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220 years of saving the children

By John Tomlinson - posted Wednesday, 20 February 2008

I finished reading the collection of essays Coercive reconciliation, edited by Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson, just prior to the parliamentary apology to the stolen generations. I read the first half of the book when the last government’s intervention in the Northern Territory was in full swing.

The Howard/Brough-Brough/Howard (it was hard to know whom was leading who on their sacred mission to save this generation of Indigenous children) was a time when only those wearing black arm bands were, what Padre Noel Pearson called, “naysayers”. Pearson and Warren Mundine, like so many white Australians who have never bothered to ascertain Indigenous Territorians’ perspectives, could not see through their white blindfolds and so could find little to criticise in the intervention/invasion.

Yes, the legislation rushed through the parliament by the Coalition Government (the Senate had a one-day enquiry into the more than 500-page Act) was racially discriminatory.


Yes, it would turn the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) - an Indigenous job guarantee scheme- into a “work for the dole” fiasco.

Yes, it would take half their social security payments from Indigenous families and quarantine them “in the interests of the children”. Few saw any irony in a government taking money from families irrespective of whether they were adequately providing for their children as a way to help them avoid passivity and paternalism.

Yes, it would cost millions to have a new generation of white welfare bureaucrats repeat the mistakes of the earlier white welfare and patrol officers who attempted to carry the white man’s burden in the Northern Territory.

And, yes the Labor party offered bipartisan support because they did not want to be buried under the avalanche of moral panic that surfaced in the wake of the announcement of the intervention.

Coercive reconciliation is an outstanding book which deserves to be read by every politician, bureaucrat, social worker, nurse, doctor, community worker, employee of Territory Indigenous organisations and others who have an interest in non-Indigenous/Aboriginal relations.

Like all collations of articles by a multitude of authors, it contains some chapters which are more appealing than others but the authors and editors have done a remarkable job of producing a consistent style. Many of the contributors will be well known to academics and practitioners who have an involvement in Indigenous affairs. I was glad I had not finished reading Coercive reconciliation before now as it places me in a position to assess its usefulness as a text from which to judge the performance of the Rudd Government’s efforts in Aboriginal affairs, at least in the Northern Territory.


The intervention was only announced on June 21, 2007 and the publisher, Arena, had Coercive reconciliation in the mail by September/ October. It was a remarkable feat just to get it onto bookstands in that time. Books pulled together so quickly usually abound in grammatical errors and proofing disasters: not this one.

It is a partisan text, not in the sense that it argues a narrow ideological line - the topics Coercive reconciliation contains are too broad ranging for that - but in the sense that it is critical of the rushed nature and extent of the intervention in Aboriginal communities without Indigenous involvement.

This book does not make the same mistake. Nationally recognised Indigenous leaders such as Larissa Behrendt, Patrick and Mick Dodson, Michael Mansell, Pat Turner, William Tilmouth, David Ross and Tom Calma all contribute chapters criticising aspects of the intervention.

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Coercive reconciliation, Altman, J. & Hinkson, M. (eds.) [2007] Arena, North Carlton.

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Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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