Ron Brunton

In November 1997, Robert Manne and I discussed Bringing them home, the report of the inquiry into the ‘stolen generations’ undertaken by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC). Manne conceded that it had serious weaknesses. But he also said I should not publish my planned critique, because it would provide ‘the right’ with ammunition they could use to dismiss the whole issue. Instead, I should aim to write a better history of Aboriginal child removals. This was what he was doing.

It was an astonishing request, made even more so by his acknowledgement that public opinion ‘overwhelmingly accepted the truthfulness’ of the report at the time (In Denial, p. 42). Someone who had once editorialised (Quadrant, December 1992) about the duty of intellectuals to influence the world ‘by discrediting the false and advancing the true’, was saying, in effect, that certain falsehoods should be allowed to stand for political reasons.

With the publication of Manne’s essay, In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right, the situation has become more extraordinary. After all, individuals who have identified the failings of Bringing them home are not just those who can be dismissed as ‘right-wing’. Last December, for instance, the Australian Financial Review published an article called ‘A matter for history’ by Bain Attwood – no friend of ‘the right’ – which also found serious fault with the report. So perhaps to avoid being criticised for remaining silent about a document whose defects have become increasingly apparent, Manne has temporarily put aside the task of writing his ‘better history’ and done just what he warned me against – he has publicly acknowledged that Bringing them home has major flaws.

But this has also placed him in an uncomfortable position. He has only recently extricated himself from the ‘right-winger’ smear himself, and even then, as recent Overland editorials indicate, not with complete success. Consequently, like the nouveaux riches who strongly denigrate those from whom they have risen, Manne seems keen to convince everyone that he retains no vestiges of his former self. No adjectives are spared in berating the wickedness and vacuity of ‘the right’, which is supposedly running an organised campaign to discredit Bringing them home and the ‘stolen generations’. Unfortunately however, in attempting to protect himself against potential snipers from one direction, he has opened up a whole new avenue for attacks on his intellectual credibility. In Denial shows that he is indifferent to factual evidence, apparently believing that he can make reckless claims which are demonstrably false without being called to account.

My comments about In Denial are confined solely to statements which refer to me directly or by implication, and these cover only around 10 per cent of the essay. The remaining 90 per cent includes numerous significant falsehoods as well, but I leave these for others to address. In the interests of economy, I have not always provided the full context and references to support my statements. However, anyone wishing to verify what I have written can consult ‘The False Scholarship Syndrome’ on the IPA website (www.ipa.org.au), which contains a detailed point-by-point rebuttal of all the specific criticisms that Manne has made of my writings on the ‘stolen generations’. The website also includes Betraying the Victims (IPA Backgrounder, February 1998), which is the most comprehensive critique of Bringing them home I have published.


Manne seems unwilling to accept that there could be any justification for the position I argued from the beginning – that in the long run a shoddy and intellectually dishonest report betrays the victims of a great injustice. He also seems unable to comprehend that an irresponsible document like Bringing them home can make it much more difficult for contemporary authorities to achieve a wise and humane balance in deciding what to do with Aboriginal children in situations of risk.

Manne accuses me of being disingenuous, maintaining that I was a pioneer for those who say that the ‘stolen generations’ issue is a hoax and that the children were ‘rescued’. He claims that not only have I refused to oppose them, I have supposedly joined them ‘in an orchestrated campaign’ (p. 42). But as he must know, I have made it abundantly clear on many occasions that I am against those who think it is a ‘hoax’, and that I do not accept the notion of a ‘rescued generation’ (e.g. ‘Dilemma in making amends’, Courier-Mail, 4 September 1999; ‘Justice O’Loughlin and Bringing them home’, Quadrant, December 2000). Manne seems to think that speaking at a conference constitutes sharing a ‘platform’ with all other speakers (p. 42), irrespective of whether I agreed with their views or not. As well as casting a revealing light on his intolerance, these remarks would place me in the position of being a co-campaigner on Aboriginal issues with people such as Henry Reynolds and Aden Ridgeway, with whom I have also spoken on ‘the same platform’.

