In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right

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Robert Manne has for many years been associated with anti-communism and a trenchant opposition to the Left in Australia. This has led to a tendency among leftists to dismiss him as just another apologist for rampant capitalism. The truth, as always, is more complex. In fact Manne has been a consistent liberal, believing in the supremacy of individual freedom in the tradition of Rousseau, Saint Simon and the European idealists of the 18th and 19th centuries.

His horror of the 1917 Russian Revolution, which colours so much of his work, lies in its assertion of the collective will over “personal liberties.” The fact that the Revolution arose out of the ultimate denial of freedom — the right to live — seems always to escape the liberal mind. In 1917 Russia, individual freedoms were reserved only for a tiny élite. For the rest, there was death in the Tsar’s trenches, death by starvation, death by feudal servitude and wage slavery.

Manne’s often accurate critique of Stalinism also suffers from this ingrained idealism. Stalinism arose because of the isolation of the Revolution, not from the fact of the uprising itself. In fact the original Constitution of the USSR was one of the most liberating legal documents ever written (for example freeing women from the patriarchal family and removing legal oppression of homosexual people). Stalinism was a brutal régime which suppressed dissent from the Left in order to forge a compromise with Imperialism — “leave us alone and we’ll make sure revolution doesn’t spread.”

Manne’s split with the chief advocates of the Right has attracted a lot of comment in the mainstream media. It started with some mild criticism of globalisation, which he seems to have belatedly identified as a threat to both individual rights and social cohesion. But the issue of the Stolen Generations is where the ways parted completely. This is not surprising at all. Genocide is not defined by its methods, but by its intent. Systematic kidnapping, summary detention of children, sexual, psychological and physical abuse — all in the pursuit of a State ideology of racial superiority — are the ultimate affront to liberalism. Moreso to a person of Manne’s generation, from a Jewish background, whose close relatives had suffered under Hitler’s rule. What also divides Manne from his former colleagues is his open and honest compassion for the victims of government wrongdoing. In every comment he has made on this issue, he throws out a challenge: “Put yourself in the position of these people. Their pain must not be ignored.” Manne is obviously very angry with the callousness of those who deny the Stolen Generations.

Manne’s central point is that the Right is conducting an orchestrated campaign to deny the country’s violent past. He asserts that the campaign is led by the editor of Quadrant Magazine, Padraic McGuinness, assisted by a number of Murdoch journalists (Christopher Pearson, Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt, Michel Duffy, Frank Devine) and Ron Brunton, the Right’s tame anthropologist, and is aided by John Howard. He is entirely correct, of course, but then, readers of the Freedom Socialist Bulletin need little convincing of this. What is more interesting is how long it has taken liberal academics to realise it!

But to be fair, Manne does not shy away from the reason for the campaign. It is not primarily to avoid monetary compensation, but a racially motivated project aimed at tipping the balance of the national debate on the “Aboriginal Question” in favour of the Hansonites, and at securing the re-election of the Howard Government on a platform of racial division. The co-chair of the Royal Commission into the removal of Aboriginal children, Ronald Wilson, then incumbent Governor-General William Deane and former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser were vilified in the most extreme terms by Akerman and Co, because “they were seen as traitors to their race and their class.” Meanwhile Mick Dodson, one of the pre-eminent Indigenous leaders, and the other chair of the Commission, received little comment. Why? “As an Aborigine, he was assumed irrelevant to its work and outcome, and was, thus, barely visible to the rightwing gaze.” Indeed!

Despite what has been written in response to Manne’s essay, he does not allege an organised conspiracy. “Some [of the media hacks involved in the attacks] are general purpose rightwingers who hunt in packs and can be relied upon to agree with whatever their political friends believe.” Ah, yes, Andrew Bolt! His blatant “me-too” grab for headlines in February is the first “contribution” demolished by Manne. Bolt claims, incredibly, that because Lowitja O’Donoghue’s white father may have voluntarily surrendered her and her siblings to a welfare agency, there was no stolen generation. No matter that if that did occur, then there was the matter of abduction from the care of their mother. What the father is alleged to have done might have been legal at the time, but only on the basis of a legal system predicated on White Supremacism and misogyny. No, “as an Aborigine [she] was assumed irrelevant…and was, thus, barely visible to the rightwing gaze.”

Racists like Bolt don’t believe that non-whites have feelings.

But what person not corrupted by bigotry could fail to be moved by the story that, 30 years after the removal from her mother, Lowitja was approached by two old Aboriginal people at Coober Pedy, who told her that she resembled her mother, who was then still alive and living in Oodnadatta. It was many weeks before Lowitja could get to the remote central Australian town. When she arrived, she learned that every day for three months her mother had sat by the roadside waiting for the bus, waiting for her stolen daughter. When they met, they could not speak to each other. Lowitja’s mother spoke almost no English, and Lowitja could not speak her native language. But at least they were together for the last decade of the mother’s life. Many, many more stories had not even that much of a happy ending.

