The Guardian June 7, 2000


Let the journey begin

The following is an edited version of a speech by Mick Dodson, Chairman 
of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 
Studies, at Corroboree 2000 on May 27.

We have had a lot of silly talk lately about what does and what does not 
constitute a generation or generations. So  for a start today  I intend 
to talk about my generation. A little over a month ago I turned 50 -
- yes, 50.

I was born in April of 1950 in the small town of Katherine in the Northern 
territory. Our present Prime Minister was in his 11th year when I came into 
the world. He was born about the same time as my elder sister.

According to Commonwealth and State policy at the time my destiny, as a 
native of Aboriginal decent, lay in my absorption by the people of the 
Commonwealth. Fourteen months before I was born a magistrate in the Court 
at Broome refused my grandmother's application for certificate of 
citizenship under the Native (citizenship rights) Act. Part of his reasons 
were that she had not adopted the manner and habits of civilised life.

Like my grandmother, grandfather, mother and my siblings before me, I was 
well and truly an Aboriginal kid under various native welfare acts or 
ordinances that have pervaded our lives for too long.

By the time I was 18 months old the new Commonwealth policy was 
assimilation, perhaps absorption wasn't working  at least it failed to 
absorb my grandmother as a citizen. Mr Howard would have been about 12 or 
13 by then (the present age of my youngest child). Removing kids was all 
the go when I was born. And it persisted well after my birth.

The Commonwealth director of Native Affairs had at about that time informed 
the administrator of the Northern Territory that the Commonwealth policy 
had been set down in 1931: to collect all half-castes and train them in 
institutions.

He went on to say: prior to the Second World War half-castes were removed 
regularly whenever required and the removals occured without incident.

My grandmother was taken from her father at a young age and placed in a 
mission in Western Australia. My great grandfather had been pestered over 
several years by the welfare authorities to place his daughter in a 
Catholic mission. 

He was an Irish Presbyterian who was forced to give up his daughter to a 
Catholic mission run by German priests. I don't know how he felt about 
that. My mother and my two sisters all finished up in the same mission.

Those two sisters also spent considerable time in an orphanage in Broome 
despite the fact they weren't orphans.

My father was jailed for 18 months for breaching the Native Administrative 
Act 1905-1941 of Western Australia in that he was "co-habitating" with my 
mother. I will never understand a social, political and legal system that 
could jail my father for loving my mother.

As required by law, when he was released from prison he managed to secure 
the permission of the Chief Protector of Natives to marry my mother.

Both my parents died in 1960. I was 10. Mr Howard by then was a young man 
at university and I'm informed, a member of the Young Liberals.

After the death of my mother, which followed that of my father, my aunt and 
uncle came and took us to Darwin on the back of my Uncle's Chevy truck. 
They had both been former mission victims and knew well the the ways of the 
native welfare authorities. They did not wish the same fate to befall their 
young nieces and nephews.

What ensued was a protracted battle with the authorities in and out of 
court with my family winning. We were permitted to stay in the guardianship 
and custody of family. I became a "State Child" in my family's care.

What kind of system is it that would define the ownership of a child by the 
state, while the child is in the care of its kin?

They are dead now, but the courage and persistence of my uncle, aunt and 
grown up cousins saved us from institutionalisation. I will forever be 
grateful to them.

In 1963 I agreed to go to boarding school in western Victoria. Mr Howard 
was in his 24th year and a solicitor of the Supreme Court of NSW.

In 1965 Charles Perkins led the Freedom Rides through western NSW. I was 
15. A year later The Australian newspaper denounced him and other 
"slightly coloured people" for identifying as Aboriginal "only for 
sympathy".

In 1967 a referendum was held which arguably killed off the assimilation 
policy and the sinister laws supporting it, but it did not stop the 
removals and it did not stop assimilationist thinking. Our high hopes for a 
"bran nue dae" were dashed and our aspirations plunged into darkness. 
Perhaps true reconciliation will be the dawning of the "nue dae".

In 1969 I had to register for the draft. As an Australian I was being asked 
to represent my country and fight a foreign war. Mr Howard, who was nearing 
30, was too old to be called up. My marble didn't get drawn. Politicians 
were still talking about a military victory in Vietnam.

During the 1960s Aboriginal kids were still being removed from their 
families and placed in institutions like the Retta Dixon home in Darwin. I 
knew many of them. In NSW Aboriginal boys and girls were still being 
removed from their families and placed in institutions like Kinchela and 
Bomaderry.

According to Who's Who Mr Howard was a member of the NSW state 
executive of the Liberal Party at this time. I can find no record of him 
voicing his disapproval or objection to this continuing practice.

In 1972 I voted for the first time and Mr Whitlam became PM. (I don't think 
my vote got him over the line.) Federal policy on Aboriginal affairs 
altered considerably. Yet  still  kids were being removed. Two year 
later Mr Howard entered federal parliament and has been there ever since.

In 1977 I graduated from law school. Mr Howard was a government minister 
and vice president of the NSW Division of the Liberal Party. He was 38 by 
then. I was 27.

In 1984 I returned to the Northern Territory. Mr Hawke was Prime Minister 
by then, and self-determination had been official Commonwealth policy for 
at least a decade. It meant very little. At least there was a willingness 
to call its name  how sadly we have slipped.

Mr Howard at 45 was now shadow treasurer. In that year the infamous Retta 
Dixon home in Darwin finally closed its doors. A monument was erected  
not in honour of the children who suffered there over many years, not to 
the mothers who grieved the taking of those children  but to the people 
who ran the place. It was a passing monument to a very partial view of our 
history.

Between that time and 1996 the nation received reports on customary law, 
deaths in custody, the stolen generations and John Herron became a Senator.

And of course the Mabo decision was handed down by the High Court. Since 
1996 the racially discriminatory Native Title Amendment Act became law 
under John Howard's stewardship. And we have seen the enactment of the 
compulsory jailing laws of the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

These are but a few things that have touched my life in this place where I 
live, and I know them to be true. They occurred in my lifetime to date. 
Just as importantly they occurred in the lifetimes of the two Johns  
Howard and Herron.

Where or who is this generation of Australians Mr Howard blames for the 
removals and the assimilation policies? Are my sisters part of this 
generation? If we are not part of a generation that took Aboriginal kids 
then who is Mr Howard talking about?

Who did these things to my grandmother, my father, my mother and two 
sisters? Who was it that tried to take me from my kin in 1960? What 
generation do we look to if Mr Howard says it wasn't this generation? Where 
is the mythical group of Australians who made these laws, adopted these 
polices, put them into practice? Who took the kids? I'm at a loss for an 
answer.

I know there are many decent and honest Australians who accept the truth of 
our history as part of who we are now. There is absolutely no difficulty on 
their part in acknowledging the facts of the last 50 years and more. 
Indeed, hundreds of thousands feel sorry about what happened and have said 
so.

I bare no grudge against those who made the policies and laws that took my 
grandmother, my mother and sisters and placed them in missions, orphanages 
and government settlements. I don't hate those who made my father's love 
for my mother a jailable offence.

But no-one who lived through these times is entitled to deny they happened. 
Or perhaps more accurately, suggest they happened in some other time in our 
history  a time in history that is too distant, too far in the past for 
us to have a shared responsibility. 

Denialism is the enemy of reconciliation.

The central importance of our national task is too great to be derailed by 
pettiness and denial. We can do much to prepare the groundwork for our 
future coexistence, while we wait for a Prime Minister who can say sorry 
and will proudly lead us in the right direction.

This is where we start. Today. There is much work to do.

So let us begin this journey. A journey of healing the body, soul, hearts 
and spirit of our nation.

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