Saying ‘Sorry’ Fifty Years Hence? The Stolen Generations, the Northern Territory Intervention, and New Paternalism


by Sarah Clarke

Executive Summary

  • In response to the findings of a 2006 NT State Inquiry into child sex abuse, and its report entitled Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle Little Children are Sacred (LCAS), the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) was launched in June 2007.
  • To attack social ‘dysfunction’, the measures radically increased government control over 73 Indigenous communities, the measures only applied to Aboriginal people and suspended Part II of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
  • The NTER received wide criticism for adopting a ‘top-down’ approach to policymaking, and employing the ‘For Their Own Good’ rhetoric of past paternalistic policies that created the ‘Stolen Generations’.
  • In 1997 the Bringing Them Home Report documented the findings of an Inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their families, the results caused national division over an appropriate response and the need for an official government ‘apology’.
  • The assimilation/removal policies of the twentieth century allowed Aboriginal children to be forcibly removed from their families, with the express interest of ‘breeding out’ Aboriginality, and also under the auspices of ‘child welfare’.
  • Like the removal policies the NTER purported to operate in the interest of ‘child welfare’ ‘protection’, launched highly controversial measures including blanket bans on alcohol and pornography, income management and welfare quarantining, and compulsory government acquisition of Aboriginal townships.
  • The current government has launched a new package to renew and redesign the Intervention for another ten years.  The new measures have been labeled ‘racist’, with parallels again drawn between the legacies of the assimilation policies to act as a warning.

On 21 June 2007 Prime Minister John Howard, and Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough, declared the sexual abuse of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory (NT) a ‘national emergency’.  They announced a ‘dramatic and significant Commonwealth intervention’, deployed with the help of the army; its measures would radically increase government control over 73 communities in the NT.  Summits, reviews and reports had long demanded action, yet the administration attributed the new urgency to the findings of one report.  Made public just days earlier, Little Children are Sacred (LCAS) documented the results of a 2006 state Inquiry into child sex abuse in NT’s Indigenous communities.  It deemed the abuse was ‘common, widespread and grossly under-reported’, and The Australian called the document a shocking exposé of the ‘toxic levels of sexual abuse now seen in the bush’.  Howard predicted Australians would not only be ‘appalled by its contents’, but expectant of ‘the responsible assumption of authority by a government’ to protect vulnerable children.  The Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) or ‘the Intervention’ was deployed immediately, and gained parliamentary officialdom in August 2007.  Despite the LCAS emphatic recommendation for ‘effective consultation’ with communities, measures were introduced without warning.  The shock implementation sparked anger and debate amongst Indigenous people and the wider Australian community alike.

The non-consultative imposition of ‘child welfare’ policy was not a virgin experience for Aboriginal people.  A decade earlier, the Bringing Them Home Report (BTH) retrospectively detailed twentieth century measures that enabled forced removal of Indigenous children from their families, and subsequently produced ‘The Stolen Generations’.  Heated debate emerged over how to address past wrongs, and consequently cast doubt upon the representation of Australia’s colonial history.  A belief that removal was prescribed for ‘their own good’ had shaped the policy decisions.  Despite the uncomfortable legacy of such measures, the Howard administration – and successive governments – have attracted criticism for employing a similar ‘top-down’ approach in creating and supporting the NTER.

With the original NT plan set to expire in June 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has committed to extension and redesign of the program through new Stronger Futures legislation currently with the Senate.  This second stage has already attracted concerns over a new wave of ‘paternalism’ that restores the racist ideology of the past.  A look at the underlying policies responsible for the Stolen Generations, the aims of their implementation and the resultant divide in national opinion, illustrates a dangerous pedigree for prescriptive Australian policymaking.

