Stolen Generations

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"Stolen Children" redirects here. For the film, see The Stolen Children.
A portrayal entitled The Taking of the Children on the 1999 Great Australian Clock, Queen Victoria Building, Sydney, by artist Chris Cook.

The Stolen Generations (also known as Stolen Children) were the children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families by the Australian Federal and State government agencies and church missions, under acts of their respective parliaments. The removals of those referred to as "half-caste" children were conducted in the period between approximately 1905[1] and 1969,[2][3] although in some places mixed-race children were still being taken into the 1970s.[4][5][6] Documentary evidence, such as newspaper articles and reports to parliamentary committees, suggest a range of rationales. Apparent motivations include child protection, the belief that the Aboriginal people would die out, given their catastrophic population decline after white contact,[7] and the belief that full-blooded Aboriginal people resented miscegenation and the mixed-race children fathered and abandoned by white men.[8]

A few historians dispute that substantial numbers of mixed-blood Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their families. They contend that some children were removed mainly to protect them from neglect and abuse.[9][10] They note that in this period, the state also removed white children from their families as part of protection programs, often placing them in foster care or institutions.

Emergence of the child removal policy[edit]

Numerous 19th- and early 20th-century contemporaneous documents indicate that the policy of removing mixed-race Aboriginal children from their mothers related to an assumption that the Aboriginals were dying off. Given their catastrophic population decline after white contact, whites assumed that the full-blood tribal Aboriginal population would be unable to sustain itself, and was doomed to inevitable extinction. The idea expressed by A.O. Neville and others as late as 1930 was that mixed-race children could be trained to work in white society, and over generations would marry white and be assimilated into the society.[11][12][13]

Euro-Australians believed that their civilisation was superior to that of Aborigines, based on comparative technological advancement. Some adherents to these beliefs considered any proliferation of mixed-descent children (labelled half-castes,[12][14] 'crossbreeds', quadroons and octoroons[15]) to be a threat to the nature and stability of the prevailing civilisation, or to a perceived racial or civilisational "heritage".[16] For example, in the 1930s, the Northern Territory Protector of Natives, Dr. Cecil Cook, perceived the continuing increase in the numbers of "half-caste" children as a problem. He believed that the full-blood Aborigines were doomed to extinction, and that assimilation into white society of mixed-race children was the best solution:[17] was:

Generally by the fifth and invariably by the sixth generation, all native characteristics of the Australian Aborigine are eradicated. The problem of our half-castes will quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race, and the swift submergence of their progeny in the white.

Similarly, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, A. O. Neville, wrote in an article for The West Australian in 1930:

One factor, however, seems clear; atavism is not in evidence so far as colour is concerned. Eliminate in future the full-blood and the white and one common blend will remain. Eliminate the full blood and permit the white admixture and eventually the race will become white.[18]

Current politicians such as Peter Howson have noted that there is documentation showing that officials wanted to remove some mixed-race Aboriginal children from their parents for child protection, because of known incidents of abuse, neglect, and abandonment.[19] Walter Baldwin Spencer[20] reported in the 1920s that many mixed-descent children were born to Aboriginal women and white fathers; the latter worked on construction of The Ghan railway and left the women and children when the project was completed. Some of the mixed-race children were abandoned at early ages with no one to provide for them. The state organized for action to provide for and protect such children.[21]

Policy in practice[edit]

The Victorian Aboriginal Protection Act 1869 included the earliest legislation to authorize child removal from Aboriginal parents. The Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines had been advocating such powers since 1860. Passage of the Act gave the colony of Victoria a wide suite of powers over Aboriginal and 'half-caste' persons, including the forcible removal of children, especially 'at risk' girls.[22] Through the late 19th and early 20th century, similar policies and legislation were adopted by other states and territories, such as the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld), the Aborigines Ordinance 1918 (NT), the Aborigines Act 1934 (SA), and the 1936 Native Administration Act (WA).[23]

As a result of such legislation, states arranged widespread removal of (primarily) mixed-race children from their Aboriginal mothers. In addition, appointed Aboriginal protectors in each state exercised wide-ranging guardianship powers over Aborigines up to the age of 16 or 21, often determining where they could live and/or work. Policemen or other agents of the state (some designated as 'Aboriginal Protection Officers') were given the power to locate and transfer babies and children of mixed descent from their mothers or families or communities into institutions for care. In these Australian states and territories, institutions (both government and missionary) for half-caste children were established in the early decades of the 20th century to care and educate the mixed-race children taken from their families.[24] Examples of such institutions include Moore River Native Settlement in Western Australia, Doomadgee Aboriginal Mission in Queensland, Ebenezer Mission in Victoria, and Wellington Valley Mission in New South Wales.

The exact number of children removed is unknown. Estimates of numbers have been widely disputed. The Bringing Them Home Report says that "at least 100,000" children were removed from their parents. This figure was estimated by multiplying the Aboriginal population in 1994 (303,000), by the report's maximum estimate of "one in three" Aboriginal persons separated from their families. The report stated that "between one in three and one in ten" children were separated from their families, not one in three persons in the total population. Given differing populations over a long period of time, different policies at different times in different states (which also resulted in different definitions of target children), and incomplete records, accurate figures are difficult to establish. Australian historian Robert Manne suggests "approximately 20,000 to 25,000" were removed between 1910 and 1970, based on the Australian Bureau of Statistics report of 1994.[25] Keith Windschuttle and other historians have argued for a much lower figure.

