Inside Story

Bringing them home

Cabinet Papers 1996–97 | Having inherited the inquiry into the removal of Indigenous children, the Howard government was able to extend its empathy only so far

Frank Bongiorno 1 January 2019 1274 words

No apologies: former prime minister John Howard at the launch of the embargoed 1996–97 cabinet papers last month. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

John Howard remains unrepentant about his refusal to offer an apology to the Stolen Generations. Speaking at the National Archives of Australia’s release of the 1996–97 cabinet records last month, he held to the old line: present generations of Australians aren’t responsible for the actions of those in the past. They should not apologise for them.

The problems with Howard’s position have long been recognised. His confusion of personal with government and national responsibility; his inability to recognise the intimate links between past policy and present circumstances; his inconsistency in embracing pride in the past — such as the achievements of the glorious Anzacs — while denying any shame. Howard is diminished as a public figure by his stubborn refusal to grapple with the nuances of this issue.

Yet, as I listened to him, I realised I was not just hearing the words of a man attending to his legacy. This was the denialism of a generation of Australian conservatives who saw Mabo, Wik and Bringing Them Home as nuisances and impositions rather than landmarks in the history of this country. They were the words of a generation that repeatedly bends over backwards to extend empathy towards the whites who devised and executed policies and practices that caused pain, but stubbornly refuses to extend a parallel empathy to Indigenous people.

The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families would never have come into existence under Howard’s stewardship. Appointed by the Keating Labor government and chaired by Sir Ronald Wilson, the inquiry’s report, Bringing Them Home, would become another of the modern landmarks in the history of race relations in this country.

Child removal had long been part of the Australian Indigenous experience. The term itself — the Stolen Generations — had been coined by historians Peter Read and Jay Arthur in the context of a study carried out in 1981 for the NSW government. The slow and meandering journey of these stories of suffering and trauma to the centre of settler consciousness was a long one, which Bringing Them Home would complete in 1997. In July 1996, however, the newly minted Howard cabinet — assisted by a submission from attorney-general Daryl Williams — faced the dilemma of how to respond to an inquiry already in progress.

Williams’s submission has been heavily redacted. Apart from the several substantial instances in the main body of the submission (all of points six and seven and much of point eight), the entirety of Attachment C — two full pages — is blacked out. The two grounds for exemption are stated in accordance with the requirements of the Archives Act. Under section 33(1)(c), “a record is exempt from public access if it contains information or matter the disclosure of which under this Act would have a substantial adverse effect on the financial or property interests of the Commonwealth or of a Commonwealth institution and would not, on balance, be in the public interest.” Under section 33(2), a record is exempt if it would be subject to legal privilege and, again, “disclosure of the record would be contrary to the public interest.”

All of this can be summed up fairly simply: the federal government still fears releasing material that a member of the Stolen Generations could use in a court to gain compensation. It is not in the “public interest” to provide them with any assistance to do so. The managers and custodians of Commonwealth records in the National Archives, which is part of the attorney-general’s portfolio, play a significant role in protecting past, present and future governments and officials from scrutiny, and litigation, by the Australian public.

The Howard government also took the view that no compensation should be offered, and was concerned that the inquiry might give rise to financial claims. The government’s priorities lay in dealing with “current disadvantage in health, housing, employment and education” and it believed that “special compensation in respect of the issues being addressed in the Inquiry is inappropriate and unacceptable.”

“Inappropriate” and “unacceptable” are classic weasel words, especially when unaccompanied by elaboration. They are indispensable to governments. “Costly” — in both political and financial terms — would be more accurate.

Daryl Williams was opposed to the whole-of-government submission that Wilson had requested, and his submission fails to engage with the complexities of the issues raised by the inquiry. To be fair, though, the government had little reason to anticipate that it would be made to wear Bringing Them Home like a crown of thorns from the moment it arrived on the desks of government ministers until the day Kevin Rudd delivered the National Apology in 2008.

“I understand that Indigenous peoples’ expectations of the Government’s response to the Inquiry are diverse,” Williams told cabinet. “They range from deep scepticism to a more optimistic view that the Inquiry will result in reparation and/or compensation, an apology, Government assistance to individuals in accessing records, guidance on welfare policies for indigenous children and provision of sensitive and appropriate mental health services for affected individuals and families.”

Williams considered that the government could probably avoid raising expectations of a positive response to the inquiry report by saying nothing at all for the time being. “In my view,” he continued, “it is unlikely that any such expectation will arise from the Government’s ‘silence’ in relation to the Inquiry.” After all, the previous government had set up the inquiry, “presumably with a particular policy outcome in mind,” and “the public would not expect a new Government uncritically to accept its recommendations.”

If Williams had been discussing, say, an inquiry into the sale of defence department land in western Sydney, this would have been an astute and reasonable prediction. In the circumstances, it was folly.

The government’s eventual response to the report, summed up in a cabinet document from late 1997, is much better known than the deliberations beforehand. There would be no formal apology, cabinet decided. Rather than compensation, $54 million would be spent over four years on indexing and copying archival records, providing “Link-Up” services to help Indigenous people trace family members and effect reunions, expanding mental health services, and running an oral history project to record the stories of separation.

It was a minimalist response to a report that had clearly left the government unmoved. Aboriginal affairs minister John Herron said the report was “very emotive” and “one-sided,” and “focuses only on one view of the separation process.” The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was scathing about the government’s response, which “will severely disappoint Indigenous people.” The government’s refusal to address most of the report’s recommendations compounded the distress already caused by its announced refusal to countenance either compensation or an apology.

There was no prospect of the government joining with ATSIC in a more considered and comprehensive response. Pauline Hanson was in full flight with her complaints about “reverse racism” in favour of Aboriginal people. In 2000 Herron would make a government submission to a Senate inquiry into the Stolen Generations whose argument was essentially that no such generations existed because only a minority of children were separated from their families — and for a variety of reasons, many of them valid. Government policy on separations had an “essentially benign intent,” it said. There was that empathy again.

But by this stage the government’s friends in the right-wing intelligentsia had decided to make the Stolen Generations their Alamo. And there were now a million One Nation voters — many convinced that Indigenous people had been long coddled by bleeding heart governments — up for political grabs.

In the end, it was these people that the government was mainly concerned with bringing home. •