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Wootten, Hal --- "Ron Brunton & Bringing them Home" [1998] IndigLawB 44; (1998) 4(12) Indigenous Law Bulletin 4

Ron Brunton & Bringing Them Home

By Hal Wootten

Ron Brunton’s Betraying the Victims: The Stolen Generations Report is a scathing attack on Bringing them home, the report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (‘the Report’).[1]

Published in the Institute of Public Affairs Backgrounder series, Betraying the Victims has received wide publicity in the media. It is here reviewed by Hal Wootten.

The acheivement of the ‘Stolen Generations’ Report

Bringing them home, the Report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission into the removal of Aboriginal children from their families under past Government policies, has had an enormous impact on the Australian public. Many non–indigenous people became aware for the first time of the terrible individual suffering and community terror and destabilisation that accompanied the deliberate separation of Aboriginal children from their families over much of this century.

Unforgettable images have touched the hearts of many Australians. Children rushing to hide when they heard a car. Grandmothers running after trains carrying deeply loved children away to sob their hearts out, unconsoled, in stark, severely disciplined dormitories. A teen–age girl told to wash out her mouth when she pleaded with a matron not to send her to a placement where she had suffered sexual interference, and then reviled when she returned pregnant. Little children taught to shun and scorn their own families, and the very identity that their skin and features indelibly stamped on them. Mothers assured their children would be returned, and helpless when they disappeared forever. Children told their parents had rejected them, or had died, only to discover decades later that they had a parent, recently dead, who had never ceased to grieve for them.

Members of the Inquiry channelled their limited time and resources into the task of allowing as many as possible to tell their stories. Anyone who has seen how difficult it is for those who suffered to unburden themselves of their experiences, and how healing it can be when they do so, will appreciate the value of this work. Making these experiences available to the Australian public in the simple, unvarnished, first–person language of those who suffered, but without breaching their privacy, has been a tremendous contribution to interracial understanding.

Australians have come in their thousands to sign the Sorry Book, to join the Sea of Hands, and with new understanding to support reconciliation and the protection of native title. No criticism of other aspects of the Report can take away the importance of this achievement.

Criticising the Report

The tremendous emotional impact of the Report, the fact that it is an attempt to tell a story that Australia long repressed, and that it is a call to the nation to redress a great wrong, all make criticism of the Report difficult and suspect. Yet, precisely because it is such an important step in coming to terms with the past, and in achieving reconciliation, it is important that it be subject to fair–minded criticism. It is not the last word on a difficult and painful subject, but a foundation on which scholars can build, a foundation which ensures that the voices of those who suffered can never again be ignored.

In particular, the Report is not a definitive and rounded treatment of the protection and assimilation eras, and could not have been, given the Inquiry's limited time and resources. Ordinary experience tells us, as indeed the Report itself occasionally hints, that the problems perceived by administrators, the motives which determined their responses, the changing content and practical effects of their policies and practices over the years, and the differences between jurisdictions, were more complex and significant than the Report allows.

It is not my task to review the Report, and my comments are simply to emphasise that it is not as its uncritical champion that I have agreed to review Ron Brunton’s booklet, Betraying the Victims.

I would be the first to applaud a critical appraisal of the Report, pointing out its limitations and sometimes excessive pretensions, and seeking to open up and debate some of the important issues it takes for granted. Why then do I find myself angered by Betraying the Victims? To put it bluntly, this booklet is a ‘hatchet job’ that, quite unfairly, paints the Report as a dishonest piece of work that no self–respecting person would have anything to do with. Far from opening up discussion of the Report, it stifles it, polarising people into being either for or against the Report.

