Tuesday 28 November 2006
STOLEN GENERATIONS OF ABORIGINAL CHILDREN BILL 2006 (No. 49)
Mr FINCH (Rosevears) –
It is to Tasmania's great credit that we are debating this historic legislation here today.
We are the first of all the States and Territories in the Commonwealth to consider a bill, the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal Children Bill 2006, for providing compensation to the stolen generations. These were Tasmanians, the first Tasmanians, indigenous Tasmanians, who were stolen from their families and communities with the sanction of governments right up to the 1970s.
Mr President, there are few horrors greater than any family being torn apart. No mother, no father could not be shattered by having a child taken away from them, and the child suffers hurt for the rest of its life. I know it can be argued that removing a child from the family can be well intentioned, but it is a grave move. When good intentions are flawed, there is no argument to counter the terrible hurt that is inflicted. We have all heard the sad stories from those involved in what has become known as the stolen generation. There is no denying that it happened in Tasmania and in other States and Territories. There is no denying the hurt caused to scores of Tasmanians. It is a past mistake but a mistake nonetheless, and I believe the Government is right to try to rectify it. While other States and Territories have joined Tasmania by progressing to the point of apologising to their indigenous people for the actions of past governments in this regard, it is noteworthy that our Federal Government has not yet done so. A simple apology would be hugely symbolic in addressing the deep wound in our national life that the stolen generations represent. A simple apology would provide the much needed fillip for the reconciliation of black and white Australians, something an overwhelming majority of Australians want to see.
The cost of such a view was put most eloquently by the former Governor-General, Sir William Deane, when he said, and I quote:
'True reconciliation between the Australian nation and its indigenous people is not achievable in the absence of acknowledgment by the nation of the wrongfulness of the past dispossession, oppression and degradation of the Aboriginal peoples.
This is not to say that individual Australians who had no part in what was done in the past should feel personal guilt. It is simply to assert that national shame, as well as national pride, can and should exist in relation to past acts and omissions, at least when done or made in the name of the community or with the authority of government.
Where there is no room for national pride or national shame about the past, there can be no national soul.'
Mr President, I stand to speak in strong support of the bill and I commend the Government for bringing it on. Unanimous support for the bill from the Tasmanian Parliament will amount to our State drawing a definitive line not only in Tasmanian history but in the history of Australia.
We should be in no doubt that the rest of the country is watching us but watching with a mixture of envy, pride and anticipation of seeing history in the making. This step we are about to take is widely expected to be the first domino to fall in a national movement of recompense for those Australians who suffered under those policies of forced assimilation. We should be recorded in history as a parliament that recognised the mood of the nation but also provided leadership of the humanitarian kind to our constituents. We will demonstrate sensitivity to a deep emotional hurt and suffering that those assimilation policies caused to an estimated 45 000 to 55 000 children throughout the nation and many of them Tasmanians.
While the practice occurred in most States, and mostly between 1910 and 1970, here in Tasmania we should be mindful that the first wave of fiddling with the genetic composition of our population started very early in the nineteenth century. By 1818 the Tasmanian Aboriginal population had fallen from an estimated 4 000 to something like 2 000. In 1814, Governor Davey was prompted to issue a proclamation expressing his utter indignation and abhorrence at the kidnapping of Aboriginal children.
Aboriginal dissent with their treatment at the hands of the settlers eventually led to what became known as the Black War. Then there was the infamous Black Line of 1830 which failed spectacularly in its attempt to drive all Aboriginal people to be isolated in inhospitable peninsulas of the south-east. The Aboriginal problem persisted and so Robinson's Wybalenna settlement on Flinders Island was established to receive and sort out the problem followed by Oyster Cove and both led to the decimation of the Aboriginal population. And then there was the Cape Barren Reserve established in 1881 as home for the half-caste descendants of sealers and the Aboriginal women they took as wives. The Government of the day clearly wanted to remove the children of these families to the mainland for assimilation but legal advice persuaded the then Government to discard such an open plan. Children were, however, removed under the guise of the Infants Welfare Act 1935.
Australia-wide, the effect of government programs for removing children from Aboriginal families has been enormous. At the peak of activities under these programs in the 1920s and again in the 1950s, the numbers being taken were close to one child in three. Almost every Aboriginal person was impacted, those taken away as well as those left behind - their parents, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts. Throughout the nation, Aboriginal families lived year after year with the fear that their children would be snatched from them. Some families fled to isolated places or kept moving ahead of the authorities. This caused constant disruption to many Aboriginal communities, destroying any chance of the stability on which advances in health, education and economic development depend.
