Manne’s Generation: White Nation Responses to the Stolen Generation Report

by Kay Schaffer

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Robert Manne’s In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right (Manne 2001) provided the nation with an effective antidote to counter the bitter stream of vitriol that followed the release of the Bringing Them Home report (Wilson 1997). Particularly welcome aspects of Manne’s essay include his incisive and sustained rebuttal of some of the more bizarre claims made by the nation’s outspoken conservatives in the wake of the Report’s release; his reasoned objections to their faulty, dismissive and grossly insensitive arguments; his detailing of the United Nations convention on genocide that called forth the charge of genocide made against the Australian nation in the Report; his clarifications concerning the brief given the National Inquiry and the paucity of funds committed to its task; his necessary corrective to some of the estimates made by earlier researchers into the number of children involved; and his attempts to analyse the various motivations of the Report’s opponents as symptomatic of a broader national process of shutting down.

I have no intention of diminishing the value and necessity of Manne’s considered response. Nonetheless, I believe that there are dimensions of the essay that may have had several unintended effects. They, too, deserve better scrutiny. Here, I will focus on three elements that may have contributed indirectly to a containment of the debate on reconciliation – one Manne was intent to move forward. The first is the voice, or mode of address, he adopts for the essay; the second is his necessary focus on history, facticity and the events of the past; and the third is the metaphoric effect of his reiteration of the nation’s “unspeakable trauma,” “our legacy of unutterable shame”. I investigate these dimensions of In Denial not to diminish its considerable import but to address the processes of healing that are still stalled and to return to the import of the Stolen Generation testimonies themselves.

I. Manne’s mode of address

To whom does Manne address his treatise? What subject-object categories are implicit in his address? One might characterise his audience, the ‘subjects’ of his discourse, as a broad-based readership of (white) Australians, rationally constituted, invested with national identity, interested in a rational debate, and uneasy with the impassioned rhetoric to which he occasionally turns. The object of his scrutiny (and scorn) is the backlash of conservatives, his former mates, associated with the journal Quadrant, right-leaning journalists, members of right wing “think tanks”, and members of the Howard liberal government.They are his opponents, conservative speakers whose remarks he meets head-on, in an intersubjective dialogue: two sides of an “us”, a national “we”, in an “us and them” debate.

The contested evidence available to both the subjects of his address and the objects of his scorn, that feeds the debate between left and right involves the lives of indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians, and specifically the victims of the assimilationist policies of the past, are the “them”, in a reductive but enduring configuration of the nation and its others. What is at stake is the accuracy of their testimonies given to the Inquiry and taken up in the Bringing Them Home report and the conclusions arrived at by the Inquiry based on that testimony. The very rhetorical nature of debate pits one set of opponents against another (white Australians who position themselves on the right and the left), rendering those whose lives, histories, and identities are at stake (indigenous Australians) in the category of otherness, as ‘evidence’.

To be sure, Manne chastises those who deny the important role played by Social Justice Commissioner Mick Dodson as co-chair of the Inquiry (71). In so doing, however, he misses an important opportunity to investigate the status of indigenous voices and the ways in which it is possible for them to take on legitimacy in the public sphere. It is not so much that Dodson “was assumed [by right wing critics] irrelevant to its work and outcome” (71) but that his relevance, his authority, was constituted by his position within a largely white forum. And it is one largely eluded in the address of the Report itself, the carriage of which rests with Sir Ron Wilson.

Who is the “we” implicated in this silencing, those of us imagined as representing the whole nation in Manne’s address? If we can talk about the nation as community in terms of familial metaphors, as does Manne in his essay, what racial identities constitute this ancestral nation? Is “our legacy of unspeakable shame” that which Nietzsche might call, and Ghassan Hage examines well (Hage 1998) a legacy of ‘the tribe’, the ancestral white nation of Australia that comes to stand in for the whole (Nietzsche 1967)? How are different generations of ‘new’ Australians positioned in the debate? In other words, how does the nature of the debate itself constitute the nation’s hegemonic boundaries and maintain certain categories of inclusion and exclusion?

