Australia Day and other Great Issues

By September 2, 2017History, Media, Politics, Society

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that we are having a few tiny issues magnified into Great Ones, gay marriage being one. Now we are having another one, about Australia Day’s being on 26 January. For those who haven’t had a recent dose of Australian history, this is when Governor Arthur Phillip planted the flag on land somewhere near the present Government House at Sydney Cove. He had actually been there for a day, having arrived from Botany Bay, where he left the rest of the fleet, on the 25th, which was to join him on the 26th. No matter. His attitude towards the indigenous people he found was peaceful and conciliatory, though firm. January 26th has been Australia Day since perhaps 1838 (when it was Anniversary Day for New South Wales). The other colonies had their own celebrations for other foundation days, and it was not until the last century that January 26th became the usual day, and not until 1994 did it have common national significance.

Now some local government councils have decided that they won’t conduct citizenship ceremonies on that day, in deference to the stated distress of some indigenous people that this day celebrates the invasion of their country. Some right-thinking people have said that we should search for another day altogether, one in which we can all come together without some kind of emotional hassle. This is not a new idea, though only a small minority of Australians, when polled about the issue earlier this year, thought the same. The great majority seem to like it the way it is.

The Federal Government has reacted with some contumely to this local government initiative, removing from the offending councils the right to conduct citizenship ceremonies at all, and making citizenship ceremonies the responsibility of a government department. So far the councils have all been in Melbourne (which is a considerable way from the site of the ‘invasion’), but I wouldn’t be surprised if the movement spreads across state borders. Some of the media reaction has been supportive of the councils. Karl Stefanovic of television’s Today Show may stand for many, I think, in talking like this:

There is an argument in this country for Australia Day to be moved. What do you think? My initial response is what many would think … ‘cmon, leave it alone. Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders, this is our day, all of us. Everyone come together. Commemorate but also celebrate. After all, that’s what we do on Anzac Day. But I’ve changed my mind. Having spoken to several people from those communities, I empathise. As hard as some want to ignore it, January 26 marks a day this land changed forever for one of the oldest and most beautiful cultures in the world.

I am not with Karl, even though he empathises. To start at the end of his little statement, I can see nothing especially ‘beautiful’ in indigenous culture, diverse as it has been in all sorts of ways (at least three different waves of arrivals separated by long periods of time, hundreds of languages, many different art forms). There was no ‘First Nation’ — that is a borrowing from Canada, where several hundred ‘bands’ are grouped under this title). What had evolved here by 1788 were thousands of little family groups that had trading relationships, knew about the need for exogamy, had different accounts of Creation, had rules about country, had a nomadic life within that country, and lived in some fear but also in some expectation, with respect to other groups like themselves.

Beautiful? I guess it’s a matter of taste. The culture that Governor Phillip and his colleagues encountered in 1788 has been almost completely abandoned. As I wrote recently, there are about 700,000 indigenous people, of whom perhaps half a million live in our urban areas, most of them indistinguishable from anyone else. The ones who live in remote settlements get the media attention. They prefer 4WDs to walking, smart phones to ceremonies, and rifles to spears. Western material culture, with its abundance and power to improve one’s life and conditions, is simply too powerful. A friend writing in The Australian suggested that we rename Australia Day to ‘Rescue Day’, the moment when the indigenous people were rescued from their hunter-gatherer existence. In religious terms the old ways have passed for most; maybe half of all indigenous people in Australia are Christian.

It is has been suggested on this site that I ought to have more empathy for the indigenous people, since I have travelled all over my country for a long time. Cape York will be my last non-visited area, broadly speaking, for I doubt that we will go there. I simply don’t know what is meant in such a suggestion. What is supposed to happen when we empathise. What do we do then? I have written before about the politics of the Aboriginal situation (perhaps start here). And from that essay I take this text: ‘As I wrote in my book What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia (Allen & Unwin), while there has been a great improvement of the conditions of Aboriginal Australians in the last sixty years, “there was no great satisfaction anywhere about either the present or the future”’.