The Bringing Them Home Report stated:

Nationally we can conclude with confidence that between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities in the period from approximately 1910 until 1970. In certain regions and in certain periods the figure was undoubtedly much greater than one in ten. In that time not one family has escaped the effects of forcible removal (confirmed by representatives of the Queensland and WA Governments in evidence to the Inquiry). Most families have been affected, in one or more generations, by the forcible removal of one or more children.[26]

The report closely examined the distinctions between "forcible removal," "removal under threat or duress," "official deception," "uninformed voluntary release," and "voluntary release.".[27] The evidence indicated that in numerous cases, children were brutally and forcibly removed from their parent or parents,[28] possibly even from the hospital shortly after birth, when identified as mixed-race babies.[29] Aboriginal Protection Officers often made the judgement to remove certain children. In some cases, families were required to sign legal documents to relinquish care to the state. In Western Australia, the Aborigines Act 1905 removed the legal guardianship of Aboriginal parents. It made all their children legal wards of the state, so the government did not require parental permission to relocate the mixed-race children to institutions.[30]

In 1915, in New South Wales, the Aborigines Protection Amending Act 1915 gave the Aborigines' Protection Board authority to remove Aboriginal children "without having to establish in court that they were neglected." At the time, some members of Parliament objected to the NSW amendment; one member stated it enabled the board to "steal the child away from its parents." At least two members argued that the amendment would result in children being subjected to unpaid labour [at institutions or farms] tantamount to "slavery".[31] Writing in the 21st century, Professor Peter Read said that Board members, in recording reasons for removal of children, noted simply "For being Aboriginal."[31] But the number of files bearing such a comment appear to be on the order of either one or two, with two others being noted only with "Aboriginal".[32]

In 1911, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in South Australia, William Garnet South, reportedly "lobbied for the power to remove Aboriginal children without a court hearing because the courts sometimes refused to accept that the children were neglected or destitute." South argued that "all children of mixed descent should be treated as neglected."[33] His lobbying reportedly played a part in the enactment of the Aborigines Act 1911. This designated his position as the legal guardian of every Aboriginal child in South Australia, not only the so-called "half-castes."[33]

The Bringing Them Home report identified instances of official misrepresentation and deception, such as when caring and able parents were incorrectly described by Aboriginal Protection Officers as not being able to properly provide for their children. In other instances, parents were told by government officials that their child or children had died, even though this was not the case. One first-hand account referring to events in 1935 stated:

I was at the post office with my Mum and Auntie [and cousin]. They put us in the police ute and said they were taking us to Broome. They put the mums in there as well. But when we'd gone [about ten miles (16 km)] they stopped, and threw the mothers out of the car. We jumped on our mothers' backs, crying, trying not to be left behind. But the policemen pulled us off and threw us back in the car. They pushed the mothers away and drove off, while our mothers were chasing the car, running and crying after us. We were screaming in the back of that car. When we got to Broome they put me and my cousin in the Broome lock-up. We were only ten years old. We were in the lock-up for two days waiting for the boat to Perth.[27]

The report discovered that removed children were, in most cases, placed into institutional facilities operated by religious or charitable organisations. A significant number, particularly females, were "fostered" out. Children taken to such institutions were trained to be assimilated to Anglo-Australian culture. Policies included punishment for speaking their local indigenous languages. The intention was to educate them for a different future and to prevent their being socialised in Aboriginal cultures. The boys were generally trained as agricultural labourers and the girls as domestic servants; these were the chief occupations of many Europeans at the time in the largely rural areas outside cities.[23]

A common aspect of the removals was the failure by these institutions to keep records of the actual parentage of the child, or such details as the date or place of birth. As is stated in the report:

… the physical infrastructure of missions, government institutions and children's homes was often very poor and resources were insufficient to improve them or to keep the children adequately clothed, fed and sheltered.[34]

The children were taken into care purportedly to protect them from neglect and abuse. But, the report said that among the 502 inquiry witnesses, 17% of female witnesses and 7.7% of male witnesses reported having suffered a sexual assault while in an institution, at work, or while living with a foster or adoptive family.[34]

In 2015, many of the recommendations of Bringing Them home have yet to be fulfilled.[35]

Effects on members of the Stolen Generations[edit]

The social and emotional effects of forced removal on the subject have been measured and found to be quite severe.[36] Although the stated aim of the "resocialisation" programme was to improve the integration of Aboriginal people into modern [European-Australian] society, a study conducted in Melbourne and cited in the official report found that there was no tangible improvement in the social position of "removed" Aboriginal people as compared to "non-removed." Particularly in the areas of employment and post-secondary education, the removed children had about the same results as those who were not removed. In the early decades of the program, post-secondary education was limited for most Australians, but the removed children lagged behind their white contemporaries as educational opportunities improved.[36]

Most notably, the study indicated that removed Aboriginal people were less likely to have completed a secondary education, three times as likely to have acquired a police record, and were twice as likely to use illicit drugs as were Aboriginal people who grew up in their ethnic community.[36] The only notable advantage "removed" Aboriginal people achieved was a higher average income. The report noted this was likely due to the increased urbanisation of removed individuals, and greater access to welfare payments than for Aboriginal people living in remote communities.[36] There seemed little evidence that removed mixed-race Aborigines had been successful in gaining better work even in urbanised areas.