The ‘The Stolen Generations’ and the ‘Aboriginal Problem’

Now ubiquitous in Australia, historian Peter Read introduced the term ‘Stolen Generations’ in 1981, when he documented available records of children who were ‘taken away from their parents’ in NSW between 1883 and 1969.  Key indigenous agencies had increasingly voiced concern over a public and governmental ignorance of Australia’s history, and gained national credence in 1995 with a National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. Bringing Them Home was tabled in Parliament on 26 May 1997.  Testimonies from 535 Indigenous people were examined, concluding that between ‘one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were removed from their families’ in the period of 1910 – 1970.

The removal policies and practices had negative multi-generational effects for the Aboriginal children, ‘stolen’ from loving families and dispossessed of culture and identity.  By the late nineteenth century the ‘full blood’ Aboriginal population was in decline, and people of mixed descent – termed ‘half castes’ – were increasing in number.  Attributed to Social Darwinist ideology prevalent at the time, there was an assumption that the ‘full blood’ would eventually die out.  Policymakers faced a dilemma.  The ‘Aboriginal Problem’ deliberated what role people with some ‘white blood’ should have in Australian society.  A haphazard process to ‘merge’ the half-caste children into the white population began in 1869, when the Victorian Aborigines Protection Act established the first ‘Aborigines Protection Board’.  Excepting Tasmania – who had segregated most Indigenous residents on to Cape Barren Island – the NT and all states enacted ‘protectionist’ policies by 1911.  The ‘welfare’ of Aboriginal people rested with government ‘Protection Boards’ and ‘Chief Protectors’ and their control was total; marriage, employment, residence and education were strictly regulated.  Protectors in Western Australia, South Australia and later Queensland, were legal guardians of all ‘Aboriginal or half caste children’, displacing the rights of biological parents entirely.  In the NT, if the Protector saw it ‘necessary or desirable in the interests of the Aboriginal or half caste’ he could gain custody.  To facilitate entrance into the ‘general population’, children were apprenticed into domestic or manual labour, or relocated to orphanages, educational institutions and corrective facilities.

In April 1937 the Protectors met for The Initial Conference of the Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities, a more focused assimilation was to be adopted instead of ‘passive’ merging:  ‘the destiny of the natives of aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth’.  Outspoken WA Protector AO Neville commended his own state for its 1936 Native Administration Act, in which precise definitions pertaining to the ‘amount’ of blood made it more straightforward to classify ‘mixed-descent’ in pursuance of overall absorption.  He deemed assimilation inevitable, with increasing ‘native’ numbers ‘sooner or later’ they ‘must become merged’.  The responsibility was successful facilitation of the process, and the first task was to remove children from what the South Australian Protector called the ‘cruel surroundings of black camps’.  Neville explained children should be ‘trained’ to ‘white standards’ – or at the very least to read, write, count and ‘enter into an agreement with an employer’.  The first state to reflect the new consensus was New South Wales; in 1940 their Protection Board became the ‘Welfare Board’, all jurisdictions followed suit.  Theoretically, children had to be deemed ‘neglected’ or ‘uncontrollable’ to effect removal.  Once taken away Aboriginal children became wards of the Welfare Board, and were increasingly fostered to non-Indigenous families or adopted at birth.  This ‘complete removal’ was believed to allow them the best chance of assimilation.

Following the third Conference in 1951, Paul Hasluck the Federal Minister for Territories, relayed the meeting’s discussions to the House of Representatives, it had recognised ‘that the noble savage can benefit from measures taken to … lead him into civilized ways of life’.  Assimilation was not understood as a ‘suppression of the aboriginal culture’; instead it was deemed inevitable that ‘native people will grow into the society in which, by force of history, they are bound to live.’  This notion of pursuing the ‘absorption’ and end of a race through prescriptive policy attracted calls of genocide.  Peter Read stated the link in 1981, and Indigenous organisations made similar calls, but BTH made it explicit.  It found Australia had breached its obligations under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the 1948 Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which held that a constituent of the crime included the forcible transfer of children from one racial group to another.  BTH concluded a ‘history of gross violations of human rights’ had that included ‘systematic racial discrimination and genocide’ under international law; it put forward 54 recommendations to assist families to be traced, create methods for handling records, embark upon archival projects, and provide ‘reparation’.  The latter aspect urged an official apology from all Australian Parliaments and agencies that had implemented the policies, and requested guarantees against repetition, rehabilitation measures and monetary compensation.