And there won’t be, as far ahead as I can see. The situation is simple. There will soon be 25 million people in Australia, of whom those of indigenous descent will make up perhaps three quarter of a million. Most of them have been absorbed into the greater society. No one of indigenous descent seems to want to return to being a hunter-gatherer with traditional implements, no Western medicine, no vehicles, no Western food. Despite the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory’s statement to the contrary, there was no Frontier War, or Wars. Such language implies organised warfare on the part of nations or nation-like entities. That was not at all the case for the indigenous people, and rarely the case, if at all, for the colonial governments. It was in New Zealand, and there was a Treaty to end that war, the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840. The Maori were organised for war, and decently successful from time to time. They had plenty of practice, warring among themselves.

For those who feel that there was an ‘invasion’, with all its military connotations, and I am not one, there seems no possible or sensible form of recompense, and moving Australia Day to another date isn’t it. I was uncertain about some sort of Constitutional recognition for indigenous people some years ago. Now I wait to see a convincing argument for it that does not bring with it future problems.

Perhaps 130,000 indigenous people or so live in or near remote and rural settlements, and some of these settlements sound like terrible places for anyone, especially women and children. I don’t have a solution, and have only been to a couple, and then twenty or more years ago. As I argue generally, asking governments to sort other people’s problems out is a weak-kneed way of behaving, and where they do it, as in the case of ‘sit-down’ money, the results are not impressive. Where I live I have served on Reconciliation Committees, which were fitfully useful, and would have been more useful had the indigenous members been more consistent in their attendance and their involvement. I made sure that my Aboriginal students, many of them from the Northern Territory, were brought gently and helpfully into an urban educational environment that was quite out of the experience of most of them. My wife assisted and tutored Aboriginal nursing students, without payment. You do what you can, when you can.

Back to Australia Day. What I hear, from mayors and councillors, when they are on TV, is an attempt to expiate felt guilt. I think this is ridiculous. If you feel that way, then do something yourself to help those you feel are in need. For local government councillors, use the Council’s employment power to employ some indigenous workers. Going into symbolic politics like this is, at least to me, virtue-signalling. It doesn’t help anyone in particular, but it makes you feel good, and no doubt you feel you look better than those who disagree with you.

And now the new clamour is to cover historic statues, pull them down, destroy them or deface them. None of that is going to improve relationships with the indigenous people. The history of Australia is one in which all of us should have some pride, and if not that, respect. In world terms, the growth and development of Australia (along with that of Canada) is one of the great stories of the 20th century, and indigenous people have benefited, just as others have. Graham Young’s little essay on who ‘discovered’ Australia is pertinent in all of this is a fine read.

I greatly dislike the black-armband stuff. It is more symbolic politics, and destructive as well. I think it is historically weak, and overlooks the great advances that indigenous people have enjoyed over the past half-century. There will be more improvement in the next half-century, too. Be part of that, and avoid the ritual wailing and wringing of hands.

Join the discussion 44 Comments

  • margaret says:

    One word – Emphatic.

  • Art says:

    Good article, Don. To me it seems very logical to celebrate Australia Day on the 1st of January when our federation came into being, but I agree with the suggestion to celebrate 26 Jan as Rescue Day. It drives me nuts to hear drivel-minded comment that “we have so much to learn from Aboriginal culture” with no specification of what said learning would cover. I will admit that were nuclear war or mass volcanic eruptions such as that forecast for Yellowstone to occur, than maybe three or four of them would have the knowledge to help the rest of us become successful hunter-gatherers. Then again, what is the point of life when 3 out of 4 of the essential fluids (coffee, wine, olive oil) become unavailable.

    Over the years, so many migrants have arrived here with poor intellectual backgrounds and economic circumstance but in so many cases their offspring have gone on to be very successful in a variety of fields. Yet, our Disney-landish noble-savage policies have managed to cripple these opportunities for Aboriginal children. Cultural genocide is the term used by the left to deny modern education and integration except in sport.

    When I migrated her from the US in 1970, I was astonished that Australia would celebrate the day when a drunken British warlord convinced the country to send a large number of fine young men to submit to slaughter on a Turkish beach. At first, I thought that like our unofficial national anthem about the suicide of a failed sheep thief, it must be an example of the ironic Australian humour coupled with the desire to avoid future war but that certainly was not the case.