Manne attacks the other members of the anti-Indigenous rat pack for their lies, hypocrisy, re-writing of history, intolerant language and racist paternalism. Ron Brunton, for example, attacks Ronald Wilson because he once sat on the board of a home for “quarter castes” in Perth. This is something Wilson has often acknowledged, and for which he has expressed regret. Brunton, who claims to be some kind of “expert” on Indigenous cultures, seems to make most of his money assisting mining companies in their attempts to swindle Indigenous communities out of their land and mining royalties. An unbiased scientist? No, just another hypocritical rightwing academic for hire to the highest bidder!

As to some of the others involved, Frank Devine seems one of the generic rightwing followers. Christopher Pearson, a member of the tiny gay bourgeoisie and a favourite of the Adelaide Establishment, will stop at nothing to defend white privilege. Piers Akerman, a loyal Murdoch lieutenant, seems to believe he’s writing for his Afrikaaner patrons in South Africa circa 1970, so extremely racist and White Supremacist is his language. Padraic McGuinness, one-time anarchist, is the main organiser of the campaign, although he has contributed very little in the way of writing. In fact, anyone who has had the misfortune to read McGuinness would know that his writing in general contributes precious little to intellectual debate. McGuinness is a tearer-down, a vicious opponent of collective action, a sneerer at the poor and the weak, and a toady of the rich and powerful. His position as editor of Quadrant gives him a prominence that is thoroughly undeserved. But he is there to do a job for the magazine’s rightwing board and its benefactors. Therefore truth and decency are no obstacles! As Manne writes: “the abuse by the pompous and the privileged of the powerless and the dispossessed is not a pretty sight.”

Before turning to Manne’s interesting proof of the direct link between the Quadrant-led campaign and the Howard Government, it’s worth looking at the question of numbers. And so we return to academics for sale: Brunton, and a burnt out, somewhat lonely, former “left” sociologist, Keith Windschuttle.

In a submission to the Senate in May 2000, the Federal Government infamously asserted that there was no such thing as a stolen generation because “only” one in ten were taken. As Manne indignantly writes: “Only! Given the stunning cruelty and injustice so often involved, and the ripple effect of the removals on parents, siblings and extended families, 20,000 or 25,000 separations seems to me far from a trifling sum.”

This is in the middle of a discussion of the numbers of people taken. Manne accepts a figure of up to 25,000, as opposed to 50,000 or more. He bases this on a series of assumptions arising from Australian Bureau of Statistics figures concerning child separation and Indigenous life expectancy, figures which themselves would be estimates. My opinion is that the number of people stolen is likely to be higher because of negligent, and often deliberate, under-reporting by authorities. In any case, as the above quote from Manne indicates, the actual number is completely disproportionate to the suffering caused.

But not to Brunton and the rat pack. Brunton’s basically illogical and dishonest position is that because some of the children were removed were because they were “obviously at risk,” as defined by the racist authorities, then all of the alleged cases are subject to doubt. As Manne points out, this ignores “the relationship between racist and welfarist thinking in an era where the ambition of policy was to assimilate a people assumed to be inferior.” The fact that Brunton’s dishonest assertion has no basis in logic has not stopped the Bolts and the Devines from asserting that there never was a case of government-sponsored child stealing. John Howard’s Government takes the same position, one that Manne describes as “rather like telling Jews there had been no Holocaust (literally meaning “burnt sacrifice”) because Hitler’s victims died by gas and gun and not by fire.”

Another dimension of the Right’s revisionism is a claim that violence against Indigenous peoples on the frontiers of Australian settlement is a myth. Enter Windschuttle, who has re-invented himself as a revisionist historian. Despite overwhelming evidence in government documents, contemporary eyewitness accounts and Indigenous oral history, Windschuttle claims that there were only “isolated” and “rare” examples of frontier violence. As Manne writes, this is nonsense. Henry Reynolds from the Left and Geoffrey Blainey from the Right agree on very little when it comes to the interpretation of Australian history. Both, however, conclude that around 20,000 people were killed by settlers, troops and police from 1770 to the late 1930s. Manne wonders what Windschuttle knows that the country’s two leading historians do not. The answer is: less than nothing. Windschuttle argues that the massacres could not have happened, because the British colonies were “civilised societies governed by both morality and laws that forbade the killing of the innocent.” This drivel would be laughable if it were not so dangerous. It simply disappears the victims of the slaughter, reinforcing the Right’s stubborn refusal to abandon the false legal doctrine of terra nullius, which denied the rights of this continent’s 60,000 year old societies on the basis of race.

Manne asks why Windschuttle was a speaker at Quadrant’s September 2000 forum (titled “Truth and Sentimentality,” but involving neither concept). He answers that denial of the frontier massacres is a sinister widening of the Right’s agenda. Throughout the essay, Manne refers to the role of the present Prime Minister, John Howard. When Bolt wrote his beat-up about Lowitja O’Donoghue, Howard, true to form, jumped on the bandwagon, implying that this vindicated his government’s denial of the Stolen Generations and his refusal to apologise for them. When John Howard “re-launched” Quadrant on its return to Sydney, he had high praise for editor McGuinness, with what Manne rightly characterises as an “all too clear” political meaning.