Betraying the Victims

The booklet is published by the Institute of Public Affairs, where Brunton is the Director of the Indigenous Affairs Unit, as a scholarly work by a specialist in ‘anthropological and socio–economic research’.[2] It has won accolades (and attendant wide publicity) from such eminent public intellectuals as Frank Devine and Padraic P. McGuiness.[3]

The booklet is full of strident denunciation: ’the report is fatally compromised by serious failings’ (p 1); ‘it misrepresents a number of sources and ignores crucial information, and it readily makes major assertions which are either factually wrong or unsupported by appropriate evidence’, ‘a most unworthy and tendentious document’, ‘one of the most intellectually irresponsible reports to be presented to an Australian government in recent years’, one which ‘betrays the Aboriginal victims of the past’, which provides accounts which ‘misrepresent events, or omit relevant matters for reasons of partiality, or make unfounded claims’, and so ‘dishonour the very people whose interests they claim to uphold’ (p 3); the Report is said to be ‘highly unprofessional and misleading’, so that if it is taken seriously, ‘further impetus will be given to the culture of deceit that threatens Australians’ understanding of certain Aboriginal issues’(p 19); ‘both the victims and the nation’ are said to ‘have been let down by the Inquiry’, which has been conducted by people who do not ‘treat their task with the rigour, objectivity and probity it demands’(p 20).

The very pomposity and repetitiveness of these claims suggest that the purpose is not intellectual but political. As the quotations indicate, the thrust of the booklet is not just to join issue on some of the Report’s arguments or conclusions, or to correct some alleged errors. It is to damn the Report as unworthy of attention, to create such an atmosphere of sleaze and suspicion around it that those who want to reject or ignore it feel they can comfortably do so. Others will feel that they cannot give credence to the Report without doing research they lack the time or resources to undertake, so they, too, ignore it. The denigration thus becomes an effective weapon for suppression of the whole Report.

For this reason it is necessary to undertake the tedious task of unravelling at least some of Brunton’s pompous criticisms to show that they are themselves based on the very kinds of misrepresentations of which the Report is accused, or apply quite unrealistic standards to the material, or are simply matters of no substance dressed up as scholarly research.

The accusation of dishonesty

The allegation of dishonesty is the centrepiece of the attack on the Report. In a somewhat mealy–mouthed approach that may have an eye to the law of defamation, the booklet never actually places the word ‘dishonest’ alongside the names of the authors of the Report, but the innuendo is clear and repeated.[4] The booklet (p 6) puts as a ground for suspecting that the Inquiry gave a biased account of the general evidence, that the authors ‘actually omitted crucial information’ so as to give a particular slant to the findings. The accusation is that the Report (p 46) used a passage from the sesquicentenary manifesto of two Aboriginal leaders, Ferguson and Patten, quoted in Markus Governing Savages,[5] to show Aboriginal resistance to the NSW Aborigines Protection Board, but when criticising the ‘assimilation’ policy adopted only a year earlier (p 32) it failed to mention that Ferguson and Patten had expressed what Brunton calls ‘strong Aboriginal support for assimilation’ (p 14) in the same manifesto. He makes a great mouthful of this alleged lapse, repeating that the authors of the Report ‘simply chose to omit ‘...potentially damaging information’ (p 15).

People who live in glass–houses, as we all do when it comes to researching and using quotations, should pause before throwing stones. Brunton is guilty of the very offence of which he wrongly accuses the Report. It is strange that if, as he claims, the manifesto advocated assimilation, the authors did not mention with pleasure its adoption as official policy a few months before. In fact, they never mentioned assimilation; nor did they advocate absorption, although they referred to it, in a context, which, as I will show, is misrepresented by the abbreviated quotation used by Brunton.[6]

The Report criticised the 1937 policy as ‘necessitating constant surveillance of people’s lives, judged according to non–indigenous standards’ (p 32). This highly intensive surveillance of Aborigines was just what Ferguson and Patten were complaining about. Their manifesto was a sustained attack on the Aborigines Protection Board, which had ‘almost unlimited power to control the private lives of Aborigines’, including the power to ‘assume full control and custody of the child of any Aborigine’

The Inquiry could have quoted this to demonstrate that Ferguson and Patten shared their abhorrence of what was being done in the name of the policy adopted in 1937, and it would not have been embarrassed by quoting in full the passages which Brunton claims were deliberately suppressed. Although he had gone to some trouble to get the full text, and had just discussed how an ellipsis can make a quotation misleading,[7] Brunton used Markus’s truncated quotation, which is very misleading in the context:

We have no desire to go back to primitive conditions of the Stone Age. We ask you to teach our people to live in the Modern Age, as modern citizens ... We ask equal education, equal opportunity, equal wages, equal rights to possess property, or to be our own masters—in two words: equal citizenship! The mixture of Aboriginal and white races are [sic] practicable ... Aborigines can be absorbed into the white race within three generations, without any fear of a ‘throw–back’.