    In that light, why don’t we adopt the currently accepted Aboriginal flag to celebrate their lack of agriculture and textiles.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Thanks, Don, for a very good summing up of our generally pathetic attitude to this part of our history.

    From my own experience in “assistance” which has been labelled “stealing”, purely from the black armband of guilt that is so fashionable, I can but wonder if this propaganda will eventually take over many aspects of our culture as seems to be demanded [not reasoned or debated] by ever increasing numbers of the “well educated young” [ie, the brainwashed].

    We can’t base our history on political correctness.

  • Aert Driessen says:

    Thanks Don, I’m posting a comment only to express my admiration for your tenacity in writing this. I have only to read it and even that is becoming irksome. Yes, I also think that ‘Rescue Day’ is a contender for an alternative focus for celebration, but so is ‘Thanksgiving Day’. The indigenous people of this land should give thanks for firstly, having been introduced to Western culture and secondly, for the fact that it was the English who occupied this land, and not the Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, or the French, all of whom would have been less tolerant of a primitive people.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    “one of the oldest and most beautiful cultures in the world”

    This would have to be the most ludicrous comment I have ever seen in print. Cultures evolve, and just because one has not evolved, it is somehow ‘beautiful’ and sacred? And it can’t be “one of the oldest”, because, unless Adam and Eve were Australian, the Aborigines came here from somewhere else.

  • Frank Carter says:

    Oh dear – what a disgraceful article this is. The invaders introduced a poisonous drug to the poor indigenous people to keep them enslaved by their drunkenness. I’m so ashamed to be “Australian” and therefore part of the most racist country on this planet.

  • PeterE says:

    26 January 1788 is indeed the day modern Australia germinated and Australia Day should be held on the anniversary. If necessary, there could be a quiet half hour of remembrance for all those, black and white, killed in the clash of cultures that occurred. This would be followed by a much bigger ceremony called “Thank You”. All would give thanks for what Australia has given them, especially the taxpayer. After that, booze and good time as usual.
    Which reminds me, I’m calling for a place in the constitution for those of Scottish descent. These comprise some 11% of the population. Scots were some of the most important of our pioneers, think Macquarie. I propose a committee, selected by activist Scots, that would have a veto over anything affecting folk of Scottish descent. The question could be put to a referendum at the earliest opportunity.

  • Neville says:

    A very good post Don as usual. But this sort of nonsense is erupting all over the world and generally promoted and encouraged by similar overseas left wing media like their ABC and Fairfax here in OZ.
    Here’s a very good letter to the editor from Willis Eschenbach’s blog on the subject of Cecil Rhodes and so called grievances from African students at Oxford Uni.

  • Neville says:

    The more remote Aboriginal communities are very dangerous places for kids and women. Child abuse is rampant in many of these places and led to the intervention in the NT by the Howard coalition govt.
    Here Andrew Bolt reports on the recent case of Roebourne WA.


    Andrew Bolt, Herald Sun

    September 2, 2017 4:09pm

    Leftist commentators and activists are red-hot on child sexual abuse by Catholic priests that occurred, on average, more than 30 years ago and has been largely eliminated.

    But they are near-silent on rampant sexual abuse of children right now – abuse of children they could actually help to save:

    Ms McGurk this week visited Roebourne, 39km north of the iron ore hub of Karratha, amid a police operation that has identified 184 child-sex victims in and near the town that is home to just 1410 people. So far police have charged 36 men, and they have 124 suspects. The operation is ­expected to run for another year.

    Why the silence?

    If the offenders were priests, you know this would be all over the media every day until heads rolled.

    But the clue is here:

    More than half of Roebourne’s residents are indigenous and it was Aboriginal women who helped children disclose the abuse to police, Ms McGurk said.

    The image of Aboriginal culture must be protected by the media class at the expense of Aboriginal children.

    And, yes, we must talk about this Aboriginal culture and not be diverted by criticism of white culture and “racism” instead:

    In 2014, the Barnett government found Roebourne was an example of how an abundance of government services does not mean results — the town had 206 services and 63 service providers and government spent an average $58,719 a year on each resident.

