Thursday, January 31, 2008

Tony Abbott and the sorry question

It would be nice to think, if somewhat delusional, that Tony Abbott or his staff might read this blog!

I chose my words very carefully in setting out my own position on the stolen generation. I was writing for my account, but also for an audience who, like me, does think that there was a black arm band school of history (the original Blainey definition) and who sometimes struggles with the deeply felt views on the other side of the fence.

If you look at what I said, you will see that I directly addressed Mr Abbott's concerns. My core point is that there was a systemic difference between the treatment of indigenous and non-indigenous children. The Government's apology should focus on this.

Of course, individual non-indigenous children met similar experiences. Of course, some indigenous children were removed for the same reasons as non-indigenous children. We are not talking about cases, but an overall pattern. I do not think that anyone denies this.

We can address this without getting caught up in all the baggage that presently surrounds the issue.


Anonymous said...


I feel for, and with, your engagement with this issue, but I wish to comment upon your language.

You write about the "stolen generation".

No doubt all of your readers understand the shorthand implied by this term, and no doubt the majority share your frustrations - as do I.

But has always worried me that a wrong - such as it was - is now maybe? being amplified? by such a term: "Stolen"? "generation"?

There was injustice done to many individuals. But do you honestly believe that they were "stolen" in the ordinary sense of that word, and that it was really a whole "generation"?

I think "we" (whatever that might mean) should acknowledge past injustices against anybody so treated.

But I really do worry about this creeping generic terminology - the "stolen generation".

You are the historian, statistician - so can you advise if a whole "generation" was "stolen"?

Can you see what I am struggling with?

Maybe it doesn't matter - but I am not comfortable with this catch-all term.

David - Australia

Anonymous said...


I would like to just summarise the above rant by saying that the term "stolen generation" is to my way of thinking just newspaper/political 'short-speak'.

And I think it actually detracts from the real need to address the real needs of the individuals so affected.

A "stolen generation" is just way too big for the ordinary person to accept responsibility for.

David, again - sorry about that.

Jim Belshaw said...

David, you raise a fair point.

I will think about it and respond tomorrow. Am I guilty of sloppy English? Perhaps I am, although I do not think that it will alter my key point.

Anonymous said...

We are not a thousand miles apart about Tony Abbott, I see. As to the words "stolen generation" I think we all understand it is not literally everyone of that generation. I would have thought the word that would get up some people's noses is "stolen" rather than "generation". Guess you could say "children".

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, David, I have thought about David's point overnight.

"Stolen generation" has become accepted as a short hand term. Yet there are problems with it, and I can understand David's point.

If you look at the historical record, there were considerable variations over time and between jurisdictions. Further, things happened for a whole variety of reasons and sometimes with the best of intent.

In this context, I pointed Neil to an interesting comment on one of my other posts -

This comment came in at exactly the same time as yours, David. The interesting thing about it is that it is a NSW case of an Aboriginal women adopting a European friend's baby. This occured at just the time period we are talking about.

The fact that she could adopt across racial lines suggests that the story in NSW is far more complex than the simple presentations would allow.

As an historian, I could (I think) mount quite a strong case that the groups we were talking about were neither "stolen" nor a "generation'. However, that might well be as misleading as some of the arguments on the other side.

What I think that we can say objectively is that there were sets of policies based on ethnicity whose outcomes were unjust.This wording allows for a variety of motives and indeed of results.

One of the problems we face is that the social dynamics involved have created sets of attitudes and beliefs that have an existence independent of the facts and have grown in intensity with time. A related problem, at least as I see it, is that those sets of attitudes and beliefs have had an adverse effect on both indigenous and non-indigenous alike.

To take an example, I have argued consistently and persistently that our failure to recognise the variety in Aboriginal experience has been a major if not the major cause of failure in policy towards the Aborigines. Noel Pearson makes a similar point.

This variety simply gets lost in all the generalised argument. So I think that we need to move on, leaving judgements about some of the historical validity of arguments to later historians!

Lexcen said...

Jim, I think that the connotations of "sorry" are being glossed over. "Sorry" in itself is just a word. A word will change nothing, and as the saying goes, talk is cheap. But when "Sorry" is coupled with "compensation" then we are talking about an entirely different matter. To the cynical observer, the call for "sorry" is really just about the chance for another handout like all the other handouts to aborigines. Handouts for being aborigine nothing more and nothing less. Noel Pearson has spoken out against the culture of dependency on handouts. Personally I feel that "sorry" on it's own is useless pandering to a group who feels that their guilt will be washed away for past sins of their forefathers. "Sorry" to the aborigines without compensation might seem like a good idea but I doubt it will change one iota of what difficulties they are facing in coming to terms with the modern world. Compensation on its own (we are talking about money right?) will never be enough. The Jewish sufferers of the holocaust and their offspring are currently being compensated by Germany. Does that really change what has happened? In the end, it seems to me that compensation is more about todays society trying to come to terms with the past than about anything that will benefit the "stolen generation". Those who feel guilty about the history of the "stolen generation" need to get a sense of perspective and realize that the moral values that guided society and public policy in the past are not the moral values of the present.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning Lexcen. Glad to see you up and about. I sometimes suspect that your hours are as strange as my own!

I have to leave for work in a moment, so will respond tonight.