The Weekend Australian of 9-10 February brought news that the intrepid history warrior, Keith Windschuttle, bane of leftist historians, now has “the facts” about the stolen generations.

Like most conservative commentators, and the previous government, Windschuttle argues that the policies that led to children being separated from their families were benign in intent. Using the example of NSW, he says children weren’t stolen from their parents but apprenticed as adolescents, to give them “the opportunity to get on-the-job training, just like their white peers in the same age groups.”

This is another instance of Windschuttle taking information and skewing it to fit his particular political and cultural agenda, although he is kind of half correct when he says the focus of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board was apprenticeship. Where he’s wrong is in asserting that he’s discovered this fact; that it was a benign policy, or was in any sense equivalent to white children’s experience.

I’m in a position to comment with some authority on this subject. My PhD evaluated the intention of these policies, and compared the treatment of Indigenous children with their white counterparts in the state welfare systems of NSW and Tasmania. It involved eight years of immersion in the records that Windschuttle has [ab]used for these articles.

I found that Aboriginal children in NSW had a unique experience of welfare and schooling, with fewer safeguards than white kids. Black kids were never boarded out (fostered), which was considered best for white kids, because it was thought they could not fit in. “Aboriginal schools”, lauded by Windschuttle, offered only a dumbed-down grade three education. Although both black and white kids were apprenticed, by 1915 reformers complained apprenticeship condemned children to live as unskilled labourers. By World War II, fewer than 10% of white state kids were apprenticed and institutionalisation was declining, whereas apprenticeship (and institutionalisation) remained the norm for Aboriginal kids until the 1960s.

Windschuttle’s claims should not be ignored, if only because of his political agenda. When he published the first volume of the Fabrication of Aboriginal History he attacked the Tasmanian Aboriginal community’s right to control their cultural history. This time he lays down the gauntlet to Kevin Rudd, saying the Protection Board’s policies “could well be revived today to rescue children from the s-xual assault and substance abuse prevalent in the remote communities”. But the real history of Aboriginal apprenticeship in NSW offers no such promise.

Windschuttle presents apprenticeship as simple “on-the-job training”, but what it really meant was growing up many miles from family, usually in a strange house somewhere like Mosman or Beecroft. The workday started at dawn and ended after dinner, every day of the week. Most apprentices received just sixpence a week pocket money, with the rest supposedly banked in trust, although the reality was few got their full trust fund.

If you’ve ever spoken to someone who was sent away to work you’ll know those years of domestic service left scars, not just on the lives of the apprentices, but also their children. Note that the records show a pregnancy rate of 7% amongst underage girls – a figure unthinkable with white welfare agencies, but ignored by the Board, and many of the babies died, or were sent to child welfare homes.

The historians who work in this field know this story well. What interests us is the gulf between the Board’s stated objective, of rescuing and protecting little children from bad conditions, and its practices. Windschuttle says we are wrong that children were stolen in NSW, for two thirds of them were taken for teenage apprenticeship. But how can this not mean they stolen?

Most had parents living, just five per cent of families consented to removal, and usually younger siblings in the same family were left behind. And, if such removals were justified, because Aboriginal families were as alcohol-dependent and neglectful as Windschuttle makes out, why did the Board take older kids and leave their siblings in the conditions it condemned?

Windschuttle also accuses the leading historian in this field, Peter Read, of overstating the fact that committal forms showed children were taken “for being Aboriginal”. He says only one form states this, but that is not true. In one quarter of the cases where a reason was given, Aboriginality was clearly denoted by terms like “camp life”, “surroundings” and residing on an “Aboriginal station”. A strong theme was girls’ morality, as when it was “deemed advisable to send girl away from camp influences owing to her age and the risk of her getting into trouble with any of the opposite s-x.”

The broad categories of neglect used by the Children’s Court, including being orphaned or destitute, were applied in just under half of known reasons, but in the remaining quarter the Board said, in so many words, that the reason was apprenticeship. Please be assured that it was unthinkable for white children to be taken from their parents simply because someone thought they should be put to work.

Windschuttle says historians are wrong to say that the Board intended apprenticeship to reduce the numbers of Aborigines in the state, even though the Board’s minutes and annual reports reveal just that desire. He says that the fact that 60% of Aboriginal apprentices went home shows how wrong we historians are. Yet he also asserts that Aboriginal apprenticeship “provided real jobs and skills and gave young Aborigines a way out of the alcohol-soaked, hand-out dominated camps and reserves of their parents.”

You can’t have it both ways – one cannot say that Aborigines found a way out through apprenticeship, when so many went home to the exact same conditions they had left. Neither is it logical to claim that, although children spent five years undergoing forced labour in the homes of white people, they weren’t stolen.

I look forward more twisted logic when Volume Two of the Fabrication of Aboriginal History hits the shelves, just as soon as I can figure out how to acquire it without actually buying it.

Peter Fray

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