    • spangled drongo says:

      And Neville, nobody else is allowed to care for these poor kids and give them the upbringing they need to get them into the 21st century because they cannot be allowed to miss out on their precious and essential aboriginal culture.

  • Chris Warren says:


    In the past the problem with history has been that it is written by victors and was largely based on so-called “primary materials” and commentaries left by victors. Even with rigorous technique this still generated fake history.

    With the opening-up of universities after WWII, new historical works, concepts and facts started to emerge. Across the globe colonialism was re-evaluated and various facts that were not then included in prevailing” victor-history” started surfacing.

    In Australia most momentum for re-evaluation centred on our colonial history and it was recognised that, into the 1950’s, our historians lacked understanding of indigenous rights and their role in Australian history. Academics, in the 1950’s, such as JDB Miller declared aborigines were not a political problem and were never likely to be. How wrong can they be.

    This re-evaluating has ignited a reaction from those who benefit most from present circumstances and their representatives have tried to spread alarm with dogmatic cries of “black armband”. They castrated the Board of the Australian museum and are now seeking to lock the ABC into their particular ideological straight-jacket.

    Now you want to say that aborigines had no culture, made no contribution, were not beautiful, comprised no nation, and that there were no frontier wars and no invasion.

    You also want to dislike the black armband stuff, but historical facts (stuff) are not based on what people “like”. There is no such thing as “black armband” history. This is just a political provocation from reactionaries such as Howard and the rightwing press. Those who bandy-it about today either have no understanding of Australian history or no understanding of the general problem of various victors-victims dynamics, or no empathy for the fate of different peoples.

    • spangled drongo says:

      That’s right, blith. You can generalise yourself off the face of the earth any time you choose.

      One of your specialities, hey?

      But when it comes to specifics and evidence which is what history, science and the total foundation of society’s culture is based on, you’re away with the fairies.

      As usual.

      So what about some individual items and facts for a change?

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      Chris, your argument might be slightly more credible were you to give some examples of all these ‘contributions’ to modern society.

      • Chris Warren says:

        Land and water, labour, advice and skills, sport, art, and other influences.

        But the real contribution was negative and unintentional – local natives brought out the worst aspects of British character – rape, thefts, slaughter, slavery and racist jingoism.

        But this is not the point. The tactic of claiming “no contribution” is a political provocation, independent of the size or character of any such contribution.

        You may as well ask a German Nazi to assess the contribution of Jews to the Third Reich and base your politics on your own answer.

        This is the game that is being played out today.

        • Bryan Roberts says:

          “and other influences”

          Sea and sky, perhaps?

        • Don Aitkin says:

          More empty arm-waving. I was unaware that the indigenous people invented land and water, let alone women, but if you think so…

          • margaret says:

            “I was unaware that the indigenous people invented land and water, let alone women” …
            You think were part of the contents?

          • Chris Warren says:


            Exactly where did I indicate that “indigenous people invented land and water, let alone women,”.

            This is entirely your corruption of material placed in front of you.

        • margaret says:

          Many of you seem to have grown up in the “pale, male celebratory view of (Australian) history”.


          “The ‘new history’ (that has been around for 30 years) is based on critical thinking and primary source analysis and as such is neither ‘white blindfold’ nor ‘black armband’. It is not teachers who display partisan bias, it is politicians. If teachers did, there would be complaints from parents and students. Rather, teachers engage students in an exploration of historical sources with differing perspectives and views. It is then up to students to evaluate, interpret and determine an historical position.

          The teaching of history is – and should remain – open to debate.”

          Right on.

          • spangled drongo says:

            Yes, marg, a culture that couldn’t even boil water should be reviewed regularly to check if we made a mistake.

            Do you really think we did miss something or could it be that those things that were considered irrelevant then in the light of the actual time and surroundings can be reassessed with cultural make-up added to make them vitally important today?

            It’s amazing what you can do with the support of those with an agenda:

            ABC story VS…. “the truth”

            Remember the kid tied to a chair in that Four Corners “expose” of the Darwin Correction Centre? The kid’s name is Dylan Voller.

