore, is why, and exactly how, such supposedly well-intentioned policies of the twentieth century created the worst social conditions ever endured by any sector of the Australian population. Since governments around Australia took control of Aboriginal lives rather than enforcing equity before the law and then framed regulations to cover every private and public aspect of Aboriginal lives, then surely governments must be made to face the consequences of their actions. And surely all Australians should be made aware of what was done in their names.

There is much talk today of Aboriginal failure – regarding care of children, schooling, proper diet, house maintenance, work ethics, money management. What I want to do now is to look at the record of how the Queensland government and its agents operated on these matters, using official information compiled during a century of interventions in Aboriginal lives. And keeping in mind that according to the Howard line, these interventions and controls were well-intentioned and essentially lawful (phrases from the federal minister Senator Herron). These were the improved conditions supplied for Aborigines removed from general society on the grounds that they were failing to care for themselves and their children. Given that at any time governments could release Aboriginal families into the general community, given that at all times it was governments which set up and maintained and endlessly reported on these conditions, it is to be assumed that what you are about to learn is what governments saw as the preferred option, their best practice, in the care of Aborigines under their control.

Let’s start with the children. From earliest times Aboriginal children, like white children, have been subject to removal into state care. Whereas white children came under the attention of legislation from 1865 if they were neglected or in moral danger, an Aboriginal child was vulnerable to removal on no other grounds than having an Aboriginal mother. Even youngsters who were working and with independent income, which placed them outside the powers of Aboriginal laws from 1897 onwards, were still picked up under this earlier law if protectors so instructed.

Aboriginal children sent to homes and orphanages were subsidised at a lower rate than white children. And in 1900 the head of Aboriginal protection in southern Queensland stated it would be even cheaper to send such children to Aboriginal reserves where the cost would be only one-quarter as much as white orphanage children. And in the 1930s the chief protector observed that the welfare of Aboriginal children was not as important to the state as that of white children. Many ‘removed’ Aboriginal children were neither neglected nor orphans, of course. Children of domestic servants were routinely placed in homes or dormitories, their mothers contracted back into the workforce and money docked from their wages towards the children’s keep. Lighter skinned children were at all times, even into the 1970s, especially vulnerable to confiscation by white authorities.

Although Queensland’s education Acts had, since the mid-nineteenth century, stipulated that every child must be given standard schooling, officers of the government in charge of Aboriginal welfare did not abide by this law. This breach was pointed out by the chief protector in 1904, yet for more than 50 years Queensland governments knowingly and deliberately entrenched this deprivation. It was not uncommon for rural children to be left as cheap labour on pastoral stations in direct breach of Aboriginal laws requiring schooling for all youngsters. On missions and settlements children were picked out as servants for white staff; some were never even taught to read and write.

On its reserves the government failed to provide qualified teachers, they failed to provide classrooms, they failed to provide desks and chairs, writing pads, text books, teaching aids. Perhaps I should qualify those statements: they did provide some furniture and books and teaching aids – from around the 1930s they provided the discarded goods from white state schools.

At Palm Island in the 1940s the eight white schoolchildren had their own teacher and all the normal facilities in the ‘well ventilated and easily the best lighted classroom in the building’, while over 120 Aboriginal schoolchildren were crammed into a small room with another 60 lodged underneath where it was so cold, dark and draughty that the teacher complained they couldn’t see to work. Even when the white classroom was vacated it was allocated for storage of old records, rather than made available to the Aboriginal students. Rarely were children divided according to grade; simply because of the lack of teachers. At Yarrabah in the late 1950s the bad posture of the young children was traced to the adult-sized desks and benches at the school.

Many older people today would have received much of their school instruction from unpaid, untrained Aboriginal monitors. It was not until the education department took control in the late 1950s that classes went beyond grade four. On all communities overcrowded housing, lack of study space and the absence of electric lighting at home until the 1960s effectively prevented most Aboriginal children from progressing even in the minimal schooling they received. Generations of Aboriginal adults have been condemned to menial work and poverty through the decision of the state to flout its own education Acts requiring standard education for all children.