Heterogeneous national subjects evoke varied responses to the Stolen Generation issue for the nation. On one side of the “us” and “them” divide stand an array of nationally constituted subjects claiming various identities– as 6th generation descendants from convicts, settlers and colonial administrators, generations of silenced Afghan and Chinese Australians, Jewish survivors of the holocaust, pre-and post war migrants from Eastern Europe, post-Vietnam immigrants and refugees from Asia and migrants from other locations, differently constituted not only as national subjects but also as mothers and daughters and sons . . . . We all have alternative histories, different national and personal investments, and differently constituted subject positions within the nation. On the other side of the us and them divide stand Indigenous Australians. Nor are they a homogeneous group. They include those directly and indirectly affected by assimilationist practices, raised in remote, rural and urban communities, and successive generations of their descendants. Although not homogeneous, all were and continue to be implicated, on the basis of their racial status, as victims of the government’s policies and practices of oppression. Yet the major players in the national debate, even those who contest the findings of the Report and those who contest the contesters, are able to maintain a reductionistic “us” and “them” division between non-indigenous and indigenous Australians. The denial of a specificity for differently positioned national subjects remains one of the unspoken aspects of the management of the larger national debate.

II. The focus on history, facticity and the events of the past

Conservative responses that prompted Manne’s rebuttals worried about how the Report might taint the nation’s history. Such a discourse of national shaming called for a rebuttal trained on issues of “facticity” of the Report and its reliability as history – how many children were taken, how reliable is the evidence of memory, were the children stolen or rescued? – what Manne labels a “nit-picking” at the edges. Although opponents engaged in obfuscation rather than a search for clarity, attention to these details is important, for the Report did, indeed, call for a reassessment of the nation’s history. Much of the value of In Denial, as mentioned at the outset, lies in Manne’s careful reassessments of how the testimonies challenge the nation’s imagined past.

Nonetheless, the nervous backward glances of the conservatives successfully deferred the processes of reconciliation by engaging in extraneous critiques, by failing to acknowledge the ongoing pain and suffering of indigenous people in the present, and by disallowing a process of healing that might be projected into the future. As Walter Benjamin reminds us, it is at times of danger when the selective and cumulative memory of a nation, as embodied in its historiography, require a reinvestment in the imagined historical past (Benjamin 1969, p. 255). The High Court Mabo decision of 1992 recognised that the nation was founded on the legal fiction of terra nullius. Beyond Mabo, there has been a widespread acceptance of the fictions of history, and that histories are constructed inside relations of power, they are not entities outside of representations. TheQuadrant line, with its insistence on historical accuracy, is yet another mode of shoring up the remnants of belief and reinvesting, in Benjamin’s terms, in an imagined and unified historical past.

III. Metaphors of the unspeakable, the unutterable shame

Manne ends his essay with a phrase that sums up his appraisal of what the Stolen Generations issue means to Australia. His final phrase, borrowed from Sir William Deane, refers to “our legacy of unutterable shame” (p. 105). It echoes a point he had made two pages earlier that “Aborigines were the victims of an unspeakable crime” (p. 103). Unutterable shame… unspeakable crime. Here the rhetoric invokes the metaphor of speech, or a secret at the heart of the nation that can not be spoken, doubled by an insistence on shamed nation struck dumb by “our” legacy of the past.

These phrases, coming at the end of a treatise that rails against those who would deny this legacy, also raises questions about who is speaking and who is addressed. Although there are, to be sure, gaps and silences in the testimonies of Stolen Generation victims, lapses in the memory and recall of experiences too traumatic or dangerous to tell, it is simply not the case that crimes against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been unspoken – not by indigenous people themselves nor by witnesses to their abuse. There is now at least a thirty-year archive of published Aboriginal life narratives and a considerable accumulation of damning historical evidence of a frontier history of violence and resistance, sometimes by non-indigenous protesters, as well as the more recent testimonies of victims contained within the Stolen Generation accounts.