            As usual, a lot of the truth is missing from that criminal investigation report by the ABC (sadly, nothing new). How much of this is correct though?

            Before you break out the tissues consider this:-

            In 2012, a Salvation Army officer named Andrew McAllen would regularly visit Voller in jail for a welfare check. Voller’s mother didn’t really care what happened to him. Andrew would bring him sweets from the vending machine in the prison lobby.

            He forgot to bring change for the machine one day and turned up empty handed. Dylan bashed him with a fire extinguisher, causing blindness in one eye and requiring an airlift to Darwin for emergency surgery.

            Gerald Tasker from O’Brien’s Security was the one who secured him in that chair after that incident, as the ambulance officers needed the area secure to remove Andrew.

            So this is how Voller ended up in the restraint chair…. a very different story to the one presented to us by the ABC isn’t it?

            Now do you still believe we need a Royal Commission into the youth corrections system? It’s also an amazing coincidence that the show aired on the same day the chief minister launched his election campaign.

            Dylan’s mum saw $$$ and sued with no success. She is an expert at working the system.

            In the lead up to the story being aired, she applied for restraining orders on all the people who knew her kid personally. After she lost, a human rights organisation from Melbourne offered to take on the case after promising her a big cash payout when they won.

            Anticipating a big pay day, she bought a new car ($60k). Not bad for a dole bludger who hasn’t ever worked.

            They lost the case so the previously restricted footage has now been released.


            So will the ABC now publish the real facts?


            What does it remind you of, marg?

          • margaret says:

            Did you read the article? No – just off on your tangent(s) again.

          • spangled drongo says:

            Yes I did, marg, and your Orwellian point was:

            “The teaching of history is – and should remain – open to debate.”

            And while “debate” is usually the last thing the rewriters want, the further removed you are from what and when it happened the more you can change it without fear of contradiction.

            A good case in point is that Dylan Voller story by our sworn-to-be-balanced-and-truthful ABC.

            That was a disgraceful twisting of the facts to suit the “aboriginal hardship” mantra and when the truth came out [too late to save the not guilty govt] the ABC silence was deafening.

            But you quite comfortably do likewise, ignore the basics, accept superficial dogma and deny what’s happening right under your nose.

          • margaret says:


            “Indeed, the plaque attached to his monument in Sydney’s Hyde Park reads: “He was a perfect gentleman, a Christian and supreme legislator of the human heart.”

          • spangled drongo says:

            Please desist from more of the ABC/Dylan Voller type moralising, marg.

            Macquarie had a huge country to run with very limited human resources that were getting massacred with great regularity.

            Some of my ancestors arrived here at the end of the Napoleonic naval wars and one of them was found with his head in a camp oven courtesy of the “natives”.

            We have moved on from those days reasonably well in retrospect and both races have prospered so go easy on the Stan Grant moralising and think positive.

            Even Stan seems to be smart enough to realise that, because the whole truth is unknown and unknowable, the “great silence” is better off left that way:

            “Grant, who sparked fierce public debate earlier in the week when he called for amendments to the inscriptions on colonial statues, said the statues in Sydney’s Hyde Park were a part of the nation’s history and should not be removed.”

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Chris, your comment is so full of arm-waving that it is hard to comment on it. For example, you say ‘our historians lacked understanding of indigenous rights and their role in Australian history.’ What were indigenous rights? And what was their role in Australian history? Rights are conferred on people by law. There were a number of ways in which indigenous people were granted rights after settlement by the British, which did not begin with Eddie Mabo. A reference to Bruce Miller’s actual statement would be helpful. I knew him and his writings very well, and can’t remember any such statement.

      Then you say ‘Now you want to say that aborigines had no culture, made no contribution, were not beautiful, comprised no nation, and that there were no frontier wars and no invasion.’ The first clause is wrong. The second clause is not what i said. I asked YOU to say what the contributions were, and you have not done so. The third clause is wrong. I said I could see nothing ‘beautiful’ in indigenous culture. I say again that there was no single indigenous culture and no single indigenous nation. These are fabrications of history. How on earth could you have a single culture or nation with over 600 languages.