There is another, direct link between Howard and the Quadrant campaign. The opening speaker at the September revisionist conference was Douglas Meagher QC. Meagher was the government’s barrister in the case of Peter Gunner and Lorna Cubillo, two members of the Stolen Generations who sued the Commonwealth over their mistreatment following their removal some decades earlier. Manne says that Meagher’s opening address in the case was where “the Howard Government openly joined the anti-stolen generations campaign.” Well, maybe! I’d prefer to say that it was where the government openly revealed that it was part of the campaign.

In his opening address, Meagher whined about Gunner and Cubillo besmirching the country’s “good name,” and that of its politicians and public servants during the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Most importantly, he denied that the Australian Government had been involved in the “breeding out of colour” for the purpose of “destruction of race.” One of those “besmirched” politicians was his father, Ray Meagher, an open assimilationist. Meagher senior, then Victorian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and chair of the misnamed Aboriginal Welfare Board, was a White Supremacist who was quoted as saying “a backward dark person is merely a ‘depressed’ white and can be adapted to white living if caught early enough.” What Manne rightly calls an invariable tone “of wounded, patriotic bombast” was partly motivated by the junior Meagher’s “personal mission” to vindicate his father’s ostensible good name. And Meagher, like all of the other apologists for genocide, stretches the truth beyond breaking point.

Meagher’s Howard-inspired (written?) opening address to the court was simple propaganda. Like most rightwing spin, it was utterly false; like all of the Right’s recent comment on the Stolen Generations and Indigenous issues in general, it was based on, informed by and came to conclusions that are racist to the core. For a start, Meagher’s concern is for the feelings of only one racial group. Like Bolt, McGuinness, Devine and all the rest, he is devoid of compassion for the victims, because he instinctively sees them as less than human on the basis of their race.

This attitude is exactly what informed all of the many thousands of missionaries, public servants, police and politicians who orchestrated a genocidal drive to exterminate Indigenous peoples from Australia and its islands. It does not matter that some had “good intentions.” They, as whites, believed that they knew better than people of colour what was “good” for them. The racism of the entire process negates any “good intentions.” In fact, I am sick of this Big Lie. Reliance on the supposed “good intentions” of the people who carried out government policy is a post-dated version of the Nuremberg defence: “I was only following orders.” There were “good people” at the time — like Mary Bennett, feminist and supporter of Aboriginal Women’s rights, whose “good intention” was to oppose the policy outright. The same was true of the Communist Party and many other social activists and civil libertarians. Of those who knew about what was happening — and most of the population did not — there were many voices who saw the policy for what it was: genocide!

In the 1930s, two countries enacted legislation which made uncontrolled sexual relations between two social groups a punishable offence. Australia was one of them. (Guess the other!) In 1936 Western Australia’s thoroughly White Supremacist “Protector of Aborigines,” A.O. Neville, persuaded the state government to legislate also that Indigenous people required permission to marry, that “half castes” and “full bloods” be prevented from marrying, that “quadroons” be banned from having contact with “natives,” and that he was the legal guardian of all “natives” under the age of 21. Almost identical legislation was passed by the Commonwealth in respect of its territories. Most states followed, to some extent. Tasmania did not, having exiled all surviving Indigenous people to Flinders Island by 1876. Queensland differed in that it enacted Apartheid-style legislation which completely segregated Indigenous peoples. Torres Strait islanders were imprisoned and indentured to the fishing industry.

Meagher’s contention that there never was policy to destroy the Aboriginal race is a deliberate, wilful attempt to rewrite history. Based on the racist pseudo-scientific theory known as eugenics, government policy, as expressed through politicians and public servants, was from the 1890s to the end of WWII, explicitly aimed at ridding the continent of its first nations through the removal of children of mixed race.

The rise of Pauline Hanson and her co-thinkers is partly fed by the ravages of capitalist globalisation. But underpinning it is the Establishment’s continual fostering of race hatred, fear and suspicion between Aborigines and non-Aboriginal people. Manne concludes that the reason for this is not only Howard’s desperate bid to be re-elected, but a concerted effort to cover up what William Deane called the country’s “legacy of unutterable shame.” I would add: not only because it was a policy of the past.

After the Nazi Holocaust completely discredited eugenics in mainstream politics, the removals continued under the guise of child protection. Now they occur in the guise of law-and-order campaigns targeting Indigenous communities. Mandatory detention of young Indigenous people by the State is simply a continuation of the genocide of the last 100 years. The Right, in particular those associated with the past and present, do not want their role questioned, do not want dispossession to be reversed or alleviated, do not want to pay the compensation which simple decency demands, and will not break from their racist world-view. It’s up to the working class, in all its diversity, to break it for them. Justice for Indigenous people demands no less. Manne’s essay is a valuable contribution to the struggle against what has been called terra nullius of the mind. It is a useful addition to the library of any supporter of Indigenous rights.

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