These stories are not new. Those who spoke them, albeit painfully and most often reluctantly, are not mute. Until very recently, however, their testimony had no efficacy in the public domain, no legitimacy within official discourses of nation, few ears willing to listen.

I suspect, however, that the silence that marks the trauma to the nation that accompanied the release of Bringing Them Home has less to do with the testimonies of the victims, or even the ‘facts’ of history, and more to do with what lies beyond the words themselves: what “we”, on an ontological level of national selfhood, cannot afford to know, to see, to hear or to speak of. We turn away, uncomprehending, not from the words but from the recognition they threaten to provoke of a nation and its people, a recognition so remote from the myths of nation that fuel our perceptions of ourselves as Australian so as to be unrecognisable. As Judith Herman says “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social contract are too terrible to utter aloud. This is the meaning of the word unspeakable.” (Herman 1996, p.4).

The forced separation of children from their mothers was a violation of the social contract, a basic denial of human rights. And every separation had a witness who saw the pain and remained or were effectively rendered silent. Perhaps this is why certain elements of the nation, the ‘core’ who constitute the national ‘we’, cannot afford to acknowledge the atrocities committed in the past or to recognise the lasting scars of that abuse on the lives of its victims. ‘We’ cannot, because to do so would deliver an ontological blow to our nationally-affiliated selves, a severing of ‘our’ humanity, a taking responsibility for an unimaginable breach in the conduct of human ethics. And so we engage in an active, willed forgetting.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC) hearings into the forced removal of indigenous children from their families enabled the voices of indigenous Australians to enter the public domain. There, they initiated the possibility of a dialogue between tellers and listeners, between those previously silenced and rendered to the margins of the Australian nation and an audience of non-indigenous Australians who occupy a number of more dominant, but by no means unified, positions within it. The responses to the Report, however, whether taken up by Manne or the national media, manage the debate and regulate the nation’s voices in monologic ways. Despite the often-agonising attention to Stolen Generation testimonies by Manne, and the public reflections on national shame and guilt that have appeared in the wake of the Report, I wonder if ‘we’ (non-indigenous Australians) really have been/are/can be in dialogue with indigenous Australians? Or is this present controversy yet another example of some prominent and influential white Australians talking to and among themselves in the name of a national debate in a way that maintains the exclusion of the nation’s others?

Part II

IV: Incommensurable shame

Putting aside for a minute the status of the testimony for the victims and their families, the emergence of indigenous testimony into direct public discourse raised issues of national shame for white Australians that “haunted” the nation. “Haunting” is one of the most often reiterated responses to the testimony within the white community. Let us accept for a minute the proposition that ‘the Australian nation’ (discursively, culturally and institutionally constituted as “white”) has been both haunted by the Stolen Generations issue and shamed by the revelations of the Inquiry, that ghosts of the past now inhabit the nation, and that some of us at least would like to hide from the evidence before our eyes.

This white shame, and the consequent desire to hide from evidence, evinces not an absence in our history but what Derrida might call a “spectral presence”, a presence in the present (Derrida 1994) enfolded into the legacy of the national past. The specter takes many forms, the present haunting made more salient by the partial and tentative legitimacy given to the voices of indigenous peoples through their testimonies taken before the Inquiry. If shaming involves an approbation before the imagined gaze of the other, those others whose gaze shames the white nation now include not only the gaze of the international community, and that reflected back on to the nationally-aligned self through internalised values, ethos and ideologies of nationhood, but also (and perhaps for the first time) the gaze of indigenous Australians, made palpably present through the testimonies contained within the Bringing Them Home report.