      Tell me what you regard as ‘facts’, and why you think they are facts, and we can have a discussion. Otherwise, all I get from your contributions is passionate arm-waving.

      • spangled drongo says:

        The only time our blith gets into specifics is when he picks cherries.

      • Chris Warren says:


        Miller’s comment merely reflected the then academic culture of dismissal of indigenous economic and political concerns in most fields of study in the 1950’s.

        You can find his view at page 18 of his “Australian Government and Politics” – 1959 edition. This demonstrates how university graduates were taught in the 1950’s and early sixties.

        It is interesting to see just how manipulated such academic work was, as later editions were rewritten after Sydney university students conducted their famous Freedom Ride and the Australian Constitution was amended. Instead of finding firm principles based on human rights, academics like Miller just produced whatever dogma the current establishment requires.

        In any case Miller’s stuff, and associated views, were easily eclipsed by Manning Clarke, Butlin, Stanner and others in the 1960’s and 70’s.

    • dlb says:

      I think you meant to say:

      “With the opening-up of universities after WWII, new historical works, concepts and fads started to emerge.”

  • spangled drongo says:

    Why Australia Day Matters

    “From the moment of Phillip’s annexation Australia became part of the British Empire, and through this the Anglosphere, that group of English-speaking countries that subscribe to the same values and share the same heritage of democratic institutions, parliamentary system of government, separation of church and state, equality before the law, respect for private property, strong civil society, protection of basic freedoms. It has been upon this base that Australians, old and new, have built our remarkably prosperous, free, open, tolerant, outward-looking, progressive and enterprising way of life. It is this bedrock, not the continent’s great wealth of natural resources, that makes Australia a ‘lucky country’.

    It is, of course an article of faith amongst Aboriginal activists and the grievance industry generally to see things in a different, much darker, more doom-laden way, to view the running up of the Union Jack by Phillip on that day as the beginning of the end, the start of an invasion, one that would lead to the subjugation of the first inhabitants and the destruction of their culture and way of life.”

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Chris might like to read the recent article about Jacinta Price in the Spectator (AU, online). But, given the content, perhaps not.

  • Brian Austen says:

    Very well expressed. The history of the human race, as far as I can tell, is that of invasion and take over. Had that not been we would still be living in caves, if not in trees.

    Indeed three waves of indigenous immigration implies to me three “invasions”. The problem really is that they had to wait till 1788 to regain contact with the world.

  • Brad Wrightson says:

    Hi Don, I enjoyed reading your article about Australia Day. I think that it is important to add that NAIDOC Week is the alternate celebration for anyone challenged by the fact of colonisation. The good thing about reconciliation was that it accepted the past and made provision for a future.
    Oh, we did reconcile didn’t we?

    Change the flag, change the date, change the statues………… doesn’t change the past.

    We, really do have more important things to be getting on with.

  • spangled drongo says:

    In the US, black people who were never slaves are fighting white people who were never Nazis over a Confederate statue erected by Democrats because Democrats can’t stand their history anymore.

    And somehow it is all Trumps fault!

    • Peter B says:

      Spangled D Just to follow up on your earlier story about Voller, the other thing that wasn’t reported is that the ABC journo who ‘broke’ the story is the partner of the newly elected NT leader. If this isn’t a conflict of interest, I don’t what is. And of course, our wonderful MSM were completely mute about that. The fact the footage was released during an election campaign was also a disgrace and timed to inflict maximum damage on the CLP. And of course, it worked a treat.

      • spangled drongo says:

        Thanks, Peter B. That’s unbelievable! Imagine the screams and demands by Auntie with all her foot stamping children if the reverse took place?

  • spangled drongo says:

    This was the same person who, as a member of Ananda Marga was charged with and served time for, the Hilton bombing in 1989. How do we get them as teachers?

    Answer: it’s Sydney U, mate.

  • spangled drongo says:

    How refreshing! Some facts and honesty on the “Stolen Generations” for a change:

    “South Australia’s Supreme Court found no evidence of an official policy to steal Aboriginal children.

    On the contrary, it heard too few children had been rescued:”

  • spangled drongo says:


    And we have to keep saying “sorry”.