By the early 1990s, alarm bells were ringing as to the legacy of these former policies. A spate of Aboriginal prison suicides was occurring, prompting the Federal Government to establish a royal commission. After investigating 100 suicides, almost half - 43 - were discovered to have involved victims who had been removed from their families as children. So damning were the statistics that in May 1995 the Federal Government directed the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission to investigate the past and present separation of Aboriginal children from their parents and communities and to explore principles relating to compensation.
After receiving submissions from 777 people or organisations across Australia, the President of the Commission, Sir Ronald Wilson, presented the report and we have heard it referred to here constantly today - the Bringing Them Home report of April 1997. The 689-page report concluded
'Indigenous children have been forcibly removed from their families and communities since the very first days of European occupation of Australia. In that time, not one indigenous family has escaped the effects.'
It also concluded that forcible removal was an act of genocide, contrary to the Convention of Genocide ratified by Australia in 1949. It was also in clear violation of the 1949 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, section 16(3) which reads:
'The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state'.
To overcome the continuing harmful consequences of these policies, the Bringing Them Home report made 54 recommendations. These include apologies by State and Federal authorities and measures for restitution, rehabilitation and monetary compensation.
Mr President, with this bill for monetary compensation of affected Tasmanian Aboriginal people we are honouring those recommendations of the Bringing Them Home report. We are also honouring commitments that the Commonwealth of Australia has to several international covenants. The bill is a most honourable course of action for the Tasmanian Parliament to take. We will not only be providing real material assistance that will help them get their lives back in order but also - and probably most importantly - we will be helping restore some dignity to those whose dignity was trampled on by the removal policy.
Already, with the apology by the Tasmanian Parliament issued previously, indigenous leaders have said that there has been a noticeably greater understanding of and concern for the problems that their children face and their people face in areas such as health and employment. These are very important matters of national reconciliation which go to the heart of reconciliation.
At present, Aboriginal Australians die 20 years younger than non-Aboriginal Australians. Countries like New Zealand and Canada, which in the past had similar disparities but who have since taken significant steps to bring equality to indigenous communities, have seen dramatic change. The life expectancy of Canadian Indians and Maoris is today only five or six years less than other New Zealanders. Australia can do the same but it will require sustained initiatives both at community level and at government level. This Stolen Generations of Aboriginal Children Bill 2006 is one such initiative. Perhaps the most famous initiative in the history of Australia's march towards equality for indigenous people was the 1967 referendum which led to citizenship rights and, arguably, killed off the assimilation policy. The referendum outcome did not stop the removals and it did not stop assimilationist thinking. For example, the Queensland act which controlled and regulated the lives of the State's Aboriginal people continued as a force until 1985 when it was finally repealed and here, in Tasmania, the Bringing Them Home report reminded us up until as late as 1980, the head teacher at Cape Barren was appointed a special constable with the powers and responsibilities of a special constable, including the power to remove a child for neglect under the child welfare legislation, the Infants Welfare Act 1935. A shed at the back of the school sometimes served as a temporary lockup.
Even though the nation received the Bringing Them Home report on the stolen generations in 1997, since then we have had the Federal Parliament pass what co- author of the report, Mick Dodson, labelled as the racially-discriminatory Native Title Amendment Act. Also both the West Australian and Northern Territory parliaments have enacted compulsory jailing laws. Due to the entrenched disadvantage and ongoing dispossession of indigenous Australians, contemporary laws can also continue to discriminate against indigenous families where raising children is concerned. As the member for Rumney mentioned earlier, as that national inquiry found, indigenous children today are six times more likely to be removed from their families for welfare reasons and are 21 times more likely to be in juvenile detention than non-indigenous children.
Mick Dodson, who is a product of a mixed marriage, also chairs Reconciliation Australia and is a former Social Justice Commissioner. Along with his two sisters, Mick Dodson is also a stolen child. He bears no grudges against those who made the policies and the laws that took his grandmother, mother, and sisters and placed them all in either missions, orphanages, or government settlements. What Mick Dodson does remind us of is that those events occurred in relatively recent times; certainly not distant enough for us to avoid a sense of shared responsibility. As Mr Dodson says, 'Denial is the enemy of reconciliation'.
Mr President, if we cannot acknowledge the truth of our past, there is no hope for our future as a nation. It is important that we acknowledge these past events and through the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal Children Bill 2006 we do just that. Society simply cannot block out a chapter of its history; if we were to try this approach to deny the facts of the past, inevitably the void will be filled with lies or with conflicting, confusing versions of the past. A nation or a State's unity depends on a shared identity which, in turn, depends largely on a shared memory. Acknowledging the truth in such a tangible way as providing compensation will provide us with a healthy social catharsis while also helping to prevent the past from recurring.
