What a public opinion difference one word can make

Between mid-1997, when Newspoll first asked its respondents about whether the ‘stolen children’ should receive an apology, and a Galaxy/GetUp poll in early February 2008 on whether its respondents agreed with the goverment’s decision to say sorry to the ‘stolen generation’, public opinion moved only 5%, from 50% in favour of the apology in June 1997, to 55% over 1-3 February 2008.

Ten days later, on 13 February, Kevin Rudd said sorry in Parliament. Over 15-17 February, Galaxy/GetUp! polled again, with exactly the same question. The proportion in favour had shot up 13% to 68%, with ‘strongly agree’ up 10% and ‘somewhat agree’ up 3%. A Newspoll published in The Australian came to almost exactly the same conclusion, with 69% in favour of the apology.

That’s a pretty remarkable shift I think, though it seems that it was almost entirely Labor voters who changed their minds. Between the 1997 Newspoll and the 2008 Newspoll the proportion of Coalition supporters backing an apology went from 44% to 46%, while the proportion of Labor supporters in favour went from 61% to 85%. This was the problem faced by the hapless Dr Nelson. John Howard had turned this issue into one that was more partisan than it should have been, and far more politically important than it should have been.

But it seems that the Coalition would be on stronger ground resisting compensation. Another Newspoll question asked about that, and found just 30% in favour. 56% of Labor supporters are against compensation. They are sorry, but not that sorry.

44 thoughts on “What a public opinion difference one word can make

  1. If you accept that it was government policy to take children away from their mothers based on the fact that they are aboriginal and on no other factor, then you must compensate. It is the only decent thing to do. If you do wrong by someone, you compensate them. That’s how a civilised society works. I don’t understand the opposition to this notion to be frank.

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  2. I agree with simmo. If the government did that today, people would be in jail, and I can’t see any reason why people shouldn’t try and get compensation (with or without the government admitting liability).

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  3. I am not aware of any properly documented cases of children who were taken for reasons other than neglect or risk as specified under the various STATE laws which applied to whites and blacks alike. As it stands the apology is based on misinformation and it is also racist in ignoring white children who were treated in the same way.

    It is likely that Aboriginal children have died recently due to the unwillingness of authorities (due to the ‘stolen’ issue) to do what was required to save them. How do you guys feel about that?

    I also repeat the question, how are we supposed to compensate those who were saved?

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  4. It just shows how sheep-like most people are (Labor supporters?). Does anyone really believe that performance is behind Rudd’s 70% approval rating (or Nelson’s sub-10%)? I suspect you would get a similar change in measured opinion on Workchoices comparing after with before the election.

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  5. Rafe, I’m sure lot of Pinochet supporters benefitted from his rule (he was very popular in some groups), but we don’t go around compensating those that benefitted. Alternatively, Pinochet did a lot of bad stuff to other people. Simply because some benefitted shouldn’t stop the others from trying to get some sort of justice. I don’t see how this situation is particularily different. If some groups of Aboriginies can show they were victims of extreme government harassment I really fail to see what is wrong with them trying to get compensation if they can prove it. If some were saved then obviously they are not victims of government harassment and won’t be able to prove it.

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  6. Rafe – what about duty of care? Putting aside who and why they were removed, any child who was/is removed should be looked after and clearly many weren’t – aren’t they entitled to compensation?

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  7. !. First of all, does everyone agree that some of the so-called stolen children were actually saved? If we can get some agreement on that then we can go on to more vexed issues.

    2. Why put aside the question of why they were removed?

    3. Can someone explain why there has been no talk about white children who were removal from their families?

    4. Is it OK now to remove Aboriginal children who are seriously at risk?

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  8. Rafe, you know that some ‘half-caste’ children were taken because of a government policy that they be removed from aboriginal society, to be raised as whites, and eventually through intermarriage, that the aboriginality would be ‘bred out’.

    But even if you think that that was a noble intention, the fact that some children removed were abused, sexually assaulted, whilst under the ‘protection’ of the Chief Protector of Aborigines (in WA), would surely lead you to think that the government is responsible for the harm done to those children whilst under its ‘protection’.