    Here is what happened when Bruce Trevorrow was admitted to hospital as a baby by his mother’s relatives, based on the findings of the South Australian Supreme Court:

    “Neither Joe nor Thora [his parents] went with their child, or visited him in the two weeks he was kept in hospital. Who knows what Thora’s relatives told the doctors, but the hospital’s notes say the baby, Bruce Trevorrow, was a “neglected child – without parents”, suffering from “malnutrition” and “infective diarrhoea”‘. The notes add: “The other two children are neglected. Mother has cleared out and father is boozing.” This is the baby that just two weeks later was given to an Adelaide family, which were told its mother had “gone on a walkabout”.

    Unforgiveably, Joe and Thora were never asked for permission to give away their baby. And they were lied to when, six months later, Thora wrote to the Aborigines Protection Board, the official guardian of all Aboriginal children, asking to know when she’d get Bruce back, “as I have not forgot I got a baby in there”.

    The reply, from the APB’s Marjory Angas, claimed Bruce was “making good progress but as yet the doctor does not consider him fit to go home”. What Bruce’s parents did not know is that it seems to have been Angas herself who’d already given away their baby – and that she’d done this against the law.

    As [Justice] Gray ruled: “Mrs Angas may have been well-intentioned … but was well aware, or ought to have been aware, that the removal of the plaintiff from his family, and his placement with the Davies family, was undertaken in circumstances that were understood to be without legal authority, beyond power and contrary to authoritative legal advice.”

    That illegality, said Gray, was why Bruce Trevorrow deserved a payout. The picture the judge paints over many pages is compelling: South Australia never had any laws — or policies – authorising anyone to steal Aboriginal children for racist reasons.

    Gray noted, for instance, that in 1923, as South Australia passed a law to help neglected Aboriginal children, the then treasurer assured Parliament: “The dictates of humanity forbid the state to deprive mothers of their infant children in cases where their mothers desire to keep them.”

    The treasurer added: “(T)he provision in the Bill (to remove older children) is designed only to be used in cases where an illegitimate child is ill-cared for by its parents.”

    But there was a hitch.

    In 1949, the Crown Solicitor confirmed that the law did not let APB officials take Aboriginal children from their parents.

    That was the job of the Children’s Welfare and Public Relief Board, which looked after children of all races, but wasn’t so keen to remove neglected Aborigines. It found them hard to help.

    In that standoff, Aboriginal children seem to me to have been less in danger of being stolen than left to rot.

    Justice Gray gives examples – like the baby brought to Port Augusta Hospital in 1955 in “an advanced state of malnutrition”. Her mother was shown how to look after her child, yet it came back again “in a shocking state”. Despite the pleas of doctors to take her into care, this baby was not “stolen”, but sent back home to God knows what fate.

    In 1958, the year after Bruce Trevorrow was taken, the APB’s secretary described the tragedy he confronted. “I feel sure that a higher mortality rate is evident among Aboriginal children than those of other descent,” he wrote to a colleague. “Unfortunately, there is a considerable amount of undernourishment, malnutrition and neglect.”

    In fact, quite frequently (Aborigines) do not seem to worry whether the child is fed or not.”

    Yet “there is not a high proportion of aboriginal children who are wards of the state, simply because our legislation does not provide that neglected children can be removed”.

    Still, his officials couldn’t always stand by and do nothing. Admitted the secretary: “Again in confidence, for some years without legal authority, the Board have taken charge of many Aboriginal children, some are placed with Aboriginal institutions, which by the way I very much dislike, and others are placed with foster parents.”

    As often as possible we arranged for this type of child to be adopted, necessarily of course, with the authority of the parents.” How many children had the APB removed? Some 300 over the years, taken because they were – Gray found – “thought to be neglected”. Note: not because Australia had to be kept “pure”.

    This practice seems to have stopped by the end of the 1950s.”

  • […] I’ve written quite recently about the insistent demand to change the date, and won’t go over that ground again. But I will add to my musings two thoughts that have flowed from recent discussions. The first is the changing nature of the Australian population. The second is the assertion on my part that there is a great deal to celebrate on January 26th, even if most Australians see it just as another public holiday. The two thoughts are connected. […]

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