October 01, 1997

Article at The American Reporter

Australia Losing Its Innocence Abroad

A nun leading children to march at the New Norcia Mission, a school and orphanage for Aboriginal children 120km North of Perth, run by Benedictine monks and nuns until it closed in 1974

by Wilson da Silva
American Reporter Correspondent   

SYDNEY, Australia – Genocide is a word most people associate with the Nazi Holocaust, with ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, or with the inter-tribal slaughter in Rwanda. Not with Australia’s past.  

But when Sir Ronald Wilson used the term in the Human Rights Commission report on the stolen generations of Aborigines, the former judge of the High Court of Australia was consciously positioning his country before the world. The country was being judged as it would judge others.  

The former head of the Human Rights Commission – whose term expired in August – did so again recently when he spoke to foreign correspondents in Sydney. The subject was the commission’s report, Bringing Them Home, which dealt with the now discredited practice of removing Aboriginal children from their parents. Or grow up in mission schools or with white foster families.

One cannot deny, he said, that Article II of the 1948 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment on the Crime of Genocide, ratified by Australia in 1949, considers the forcible removal of children from one group to another as genocide.  

But was the practice intentional? A national conference of Aboriginal affairs ministers in 1937 established it as official policy, he said. “That policy was described quite clearly and definitely as the way to dispose of ‘the Aboriginal problem’. Take the children and deny them their Aboriginality; their language, their families, their culture, their land – and the disappearance of the group will be rapid.” 

For many of the correspondents present, this is an issue that has helped burst the bubble on Australia. Many came to Australia believing it to be an easy-going, culturally tolerant, even “clean and green” kind of place. For those from Europe, the temptation was to see Australia as a young country free of the baggage of the past.  

Events of the past year has changed some perceptions. The conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard, elected in March 1996, has sought to wind back the gains made by Aborigines in the High Court. Two decisions, known as Mabo and Wik, for the first time recognised in law Aboriginal tenure of Australia before the arrival of white  settlers, and created – then extended – the concept of native title to the land.  

Native title applies to government-owned land (most of the country), the bulk of which is leased to farmers on a long-term basis. Howard has drafted laws to circumvent these new gains in favour of farmers, forcibly extinguishing native title in many areas.  

At the same time, a white supremacist Independent parliamentarian, Pauline Hanson – elected at the same time as Howard – has gained prominence with her anti-Asian and anti-Aboriginal views, attracting hundreds to rallies around the country. Her simplistic messages appeal to those seeking simple solutions to complex problems like unemployment, stuck above 8 per cent: stop immigration and cease special funding for Aborigines. Opinion polls indicate she is attracting between 7 and 10 per cent support. 

“I think this together with the way the whole issue of Wik was handled, the Pauline Hanson phenomena – it’s a surprising shift,” said Esther Blank, a correspondent for Germany’s WDR radio network and president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association in Australia. “I certainly have the impression of Australia being much less tolerant as a society than it was some time ago.” 

The change has surprised and fascinated her German listeners, she said. “How to face your past is a very German problem. If there is one thing I have learned as a German, it is that you have to face up to your past. I cannot as a German be proud of Beethoven, who was born in my town, but say sorry, I don’t look at the Holocaust, it’s not my past. 

“You cannot just disassociate yourself from the bad parts of your history. You are not guilty for what your ancestors have done. But you are responsible to help overcome what is still there. People are still alive who suffered,” Blank said.  

For the Japanese, the government response has been the most interesting. Considering that Japan has been under pressure for years to apologise over atrocities dating back to 1945, it is interesting for Japanese to see how Australia deals with now shameful deeds that were not halted until 1971. This is the same approach taken by Joelle Dietrich in her dispatches for France’s Le Figaro

For Canadians, who also have a problematic history of relations with their indigenous people, it has been the personal stories that filled the pages of the Globe and Mail. For CNN, the difficulty of the Australian government response was highlighted. One reporter for an American magazine who had read the commission’s report prefaced her questions to the Aboriginal group Link Up with an apology.  

The Human Rights Commission has been beset by foreign journalists; not just those based in Australia, but from networks and publications Britain, Italy, Sweden and other parts. In South Africa, a country that Australia once criticised vociferously and which has been conducting a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the interest has been particularly high. 

What foreign correspondents write is read by millions overseas. News agencies like Reuters and The Associated Press churn out stories on Australia on a daily basis. A prime minister’s refusal to apologise for past crimes against Aborigines, as recommended in the stolen generations report but rejected by Howard, lands on the desks of newspapers from Bangkok to Boston within an hour of being delivered. By the end of the day, newspapers have an analysis coupled with comments from Aboriginal groups.  

Such coverage can affect Australians on a personal level. Sitting down to dinner in Hong Kong late last year with a group of journalists from the region, we did not even reach the soup before I was asked about Pauline Hanson and Australia’s treatment of Aborigines. I’ve been quizzed about the same topics in London pubs and Lisbon cafes. Even 150 kilometres inside Sweden’s Arctic circle, questions were raised. Businesspeople report the same experience.  

Often, there is not much choice. You find yourself apologising for a whole nation.