This version includes, in the same paragraph, references to racial mixture and absorption, as though they were part of what Ferguson and Patten were seeking, along with equal rights. One would never guess, from the three ellipsis dots which precede them, that these references occur over a page later, after five intervening headings, and in a different argumentative context. They occur under the heading ‘Racial Prejudice’, not as a statement of objectives, but as part of an attempt to hose down racist objections to equality. The full quotation is set out below. The quotation used by Brunton includes only the parts I have italicised, as if they were part of the list of demands that had ended six or seven hundred words earlier.

Though many people have racial prejudice, or colour prejudice, we remind you that the existence of 20,000 and more half–castes in Australia is a proof that the mixture of Aboriginal and white races are (sic) practicable. Professor Archie Watson, of Adelaide University, has explained to you that Aborigines can be absorbed into the white race within three generations without any fear of a ‘throw–back’. This proves that the Australian Aboriginal is somewhat similar in blood to yourselves, as regards inter–marriage and inter–breeding.

The manifesto does not advocate absorption; at most it accepts it as the natural fate of a minority[8] in the course of reassuring the racists that they need not fear for their racial purity. The statements to which Brunton attaches so much attention are made for a specific reason which is stated, but which Brunton omits, namely to ‘prove’ to the racists that ‘the Australian Aboriginal is somewhat similar to yourselves, as regards inter–marriage and inter–breeding’. The objective of Ferguson and Patten was not the disappearance of Aborigines but the attainment of equal rights in place of the denial of rights, including loss of control of their children, against which they were ardently protesting.

Another leg to Brunton’s allegation of dishonesty is (p 14) that the Report ‘omitted a crucial piece of information’, namely Markus’s statement at page 174 that in the late 1930s ‘one common strand in the views of all Aboriginal spokespersons in the south [was] the desire for incorporation into white society’. But again it is Brunton’s partial quotation that is misleading. If one reads the rest of the paragraph from which this sentence is extracted, it is clear that Markus is not referring to biological incorporation, or to the disappearance of Aboriginal identity, but to the same thing as Ferguson and Patten advocated, equal rights and equal education, in place of the discrimination and segregation of the protection system.

Intellectual confusion

This points to a deeper problem in Brunton’s discussion than merely what he calls in others ‘actually omitting information ... so as to give a particular slant to the findings’

(p 6). It is aptly described by another of his accusations—‘intellectual confusion’ (p 3). Whether he shares the intellectual confusion of the Report or is merely seeking to exploit it in an adversarial manner is immaterial for present purposes. The confusion is to treat the word ‘assimilation’ as denoting some fixed concept, as if it always means the same thing whenever and by whomsoever it is used.

Many different policies, and even more practices, have gone under the name of ‘assimilation’, and there have been many different responses to these policies and practices amongst Aborigines, administrators and anthropologists. Stanner and other anthropologists were wrestling with the concept in 1964[9] and Rowley in 1971.[10] Broome writes about how ‘Hasluck’s conception of assimilation as the Aborigine’s “chance to shape his own life”, and keep some of his culture, became a policy of white management and Europeanisation in the hands of government officials’.[11] There is all the difference in the world between a policy which compels assimilation by denying people the right to maintain their languages and lifestyle and keep their children, and one which allows assimilation by giving them equal rights and opportunities to choose their own way of life (as Ferguson and Patten wanted). There is also a range in between. By referring to ‘assimilation’ policy and indigenous ‘culture’ as if they were fixed, unchanging things, the Report and Brunton fall into their separate confusions.


The confusing use of the term, ‘assimilation’, is one means by which Betraying the Victims manages to obfuscate the discussion of genocide.