What was life like for the thousands of children who endured the dormitory system during its 60 year history? Can we even imagine the terror of being taken, often at gunpoint, from your family and culture, to be locked in watchhouse cages during your journey and then dumped in a strange place? Here, among perhaps 100 other boys or girls, there might be not one person who could speak your language; if there was, if you spoke your own tongue, you were thrashed. If you wet your bed you were made to stand outside in the freezing air draped in your urine-soaked sheet. At Myora mission on Stradbroke Island in 1896 one little girl was beaten to death by the matron.

Before and after the few hours schooling all dormitory children endured hours of work. Young boys had to sweep paths, weed gardens, move rocks and stones, strip palm fronds for house thatch, pull bladey grass for weaving as walls. Young girls had to clean the dormitories, wash clothes, help prepare food, care for smaller children. To refuse was to be punished, to answer back was to suffer the public humiliation of a shaven head and a hessian bag dress. Many boys and girls were sexually interfered with. There was no-one to turn to. No-one to hear you crying at night.

But dormitory children had to endure much more than ill-treatment. Merely to survive the appalling conditions was a matter of luck, and hundreds did not. Food was minimal and all but inedible, water commonly unsafe for human use, bedding and clothing dangerously deficient. At Barambah in 1918 dormitory children were sleeping on the bare ground in an open sided shed with only one blanket each. The diet was so meagre and they had so few clothes they suffered endemic skin disease. When Woorabinda started in 1926 after four years’ planning there was no money for beds or buildings. Dormitory children moved from Taroom slept on the ground in a bark and iron shed without mattresses during three icy winters, they sat on the ground and ate their food with their hands because there was no cutlery; the waterholes dried up, there were no sanitation facilities, and many inmates succumbed to influenza. On the same settlement in the 1940s, when so-called ‘surplus’ vegetables were being distributed to white institutions, children and adults were dying because of lack of food, milk distribution was only 10% the minimum requirement, almost 40 babies and children died in a six-month period from hookworm debilitation; and the government had been warned the previous year, but had taken no action.

At Cherbourg during this period children’s cots and mattresses were described as filthy and crawling with cockroaches. The dormitory was a two-storey wooden structure in which inmates were barred and locked for ten hours a night with a few kerosene lamps. It was reported to be a death trap and structurally unsound, but no action was taken for more than a decade. At Palm Island the dormitories were so overcrowded that the beds were only a few inches apart and shared by two or three children, prime conditions for transmission of tuberculosis. In the mid-1950s dormitory children were routinely forced to take cold showers each morning even when frost was on the ground, and sent to school shivering and with wet hair; colds and sickness were rife. These conditions, in these state institutions, would have prompted the removal of children on the grounds of health risk and neglect if they had occurred in a family home.

Shall we turn attention now to the homes, to the living conditions which the government provided for the thousands of families they removed from general society? Again, a few brief snapshots will set the scene. Barambah in 1918: 600 people living in bark gunyahs which leaked rain and iced over, on the inside, in winter. One blanket per person and no beds or furniture. Uncovered latrines germinating typhoid and malaria. Palm Island 1941: families drinking from creek holes where dogs and fowl paddled, deplorable sanitation, lack of milk and no vegetables available for four months. Cherbourg 1947: huts filthy and desperately overcrowded with four and more people to a bed, babies at risk of suffocation, very few cupboards, dishes or cooking utensils, neither milk nor fresh produce to be had at the store, condensed milk similarly unavailable. Palm Island 1950: all houses grossly overcrowded, and behind the main road were shacks and hovels comprising a few sheets of iron and earth floors.

Palm Island 1973: another deadly gastroenteritis epidemic; vegetables, fruit, milk and bread available at the store only twice weekly and sold out within hours, no refrigeration, few stoves, few utensils, malnutrition so severe that 75% of child outpatients were severely underweight and were described as looking like ‘starving Biafrans’. The council called for federal assistance, the state government refused to allow it. Woorabinda 1984: 3 bedroom houses holding up to 21 people, 81% of homes overcrowded, most in dire need of repair, serviced by cold water and wood stoves which blackened interiors and caused chest problems in tenants. Building programs and house maintenance on all communities stalled because the government slashed 1500 workers from the payroll between 1975 and 1986, while it saved the equivalent of around $20 million dollars each year in underpaid wages. And the government had predicted how this attrition would cause massive social problems including increased alcoholism and violence, and then sat by and watched it happen.