By around the age of 18 the children were released from government control. In cases where their files were available, individuals were sometimes allowed to view their own files. According to the testimony of one Aboriginal person:

I was requested to attend at the Sunshine Welfare Offices, where they formerly (sic) discharged me from State ward ship. It took the Senior Welfare Officer a mere 20 minutes to come clean, and tell me everything that my heart had always wanted to know...that I was of 'Aboriginal descent', that I had a Natural mother, father, three brothers and a sister, who were alive...He placed in front of me 368 pages of my file, together with letters, photos and birthday cards. He informed me that my surname would change back to my Mother's maiden name of Angus.[37]

The Bringing Them Home report condemned the policy of disconnecting children from their "cultural heritage." One witness said to the commission:

I've got everything that could be reasonably expected: a good home environment, education, stuff like that, but that's all material stuff. It's all the non-material stuff that I didn't have — the lineage… You know, you've just come out of nowhere; there you are.[27]

On the other hand, some Aboriginal people do not condemn the government's past actions. They believed that the government intended to offer them opportunities for education and an eventual job. According to the testimony of one Aboriginal person:

I guess the government didn't mean it as something bad but our mothers weren't treated as people having feelings…Who can imagine what a mother went through? But you have to learn to forgive.[38]

I was put in a mission dormitory when I was eight, nine. I cried for two nights, then I was right with the rest of those kids. We weren't stolen; our family was there. It was a good system. Or a better system than now. At least my generation learnt to read and write properly.[39]

Public awareness and recognition[edit]

Historian Professor Peter Read, then at the Australian National University, was the first to use the phrase 'stolen generation.' He published a magazine article on the topic with this title, based on his research. He expanded the article into a book, The Stolen Generations (1981).[3] Widespread awareness of the Stolen Generations, and the practices which created it, grew in the late 1980s through the efforts of Aboriginal and white activists, artists and musicians (Archie Roach's "Took the Children Away" and Midnight Oil's "The Dead Heart" being examples of the latter). The Mabo v Queensland (No 2) case (known as the "Mabo case") attracted great media and public attention. It resulted in more media attention to all issues related to the government treatment of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia, and most notably the Stolen Generations of their mixed-race children.

In early 1995 Rob Riley, an activist with the Aboriginal Legal Service, published Telling Our Story. It described the large-scale negative effects of past government policies that resulted in the removal of thousands of mixed-race Aboriginal children from their families and their being reared in a variety of conditions in missions, orphanages, reserves, and white foster homes.[40]

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families commenced in May 1995, presided over by Sir Ronald Wilson, the president of the (Australian) Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, and Mick Dodson, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC). During the ensuing 17 months, the Inquiry visited every state and Territory in Australia, heard testimony from 535 Aboriginal Australians, and received submissions of evidence from more than 600 more. In April 1997 the SREOC released its official Bringing Them Home Report.

Between the commissioning of the National Inquiry and the release of the final report in 1997, the government of John Howard had replaced the Keating government. At the Australian Reconciliation Convention in May 1997, Howard was quoted as saying, "Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies."[41]

Following publication of the report, the state parliaments of Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales, and the parliament of the Northern Territory passed formal apologies to the Aborigines affected. On 26 May 1998 the first "National Sorry Day" was held; reconciliation events were held nationally, and attended by a total of more than one million people. As public pressure continued to increase on the government, Howard drafted a motion of "deep and sincere regret over the removal of Aboriginal children from their parents," which was passed by the federal parliament in August 1999. Howard said that the Stolen Generation represented "...the most blemished chapter in the history of this country."[42]

Activists took the issue of the Stolen Generations to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. At its hearing on this subject in July 2000, the Commission on Human Rights strongly criticised the Howard government for its handling of issues related to the Stolen Generations. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination concluded its discussion of Australia's 12th report on its actions[43] by acknowledging "the measures taken to facilitate family reunion and to improve counselling and family support services for the victims," but expressed concern

"that the Commonwealth Government does not support a formal national apology and that it considers inappropriate the provision of monetary compensation for those forcibly and unjustifiably separated from their families, on the grounds that such practices were sanctioned by law at the time and were intended to 'assist the people whom they affected'."

The Committee recommended "that the State party consider the need to address appropriately the extraordinary harm inflicted by these racially discriminatory practices."[44]

Activists highlighted the Stolen Generations and related Aboriginal issues during the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics. They set up a large "Aboriginal Tent City" on the grounds of Sydney University to bring attention to Aboriginal issues in general. Cathy Freeman is an Aboriginal athlete who was chosen to light the Olympic flame and won the gold medal in the 400 metre sprint. In interviews, she said that her own grandmother was a victim of forced removal. The internationally successful rock group Midnight Oil attracted worldwide media interest by performing at the Olympic closing ceremony in black sweatsuits with the word "SORRY" emblazoned across them.[45]

In 2000, Phillip Knightley summed up the Stolen Generations in these terms:

This cannot be over-emphasized—the Australian government literally kidnapped these children from their parents as a matter of policy. White welfare officers, often supported by police, would descend on Aboriginal camps, round up all the children, separate the ones with light-coloured skin, bundle them into trucks and take them away. If their parents protested they were held at bay by police.[46]

Australian federal parliament apology[edit]

Kevin Rudd on screen in Federation Square, Melbourne, apologising to the stolen generations.
Crowds viewing a public broadcast of the federal parliament's apology in Elder Park, Adelaide.
Mike Rann, Premier of South Australia and President of federal Labor, at National Sorry Day in Adelaide to the stolen generations.
Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples. Taken at Parliament House, Canberra.