In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Genocide Convention, which was the first clear recognition that forcibly transferring children of one national, ethnic, racial or religious group to another group with the intent to destroy the former group as such, in whole or in part, was genocide and a crime against humanity. The Report quotes some of the well–known statements by administrators of earlier periods to which this definition can be retrospectively fitted, but none that I can find from the period after its adoption. This leads me to wonder how the Inquiry found that the crime was being committed in Australia at least until the 1960s and arguably until the 1980s (pp 273–5).

The Report simply asserts that ‘[T]he Inquiry’s process of consultation and research has revealed that the predominant aim of Indigenous child removals was the absorption or assimilation of the children into the wider, non–Indigenous, community so that their unique cultural values and ethnic identities would disappear, giving way to models of Western culture’ (pp 272–273). This is a most unsatisfactory way of dealing with an issue which, as the Inquiry recognised, was central to its terms of reference (p 273). It is the more serious as the alleged predominant aim was not stated in legislation, and could only lie in the acts and intentions of individuals who, so far as one can tell from the Report, were being judged without notice or hearing to be guilty of a crime against humanity.

A quite unnecessary legal ruling has led the Inquiry into pointless controversy. The enormity of what was done speaks for itself through the lips of those to whom it was done, and the lips of self–righteous administrators of the past whose ideas would today be seen as genocidal. As Commissioner Johnston said when he declined to make an unnecessary finding of genocide in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, what matters is what Australia now does to redress the wrongs which the failed policies wrought upon Aboriginal people.[12]

Betraying the Victims muddies the water with further intellectual confusion. The Report uses the word ‘assimilation’ in a context where it is talking about forcible removal of children with the predominant aim of their assimilation into the non–Indigenous community so that their unique cultural values and ethnic identities would disappear (p 272). Betraying the Victims picks up the word, ‘assimilation’ out of context, and proceeds to trumpet the utterly irrelevant argument that international bodies supported ‘assimilation’ in a quite different sense, namely the provision of opportunity, without force or coercion, for integration of indigenous people into the nation. The support specifically excluded measures tending towards their ‘artificial assimilation’ (p 11).

Reasons for removals

The Report’s broadband finding of genocide is also made problematic by its failure to distinguish between separations for different purposes. Virtually all lasting separations where parents did not have free choice are lumped together as ‘forcible separations’, whether they were for the purpose of ensuring that children would grow up physically or culturally cut off from an Aboriginal community, to remove them from an environment where their safety or health was considered in jeopardy, to secure them a secondary education, or to take them into custody under the processes of the criminal justice system.

For some purposes the reasons are of little importance. If a small child is forced to grow up cut off from family and community, in an emotionally barren environment in which its racial background is despised, told that its parents are dead or uninterested in it, and treated as having no destiny except as unskilled or domestic labour for the superior white race, its childhood will be misery and it will be at risk of lasting psychic disturbance. This will be true whether the child is removed for genocidal motives, because its fair skin in a blacks camp is an embarrassment to white society, because it is considered neglected, or because it lives far from a hospital or school. On the other hand, if one intends to make judgments about responsibility, reasons may be highly important.

As a practical matter, there was no realistic possibility that the Inquiry, resourced as it was, could make reliable distinctions. To cross–examine a person who is publicly baring their agony for the first time as to whether their mother was a worthless person would have been cruel, and irrelevant to their suffering and psychic deprivation. To find out the reasons for removal given in official files, and check the accuracy of those files against the testimony of living witnesses, would have been theoretically possible in those cases where records still existed and could be related to individuals, many of whom had been denied knowledge of their ancestry. Brunton claims the Inquiry should have done this and holds up the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody as an example. The Royal Commission sat for four years at a cost of $30m, with up to five full–time commissioners assisted by many counsel and staff, and supplied with files by co–operative State Governments which had joined in commissioning the Inquiry. In that time, it investigated the lives and deaths of about 100 Aborigines who died in custody. The Inquiry by contrast lasted for about 18 months, with a budget of $1.5m, no full–time members and no counsel assisting, and was confronted with the stories of over 1500 lives. The tasks of the two inquiries were of course completely different, and any comparison between them is absurd. Yet Brunton makes it. It is ironic that when the Royal Commission’s reports seemed to be gaining public sympathy, Brunton produced for the IPA a booklet denigrating them.[13] Seven years later, when he needs a stick to beat Bringing them home, Brunton holds up the reports of the Royal Commission as models of what the Inquiry should have done.