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  9. Rafe:
    1) Yes. I’m sure many were. I’m sure many weren’t also.
    2) They were removed for a number of different reasons, as Russell points out. Incidentally, no government is perfect, even those with the best intentions (cf. the recent case of Cornelia Rau), and people still get compensation, even from governments with the best intentions (or at least much better than they had back then).
    3) Its a different question. The stolen generation deals with a specific set of circumstances that happened at a specific time. Removing children is a problem society faces in general — one still with us — it just isn’t topical. (go and ask a DOCS worker)
    4) Yes.

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  10. LO was handed over to the authorities by her father. That doesn’t mean she was saved from some terrible fate.

    If it’s a question of whether the children ended up in better material circumstances, as so many apologists for the policy claim, that might have been true, but so what? You could take all the children today in the 50% poorest families and hand them over to be raised by the 50% richest families and by definition they will be better off materially. A lot would get to attend swish private schools and go to Europe on skiiing holidays, which they wouldn’t get to do if they stayed with their own families. That doesn’t mean you should do it.

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  11. Spiros
    February 20th, 2008 13:00
    Rafe, can you name just one Aboriginal child who was “saved”?

    10Rafe
    February 20th, 2008 13:08
    Lowitja O’Donohue

    Hahahaha. Spiros went to the George Foreman school of boxing that taught to lead with ones chin. It only works if you don’t have a glass jaw.

    Rafe:

    I thought she said she was stolen , later changed to taken and the back to stolen again when she got heat because said she was taken instead of stolen.

    Maybe it was some crazy martians who kidnapped her and she had one of those space ship memory replases or something. Help us here , Spiros. What happened to her? You think she was kidnapped by ET?

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  12. That doesn’t mean you should do it.

    Who shouldn’t, the parents dumping he kids or stopping rish parents from giving these kids a home?

    I would have gladly left my parents at a young age if I had skiing lessons in Davos. Hot damn.

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  13. I think the difficulty with compensation is not so much the Rafe-style objections but with the precedent value. Many people could plausibly claim to have suffered due to bad government policy, past and present. Within the Indigenous community, that extends way beyond kids who were taken from their parents. It is hard to argue that current taxpayers who in no way caused past loss should compensate those who did. It could also have a bad effect on public policymaking, causing over-caution.

    The question then is whether the stolen children cases could be quarantined, so that compensation for them did not generate further claims from other victims of the state. I’m not sure that it could be, so I am inclined to oppose compensation. However, I am open to contrary argument.

    I was inclined to support the ‘sorry’ statement because it targets the emotional trauma that those involved often suffered, even while as Rafe suggests some ‘stolen’ children were materially better off than they would have been had they remained with their birth family. It also inflicts no harm on other Australians who are not responsible for what happened.

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  14. Rafe, my understanding is that ‘Stolen Generation’ does not refer to Aboriginal children who were removed from their communities for reasons only of child protection. I am not sure what proportion of removals that narrow rationale applies to (as opposed to, for example, removal of half-caste children solely because of their mixed parentage). From memory, the BTH report draws that distinction. Happy to be corrected on that, though. A strong indication that that is the case is that Aboriginal children are still ruotinely removed from abusive households under current state government child protection policies.

    BBB

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  15. Andrew, but you could argue that taxpayers today have benefited significantly from infrastructure and services paid for by taxpayers of the past, so there’s no real unfairness in us having to pay for damages caused by governments elected by taxpayers of the past.

    Anyway, I don’t see why any specific legislation is needed to deal with this. Any individual who has suffered trauma as a result of government policy should surely be able to take their case before the courts.