On 11 December 2007, the newly installed Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, announced that the government would make an apology to Indigenous Australians, the wording of which would be decided in consultation with Aboriginal leaders.[47] On 27 January 2008, Rudd announced that the apology would be made on or soon after the first day of parliament in Canberra, on 12 February.[48] The date was later set to 13 February, when it was ultimately issued.

Stances on the proposed apology[edit]

For more than a decade since the Bringing Them Home report was submitted to Liberal prime minister John Howard, he and his coalition colleagues consistently rejected calls for a formal government apology. (Coalition government members stated that they were personally sorry for the outcomes of the policy). They were concerned that a formal apology could be construed as an admission of deliberate wrongdoing, rather than acknowledge that the originally stated intentions of the government were believed to be in the interests of the children and their futures. Howard and his supporters were concerned that such an apology would suggest that the government would be admitting liability in any duty-of-care legal proceedings.

When the new Labor prime minister announced his intention to issue an apology, the Liberal Party split on the issue in 2008. Its leader Brendan Nelson initially said that an apology would risk encouraging a "culture of guilt" in Australia. But, other senior Liberals expressed support for an apology, e.g., Malcolm Turnbull, Peter Costello, Bill Heffernan and former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser.[49] Former Liberal minister Judi Moylan said: "I think as a nation we owe an apology. We shouldn't be thinking about it as an individual apology — it's an apology that is coming from the nation state because it was governments that did these things."[50]

Nelson later said that he supported the government apology.[51] Following a party meeting, the Liberal Party as a whole expressed its support for an apology, and it achieved bipartisan consensus. Brendan Nelson stated: "I, on behalf of the Coalition, of the alternative government of Australia, are [sic] providing in-principle support for the offer of an apology to the forcibly removed generations of Aboriginal children."[52]

Lyn Austin, chairwoman of Stolen Generations Victoria, expressed why she believed an apology was necessary, recounting her experiences as a stolen child:

I thought I was being taken just for a few days. I can recall seeing my mother standing on the side of the road with her head in her hands, crying, and me in the black FJ Holden wondering why she was so upset. A few hundred words can't fix this all but it's an important start and it's a beginning[...] I see myself as that little girl, crying myself to sleep at night, crying and wishing I could go home to my family. Everything's gone, the loss of your culture, the loss of your family, all these things have a big impact.[53]

Apology text[edit]

At 9:30am on 13 February 2008, Kevin Rudd presented the apology to Indigenous Australians as a motion to be voted on by the house. The form of the apology was as follows:[54][55]

I move:

That today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
We reflect on their past mistreatment.
We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations—this blemished chapter in our nation's history.
The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.
We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.
For the pain, suffering, and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.
For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.
We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.
A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.
A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement, and economic opportunity.
A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.
A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.
— Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia, 13 February 2008, at a sitting of the Parliament of Australia.

The text of the apology did not refer to compensation to Aboriginal people as a whole, nor to members of the Stolen Generations specifically. Rudd followed the apology with a 20-minute speech to the house about the need for this action.[56][57] The government's apology and his speech were widely applauded among both Indigenous Australians and the non-indigenous general public.[58][59]

Opposition leader's parliamentary reply and reaction[edit]

Crowds turn their backs part way through Brendan Nelson's apology reply.[60]

The Leader of the Opposition Brendan Nelson also delivered a 20-minute speech. He endorsed the apology but in his speech Nelson referred to the 'under-policing' of child welfare in Aboriginal communities, as well as a host of social ills blighting the lives of Aboriginal people.

The Alice Springs Crown Prosecutor Nanette Rogers with great courage revealed to the nation in 2006 the case of a four-year-old girl drowned while being raped by a teenager who had been sniffing petrol. She told us of the two children – one a baby – sexually assaulted by two men while their mothers were off drinking alcohol. Another baby was stabbed by a man trying to kill her mother.[61]

Nelson's speech was considered controversial and received mixed reactions. Thousands of people who had gathered in public spaces in Canberra and Melbourne to hear it, turned their backs on the screens that broadcast Nelson speaking. In Perth people booed and jeered until the screen was switched off. In Parliament House's Great Hall, elements of the audience began a slow clap, with some finally turning their backs. There were similar reactions and walk-outs in Sydney and elsewhere.[60]

After the ceremony the House of Representatives unanimously adopted the proposed apology motion. Six members of Nelson's opposition caucus — Don Randall, Sophie Mirabella, Dennis Jensen, Wilson Tuckey, Luke Simpkins, and Alby Schultz — left the House in protest at the apology.[60] Peter Dutton was the only Opposition front bencher to abstain from the apology.[62]


Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission gave a speech formally responding to the government's apology.[63]

Senate consideration[edit]

Later that day, the Senate considered a motion for an identical apology. The Leader of the Greens, Senator Bob Brown, attempted to amend the motion to have it include words committing parliament to offering compensation to those who suffered loss under past indigenous policies, but was opposed by all the other parties. The original motion was passed unanimously.[64][65]

Legal status and compensation[edit]