There are many indigenous people now in their late 20s and early 30s who were removed from their families under these policies. The Bringing Them Home report revealed that the past resonates today in indigenous individuals, families and communities. One witness to the inquiry put it this way:
'It never goes away. Just 'cause we're not walking around on crutches or with bandages or plasters on our legs and arms doesn't mean that we're not hurting ... I suspect I'll carry these sorts of wounds til the day I die. I'd just like it to be not quite as intense, that's all'.
For the majority of witnesses to the inquiry, the effects have been lifelong and profoundly disabling. But the effects of removal do not stop with the children taken. The inquiry found that a high proportion of people separated from their families as children had their own children removed from their care . This is how one parent stolen from his family put it:
'There's things in my life that I haven't dealt with and I've passed them on to my children ... I look at my son today who had to be taken away because he was going to commit suicide because he can't handle it; he just can't take any more of the anxiety attacks that he and Karen have. I have passed that on to my kids because I haven't dealt with it. How do you deal with it? How do you sit down and go through all those years of abuse? Somehow, I am passing down negativity to my kids.'
Interestingly, no indigenous Australians who gave evidence to the national inquiry said that they wanted non-indigenous Australians to feel guilty. Overwhelmingly, those who gave evidence simply wanted people to know the truth. They wanted to be able to tell their stories and have the truth of their experiences acknowledged. Apologies can be made on a variety of levels. The government compensation that this bill seeks to provide is one level of apology, and to my mind it is quite appropriate that our Government should do this. Governments are ongoing representative bodies irrespective of the particular individuals who occupy the positions of power within them. They inherit the laws and practices of previous governments and so too inherit responsibility for their past actions.
Saying sorry does not undo the past. It cannot. However, we expect our governments and the governments of other countries to take responsibility and make amends for harm suffered in the past. Many Australians, for example, expect Japan to apologise today for acts committed against Australians in the war years. Similarly, indigenous people who were separated from their families look to the institutions that devised and implemented the laws and policies that affected them, governments, churches and welfare organisations for acknowledgment, apology and reparation.
Many institutions have provided these apologies. For example, the Anglican Church Social Responsibilities Commission stated in its submission to the inquiry that the commission: 'simply states that no amount of explanation can detract from the now observable consequences of those misguided policies and practices. A great wrong has been done to the indigenous peoples of Australia. It is for participation in that wrong that this apology is offered.'
The national inquiry's third term of reference specifically requested that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission look at the issue of compensation. It did this in the context of reparation, which is seen as the appropriate response to gross violations of human rights. According to international legal principles, reparation has five parts.
1. acknowledgment of the truth and an apology;
2. guarantees that these human rights will not be breached again;
3. returning what has been lost as much as possible (known as restitution);
4. rehabilitation; and
In the words of one woman who gave evidence to the inquiry:
'The Government has to explain why it happened. What was the intention? I have to know why I was taken. I have to know why I was given the life I was given and why I am scarred today. Why was my Mum made to suffer? Why was I made to suffer with no Aboriginality and no identity, no culture? Why did they think that the life that they gave me was better than the one my Mum would give me?
And an apology is important because I've never been apologised to. My mother's never been apologised to, not once, and I would like to be apologised to.
Thirdly, I've been a victim and I've suffered and I'll suffer until the day I die for what I've never had and what I can never have. I just have to get on with my life but compensation would help. It doesn't take the pain away. It doesn't take the suffering away. It doesn't take the memories away. It doesn't bring my mother back. But it has to be recognised.
And I shouldn't forget counselling. I've had to counsel myself all my life from a very young age. And in the homes I never showed my tears. ... I've been told that I need to talk about my childhood. I need to be counselled for me to get back on with my life.'
Mr President, the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal Children Bill 2006 not only provides compensation but also provides for the counselling that that person so desperately needed. While the national enquiry suggested the establishment of a national compensation fund, with the current Federal Government that is certainly not going to happen. So it is timely and even urgent that here in Tasmania we bite the bullet and do it ourselves.
The passage of this bill will be to the enduring credit of the people of Tasmania. It will also have enduring moral, social and material benefits for our State's indigenous population. The bill will complete a trifecta of national leadership for our great State. First it was our Parliament's apology to the stolen generation in 1997, which was followed by the handover of Cape Barren Island in the cause of reconciliation. This time it is material compensation in line with the recommendation of the Bringing Them Home report. The offer of compensation is certainly justified and it will cement Tasmania's position in the vanguard of Australia's efforts to reconcile differences between black and white. It will confirm our position in history as a compassionate society . I support the bill.