The shame experienced and recounted by the victims, however, is an altogether different phenomenon from the shame experienced by white respondents to testimonies of oppression. For indigenous Australians, shame comes from becoming a mere object for another, rendered inarticulate, constantly under surveillance, yet never acknowledged, being discounted, ignored, and trivialised by people in authority, reduced in their daily lives to an abjected or an objectified status, seducing them to a kind of non-existence. Their shame was not only effected by the gaze of their oppressors and the internalisation of values that structured their difference as inferiority but also, and significantly, through the practices of non-recognition by the dominant Australian community that shamed them in to silence. It is the need for recognition, and beyond recognition, the need for a witnessing of the full humanity of indigenous people that is the challenge of the present moment. The self that was othered can never be restored. Still, an indigenous subjectivity can be reconstituted in the present through the ethical response-ability of non-indigenous Australians in the present. The need for witnessing now, not the test of truth in relation to a past, is the response ability required for reconciliation.

V: Different takes on the genocide question

One of the most controversial and contested dimensions of the HREOC report, was the charge made by Commissioner Sir Ron Wilson, that the forced separation of Aboriginal children from their families constituted a form of “genocide”. Shocking though this assertion seemed to the larger “white” Australian public, it is one that Aboriginal people and their supporters, with full knowledge of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), have argued and committed to print on a number of occasions. Some of those who witnessed the trauma of removal in the past did try to speak of the atrocity at the time with reference to the United Nations human rights covenants. For example, as early as 1949, a Northern Territory Patrol Officer, sickened and repulsed by the forced removal of children at the camps, expressed his outrage to his superior, the government secretary Leyden. Leyden, moved by the Patrol Officer’s descriptions of forced removals, wrote to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs charging the government with violations of human rights for these ‘outrageous’ government practices (Fraser, 2000). The Minister, however, was not moved. He upheld the removal policies, acceding to his government’s positioning of indigenous people as objects without agency, capable of being dominated, controlled, and manipulated by the State.

As urban-based indigenous people began to assert political agency on the national scene through the formation of new political organisations in the 1960s, they too charged the government with human rights abuses amounting to genocide. For example, soon after the foundation of the National Tribal Council in Brisbane in 1969, the organisation issued its manifesto on “cultural pluralism”. The manifesto calls for programs to educate Aboriginal people about their own past, traditions, languages and cultural practices. In other words, to enable them to recover a stolen identity. The document called assimilation a failed policy “which amounts to cultural genocide” (National Tribal Council 1969). In another domain, Kevin Gilbert, in his introduction to the Indigenous anthology, Inside Black Australia (Gilbert 1988), also employed the term genocide to describe Australia’s policies of forced removal and their devastating effects on Aboriginal culture (pp. 5-6). These were Aboriginal speakers, knowingly invoking international human rights covenants to which their nation was a signatory, and yet their voices carried no authority in 1969, and little more in 1988.

In the Bringing them Home report both the context and the carriage of the voice changed, shifting from the marginalised position of indigenous speakers, who had previously been rendered objects before the law, to the dominant authoritative voice of a high profile Queen’s Council and President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, whose affirmation of the victims’ testimonies opened up the possibility for them to become legitimate subjects with social agency within the law. But this shift in social and political status, this enabling of at least a tentative social agency, requires the recognition and affirmation of the testimonies within the broader social spaces of the nation that has not been forthcoming as yet. That is the unfinished task before us. And that requires a working through of the ghosts of the past.
It was Sir Ron Wilson’s charge of ‘genocide’ that shocked many white Australians into reactive positions of resistance, a forgetting of the past, a ‘shutting down.’ When Manne searches for explanations for this backlash he locates three elements:

1) the need for conservative stalwarts and their supporters to maintain dominant race and class positions and privileges,
2) a fear of their exposure of ancestral involvements with past practices of oppression and,
3) more broadly, a fear of diminution in the reputation of the self and the nation
(Manne, 2001, 57,71-4,77).

The conservative resistance that defines and amplifies a monologic national debate produces a culture of antagonism. Resistance effectively shuts down national processes of reconciliation. It maintains unequal power relations in which indigenous people continue to be regarded as objects before the law and are denied active agency within it. As long as the nation refuses to bear responsibility for the past, and to deny that the effects of the past are part and parcel of the present, then indigenous people within the nation continue to be reduced to the status of other.