Wars of Words

In 1993 conservative historian Geoffrey Blainey said a ‘swing of the pendulum’ had changed how Australians viewed their colonial past. The representation of history had moved from one that had been ‘too self-congratulatory’ to an ‘opposite extreme…more unreal and decidedly jaundiced’.  The latter angle was attributed to left-wing politicians and revisionist ‘Black Armband’ historians who emphasised Indigenous dispossession, past injustices and violence.  On the contrary, conservative politicians and historians wore a ‘White Blindfold’, through which they questioned the scale of violence and mistreatment, and accused the left of promoting a ‘guilt industry’.  This apparently overshadowed the achievements of settler history, and John Howard warned against yielding to the ‘temptation…to read history backwards’ thereby imposing contemporary standards and priorities on the past.

The wide publicity of the BTH report, and discord over the truth and gravity of its findings caught the attention of both sides.  Anthropologist Ron Brunton called it one of the ‘most intellectually and morally irresponsible reports’ ever presented, and conservatives continued to question the scale of family breakups, and deny claims of genocide.  The most scathing attack came from former journalist come historian, Keith Windschuttle, who labeled the Stolen Generations a ‘fabrication’ of ‘historically false’ claims that undermined the ‘character of the nation’.  The Howard government expressed a ‘deep and sincere regret’ but steadfastly refused to apologise, or to attribute any responsibility to current Australians over the actions of past policy, also denying the report’s recommendation for financial compensation.  Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Senator Herron, insisted that the removal policies were ‘benign in intent’ and ‘legal’ at the time.  While the logic appeared misguided to modern eyes, it was repeatedly asserted that twentieth century policymakers had designed the measures with the perceived ‘best interests’ and ‘welfare’ of vulnerable children in mind.  Regardless of interpretation, ‘Protectors’ or ‘Boards’ did determine the future of Aboriginal children, and they did so under the auspices of government-sanctioned ‘Protection’ and then ‘Welfare’ policy.

Recognition of these practices produced what Michael Wooldridge called a ‘big scar on the conscience of Australia’.  The fact that debate lingered into a new century – still sparking vitriol – demonstrates the permanency of such a wound.  With opinion still divided over how modern Australians should feel about the deeds of past governments, new Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said sorry on 13 February 2008.  He apologised for this ‘blemished chapter in our nation’s history’, and more particularly for the ‘profound grief, suffering and loss’ caused by the ‘removal of children’.

The Little Children in Australia’s Hurricane Katrina

Ten years after the revelations of BTH, the plight of Indigenous Australians was again thrust into the mainstream.  This time, rather than forcing a confrontation with the past, the LCAS report made an uncomfortable display of problems occurring in real time.  Co-chairing a 2006 Board of Inquiry into the ‘Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse’, Alyawarr woman Pat Anderson and Rex Wild QC found allegations of serious child abuse in NT communities to be correct.  They spoke with locals in 45 communities, gathered information from 260 meetings and investigated 65 written submissions.  While the cited examples of abuse were disturbing and the rates alarming, the authors emphasised findings were not ‘novel or unexpected’.  They attributed the proportion of the problem to a long legacy of failed government policy and the slow deterioration of Aboriginal culture.  The report stressed that ‘the number of perpetrators’ was small, and denied the myths that offenders were all Aboriginal – or just Aboriginal males – or that sexual violence was part of Aboriginal law.  It held, that in any society the same ‘breakdowns’ accumulate to produce a situation like the one facing the NT.  To attack the ‘underlying dysfunctionality’ 97 detailed recommendations were made, with initiatives in the areas of health, alcoholism, drug and substance abuse, gambling, pornography, unemployment, education, housing, government responses, leadership, law, rehabilitation and community efforts.