The legal circumstances regarding the Stolen Generations remain unclear. Although some compensation claims are pending, a court cannot rule on behalf of plaintiffs simply because they were removed, because, at the time, such removals were authorised under Australian law. Australian federal and state governments' statute law and associated regulations provided for the removal from their birth families and communities of known mixed-race Aboriginal children, or those who visibly appeared mixed.[citation needed]

The apology is not expected to have any legal effect on claims for compensation.[66]


Cubillo and Gunner[edit]

In the Federal Court of Australia cases of Cubillo and Gunner, their claims failed.[67] The presiding judge, Justice Maurice O'Loughlin, noted in his summary judgment that he was not ruling that there would never be valid cases for compensation with regard to the Stolen Generations, only that in these two specific cases he could not find evidence of illegal conduct by the officials involved.[68] Investigations revealed that Cubillo, aged eight years, was removed from a remote station in 1947 when her father went missing and her mother and grandmother were dead. Gunner, it turned out, had been sent to Alice Springs with the consent of his mother to get an education.[69]

Bruce Trevorrow[edit]

On 1 August 2007, in a decision in the Supreme Court of South Australia by Justice Thomas Gray, Bruce Trevorrow, a member of the Stolen Generation, was awarded $775,000 compensation.[70] The SA government announced that it would pay the compensation awarded to Trevorrow but at the same time, seek to review in the High Court to clarify the court's findings of law and fact.

Trevorrow did not have long to celebrate his victory in the courts. He died in Victoria on 20 June 2008, at the age of 51, less than a year after the court decision.

The West Australian newspaper reported Trevorrow's story as follows:

Mr. Trevorrow was separated from his mother in December 1957 after he was admitted to Adelaide's Children's Hospital with gastroenteritis. More than six months later, his mother wrote to the state's Aboriginal Protection Board, which had fostered him out, asking when she could have her son back. "I am writing to ask if you would let me know how Bruce is and how long before I can have him back home", she wrote in July 1958. "I have not forgot I got a baby in there". The Court was told the board lied to her, writing her son was "making good progress" and that the doctors still needed him for treatment.[71]

(See Bringing them Home, Appendix 6[72] for a listing and interpretation of South Australian acts regarding 'Aborigines' and Bringing them home education module[73] regarding relevant South Australian law and policy.)

Historical debates over the Stolen Generations[edit]

Nomenclature and debates over the use of "stolen"[edit]

Terms such as "stolen" were used in the context of children being taken from their families. For instance, the Hon P. McGarry, a member of the Parliament of New South Wales, objected to the Aborigines Protection Amending Act 1915 which authorised the Aborigines' Protection Board to remove Aboriginal children from their parents without having to establish cause. McGarry described the policy as "steal[ing] the child away from its parents".[31]

In 1924,[74] the Adelaide Sun reported, "The word 'stole' may sound a bit far-fetched but by the time we have told the story of the heart-broken Aboriginal mother we are sure the word will not be considered out of place."[75][76]

In most jurisdictions Indigenous Australians were "protected", effectively being made wards of the State.[77][78] The protection was done through each jurisdiction's Aboriginal Protection Board; in Victoria and Western Australia these boards were also responsible for applying what were known as Half-Caste Acts.

More recent usage has developed since Peter Read's publication of The Stolen Generations: The Removal of Aboriginal Children in New South Wales 1883 to 1969 (1981), which examined the history of these government actions.[3] The 1997 publication of the government's Bringing Them Home – Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families[79] heightened awareness of the Stolen Generations. The acceptance of the term in Australia is illustrated by 13 February 2008 formal apology to the Stolen Generations,[80] led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and passed by both houses of the Parliament of Australia. Previous apologies had been offered by State and Territory governments in the period 1997–2001.[81]

There is not consensus on the concept of the term "Stolen Generations," as some observers note that actions were taken under government law. Former Prime Minister John Howard did not believe the government should apologise. Then Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, John Herron disputed usage of the term in April 2000.[82] Others who dispute the validity of the term include: Peter Howson, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 1971–72 and Keith Windschuttle.[83] Others argue against these critics, responding to Windschuttle in particular.[84]

Main article: History wars

The Bringing Them Home report provided extensive details about the removal programs and their effects. But, because it questions the historic past of Australia, and the shortfall between the intentions of those involved and the actual results, the nature and extent of the removals continue to be debated within Australia. Some commentators question the findings and assert that the abuses were exaggerated, as were the numbers of children and families affected. Sir Ronald Wilson, former President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission and a Commissioner on the Inquiry, has noted that none of the more than 500 witnesses who appeared before the Inquiry was cross-examined. Anthropologist Ron Brunton also criticised the proceedings on this basis, as did the centre-right Liberal Party Federal Government, which was in power when the report was submitted.[85]

An Australian Federal Government submission has questioned the conduct of the Commission which produced the report, arguing that the Commission failed to critically appraise or test the claims on which it based the report and fails to distinguish between those separated from their families "with and without consent, and with and without good reason". Not only has the number of children removed from their parents been questioned (critics often quote the ten percent estimate, which they say does not constitute a 'generation'), but also the intent and effects of the government policy.[82]

Keith Windschuttle argued in his book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume Three: The Stolen Generations 1881-2008 (2009), that "not only is the charge of genocide unwarranted, but so is the term 'Stolen Generations'. Aboriginal Children were never removed from their families in order to put an end to Aboriginality or, indeed, to serve any improper government policy or program. The small numbers of Aboriginal child removals in the twentieth century were almost all based on traditional grounds of child welfare."[86]

In April 2000, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Herron tabled a report in the Australian Parliament that questioned whether or not there had been "Stolen Generations." It said that, as "only 10% of Aboriginal children" had been removed, they did not constitute an entire "generation." The report attracted media attention and protests.[87] Dr Herron apologised for the "understandable offence taken by some people" as a result of his comments, although he refused to alter the report as it had been tabled.

