It seems that I was right to be apprehensive. The actor Hugh Jackman let slip in a recent interview that the real purpose of the film was to highlight the "stolen generations", with other more glamorous parts of the film serving to bring in the audience:
But, Jackman adds, "Baz said if we made a very didactic and earnest story about the Stolen Generations, we'll have about three people watching the movie." Hence, the romance, the drama, the Japanese bombing of Darwin (an actual although little-known event) and a treacherous cattle drive through the desert.
Australian readers will already be familiar with the "stolen generations". For overseas readers, it is a controversial claim that racist white authorities stole generations of Aboriginal children, particularly half-caste children, from their mothers in order to bring them up as Europeans and to breed out the Aboriginal race.
It's difficult, though, to know how much truth there is to this claim, if any. When individual cases are investigated, a different story often emerges. For instance, in the case of activist Charles Perkins it turned out that his mother had begged a Christian boarding school to take him in to give him a better future (he went on to become the first Aborigine to head a government department).
Similarly, Zita Wallace grew up believing she had been stolen, but when she eventually returned to visit her mother it turned out that she had been abandoned:
Said Wallace: "It really hurt me badly. I thought, she doesn't want me, I won't worry about her. It was a really big thing to be rejected by someone who was supposed to be your mother."
Inquests conducted in Victoria, South Australia and the Northern Territory have found that there was "no formal policy for removing children".
So what is the evidence for the stolen generations? The only definite evidence I'm aware of is a note from A.O. Neville, who was a chief protector of Aborigines in Western Australia in the 1930s:
Every administration has trouble with half-caste girls. I know of 200 or 300 girls, however, in Western Australia who have gone into domestic service and the majority are doing very well. Our policy is to send them out into the white community, and if a girl comes back pregnant our rule is to keep her for two years. The child is then taken away from the mother and sometimes never sees her again. Thus these children grow up as whites, knowing nothing of their own environment. At the expiration of the period of two years the mother goes back into service so it really does not matter if she has half a dozen children.
This is the right-liberal, assimilationist attitude to Aborigines - a view which is still around today. For right-liberals what counts is not preserving ethnicity, but adherence to a set of universal liberal values. Right liberals generally support the idea of the European and Aboriginal populations merging together within a universal liberal culture.
Peter Howson, for instance, was the Liberal Party Minister for Aborigines back in 1971-1972. A few years ago, he wrote a newspaper article celebrating the fact that 70% of Aborigines had moved into towns and had married non-Aborigines. He wanted measures introduced to push the remaining Aborigines out of their own communities and into the mainstream.
If the right-liberal view has credibility it's because the separate Aboriginal communities aren't always great places for the raising of children. Levels of drug abuse, alcoholism and violence are high in some of these communities, which are often reliant on government welfare.
So even today there are large numbers of Aboriginal children who are removed from their families:
Welfare workers in NSW are removing Aboriginal children from their homes in numbers far greater than during the Stolen Generations, and the recruitment of Aboriginal staff has done nothing to stem the tide.
... The Australian can reveal that a staggering 4000 Aboriginal children are now in state care in NSW.
This compares with about 1000 Aboriginal children in foster homes, institutions and missions in 1969.
Black children are being removed at 10 times the rate of white children, despite a tripling in the number of Aboriginal welfare workers.
The total suggests that about one in six Aboriginal children in NSW is now a ward of the state.
The alternative to the right-liberal assimilationist policy has been a left-liberal separatism. Left-liberals often look up to the traditional Aboriginal culture and lifestyle and compare it favourably to Western societies. This has led to a policy of supporting separate Aboriginal communities, but to a lack of practical concern with how these communities might adapt and survive in the modern world. The communities are often left to survive on government welfare, which then encourages social breakdown - and the removal of children which the left is so outraged by.
In some ways, the idea of the stolen generations is part of the culture war between left and right liberals. The right-liberals use the breakdown of social norms in Aboriginal communities as an argument for assimilation; the left-liberals have countered by portraying assimilation as a racist attempt to force Aborigines to live as Europeans, up to and including stealing Aboriginal children from their mothers.
The evidence seems to suggest that Aboriginal children who were removed from their families were not stolen. There was no formal policy of removing Aboriginal children and when individual cases are examined the removal was usually for welfare reasons - just as still occurs today.