It would simply have been impossible for the Inquiry to check the individual stories, as Brunton claims it should have done, with the time and resources available. For the Report’s picture of the suffering of the removed children and its psychic effects, the lack of checking is not very important. On the other hand, as I have already argued, the failure to investigate individual circumstances makes problematic any finding that the removals were all carried out with intent to destroy a group, as such.

Peripheral criticisms

Brunton claims that ‘[t]he report misleadingly asserts [p 272] that ‘mixed race’ or ‘half–caste’ children were recognised as children of the indigenous group, and not in any sense as children of no group or as children shared by different groups’ (pp 1, 12).

How does the booklet challenge this statement, which seems to be confirmed by the existence today of an indigenous group overwhelmingly composed of mixed race people? It first points out that reformers argued that mixed race people should be regarded as part–European. This is surely evidence that the situation was as the Report claims; why otherwise would reformers campaign to change it? Secondly, it refers to campaigns for different legislative regimes for ‘full–bloods’ and ‘half–castes’. This does not alter the fact that socially the ‘half–castes’ were half–caste Aborigines, not half–caste Europeans. As Beckett put it, ‘racism expressed itself in contradiction, for while officialdom insisted that their white ancestry would enable them to enter the ranks of Australian society, white prejudice ensured that few did’.[14] The same captious approach is evident in the challenge to the Report’s statement that ‘Aboriginal society regards any child of Aboriginal descent as Aboriginal’,[15] a challenge which reminds one of the practice, noted by Beckett, of attributing to Aboriginal society the rejection practised by Europeans.[16]

Another example of a scholarly sounding assertion that turns out on examination to have no substance is revealed in the following quote from Betraying the Victims this (pp4–5):

The risks of placing reliance on the report’s statements about the number of children removed are further demonstrated by the fallacious claim that ‘More recent surveys are likely to understate the extent of removal because many of those removed during the early periods of the practice are now deceased’ (p 37). This would only follow if it could be shown that the death rate of people who were removed was higher than that of people who were not removed and if so, it would usually be possible to readjust the removal rates accordingly.

This criticism ignores three points. Firstly, available surveys rarely distinguish between age groups. One to which the Report referred quoted a single rate for respondents of all ages, another a single rate for all respondents over 25, yet another for all patients at a general medical practice. Secondly, there are unlikely to be figures distinguishing between the death rates by age group of people who had been removed and those who had not been removed for each (or indeed any) of the 60 or so years the practice continued. Third, the earlier the removal, the less chance that a representative sample (or any sample) of the age group would be available for interview but the earlier removals which took place when the policy was unquestioned are likely to have been at a greater rate than in more recent years when it was increasingly challenged. Another survey cited by the Report showed one quarter of ‘elderly’ people but only one in seven of the ‘middle–aged’ people being removed (p 36).

A final example of the technique of denigratory dissection lies in Brunton’s pontification that the Report ‘applies inconsistent principles at different times, so as to create a damned if you do/damned if you don’t situation’ (p 7). He supports this accusation in the following passage (p 9):

Thus, ‘no fixed abode’ and ‘sleeps in the open air’, are disparaged [by the Report] as a means of indicating neglect because they ‘appear overwhelmingly to target Indigenous lifestyles’ (p 267), while later the report appears to accept submissions from the Aboriginal Legal Service of WA, that ‘without housing, an individual’s education, economic and socio–cultural developments are severely curtailed’ (p 549).

Brunton’s logic would entail that if Aboriginal parents unsuccessfully demand better housing, they have no right to object if their children are taken away because they haven’t got it.


With a fifth of the space by which Brunton excused his limited coverage, I cannot chase to its burrow every hare which Betraying the Victims beats up. Having dealt with a number of its points, I invite the reader to cast a critical eye over the rest, unintimidated by the veneer of scholarship.