Historian Peter Read referred to the children affected as the "Stolen Generations." Robert Manne said that when people refer to the "generation that lost their lives in the First World War", we don't mean 50 per cent or 90 per cent of young people, but use it as a metaphor for a collective experience. Similarly, the Aboriginal community use the term to describe their collective suffering.[88]

Genocide debate[edit]

Sir Ronald Wilson, president of Australia's Human Rights Commission, alleges that the policies resulting in the Stolen Generations constitute attempted genocide by the government, as it was widely believed at the time that the Aborigines would die out.[89] In its 12th report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Australian Government denied that the removal policies and programs constituted a breach of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.[90]

Robert Manne argues that the expressed views of government bureaucrats, such as A.O. Neville, to assimilate the mixed-race children into the white population by means of "breeding out the colour", and therefore eventually resulting in the full-bloods being "forgotten", bore strong similarities to the racial views of the Nazis in 1930s Nazi Germany.[91] Manne points out that, though the term 'genocide' had not yet entered the English language, the policies of Neville and others were termed by some contemporaries as the 'die out' or 'breed out' policy, giving an indication of their proposed intent.[91] He also states that academics "generally acknowledge" that the authors of the Bringing Them Home report were wrong to argue that Australian authorities had committed genocide by removing indigenous children from their families. Social assimilation has never been regarded in law as equivalent to genocide.[91]

Keith Windschuttle contends that no genocide has ever taken place in Australia. He concedes there were "obnoxious" attempts to "breed out" Aboriginality in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, but says those policies concentrated on intermarriage, not child removal. The programs were undercut by the ineptitude of the bureaucrats involved.[92]

Paul Bartrop, co-author of The Dictionary of Genocide with US scholar Samuel Totten, rejects the use of the word genocide to describe Australian colonial history in general. He believes that it does apply to describing the Stolen Generations. Dr Bartrop said he used the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as cited by Ronald Wilson in his 1997 Bringing Them Home report, as the benchmark for the use of the term genocide.[93] He wrote the entry on Australia in the Dictionary of Genocide.

Historian Inga Clendinnen suggests that the term genocide rests on the question of intentionality. "There's not much doubt, with great murderous performances that were typically called genocide, that they were deliberate and intentional", she argues. "Beyond that, it always gets very murky."[93]

Representation in other media[edit]


  • The documentary Lousy Little Sixpence (1983) was the first film to deal with the Stolen Generations. Directed and produced by Alec Morgan, it won several international and Australian awards. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation did not air it for two years. The film is now standard fare in educational institutions, and has been highly influential.
  • The documentary film Kanyini (2006), directed by Melanie Hogan,[94][95] featured Bob Randall. He is an elder of the Yankunytjatjara people and one of the listed traditional owners of Uluru. He was taken away from his mother as a child, living at the government reservation until he was 20, and working at various jobs, including as a carpenter, stockman and crocodile hunter. He helped establish the Adelaide Community College and has lectured on Aboriginal cultures. He served as the director of the Northern Australia Legal Aid Service and established Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander centres at the Australian National University, University of Canberra and University of Wollongong.[96]
  • Episode 5 'Unhealthy Government Experiment' of the 1998 SBS documentary television series First Australians concerns the Stolen Generations in Western Australia.

Feature film and television drama[edit]

  • The Australian film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), directed by Phillip Noyce was based on the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara. It concerns the author's mother and two other mixed-race Aboriginal girls who ran away from Moore River Native Settlement, north of Perth, and returned to their Aboriginal families. In a subsequent interview with the ABC, Doris recalled her removal in 1931 from her mother at age three or four, and subsequent rearing at the settlement. She was not reunited with her mother until she was 25; all those years, she believed that her mother had given her away. When the two women were reunited, Doris was no longer able to speak her native language and had been taught to regard Indigenous culture as evil.[97]
  • Baz Luhrmann's 2008 film Australia, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, deals with the Stolen Generations.


  • Stolen (1998) is a play by Australian playwright Jane Harrison. It tells the story of five fictional Aboriginal people by the names of Sandy, Ruby, Jimmy, Anne, and Shirley who dealt with the issues for forceful removal by Australian governments. Sandy has spent his entire life on the run, never having a set home to live in. Stolen tracks his quest for a place to be, a place where he doesn't have keep hiding from the government (even though they are no longer after him), and a place he can call home. Ruby was forced to work as a domestic from a young age and was sent insane by the constant pressure forced upon her by her white masters. She spends a lot of her time mumbling to herself, whilst her family desperately tries to help her. Jimmy was separated from his mother at a very young age, and she spent her entire life looking for him. He spent a lot of time in prison and, on the day he finally got out, he was told about his mother's search. As he went to meet her, she died, and he committed suicide in anger. Anne was removed from her family and placed in a Caucasian family's home. She was materially happy in this home, a lot happier than many of the other characters, but when her indigenous family tried to meet her, she was caught in crossfire between her two "families". Shirley was removed from her parents and had her children removed from her. She only felt relief, safety, and comfort when her granddaughter was born and not removed.
  • The indigenous opera Pecan Summer (2010) by Deborah Cheetham, which premiered in Mooroopna, is set at Federation Square, in Melbourne, on the day of Kevin Rudd's apology, and quotes some of his words.[98]