Manne obviously believes my motives are unsavoury. ‘Retained by a private enterprise think-tank supported by mining money’ (p. 42), I have supposedly carved out a niche market attacking judgements or reports ‘conspicuously sympathetic to the Aborigines’, preparing ‘scathing criticisms of Mabo and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody’ (p. 31). At the end of his essay, he lists further supposed motives animating anti-Bringing them home ‘campaigners’, perhaps including me. It is true, for instance, that I am a former leftist, although far from thinking that ‘truth is simply the opposite of what [I] once believed’, my views on Aboriginal issues and on racial matters generally have changed little from the then left-wing ideas I held in the early 1970s. Given his references to my ‘mean-spirited’ criticisms (pp. 33, 42), he no doubt believes that I am also someone who has ‘little capacity for empathy’ (p. 102). It seems I have been remiss in not adopting his own approach, taking every opportunity to stress my unbounded compassion and rectitude. Unfortunately however, I would find this rather distasteful. It reminds me of Emerson’s maxim, ‘the louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons’.

The situation regarding mining companies, the Institute of Public Affairs, and my other writings on Aboriginal issues is also rather different from what Manne pretends. For a start, if he really believes that taking money from the mining industry compromises both me and the IPA, he should explain why, as editor of Quadrant, he requested and received funding from some of the same mining companies who support us. He seems to be implying that while he is too pure to be tainted by his funding, those of us without his admirable qualities are far more vulnerable.

And although Manne has claimed that mining companies ‘have a great deal to lose or gain regarding the thrust of Aboriginal policy’ (The Age, 2 March 1998), he should spell out their interest in the ‘stolen generations’ issue. Does he really think that publicising the defects of Bringing them home can have any consequences for how courts will deal with heritage or native title cases? In fact, the industry is very keen to avoid the ‘stolen generations’ issue, given that in recent years all large mining companies operating in Australia have put considerable efforts into developing close relations with national and regional Aboriginal organisations. They have nothing to gain and much to lose from supporting those who question the ‘Aboriginal industry’ position on the issue.

My attacks on Bringing them home have not helped the IPA’s fund raising, and they have not helped my anthropological consultancy. Just before Betraying the Victims was released, for instance, I had been asked to join an advisory committee of WMC Ltd. A couple of weeks later the invitation was withdrawn on the extraordinary grounds that it should not have been made in the first place. While WMC denied that my involvement with the controversy about the ‘stolen generations’ had prompted the withdrawal, it certainly seemed a strange coincidence. I would probably be better off if I stopped commenting on controversial Aboriginal issues, because it seems to scare off clients. But just as some academics continue teaching although they could earn more elsewhere, I find satisfaction in what I do and believe that it is worth doing.

Even Manne’s suggestion that I consistently seek to undermine judgements or reports ‘conspicuously sympathetic to the Aborigines’ is specious and revealing. He seems to be implying that something purporting to be sympathetic to Aborigines should be immune from criticism. But it is a commonplace of social science (and common sense) that noble intentions do not necessarily produce good outcomes, and the thrust of much of my writing on Aboriginal issues has been to warn that seemingly attractive approaches may prove counter-productive. My criticisms of the Deaths in Custody Royal Commission, for instance, were focused solely on its emphasis on ‘institutional racism’ as the major explanation for Aboriginal disadvantage, one which I believe only reinforces a corrosive and disempowering sense of victimhood. And my strongest criticisms of the Mabo decision have been that it gives Aborigines an inferior form of title which limits their freedom. This much, at least, Manne does know, because he once published an article presenting my arguments for this view (‘Shame about Aborigines’, Quadrant, May 1997).

People who are prone to believe in conspiracies are usually impervious to information which casts doubt on their fantasies. Nevertheless, given that Manne casts me as having struck ‘the first serious blow’ in a supposed Howard Government backed ‘right-wing’ campaign against the ‘stolen generations’ (p. 31), some important matters should be stated for the record.

To the best of my recollection, I have never discussed Bringing them home with any members of the present government. In 1997, a former Liberal backbencher, Russell Broadbent, rang to ask my opinion of the report. When I said that it had dealt irresponsibly with a very serious issue, and that ideally, the government should commission another inquiry which would be carried out with the appropriate rigour and probity, he ended the conversation, and I never heard from him again. In fact, the individuals with whom I have had the most frequent and extensive discussions about the ‘stolen generations’ – and Aboriginal issues generally – are two former Labor ministers, Peter Walsh and Gary Johns. Walsh has been a particularly trenchant and longstanding public critic of Bringing them home and the ‘stolen generations’ inquiry, both as an Australian Financial Review columnist, and in his current position as a columnist for the Adelaide Review. Manne makes no mention of this, perhaps because it could muddy his picture of a Howard government-supported right-wing campaign.