This appalling litany of criminal negligence clearly reveals the entrenched and deadly pattern of deprivation and disease. Studies in the late 1960s measure the depth of this perversion on these government communities. Stillbirth at more than 4 times that of white babies, premature baby deaths the same, deaths under one year of age more than 6 times the white rate, and toddlers under 4 over 13 times. The key factor in the deaths of 50% of children under 3 and 85% of children under 4 was malnutrition. This single, preventable, and surely most easily resolved deficiency underlay chronic ear and chest infections, lowered resistance and impaired school performance. Half of all newborn deaths and 47% of all deaths under 16 years was from gastroenteritis and/or pneumonia. These illness are caused by defective living conditions, conditions which are described again and again on official files during almost a century of government control which continued into the 1980s. Now, in the year 2000, these disgraceful statistics are only marginally better. They would not have continued for six months in any remote white town.

For the whole period of government management of these communities inmates have never had access to adequate food and safe water. The government has always known this – countless reports on their own files make that clear. From the earliest days, when those removed to reserves labored for rations of tea, flour, sugar, treacle, soap, tobacco, until the mid-1980s when Aboriginal workers on government reserves were still laboring for a fraction of white wages, Aboriginal families under government control have suffered, sickened, and died in this land of plenty.

Today, families who remain by choice in the only communities they know are still struggling to survive this legacy; and most struggle, as they have always done, on a fraction of the income deemed necessary for all other Australian families. While unemployed white workers in countless towns and cities are entitled to the dole, and complain bitterly of its insufficiency, Aboriginal families on these government communities must work to access only a percentage of this pension. The bulk unemployment payments go direct to councils which redistribute them as wages, but the wage is less than the pension.

This would be unheard of in the white community. The CDEP scheme was a deal cut between the federal and state governments because the federal government would not pay for the running of the communities, and the state knew if full pensions were available reserve residents would not work for the lousy wages. This scheme, this cosy governmental ploy, is a leftover from the 1970s and entrenches poverty, social disruption, and unbelievable violence and abuse. It is a national disgrace. It is a continuation of abuses and exploitation which have destroyed countless Aboriginal lives and blighted every community. It is the dead, and deadly, hand of government guardianship.

I know of no white town which runs its local government operations on the private pensions of its inhabitants. I know of no white town which launders residents’ income through the local pub as its only profit-making venture. All white towns with an inadequate rate base run their local government operations on government-provided local government funds. Water, sanitation, roadworks, administration and all other town functions are funded from public, not private monies in white towns. The only private input is from rates levied on freehold properties. But freehold possession is forbidden by law on Aboriginal reserves. For as long as governments continue to run these communities by spreading the dole entitlements of some to fund the running costs of the whole community, they are condemning all families to struggle in poverty and despair. They are continuing a pattern which has had disastrous effects for over one hundred years.

So what now can we say about the keenness of governments to corral the reconciliation debate around ‘well-intentioned’ policies and practical solutions for the Aboriginal problem? We can say that present destitution and social distress is the unfinished chapter in what has been the cruelest, the most shameful, story in our history. Yes, many millions are needed to standardise these appalling conditions, but this is money long withheld, whose lack has been written in the preventable deaths of babies, children and adults over many decades. This money has nothing to do with reconciliation. It is not a gift from government. It does not demonstrate ‘practical’ sympathy. It is money owed, money withheld over a century of government management. However many millions it takes to bring Aboriginal communities to the standard of white towns, that amount measures the degree to which Aboriginal Australians have been shortchanged by governments during a century of ‘care and protection’. This is a debt by governments who have abused Aboriginal labour, and Aboriginal lives, to build the nation we are today.

Reconciliation is not about money. It is about embracing this other half of our history. Howard says millions agree with his refusal to express official sorrow for this terrible ordeal. I say when millions know all of our history, they will think differently. We must speak out so others can learn this history, and knowing it, can join the best times in our history – the reconciliation times – when, finally, after 200 years, our history is a synthesis of all our truths.

Copyright Dr. Rosalind Kidd. Website development by: Ryan-Thomas Robinson