The government response was framed in terms of a crisis; Howard likened the situation to the USA’s devastating Hurricane Katrina.  They would launch the NTER, with in excess of $500 million to be spent in the first year, and a radical intensification of government control in 73 ‘prescribed’ communities.  Assisted by the army and police it began immediately, and the legislation necessary to implement all measures gained bi-partisan Parliamentary approval in August 2007.  In almost record time, five bills went through parliament – with the only opposition coming from the Greens.  The most significant features of the package include: the compulsory acquisition of townships through 5 year leases; the exclusion of customary law in sentencing decisions; blanket bans on the sale and use of alcohol and pornography; forced ‘on ground’ cleanups by welfare recipients; the scrapping of an existing permit system governing entry into Aboriginal lands; investigative health checks for children under 16; broad reforms that would quarantine 50% of welfare income for use on ‘food and other essentials’, while also linking payments to school attendance.  The government acknowledged the proposed response was ‘interventionist’, but maintained that the NT government had the report 8 weeks and failed to act, and a ‘highly prescriptive approach’ was now critical to fulfill the government’s responsibility to its children.  This ‘duty of care’, according to Howard, trumped ‘constitutional niceties’ or the need to search for a ‘cherished consensus’ on a ‘culturally appropriate’ response.  Subsequently, despite the overarching recommendation of LCAS for ‘genuine consultation’ with Aboriginal people, the measures were formulated and imposed with no consultation.

Controversially, actions performed pursuant to three of the new Acts were excluded from the operation of the Part II of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (RDA) which prohibits the rights of a particular race being limited by any Australian law.  Section 8 of the RDA provides that actions classified a ‘special measures’ are excepted from its reach, these have to be actions taken to advance the position of a certain racial group, or individual by redressing ‘historical disadvantage’ and improving the lives of that group by conferring some noticeable benefits upon them.  The NTER squarely targeted Aboriginal people, but with the intentions of ‘protection’ and improving the lives of children, allowed the provisions to be categorized ‘special measures’.  Furthering what historian Richard Broome has called a culture of ‘blame the victim’, and despite the LCAS’ assertion that the actual number of offenders was small, the NTER measures applied to whole communities regardless of whether a crime had been committed.  Effectively, ‘prescribed’ communities were denied the protections of the RDA, making rights of every person within them fundamentally different to those enjoyed by other Australians.

Another War of Words

Nobody questioned the need to act, but the methods of the NTER bore impassioned and sustained debate. The Age described a poll grab ‘rammed through on the eve of an election’ after years of inaction; while, education expert Chris Sarra declared the problem was not the intention of the NTER, but the fact that is was ‘born out of a filthy, toxic genesis’.  The LCAS authors have continuously expressed disappointment at the response; Pat Anderson said ‘it was almost literally designed on the back of an envelope, over two or three days’, whilst her co-author recently lamented ‘another four years wasted’ in which the government failed to properly implement any of their 97 recommendations.  There is no consensus within the Aboriginal population, or the wider Australian public, over exactly what the appropriate response would have been.  ‘Flabbergasted’ by the criticism the NTER was receiving, indigenous leader and former ALP president Warren Mundine applauded any attempts to improve the safety of Aboriginal children, and prominent indigenous scholar Marcia Langton attacked critics and described the move as ‘the greatest opportunity’ to ‘overcome the systemic levels of disadvantage’.  Writer Raymond Gaita argued, however, that no amount of money or resolve to ‘protect’ children could justify ‘the lack of consultation and the reckless disregard for the consequences of such a dramatic but ill prepared intervention’.  A number of groups and organisations have formed with the sole agenda of ending the program, the most vocal – Concerned Australians – is made up of well-known Australians including former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, lawyer Larissa Behrendt, former judge Alastair Nicholson and rights advocate Patrick Dodson.