Furthermore, as he no doubt remembers, it was Manne himself who informed me that the Government submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Stolen Generation had used my work, or as he wrote in an email on April 11 last year, that I was one of the submission’s ‘fathers’. I subsequently obtained the document, and learnt a number of very significant facts which I had not known before – including that Bringing them home had grossly misrepresented Max Kamien’s crucial Bourke study, wrongly claiming it had shown that one in every three Aboriginal adults had been separated from their families in childhood. If the Government were really running a campaign in which I had a starring role, surely it would have kept me in the loop so that I did not have to rely on fortuitous disclosures from Manne for such important details. One might also imagine that I would be asked to look over a submission I had ‘fathered’. We all know that the Howard Government is inept at handling cultural controversies, but this would be something else again.

One of Manne’s favoured sayings comes from Solzhenitsyn – ‘slander is a hummable tune’. Sadly, it is a tune that Manne himself is fond of. He states that I claim ‘almost all’ of ‘the thousands of Aborigines’ who believed themselves ‘to have been taken from their parents unjustly... were in the grip of collective hysteria and suffering from “false memory syndrome”’ (p. 73). I have never written anything that could remotely justify this statement. Nor would I. Indeed, it is refuted by what Manne says about me elsewhere: ‘In Betraying the Victims Brunton accepted that very many Aboriginal children had been separated from their mothers and communities by force’ (p. 31). My only references to the ‘false memory syndrome’ have been to point out that its existence should have made the inquiry take appropriate steps to check as many of the stories it presented as possible in order to head off inevitable questions about the veracity of these stories. Although Manne neglects to mention the fact, in his judgement in the Cubillo–Gunner case Justice O’Loughlin noted that both claimants were engaged, even if not deliberately, in ‘exercises of reconstruction’ (Cubillo v Commonwealth, FCA 1084, para 125). However, Manne does say that it is ‘obvious to commonsense’ that the memories of some individuals who appeared before the inquiry, ‘like all childhood memories, were likely to have been simplified and even distorted with the passage of time’ (p. 30).What he notes is just ‘commonsense’, but when I say something similar it is ‘grotesque’, which is the term he used in the edited extract from the essay published in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald (March 31).

There are other gross misrepresentations in the essay. Manne uses quotations ‘creatively’ to make it appear as though I made statements which not only were never made, but which are the virtual opposite of what I actually said. Thus he writes ‘... the implication behind Brunton’s criticism [of Bringing them home], namely that a comparison between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal child removal involves a comparison of “like with like”... is self-evidently absurd’ (pp. 34–35). But I did not say that the removals were the same. Indeed, I specifically wrote that ‘the existence in various jurisdictions of special legislation which diminished the rights of Aborigines and made it easier to remove Aboriginal children was clearly racially discriminatory, and cannot be defended’. The ‘like with like’ is ripped from a sentence in the same paragraph where I criticised the report for making comparisons between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal removals based on very different kinds of evidence, drawing conclusions about the latter ‘largely from inferences, unsupported opinions, and questionable generalisations’, rather than from accounts of the actual experiences of non-Aboriginal children (Betraying the Victims, p. 9).

Manne resorts to a similar tactic to make another finding of ‘absurdity’ against my methodological criticisms of Bringing them home, pretending that one of my reasons for questioning whether it faithfully depicted evidence presented to the inquiry was a failure to include verbatim extracts from all Aboriginal witnesses (pp. 32, 70). Had this been the basis for my questioning, it certainly would have been foolish. But it was not. I criticised the report for failing to include vital summary information about those witnesses who were taken, such as official reasons for original removal, whether the child was later returned to his or her family, and so on; and for omitting important summary demographic information that would have allowed comparison with other data sources on removed children. The absence of such summary information raised legitimate doubts about the representativeness of witnesses appearing before the inquiry, as well as the cases selected for discussion in the report. To anticipate and head off possible objections that Bringing them home had focused on actual experiences rather than on cold statistical data, I also noted that the stories in the report had come from only a minority of witnesses appearing before the inquiry. My discussion of this issue appeared under a sub-heading ‘Failure to provide necessary summary data relating to witnesses’ (BtV, pp. 8–9), which should have made things sufficiently clear to even the most tendentious reader.