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  16. “It is hard to argue that current taxpayers who in no way caused past loss should compensate those who did”

    This is surely wrong Andrew. Governments can and do admit responsiblity for their previous actions and pay compensation. The obvious case is in war. Germany over the years has paid out current taxpayers money to victims of WWII. THe Australian RSL asked the Japanese government to hand over $30 million (if I remember correctly — and for something positive like a tropical disease centre), and didn’t get it. Should they have not asked for that given that all those old Japanese taxpayers are dead? Less obvious examples are from cases like people trying to get compensation from environmental problems caused by governments. The Marshall Islands are the obvious example. Another example might be these Pacific Islands the French nuked. If all that radio-activity starts leaking everywhere, should the people living there not hold the French government culpable because the old taxpayers have gone?
    Its seems clear to me there are cases when governments of the past can and should be held responsible. Its really the event and conditions that are more debateable.

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  17. NPOV – As I understand the law, there are no legal grounds for compensation if a government action was lawful at the time. This is why there is a political call for compensation: very few legal cases are likely to succeed. Also, the Commonwealth is only liable for what happened in the Northern Territory.

    I’m not sure that the infrastructure argument works. People at the time voted in governments that built things for them and future generations. It’s quite different from being retrospectively asked to pay for something you had nothing to do with and will derive no benefit from.

    Conrad – You are right that the Germans did pay compensation to some victims of WW2, though I don’t know the detail (it certainly wasn’t all victims of WW2; Australia received nothing). But overall my impression is that compensation for previous lawful acts is very rare, and if WW2 is the benchmark then the threshold for compensation is being set very high.

    This is perhaps part of the problem: as wrongs by the state go, the stolen children, while creating much personal sadness, killed nobody and left some people materially better off. If the standard for compensation is personal sadness, too many people could end up being eligible for a wide range of past mistakes.

    Perhaps in practice the stolen children would be considered unique, and no further claims generated. But overall I am still against specific compensation. (Australian taxpayers do of course spend very large sums on attempts to alleviate Aboriginal dysfunction, arguably compensation of sorts.)

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  18. I thought John Howard struck the right note of symbolism and healing allied to practical reconcilliation when he offered to enshrine a statement in the Constitution, though without accepting any obligation for SPECIAL compenation beyond what is normal in the case of administrative bungling. (It is worth noting that the two cases of “stolen children” that came to court went down in flames under cross examination, and they were the best cases that could be found at the time).

    At the same time Howard wanted to press on with practical matters to save the current generation of women and children at risk due to three decades of disastrous policies driven by separatism, passive welfare and muddled thinking. Mr Rudd signed on to that agenda (me too, as opposed to fresh and new) and one of his first backflips was to renege on that campaign committment.

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  19. “It is hard to argue that current taxpayers who in no way caused past loss should compensate those who did” – would the same apply to companies, as in, it wasn’t the current management, directors or shareholders who were negligent about asbestos, so you don’t have a claim?
    As mentioned above, I think most people would see it as reasonable that the Japanese government paid compensation to women it forced into prostitution ( the ‘comfort women’) in countries it occupied in WW 11.
    .
    “The question then is whether the stolen children cases could be quarantined, so that compensation for them did not generate further claims from other victims of the state.” I suppose this could be decided in the courts but there’s a world of difference between the case of a child abused while in government care, and the case of “I want compensation for having gone to a crummy state school which reduced my chances of earning a higher income”. Governments have already decided that compensation is due in this case – see Redress WA:
    “Redress WA provides eligible applicants with an alternative to pursuing a claim through the court process that is less traumatic, less costly and will result in a quicker settlement. It will also be an opportunity to formally acknowledge the past for many people who cannot currently access compensation because of the statute of limitations for bringing actions, or who have difficultly in proving injury and loss together with negligence.

    Redress WA joins Tasmania and Queensland as the only states to introduce a ‘redress scheme’. Redress WA seeks to address historical child abuse claims for those who suffered abuse in State care”

    http://www.redress.wa.gov.au/about.asp

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  20. Andrew, true, but the reality is that future generations always end up paying in some way for the mistakes of previous generations – e.g. long-term pollution issues.
    And I’m not so sure we don’t gain a benefit from paying compensation, if it helps ensure that we live in a society that isn’t divided or tainted by past wrongs.
    At this point though it would seem that the political mood is so against compensation that it wouldn’t help anybody much for it to be pursued.