The main criticisms have been leveled at the blanket application of the initial NTER, the suspension of the RDA, and the manner in which measures like ‘income management’ shamed everyone residing in a prescribed community.  Again, like in 1997, Australian policymakers attracted calls of violating international human rights.  Professor James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the ‘Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People’, visited the Territory in 2009 and concluded that the NTER legislation was incompatible with our international obligations.  The recommendation was to ‘fully purge the NTER of its racially discriminatory character and conform it to relevant international standards, through a process genuinely driven by the voices of the affected indigenous people’.  Successive Rudd and Gillard governments have conducted consultations, and some of the most controversial elements of the legislation have been amended.  In October 2008 the government agreed to pay rent for acquisitions made through five-year leases and requested the NT Valuer-General to determine reasonable amounts; in June 2009 legislation provided income management clients with a right to individual appeal; and, in 2010, welfare quarantining was extended across the NT, and rules established to allow NTER residents to apply for exemptions.  In June 2010 the applicable provisions were redesigned as ‘special measures’ or non-discriminatory actions under the RDA, and legislation was passed to reinstate the Act from December 2010 onwards.

Regardless of changes and varying names, an independent health impact assessment by the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association (AIDA) concluded that any benefits the NTER produced in the area of physical health and safety, were already ‘outweighed by the intervention’s negative impact on psychological health, spirituality and cultural integrity’.  As to whether the measures have ‘worked’ to physically protect vulnerable children, critic Jon Altman says that the ‘plethora of recent evaluative reports’ – be they sanctioned by government or independent – yield an undecipherable mix of yes, no and maybe.  Debate continues as to whether the ‘crisis’ has been affected at all by the response.

Stronger Futures, Fifty Years Hence?

Despite ongoing criticism, the current government insists children have been safer and lives have improved in prescribed residents.  With the original policies intended to last five years, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin and Prime Minister Julia Gillard, will continue the program for a further ten through its Stronger Futures package.  Prior to launching its discussion paper in June 2011, and the unprecedented number of consultation meetings, Macklin acknowledged the ‘ongoing anger, fear and distrust among Indigenous people and communities’ over original NTER and committed to ‘genuine’ partnership.  The resulting bills of the Stronger Futures package are with the Senate now.  Already condemned by Amnesty International as a ‘re-badged’ NTER, the consultations process has been called a ‘predetermined’ ‘tokenistic’ charade; critics are demanding the three bills be scrapped.  Scornfully, Malcolm Fraser stated ‘I think AO Neville…would be proud of this legislation. It is racist. It is paternalistic’.  Despite the malign legacies of the past, and widespread rejection of the NTER and subsequent measures, it seems that hindsight has still not killed prescriptive policymaking in Australia.  At the 1937 Conference AO Neville told the group that any long-range policy – like ‘absorption’ – should be prefaced with a question:  ‘What will be the position, say, fifty years hence; it is not so much the position today that has to be considered’.  This begs the question, will another new Australian government and public be saying sorry fifty years hence?


Useful Reports and Overviews:

Bringing Them Home Report, 1997.

Us Taken-Away Kids: Commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Bringing them home report, 2007.

Little Children are Sacred Report, 2007.

Report of the NTER Review Board, 2008.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People:  Observations on the Northern Territory Emergency Response in Australia, 2010.

Concerned Australians: Children of the Intervention, 2011.

Northern Territory Emergency Response: Evaluation Report, 2011.

Stronger Futures in the NT: Report on Consultations, 2011.

© APH Network and contributors 2011. All rights reserved.


Citation: Sarah Clarke, Saying ‘Sorry’ Fifty Years Hence? The Stolen Generations, the Northern Territory Intervention, and New Paternalism. Australian Policy and History. October 2011.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/saying-‘sorry’-fifty-years-hence

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/saying-%e2%80%98sorry%e2%80%99-fifty-years-hence