Manne makes a further finding of ‘self-evident absurdity’ about my suggestion that the inquiry could have requested amendments to its terms of reference to allow it to make a proper assessment of the similarities and differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal child removals. How could it have afforded such an investigation with only $2 million in funding? he asks (p. 34). But my suggestion would only be ‘self-evidently absurd’ to someone who conveniently overlooked three important facts, one of which even appeared elsewhere in his essay. Firstly, the inquiry asked for, and obtained, amended terms of reference from the Keating government so it could consider compensation for those affected by the child removal policies. Secondly, as Manne himself notes, it also asked the Howard Government for more money (p. 5). While this was unsuccessful, it is hardly fanciful to think that a request to the previous government would have failed, particularly if it was argued that expansion would enhance the overall credibility of the inquiry, as well as head off possible future requests for an inquiry into non-Aboriginal child removals. This leads to the final point – the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody provided a precedent showing that a Labor Government would extend the terms and cost of an inquiry into a sensitive issue relating to Aboriginal concerns far beyond what was originally planned.

So keen is Manne to assert the supposed ‘absurdity’ of my criticisms, that he catches Bringing them home in friendly fire. He assures readers that it would have been impractical for the inquiry to have followed the kind of investigation I would urge, which would have involved testing the evidence of witnesses against documentary evidence about their cases (pp. 33–4). Unfortunately for him however, HREOC claimed that testing had been done. On its website it stated that the inquiry ‘conducted extensive searches and analysis of historical documents and records which substantiated its findings’. In Betraying the Victims, where this was noted (p. 5), I pointed out that HREOC should have provided more information to support this claim, including the number of witness statements or submissions that were actually checked against the records. Furthermore, despite Manne’s misleading attempt to suggest otherwise, I did not state that the highly intensive kind of investigation carried out by the Royal Commission was appropriate for the HREOC inquiry. In Betraying the Victims I said that the cases considered by the Royal Commission indicated a more complex picture of removals than the one presented by Bringing them home, and this was the major point of my comparison. I also noted that the Royal Commission showed it was possible to obtain information about the reasons for removal from various sources (pp. 7–9).

Manne states that my treatment of the genocide issue, which occupies a substantial portion of Betraying the Victims, is ‘unsatisfactory’, and that ‘several of my criticisms’ are ‘little more than point scoring’. He says that both Bringing them home and I have failed to distinguish between the pre-WWII policy of biological absorption and the post-war policy of socio-cultural assimilation. As the sole example of my supposed point-scoring he offers my reference to the famous Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights manifesto for the 1938 Sesquicentennial Australia Day protest, written by Aboriginal activists Jack Patten and William Ferguson, which included a passage advocating cultural and biological absorption. Not only does Manne think this largely irrelevant to the question of the relationship between child removals and genocide, he also suggests that the passage may have been included at the prompting of the fascist literary critic ‘Inky’ Stephenson, who was then assisting Patten and Ferguson (pp. 35–7, 41).

A number of issues need to be unpacked here. In Betraying the Victims I dealt with the arguments actually presented in Bringing them home, not those that Manne might have wished it to make. The report clearly stated that the child removals were ‘genocidal’ because they were instigated to achieve the objective of assimilation (see BtV, p.10). Consequently, an examination of the attitudes prominent Aboriginal campaigners once held towards assimilation was appropriate and necessary. Furthermore, whereas Manne now only seems willing to argue that some senior pre-WWII administrators, in talking about ‘breeding out the colour’, were guilty of ‘genocidal thoughts’ (pp. 39–40), Bringing them home was not talking about ‘thoughts’. It was saying that actual practices were genocidal, and that the term might even be applicable to practices that persisted into the 1980s (BTH, p. 274).A number of matters were relevant for an assessment of Bringing them home’s arguments. These included its gross misrepresentation of a document relating to mixed motives that was crucial for its ‘genocide’ finding, because it was the matter of motives that had earlier caused the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to reject a similar charge (see National Report, vol. 5, pp. 28–35; BtV, pp. 11–12). I considered these matters under eight different headings, although no-one relying on Manne’s account of my paper would ever realise this.

At first glance, Manne’s suggestion that Stephenson was behind the apparent support for absorption sounds plausible. However, in March 1998, after he raised the possibility in a newspaper column, I sent him evidence taken from Jack Horner’s biography of Ferguson, Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal Freedom, and Andrew Marcus’s book, Governing Savages, refuting his suggestion. As I pointed out, ‘one of the reasons behind Ferguson’s split with Patten later in 1938 was Ferguson’s suspicion of Stephenson and his motives. Yet, as Marcus makes clear, a year and a half after this split, Ferguson was still advocating “the gradual absorption of the aborigines into the white race”’. The fact that Manne simply repeats his suggestion without referring to or addressing this seemingly fatal contrary evidence does not enhance confidence in his intellectual integrity.

