When Prime Minister John Howard unveiled a literacy program for Aboriginal children last week, he proudly called it a step toward white Australia's "practical reconciliation" with the country's Aborigines.
His conservative administration may not always please Aboriginal leaders with its refusal to apologize for past government acts, Mr. Howard argued, but it was intent on bettering the lives of Aborigines in practical ways - health and education, better teacher training, and truancy programs.
The genuine, grass-roots initiative won plaudits from Aboriginal leaders. But there may be no better sign of just how emotional an issue the past treatment of Aborigines is for Australians than how quickly that goodwill dissipated.
A week after unveiling his "practical reconciliation" policy, the Australian government appears to be plowing its way toward a new low in relations with the country's Aboriginal community. In fact, some Aboriginal leaders are vowing to stage violent protests at the upcoming Summer Olympics in Sydney.
"It's burn baby burn, from now on," one activist, Charles Perkins, told reporters. "Anything can happen" at the Olympics.
The trigger for such anger were comments this weekend by Howard's Aboriginal affairs minister. In a submission to parliament he said that the government's program of "assimilation" in the 1940s and '50s - taking Aboriginal children from their mothers and placing them with white families - was overblown by Aboriginal activists. The minister says only 1 in 10 Aboriginal children of the day were involved.
Those Aboriginal children who were put into orphanages or farmed out to white families in an effort to remove them from Aboriginal culture are now adults. Some are leaders in the Aboriginal-rights movement. And the issue of facing up to this assimilation policy now stands at the center of the debate over just how to mend relations between Aborigines and white Australians.
The children taken from their families are commonly referred to as the "stolen children" in Australia, and to many their generation is the "stolen generation."
Many leading Aboriginal activists and leaders, including Mr. Perkins, who was taken from his mother at age 10 and put into an orphanage, were taken from their families. Some argue the government's policy of assimilation is at the roots of many problems facing Aborigines today.
"There's not an Aboriginal person in Australia that wasn't affected in some way," says Linda Briskman, a lecturer on Aboriginal issues at Deakin University in Melbourne. "There are probably some people still out there who were adopted and farmed out, and may still not know about their Aboriginal past."
What angers indigenous leaders now is the fact that Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Herron argued on behalf of the government in a report leaked to the local media that it was wrong to refer to the children as the stolen "generation."
Ten percent, or a generation
One in 10 Aboriginal children were taken from their families as a result of government policy, Mr Herron said in his defense later, and "we're arguing it's not a generation if it was 10 percent. If it was a generation it means the whole generation so we think it's a misnomer."
If it were a semantic argument, Mr. Herron would be right, although the 1997 report that brought the issue of assimilation into the public limelight said anywhere from 10 percent to 33 percent of Aboriginal children were taken from their families as a result of government policies.
But what angers Aboriginal leaders so much is the fact that Herron, the minister ostensibly appointed to represent them, could make a semantic argument about what many see as an attempt at cultural genocide.
"To somehow deny that the policies of the past brought about these effects is like denying the Holocaust," says Sen. Aden Ridgeway, the only Aborigine to serve in Australia's Parliament.
The strained relations between John Howard's government and Aboriginal leaders has been caused primarily by the prime minister's refusal to apologize for the policies that led to the removal of Aboriginal children from their families.
Howard calls the policy of separating families "quite unacceptable and quite distasteful." But he insists Herron's report is accurate.
Howard argues he doesn't want to become embroiled in "black armband" history. The governments that imposed the laws that led to the removal of black children from their families, he argues, were well-intentioned and only acting for the welfare of the children.
Academics tend to disagree with him and point to documents from the time in which the only reason listed for removing a child from a family was the fact he or she was Aboriginal.
"It wasn't for welfare reasons," says Ms. Briskman of Deakin University. "Being Aboriginal was seen as being inferior. They thought by taking children away and teaching them white ways of life they could get rid of the Aborigines. One less Aboriginal child was one less Aboriginal adult."
Howard has in the past conceded there are other reasons for his reluctance to say sorry: To apologize could have legal ramifications, for one.
Members of the "stolen generation" are now beginning to seek compensation through the courts in a series of test cases that the government is fighting for fear a win by one "stolen child" could lead to a bill in the billions of dollars if it resulted in compensation for all.
But for some people, all of the semantics and legalistics over compensation amount to an insensitive act, especially at a time when governments around the world are apologizing for the dark chapters in their history.
The worst thing is that the effect of those policies continued long after the period most people focus on, according to Wendy Hermeston, the senior case worker at Link-Up, a Sydney organization that works to reunite Aboriginal families split as a result of government policies.
Real life examples
Ms. Hermeston is a good example of that. She was born in 1970 - the year after the law allowing Aboriginal children to be removed from their families was finally revoked - to an Aboriginal mother at a Sydney hospital and later adopted by a white family.
After she was born, she claims, nurses coerced her mother into giving her up for adoption. Although her mother later tried to revoke the adoption order, it wasn't until years later that she was reunited with her family.
That meant years of anguish and a struggle for identity that makes her angry when she hears comments like Mr. Herron's that, as she sees it, seem to downplay the serious effect that being torn from their families had on those Aboriginal children.
"The saddest, saddest thing is that he can't sympathize with someone in that position," she says. "You don't say things like that to people who have been traumatized and gone through things like that."
Others in the Aboriginal community argue the statements by Herron are part of a cynical move by the government to make race an issue at the next election.
The opposition Labor Party is only a handful of seats in Parliament away from taking government. And in the last election the far-right One Nation party won the support of 10 per cent of the Australian electorate, support that could be crucial to Howard's party in the next election, due in 2001.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society