Many passages read like the armchair musings of someone not interested in realities or substantial issues, but only in scraping the bottom of the barrel for argumentative points. How helpful is it to know that in 1969 someone said that ‘the people of Groote Eylandt are not very happy to have their daughters playing around with white people’ (p 13)? Yet it is by the ponderous accumulation of such irrelevancies that people may be led to feel they have justification for ignoring the Report entirely, even its unchallenged message of suffering and individual and social destabilisation. Brunton’s pious disavowal of such an intention is hardly sufficient to avoid this result.

I leave Brunton to tell you, in his own words (aided by some clarifying ellipsis), how little his huffing and puffing has to do with the central message of Bringing Them Home:

I have never stated that witnesses to the national inquiry may have been ‘confused’ ... Nor have I said witnesses may have been ‘lacking in credibility ... Anyone reading my booklet can have no doubt that I regard the removal of children from caring families as indefensible, and I believe that Aboriginal experience of such removals has contributed to a legacy of bitterness that other Australians need to comprehend.[17]

Hal Wootten AC QC is a retired Supreme Court judge who was a member of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

[1] Ron Brunton Betraying the Victim: The Stolen Generations Report IPA Backgrounder, Institutue of PublicAffairs Ltd, Melbourne, 1998, here referred to as Betraying the Victims or ‘the booklet’ (Brunton’s own term).

[2] Betraying the Victims, p.20.

[3] Frank Devine ‘Bringing the truth back home’. The Australian 5 march 1998; PP McGuniess ‘We need a closer look at the stolen children’ The Sydney Morning Herald 5 march 1998. Noting that of course, Brunton had already attacked because of the politics of the IPA and his work for the mining industry’, McGuiness not unreasonably comments:’It seems that anthropologists who refuse to accept the professioonal bias and fads of the academic anthroplogists should live on the dole’.

[4] Betraying the Victims pp3, 14, 20.

[5] A Markus, Governing Savages, Allen and Unwin 1990, p174.

[6] See J Horner Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal Freedom, Australian and New Zealand Book Co,1974, p196.

[7] Betraying the Victims, pp14, 23 (endnote 43). Brunton comments (endnote 60) that the’orginal pamphlet is rather hard to find’, but it is published in full in the reference given in the source he was quoting (A Markus, Governing Savages, Allen and Unnwin, 1990, p179, citing J Horner Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal freedom, Australian and New Zealand Book Co, 1974, p192) and in any event he found a version containg relevannt portions in full (N Parbury, Survival: A History of Aboriginal Life in New South Wales, Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, NSW, 1986, pp108-112). In endnote 45 he devotes six lines to the problems of ellipsis in another quotation.

[8] According to Marcus Governing Savages p 179, Ferguson later described ‘the gradual absorption of the aborigines into the white race’ as ‘the most practical and natural course for our people’

[9] See M Reay (ed) Aborigines Now Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1964.

[10] C Rowley Outcasts in White Australia ANU Press canberra, 19971, esp. Chapters 1 and 18.

[11] R Broome Aboriginal Australians Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2nd edn 1994, p171.

[12] E Johnston National Report Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in Cuustody, 1991, Vol5 pp34, 35. One would think from the Bringing them home report (p274) that Commissioner Johnson has rejected the charge of genocide. The Report overlooks that the sentence, and followed by five pages of discussion leading to the refusal to make a finding.

[13] R Brunton Black Suffering, White Guilt?: Aboriginal Disadvatage and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in Custody, Institute of Public Affairs, 1993.

[14] J Beckett ‘Internal Colonialism in a welfare state: the case of the australian Aborigines’, 1983. Paper presented to Amercian Anthroplogical Association, Chicago, p9, quoted by G Cowlishaw Black, white or brindle, Cambridge University Press 1988, p83.

[15] Betraying the Victims, p 13, Bringing them Home, p272.

[16] J Beckett ‘The Past in the Present; the present in the past:constructing a national Aboriginality’, in J Beckett (ed) Past and Present: The Construction of Aboriginality 1988 Aboriginal Studies Press, p198.

[17] Ron Brunton, Letter to the Editor, The Australian 10 March 1998. In the passages omitted from the quotation Brunnton emphasied that he was critical of the report.

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