Melissa Lucashenko refers to the different status of indigenous and non-indigenous speakers in her response to Manne’s essay in the recent issue of Overland (Lucashenko 2001, 15). The chosen title of her response, “More Migaloo Words,” indirectly acknowledges the exclusive nature of the “national” debate in which indigenous people are positioned as onlookers. Nonetheless, she affirms Manne’s reading of the meaning of the term genocide as consonant with indigenous understandings of the effect of assimilationist policies in nation’s past. Her emphasis, however, remains with the legacy of that past on the present. Every denial by the Howard government or its conservative supporters, re-victimizes stolen generation survivors and their families who are alive today. This conservative resistance, which denies the possibility for mutual reciprocity, produces a culture of antagonism that revisits, repeats, prolongs and intensifies the ongoing trauma for indigenous Australians. For them, the national trauma re-enacted by the publication of the Bringing Them Homereport is not addressed by attention to the inaccuracies of an historical record. For them, it is about the need to listen, to enable the restitution of indigenous voices, presence, status and subjectivity in the nation in the present. In this climate of ongoing antagonism, however, there can be no reconciliation.

Manne addresses that culture of antagonism through his incisive rebuttal. His approach is both necessary and essential to confront and counteract the extremist claims and inaccuracies. His chosen mode of address, however that of a racially sensitive and sympathetic white Australian speaking back to conservative white Australians, nonetheless has several other, less fortunate, effects. It maintains the debate in hegemonic terms of the dominant white culture at odds with itself and, although Manne acknowledges the ongoing legacies of the past, his rebuttal maintains an historical focus on the rights and wrongs of the past.

IV: Conclusion: Rethinking our National Inheritance
In thinking through these issues of national legacies of shame I was drawn to a treatise by Derrida in Specters of Marx. Here, by revisiting Hamlet and confronting again the ghost of Hamlet’s father that announces the rot at the heart of the nation of Denmark, Derrida reflects upon the difficulties of dealing with one’s inheritance of the ghosts or specters of the past. Our inheritance, he reminds us, is never singular, but plural. He writes:

Let us consider first of all, the radical and necessary heterogeneity of an inheritance. . . An inheritance is never gathered together, it is never one with itself. Its presumed unity, if there is one, can consist only in the injunction to reaffirm by choosing. ‘One must’ means one must filter, sift, criticize, one must sort out several different possibles that inhabit the same injunction. And inhabit it in a contradictory fashion around a secret. If the readability of a legacy were given, natural, transparent, univocal, if it did not call for and at the same time defy interpretation, we would never have anything to inherit from it. . . . The injunction itself (it always says ‘choose and decide from among what you inherit’) can only be one by dividing itself, tearing itself apart, differing/ deferring itself, by speaking at the same time several times-and in several voices (Derrida 1994, p. 16).

Those who oppose the Bringing Them Home report would rather maintain a unified legacy, a given history and tradition, hermetically sealed off in the past. They refuse to acknowledge the secret, the unreadable, unspoken ghosts and trace their markings in the present. As more voices enter the national debate, contesting its boundaries, they remind us of the fluid nature of the nation, one which is now (indeed has always been) unfixed, fluid, divergent and in process. These divergent voices bring with them the possibility for reaffirmations of a disseminated nation and its legacies if we choose to listen and respond ‘otherwise’.


Kay Schaffer, Associate Professor, Department of Social Inquiry, Adelaide University. Her publications include: Women and the Bush (Cambridge, 1988), In the Wake of First Contact: The Eliza Fraser Stories (Cambridge, 1996), co-edited: Constructions of Colonialism: Perspectives on Mrs. Fraser’s Shipwreck (Cassell, 1998), Indigenous Australian Voices: A Reader (Rutgers, 1998), and The Olympics at the Millenium: Power, Politics and the Games (Rutgers, 2000). This essay was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.


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Wilson, S. R. (1997). Bringing them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. Canberra, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission: 689.

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