Gray has sought out the people associated with Aboriginal assimilationist policies, particularly the administrators and welfare directors who wielded largely unconstrained guardianship powers over most Aboriginal lives. The book examines the lives and work of men such as Professor Baldwin Spencer (the Territory’s second chief protector) and Dr Cecil Cook (‘the most hated man in the Territory’). He also makes good use of the recollections of patrol officer Colin Macleod, Ted Egan (a patrol officer, later Administrator of the Northern Territory) and Colin Tatz (who wrote a thesis highly critical of the policies and practices of Aboriginal administration in the Northern Territory in the early 1960s). Gray examines what it was like to live on a cattle station filled with Aboriginal residents, whose social security benefits were ‘lining the station owners’ pockets’ (p 185), and the casual racism of ‘old white Darwin’. But the bulk of the book revolves around the life, work and motivations of Harry Giese, who was Director of Welfare in the Territory from the 1950s through to the 1970s. Gray weaves the story of ‘Giese’s empire’, from a young man, through to the administration of the end days of the assimilation policy crucial to the treatment of Aboriginal people we now describe as the Stolen Generations, and into his old age.
The real power of this book is not just the personal histories of these men; it lies in the story Gray tells of his own journey; he questions his own motivations for his pursuit of the past, and the ambiguities inherent in our contemporary judgments of Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal citizens, as well as his, and our current search for resolution of ‘unfinished business’. When Gray adds the subtitle ‘a journey through whitefella past’ he is not just referring to the protectors — he is writing about himself.
Gray may have lifted the lid on Australian history’s great Pandora’s box. This is a captivating, insightful and important book that will challenge many readers’ assumptions, and illuminate one of the ‘darkest aspects of our history’ (a phrase used by Justices Gaudron and Deane in the Mabo case). We could do no better than to include this book in the national curriculum; it should be read by all Australians concerned about the debates surrounding our national identity, our history and our Apology.
MELISSA CASTAN teaches law at Monash University, and has a special interest in Indigenous legal issues.