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  21. To please Rafe I should have copied and pasted two other statements from Redress:

    Since 1920, it is estimated that around 58 000 children in Western Australia were under State care. Of these, 2921 are known to have been child migrants and up to 3000 stolen generation Aboriginal children who were in institutions

    The State Government also acknowledges that people had very different experiences and that not all were found to be negative.

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  22. # 13, Spiros, how much of the LO story do you know from reliable sources, as opposed to press releases designed to get the maximum return in the political arena. I was visiting the late Lou D’Alpuget when he heard LO described as a stolen child. He was a distinguished journalist and father of Blanche, a very straight shooter and no-bullshit person. He spluttered with indignation to hear the “stolen” story because he was a personal friend of the doctor who looked after her when her father handed her in to care. You could say that her live was saved by her father and the white doctor.

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  23. Andrew N said that WWII sets the bar very high when it comes to compensation. I disagree. How do you rank human suffering? How do you decide on a point at which some form of suffering, inflicted unfairly on someone else, calls for monetary compensation? Furthermore, taking children away from their families is an insidious and ruthless crime – and should not be minimised or rationalised, no matter how well off some of the victims may be today. I stand by my previous blog. There should be some form of compensation. It is the only civilised course of action.

    As for Rafe… your argument that aboriginal children were better off in non-aboriginal environments is simply racist and an insult against all indigenous people. Furthermore, the argument doesn’t hold water intellectually either. Sure it was govt policy to remove white children from harmful homes (as it is now – to the best of my knowledge). But it was policy to remove ALL coloured Aboriginal children from their families. This is a clearly racist policy. You either cannot comprehend the difference between the case of white children vs coloured children or you are being grotesquely racist. This is a vile excuse for such policies. Unbelievable really.

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  24. Russell, do you think it makes sense to keep talking about stolen generations (and 3000 stolen children in homes in WA) when it was never a whole generation and we know that any number of the 3000 could have been removed for their own good? The Aborigines have got enough problems without wilfully exaggerating them for rhetortical and political effect. If you make claims that are too big then people will become cynical and “compassion fatigue” may occur so that pressure is released from the need to maintain active and effective interventions.

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  25. simmo, see if you can find some place where i said or even implied that all aboriginal child were better off in non-aboriginal environments.
    What is your response to the four questions at #8?

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  26. Rafe – I was copying and pasting from a government website – I prefer not to use the phrase ‘ stolen generation’.

    I feel you’re avoiding the question I asked you: if a child – indigenous, white, child migrants – is taken into care by the government, and then abused, is the government not responsible?
    If some governments are already running compensation programs without much fuss, I don’t see it needs to be a major issue.

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  27. 3. Can someone explain why there has been no talk about white children who were removal from their families?

    Because they weren’t removed because they were white.

    4. Is it OK now to remove Aboriginal children who are seriously at risk?

    Of course, but only because they are seriously at risk, not because they are Aboriginal.

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  28. ““It is hard to argue that current taxpayers who in no way caused past loss should compensate those who did” – would the same apply to companies, as in, it wasn’t the current management, directors or shareholders who were negligent about asbestos, so you don’t have a claim?”

    The law of negligence is a set of rules that gives a legal basis for a compensation claim, but also limits claims. The law has been changed in recent years to further limit claims, because the balance had shifted too far in the direction of those who thought they had been wronged, causing massive costs to others through insurance, even when they had committing no negligence themselves. And there is most criticism of large payouts for inherently unquantifiable ‘pain and suffering’, as opposed to financial loss.

    Indeed, a maxim often applied in the context of the law of negligence, ‘hard cases make bad law’, seems to me relevant here.

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  29. Lowitja O’Donohue claimed she was a member of the stolen generation, and then one day they tracked down her mother who said ‘no, you weren’t taken, I gave you up’. Thats the problem with her, she’s full of shit. Thats my understanding of her situation.

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  30. @ Rafe

    “simmo, see if you can find some place where i said or even implied that all aboriginal child were better off in non-aboriginal environments.
    What is your response to the four questions at #8?”

