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  • Forced Child Removal and the Politics of National Apologies in Australia
  • Denise Cuthbert (bio) and Marian Quartly (bio)

Inquiries into the removal and mistreatment of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, national regret, and national apologies constitute a congested political landscape in contemporary Australia. Within two years, two formal apologies were delivered by the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, to individuals who had suffered forced removal from family and consequent mistreatment as children. The first in February 2008 was the apology to the Indigenous Stolen Generations; the second in November 2009 was an apology to forced imperial child migrants, institutionalized children, and wards of the state, the so-called Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians. These apologies came as the culmination of over a decade of serial formal inquiries that saw at least five national-or state-level investigations into the past treatment of children, the results of concerted activism by the groups concerned.1 In the case of Indigenous activism around child removal, the roots run deep into the twentieth century. For former child migrants and institutionalized children, organized political activity has a shorter history and, as we have argued elsewhere, was enabled by and accelerated to a large degree by the ground prepared by the national inquiry of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) into the Stolen Generations (2005-7), the tabling of its final report, Bringing Them Home, in 1997, the sustained controversy that accompanied the refusal over eleven years of the Liberal-Coalition prime minister, John Howard, to countenance an apology to Indigenous Australians, and the long-delayed apology to the Stolen Generations of 2008.2

Across this congested landscape, the Stolen Generations have cast a long shadow. Non-Indigenous groups with similar claims have rallied [End Page 178] in response, often emulating the strategies of Indigenous activists and "benchmarking" their suffering against that of their Indigenous counterparts.3 In the period following the publication of Bringing Them Home in 1997 and more intensively since the formal apology to Indigenous Australians in February 2008, Australia has been witness to a number of groups and individuals pressing their claims for justice and apology by co-opting or alluding to the term "Stolen Generations" in their own claims. Thus, as documented in this article, both former child migrants and institutionalized children have referred to themselves as the "other" or the "white" Stolen Generations. Further, some non-Indigenous mothers agitating for justice for themselves and their children with respect to the forced removal of their children under past adoption regimes have rallied under the name of the Mothers of the White Stolen Generations.4

Australia has seen an expansion of the space and subject of regret and apology from one initially focused on reconciliation between settlers and Indigenous Australians to one that now encompasses a range of non-Indigenous individuals who were mistreated as children and to whom a formal apology has now been delivered in a second act of national reconciliation. In this process, some slippage has occurred with respect to the relative political positioning of Indigenous child removal as a specific marker of Indigenous dispossession and both suffering and child removal per se as a criterion of suffering that warrants redress and apology. We argue that, instituted as the chief marker of Australian Indigenous suffering in the course of the 1990s, child removal and mistreatment now form the basis of claims for redress and apology of a range of non-Indigenous groups. With the tabling of the reports into the treatment of child migrants and institutionalized Australians in the Australian Senate in 2001 and 2004, respectively, the single volume Bringing Them Home was transformed from an exceptional account of Indigenous suffering to become the first volume in a "trilogy" of national reckoning with past forced children removal in this country, encompassing the experiences of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.5

This trilogy is now a quartet, with the creation in February 2012 of the report of a Senate Committee's inquiry into forced child removal for the purposes of adoption. The report includes a recommendation for a national apology amongst its thirteen recommendations. Thus, the space of national apology and regret in Australia is now expanded to include...


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pp. 178-202
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