  • Bryce Courtenay's novel Jessica tells of a case brought in a New South Wales court against the Aboriginal Protection Board. It challenged the Aboriginal Protection Act of 1909 in order to return two children from Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls to the Aboriginal mother.
  • Aboriginal artist and author Sally Morgan has written several novels based on the lives of her and her family members, featuring intimate portrayals of the impact of forced removal on individuals, their families and communities, although Sally herself was not a stolen child. Her first, My Place, involves her quest to uncover her Aboriginal heritage which had previously been denied by her family, who insisted "as a survival mechanism" that they were of Indian extraction.
    • My Place (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press. first published 1987) ISBN 1-86368-278-3.
    • Sally's story (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1990.) edited by Barbara Ker Wilson ('My Place' for young readers, part 1. For children.) ISBN 0-949206-78-4.
    • Arthur Corunna's story (Narkaling Productions, 1995) edited by Barbara Ker Wilson ('My Place' for young readers, part 2. For children.) ISBN 0-949206-77-6.
    • Mother and daughter: The story of Daisy and Glady's Corunna (Narkaling Productions, 1994) Edited by Barbara Ker Wilson ('My Place' for young readers, part 3. For children.) ISBN 0-949206-79-2.
    • Wanamurraganya, the story of Jack McPhee (Narkaling Productions, 1990) ISBN 0-949206-99-7.
  • Benang is Indigenous Australian Kim Scott's second novel. Benang in about forced assimilation and finding how one can return to their own culture. The novel presents how difficult it is to form a working history of a population who had been historically uprooted from their past. Benang follows Harley, a young man who has gone through the process of "breeding out the colour", as he pieces together his family history through documentation, such as photograph and his grandfather's notes, as well as memories and experiences. Harley and his family have undergone a process of colonial scientific experimentation called "breeding of the colour" which separated individuals from their indigenous families and origins.

Notable persons[edit]

  • Gordon Briscoe, Doctor of Indigenous History, Order of Australia.
  • Deborah Cheetham, Aboriginal soprano, actor, composer and playwright.
  • Katherine Mary Clutterbuck (Sister Kate).
  • Ken Colbung, political activist and leader.
  • Ningali Cullen (deceased), co-chair of the National Sorry Day Committee.
  • Belinda Dann, born as Quinlyn Warrakoo, forced name change to Belinda Boyd. Deceased at 107 years of age making her the longest lived member of the stolen generation.
  • Polly Farmer, Australian rules footballer.
  • Lorna Fejo, the Warumungu woman named by Kevin Rudd, in his historic Apology to the Stolen Generations, on 13 February 2008.
  • Sue Gordon, retired Perth Children's Court magistrate.
  • Ruby Hunter, musician.
  • A. O. Neville, W.A Protector Of Aborigines from 1915–45 and advocate of the removal of children.
  • May O'Brien, W.A. educator and author.
  • Doris Pilkington Garimara, author of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence.
  • Bob Randall, Indigenous Australian of the Year.
  • Rob Riley (deceased), CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Service 1990–1995, author of Telling Our Story which instigated the National Inquiry into Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families.
  • Archie Roach, musician.
  • Cedric Wyatt, Chief Executive Officer of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in WA.


The White Stolen Generations[edit]

The white stolen generations are so-called to distinguish them from the indigenous stolen generations. It is estimated that around 250,000 Australian born non-Indigenous children were removed from their mothers from the 1930s to 1982 in what was widely seen by society as a whole at the time as a positive thing for both the mothers and the children. The mothers were sometimes drugged, tied to beds or told their babies had died. Many hospitals engaged in what is now known as institutionalised baby farming, whereby those children deemed "inferior" were taken and adopted into the middle class.[99][100][101]

Organisations such as the Apology Alliance and Adoption Loss Adult Support have actively campaigned for a parliamentary apology similar to that given for the [Aboriginal] Stolen Generations. In 2001, then treasurer of NSW Michael Egan made a statement of public acknowledgement in the NSW Parliament. In October 2010, West Australian Premier, Colin Barnett delivered a parliamentary apology on behalf of state institutions involved in the aggressive adoption practices. Prime minister Julia Gillard made a personal public apology.[99][100][101]

The Apology Was A Public Relations Exercise[edit]

The apology may be conceived as a public relations exercise. Critics argue that:

