The Guardian • Issue #1974

Stolen Generation reparations welcome, but do not match the real costs!

When news broke that Prime Minister Scott Morrison had promised a multimillion dollar compensation scheme for Stolen Generations survivors in Australian territories, 79-year-old Hal Hart (centre) thought of his mother.

The Morrison government has announced $378mil in reparations for survivors of the Stolen Generation in the Northern Territory (NT) and Australian Capital Territory (ACT) as part of a $1bil commitment to the Closing the Gap framework. This is a step forward in terms of acknowledging trauma suffered by First Nations people under racist policies. However, a report released on the same day highlighted how Indigenous children continue to be disproportionately placed in out-of-home care even now. While the $75,000 payments for Stolen Generation survivors come as welcome compensation, they raise the question of the real costs of these stolen childhoods, the over twenty-year delay following these recommendations, Queensland and Western Australia’s (WA) outstanding obligation to pay reparations, and more broadly, the failure to address systemic issues that are holding back progress.

The Closing the Gap Commonwealth Implementation Plan includes seventeen targets based around longer healthier lives, children’s education, employment, housing, decreasing incarceration, decreasing out-of-home care, safe households, connection to land, culture and language, and involvement in decision-making for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In addition to the reparation payments, stakeholders across these target areas have gratefully received additional funding to continue their important work.

A VOICE TO PARLIAMENT

However, traditional owners have expressed their disappointment in a voice to parliament being rejected, as part of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. In this statement, a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution was proposed to give their communities power over their own destiny and recognise a “fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.” These foundational reforms would include more meaningful participation for First Nations people in the strategic direction leading to longer-term results.

ABANDONED TARGETS

In response to the announcement of the Closing the Gap targets, Labor opposition leader Anthony Albanese pointed out that only three are on track and that it will take more than an annual “ticking of boxes” for the remaining targets to be met. Whilst Albanese criticised the plan for not moving much beyond rhetoric, little more can be said about Labor’s attempts to create lasting change. After all, the living conditions for many First Nations people have worsened under the watch of both major parties, particularly in reference to the growing number of Indigenous children living in out-of-home care, and the incarceration rate.

The Bringing Them Home Report was released in 1997 – twenty-four years ago –  when the recommendations for reparations for Stolen Generations were released. Eleven years later, the elected Labor Prime Minister said sorry to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who had their childhood stolen from them but without providing any kind of compensation. Since the apology, many elderly people of the Stolen Generations have died without any compensation. It is positive for Albanese to point out words without action, but the hypocrisy is undeniable.

Although the Stolen Generation is often discussed through a historical lens by mainstream dominant powers in Australia, the reality is that even today Aboriginal children are 9.7 times more likely to be removed from their families than non-Aboriginal children, and over 23,000 live in out-of-home care.

A STRATEGY THAT WORKS

As Albanese described in his response, “Where we see programs that are working, we should aim to replicate them”. In reality, only people-centred governments make lasting changes that focus on genuine strategies for healing and developing disadvantaged communities. In China, for example, a major focus has been in poverty alleviation over the past fifty years. In this time, they have brought 800 million people out of poverty – that’s eighty per cent of the global total which is no longer impoverished – and have achieved a moderately prosperous society, or xiaokang.

This is a miraculous feat, which could only be achieved by materially understanding the drivers that reinforce poverty and exploitation, and implementing a whole-of-society strategic direction which puts significant human resources and financial support into addressing the contradictions between the economic base and the superstructure (politics, philosophy, culture etc.).

The role of Chinese party officials has largely been to work with the poor communities to understand why they are living in poverty and fulfil specific achievable strategies depending on their circumstances – every family in poverty has an individual file for which a party member is responsible. Strategies range from building new infrastructure, upskilling, providing business opportunities, building better transportation systems, and importantly, not leaving anyone behind – reaching out to the most remote areas to provide opportunities. China’s efforts have shown that it is possible to lift people out of poverty through appropriate political and economic strategy, and have set an example for other countries.

If Australia’s government were seriously invested in making lasting changes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, a holistic approach in consultation with traditional owners is not only important but imperative. And the rejection of the Uluru Statement From the Heart’s Voice to Parliament at the constitutional level is a clear indication that Australia’s government is not focused on lasting results.

THE STRUGGLE FOR ACHIEVABLE WINS

However, even if Australia’s political system is primarily driven by the interests of private owners for profit, pressure can still be put on the government for achievable wins. Three months ago, eight hundred survivors launched a class-action lawsuit against the federal government for loss of culture and connection to Country, as well as institutionalised mistreatment. This, along with an ever growing more militant Invasion Day, and more educated and socially conscious general public has led to some advancements occurring, such as the recent reparations and investment into Closing the Gap.

THE REAL COSTS FOR STOLEN GENERATIONS

A report was released in June which provided a clear indication that Indigenous children suffer more as a result of being removed from their families. As adults, they were more likely than Indigenous people who were not forcibly removed to be receiving welfare, experiencing discrimination, suffering from a severe disability, living with poor mental health, and identifying as a smoker. Results from the research also indicated that almost ninety per cent had not completed Year 12 schooling and the majority did not own a home.

This is unsurprising considering many of the horrific stories told by survivors, including sexual abuse, beatings for complaining about unhygeinic food, being locked up in inhumane conditions without food or blankets, having their hair cut off and their clothes taken from them, being forced into slave labour to wash, cook and clean for wealthy families, and even the very fact that they were never given affection or made to feel loved without contact with their families. If the class-action lawsuits were to be successful, it would be no surprise that the costs would be significantly beyond $75,000 reparations.

The intergenerational trauma caused by this mistreatment also has lasting effects on the families of Stolen Generations. As renowned artist and Stolen Generation survivor Fay Molesly described, “We didn’t know how to explain to our kids what happened to us, and how to be effective parents, because nobody said they loved us in the homes, nobody cuddled us, nobody praised us.” Yet the government is not providing any reparations for the families of survivors who have since passed away.

Queensland and WA are the last states which have not delivered reparation payments, and with the announcement of the federal government’s reparations for those in the NT and ACT, the pressure is mounting. The two remaining states have been told “time’s up” by Coalition of Peaks leader Pat Turner, and that they have an obligation to follow the other jurisdictions throughout Australia.

Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Minister, Craig Crawford, responded that they would closely consider making new announcements, and WA’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Stephen Dawson, revealed that conversations were continuing with key Aboriginal organisations in the policy area. In the meantime, the Stolen Generations are becoming older, and many have died before receiving compensation or acknowledgement of their mistreatment – as Turner declared, time is up. The reparations have been an exceptionally long time coming, and are a much welcome compensation, but much is yet to be done to avoid mistakes of the past, and develop truly liberatory policies for First Nations people.

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