Manne also accuses me of being unable ‘to understand, let alone answer, the arguments developed since 1997 by Raimond Gaita’ and himself. He attacks my ‘humourless’ article on the ‘unconceived generations’ published in Quadrant in May 1998, claiming it is based on a failure to see the ‘difference between prescribing the pill and forcibly removing children with the purpose of making a people disappear’ (p. 41). In fact, this partly tongue-in-cheek piece was written to show where a combination of Manne and Gaita’s position and Bringing them home’s kind of arguments might lead. But it was probably unwise to write in a less than deadly earnest manner, because I should have heeded McKenzie Wark’s observation that both Manne and Gaita have ‘a cloth ear for irony’. Nevertheless, the article did make a very serious point.

I specifically accepted that genocide involves the idea that certain people have the ‘right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world’, as Gaita puts it. But the same logic that Bringing them home had used to show that the child removals contravened Article II (e) of the Genocide Convention could also be used to show that family planning programs contravened Article II (d), which precludes ‘imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group’. In fact, this has long been argued by some radical Black Americans and Aborigines.

Although I personally believe that giving advice on birth control to anyone desiring it is proper, some Third World family planning programs have not just innocently ‘prescribed the pill’ to tribal and peasant women. There is a fair amount of evidence indicating that at different times and places ‘duress’ and ‘undue influence’ (to adopt terms from Bringing them home) have been used to sterilise women without their informed consent, or to provide them with dangerous forms of contraception. Furthermore, some of the most vocal proponents of the post-WWII ‘population explosion’ panic came out of the eugenics movement which Manne so strongly – and justifiably – condemns. Prominent advocates, such as William Vogt, made remarks that betray ‘genocidal thoughts’ and ‘racist contempt’ (to use Gaita’s words) every bit as callous as those that Manne has found in A.O. Neville’s reported comments about eventually forgetting that there were ever any Aborigines in Australia (p. 40).

Vogt, for instance, wrote in 1948 that ‘the greatest tragedy that China could suffer at the present time would be a reduction in her death rate’ (my IPA Backgrounder, The End of the Overpopulation Crisis?, December 1998, discusses these matters in more detail and provides references). In other words, while Neville did not necessarily wish to see a single premature death, Vogt was calling for it on a mass scale. So if Manne or Gaita (or Bringing them home) say we must take seriously the argument that those who spoke of ‘breeding out the colour’ were urging ‘genocide’, we must also consider whether Australia’s support for Third World birth control programs may, at the very least, constitute ‘complicity in genocide’ (a crime under Article III of the Genocide Convention). It is Manne who is unwilling to contemplate this possibility. Indeed, when I raised it during our debate on ABC’s 7.30 Report on March 31, he adopted a tone which was – to borrow his phrase – ‘sneering and contemptuous’.

Manne’s failure to comprehend his own arguments goes further, however. During an email exchange in April 2000, I said that if he thought Neville expressed ‘genocidal thoughts’ in his reported comments, he should also acknowledge that Aboriginal tribal elders who pressured women to kill ‘half-caste’ babies – something which occurred in at least some places in early stages of contact with Europeans (see BtV, p. 13) – were guilty of ‘genocidal deeds’. After all, they held the belief that certain kinds of people, whom they perceived as being quite distinct from themselves, should not inhabit the world.

Manne’s response was most revealing. He said that I did not understand his arguments, because to him, genocide was the desire ‘to remove a distinct people from the face of the earth’. This seemed just what I was saying. But he then added that genocide ‘is the kind of thing that intellectuals dream about not tribal elders’. This extraordinary statement combines an impossible omniscience about what tribal elders may or may not ‘dream about’, with a considerable ignorance about actual tribal behaviour (see e.g. Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization). Even more bizarre, Manne went on to claim that it was not just any old intellectuals who had these dreams, but those with a 19th century world view. Indeed, the fact that I had challenged him to condemn tribal elders for adopting what was a modern European view point was evidence that I did not understand the sort of argument he was making. I stand convicted. I am unable ‘to understand, let alone answer’ this kind of logic.

The above comments cover only some of the defects I have identified in the dozen or so pages of In Denial that refer to me. The others can be found in the rebuttal on the IPA website. However, I think I have done enough here to raise grave doubts about Manne’s judgement and his approach to factual evidence. Given that the great majority of their readers will not follow them into the archives, one of the essential requirements for good historians is the ability to present reliable accounts of the documents they examine. In Denial shows that Manne lacks this ability. Eventually, we may obtain a ‘better history’ of the Aboriginal child removals, but it is most unlikely that it could ever come from Robert Manne.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 1, In Denial. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 2, Appeasing Jakarta.


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