    You imply that no apology should be made at all. why else would you try to defend this policy as some magnanimous act by the white man, which was implemented only to save these coloured children from their savage families? you never put it in these terms, but that is the implication.

    As for your questions… they are completely bogus. Its clear that the policies were aimed at destroying their heritage and culture. I doubt very much that these policies were implemented out of genuine sympathy for these children (and I’m not talking about the patronising type of sympathy either). So some may have been materially better off. So some may have come from bad families…. That’s not the point. The point is they were taken from their homes because they were black, and for no other reason. And until you recognise this fact we know that you’re just some vulgar propagandist.

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  31. “As for Rafe… your argument that aboriginal children were better off in non-aboriginal environments is simply racist and an insult against all indigenous people.”

    With all due respect Simmo, on any indicator you choose to measure quality of life would indicate aboriginal kids currently do worse in their enviroment than other Australians so Im not sure its a big stretch to think they may do better out of their current enviroments. Not sure about the past but perhaps this was also the case. As for the poll data on support for the apology, maybe non-aboriginals feel alot better about themselves now especially since it hasn’t cost them a cent. Which makes you wonder if the apology was for non-aboriginals and not for the aboriginals themselves i.e. a populist stunt which has produced the appropriate poll results. As for compensation I think the biggest political hurdle is the fact that there is a perception in the community that Aboriginals have gotten and still do recieve plenty of $$ and we are still no closer to closing the gap.

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  32. I think compensation is problematic. As far as I remember, government liability for negligence is limited to operational decisions rather than policy decisions. If a government can be liable for policy decisions made in accordance with the law at the time, where would it end? Could I claim compensation for a tax increase?

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  33. Simmo, if you think that the policies pre 1970s were designed to destroy the Aboriginal culture, what do you think of the outcome of the policies post 1970s which have prompted the bipartisan decision to have direct Federal intervention in the remote communities?

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  34. Rajat,

    Not really. The Government makes Act of Grace payments for things which are its moral, but not legal, responsibility, broadly defined. It also makes ex gratia payments, even more loosely defined, but one examples was to assist Bali bombinb victims where the Government had zero legal, operational or moral responsibility.

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  35. But is that properly termed “compensation”? Arguably, the government doesn’t even have a moral obligation to help the BB victims and their families.

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  36. In case anyone is still interested, there are a couple of interesting pieces in Quadrant circa 2000. This is a report on the Cubillo and Gunner cases where alleged stolen children failed in their action against the Commonwealth. http://quadrant.org.au/php/article_view.php?article_id=1397
    And this is a report on the general failure of field anthropogists to see anything like genocide in the treatment of the Aborigines. The collective record conveys an impression of great diversity in the circumstances of different groups and locations outback, and similarly the diversity of official and unofficial responses to those circumstances. http://quadrant.org.au/php/article_view.php?article_id=1395

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  37. “4. Is it OK now to remove Aboriginal children who are seriously at risk?”

    Yes, these children are removed today if it can be PROVED they are at risk. I myself in the past have removed them.

    Attempts today are made to place them with aboriginal families.

    There family support put in place to improve home conditions and restoration of these children.

    Contact is maintained with the birth families unless there are serious reasons why this cannot happen.

    Exactly the same process, supervised by the Children’s Court for all children of all cultures in the community.

    If these children are abused either being removed illegally or while in care there are actions that can be taken in law.

    Why should the same not apply to aboriginal children removed in the last 200 years.

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  38. Precisely! Thanks for standing up in a more or less public place and saying the bleeding obvious:)
    I am looking forward to the annual “Thank You” day, which could be initiated by Lowitja O’Donohue.

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  39. I was under the impression that ‘Stolen Generations’ does not refer to children removed on the basis of actual abuse or risk of abuse, as opposed to presumed risk arising from the aboriginality of certain communities.

    BBB

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  40. It is very hard to know who the “stolen generations” refers to because there were no generations – that is a turn of phrase which grossly inflates the numbers by implication – and there is no reliable indication of the proportion of children who were removed without good reason. Many were saved but that has not featured in the inflamatory and devisive rhetoric of the coercive “sorry sayers” to date.

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