  • The apology was diminished by Rudd’s failure to accord Indigenous nationhood, which renders the apology somewhat empty and self-serving. One proponent of this perspective is Alex Reilly, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Adelaide, who posits assimilation policies as an “emergency response aimed at eliminating the Aboriginal other” (Reilly, 2008). In settler Australia, the presence of the Aboriginal peoples did threaten white man’s ideological version of the State which governments sought to promote and preserve. The State responded to the emergency through passing and enforcing laws, which were so against the interests of the Aboriginal people that their enactment could only have occurred outside the normal law as an act of sovereignty. In other words, policies supporting the taking of Aboriginal children from their families and communities in Australia in the early twentieth century were in response to the ability of the Aboriginal people to challenge the sovereignty of the State and make claims for ownership of Australia (Reilly, 2008). In his apology, Rudd used a similar tactic to divert the public’s attention from the question of a treaty that would challenge the legitimacy of settler Australia. The apology admitted that governments should not have implemented policies of removal. However, it avoided a consideration of the limits of state power to restrict the enactment of the policies by casting the policies as a historical injustice and personalising their impact: "Some have asked, “Why apologise?” Let me begin to answer by telling the parliament just a little of one person’s story." (Rudd, 2008) The focus on personal stories meant that the apology was able to avoid the full extent of the political impact of policies of removal on Aboriginal land ownership and sovereignty. Therefore, the apology was a grand symbolic gesture by mainstream Australia to divert the public’s attention “from the more searching questions of the unfinished business of substantive reconciliation which encompasses” Indigenous sovereignty (Burridge, 2009).
  • The apology was not accompanied by reparations and made no mention of ‘genocide’, suggesting it was a public relations exercise for white audiences. One proponent of this perspective is the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle, who, in his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, argues that: "Millions of suburban voters, who had never felt any animosity towards Aboriginal people, wanted racial reconciliation and an end to all the bad feeling this issue had generated." (Windschuttle, 2009) The newly elected Prime Minister sensed that around 70 per cent of Australians (Newspoll, 2008) wanted to address the “unfinished business of the nation” and “move on” (Rudd, 2008). He did this in the most inexpensive way possible by offering no reparations and omitting to use the word ‘genocide’ in his apology. The failure to mention ‘genocide’ is understandable because if Rudd had included the word, “the majority of Australians would have rejected the apology and punished him at the next election” (Short, 2012). It is also understandable for him to not mention genocide because it would incur sizeable material costs in the form of reparations and raise questions about Australia’s participation in the United Nations committee processes. Regardless, Rudd’s avoidance of the issue of tangible compensation suggests the apology was “primarily a public relations exercise for white audiences” (Windschuttle, 2009). This is supported by the fact that Rudd wittingly noted in the speech itself that he was fulfilling an election promise in making the apology that day: "Last year I made a commitment to the Australian people that if we formed the next government of the Commonwealth we would in parliament say sorry to the stolen generations. Today I honour that commitment." (House of Representatives, 2008) Therefore, the primary aim of the apology was to establish Rudd as the new Prime Minister who would lead the nation forward.

The Apology Was Justified[edit]

The apology was justified. Scholars argue that:

  • The policies of protection and assimilation justified the apology. In 1787, before embarking on his voyage to Australia, Governor Arthur Phillip received the following instructions: "You are to endeavour by every possible means to open an intercourse with the native, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them." (Hoepper, 1996) Samantha Hepburn, Professor of Business and Law at Deakin University, believes these instructions gave way to the legal fiction of terra nullius (Hepburn, 2004). Because Australia was considered to be devoid of people, Aborigines did not have the same legal status as other British subjects in Australia. By the end of the nineteenth century, Australian colonies were introducing protection legislation, which enabled more regulation of the lives of Aboriginal people. The Protection Acts of 1869 were designed to control rather than protect. The belief that “all persons of Aboriginal or mixed blood in Australia . . . [should] live like white Australians” provided the impetus for the move towards an assimilation policy (Hoepper, 1996). Under the assimilation policy of 1938, part-Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their parents on racist grounds. For instance, a government document lists the reason for the Aborigines Protection Board taking a child as “for being Aboriginal” (Behrendt, 2003). While acknowledging that some members of the Stolen Generations did grow up in a loving and supportive environment, scholars such Dr Brian Hoepper of the University of Queensland have argued that many Aboriginal children separated from their parents were victims of cultural dislocation and sexual abuse (Hoepper, 1996). In a confidential submission to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, a victim named Carol claimed she “was abused by the missionaries from all angles – sexual, physical and mental” (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997). Thus, the inhumane and intrusive policies of protection and assimilation justified the apology.
  • The apology was significant also because it closed “the door on denials of past injustice and denials of official responsibility for past injustice” (Murphy, 2011). The role of politicians during the 1930s was to uphold the good name of Australia and to assure the public that all was well to deny allegations of mistreatment. Although the treatment of Aborigines was not of electoral significance in Australia, there was a perceived danger that reports circulating overseas could have an impact on the reputation of Australia and of the British Empire, and could lead to complications in the League of Nations (Markus, 1990). The government used several tactics to counter overseas criticism, one being to issue unrelated press releases that painted a positive picture of Aboriginal affairs and did not address accusations of mistreatment. For example, in 1929, in the aftermath of the Coniston massacre, the administrator of the Northern Territory, Charles Lydiard Aubrey Abbott, stated that the Aborigines “had never before been better treated, and at no time had there been made such complete measures for their advancement and uplift” (Markus, 1990). Though politicians such as Hawke and Howard took minor steps to achieve reconciliation, this practice of denying allegations of mistreatment and responsibility continued under the Howard government. The refusal of the Howard Government to apologise was “an impasse in Aboriginal policy development” (Reilly, 2009). The Rudd government apology broke this impasse with a respectful expression of sorrow. Thus, because it brought to an end the Howard years of denial, the apology was a significant and emotional event.


See also[edit]


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External links[edit]

Bibliography and guides[edit]

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission[edit]



News reports[edit]