A response to Patrick Wolfe.
This is not in defence of Robert Manne though I am from the same generation--an ordinary Australian growing up in Victoria during the years when the children were being stolen. I have some limited understanding of the arguments behind that policy as a civilizing agenda.
However, I had no insight into what Indigenous families were experiencing in that era. Recent debate has brought to light for myself and other members of my generation the hiatus the policies of the Menzies government was causing for the Stolen Generations and their families.
I am grateful to Patrick Wolfe for his inspiring essay that argues a case for their compensation and justice and clarifies the fact that genocide did occur and that cannot be prevaricated about.
I am glad this issue has now taken a prominent place on the public agenda because I believe our attitude to the disadvantage of Indigenous Australians at that time was similar to our attitude to women's disadvantage and women's rights. Addressing Indigenous expectations and needs is one step further along the road to social justice and human rights for all disadvantaged minorities within our society.
However I would take issue with Patrick Wolfe on some complex points he raises as if they were straightforward, 'black and white', simple, and not difficult to assess, particularly for those of us who grew up in the Menzies era, under the Menzies yoke.
One of these issues is that Indigenous genocide is always sheeted home to early Australian settlers from Britain. An association is often drawn by newer European arrivals to this country such as Robert Manne (and possibly Patrick Wolfe?) between the Holocaust and the Aboriginal genocide with the implication that the English were the equivalent of the Nazis in Germany. I think such an attitude lacks historical perspective.
The attitude of Australians towards race is complex and not simple. It is derived from a number of historic determinants that include Christianity, capitalism, a monarchical class system and paternalism.
None of these things is exclusive to early English settlers. A reading of racial or cultural genocide, if it does not take these historic pre-determinants into account, risks a repetition of racial or cultural brutality through a failure to understand what underlies human beings' inclination to commit genocide.
We all need to acknowledge the potential for brutality lying dormant and hopefully never expressed in each one of us, but the tortures at Abu Ghraib are a frightening reminder of how inhumane ordinary humans can become given certain conditions.
In drawing Patrick Wolfe's attention to precursors to genocidal attitudes I would like to point to two articles now available in the current issue of History Australia, vol. 5, no. 1, April 2008.
In the first article, Patricia Crawford addresses the paternalistic attitude of English forefathers to disadvantage. Her article is entitled 'Civic fathers and children: continuities from Elizabethan England to the Australian colonies'. She relates that civic fathers from Tudor times onwards had a policy of rescuing the children of poor families from their straightened circumstances by educating them in attitudes of industry.
This often meant being indentured for life into small businesses or families and usually never seeing their own families again. It frequently entailed a life of barely remunerated indentured drudgery for the term of life.
This was a prevailing attitude and Crawford suggests that remnants of this attitude were behind inhumane policy towards Indigenous Australians from colonial governments. It is not denied that this attitude is paternalistic. It can also be seen to be a result of Christian attitudes, attitudes to class, and to the competitive nature of industrial capitalism whose single minded aim is/was wealth creation at any cost. This is not as simple as straight out intention to commit genocide, and not easily forgivable either, but it requires acknowledgement that it wasn't only Indigenous families who were the subjects and victims of such inhumane paternalism.
The second article from the same issue of History Australia is Kane Cullins' 'Julius Caesar versus White Australia', which explores English attitudes to race historically and draws attention to the fact that throughout modern history two opposing attitudes to race have co-existed side by side in British and Australian societies. One attitude is forward looking, humane, broad minded and tolerant; the other, paternalistic, judgemental, discriminatory and exploitative of the human rights of minority races.
This suggests that to brand all early Australian settlers with the one brush, which the Western Australian Protector A. O. Neville is rightly branded with, would be a misrepresentation of the principles many Australians held.
During the period of A. O. Neville's administration, women played a subordinate role and were wholly dependent on men for their sustenance and welfare. Few women were capable of leading independent lifestyles. In such a scenario men were the spokespersons for their families but men's outspoken attitudes may not have truly represented their families' belief systems.
Without this historical perspective into the predeterminants of the policies relating to the Stolen Generations, and without acknowledgement of injustices occurring for most minority groups across society, the word cultural genocide merely becomes jargon rather than realistic fact. If the context of the injustices is not able to be discerned, any attempts at justice for Indigenous Australians are only going to be token gestures and not address the realities of those injustices.