History Wars

Robert Manne: a case to answer

[Media reaction:

Keith Windschuttle was interviewed on Counterpoint here…

Robert Manne’s Late Night Live interview is here…

Keith Windschuttle’s “Manne on ABC radio” is here…]


Manne should stand down for inquiry

Robert Manne, professor of politics at La Trobe University, should stand down from his position while an independent inquiry is conducted into his false claims about Commonwealth government support in the 1930s for a policy of “breeding out the colour”.

Since 1997, Manne has been one of the principal protagonists in the nationwide debate over the Stolen Generations. As an academic in the field of political science, Manne provided an analysis of Commonwealth policy that has been taken seriously at the highest levels of government. Prime Minister Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations in February 2008 said “the parliaments of the nation, individually and collectively, enacted statutes and delegated authority under those statutes that made the forced removal of children on racial grounds fully lawful”.

Manne provided the best-known account of Commonwealth government policy on this topic. In his 2001 publication In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right, Manne said that in 1933, following a request from the Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory, Dr Cecil Cook, the Commonwealth endorsed a policy for breeding out the colour. Manne wrote:

The officials in Canberra and their Minister, J. A. Perkins, gave support to Cook’s proposal for an extension of the Territory policy to Australia as a whole. The Secretary in the Department of the Interior, J. A. Carrodus, composed a memorandum of his own. “The policy of mating half-castes with whites, for the purpose of breeding out the colour, is that adopted by the Commonwealth government on the recommendation of Dr Cook.”

Manne said this remained the government’s position for most of the remainder of the 1930s:

the policy of breeding out the colour received the full endorsement of the Commonwealth for at least another five years.

In an article in the Weekend Australian (January 30-31, 2010), I pointed out that Manne’s account is far from the truth. It even runs counter to evidence readily available in the archives Manne cited himself.

In the House of Representatives on August 2 1934, J. A. Perkins, the Minister for the Interior in the Joseph Lyons government, denounced the proposal. He said:

It can be stated definitely, that it is and always has been, contrary to policy to force half-caste women to marry anyone. The half-caste must be a perfectly free agent in the matter.

Perkins was responding to Cecil Cook’s entreaties to change the Ordinances that determined the laws on marriage he could apply to Aborigines in the Northern Territory. None of the letters and reports that circulated between Darwin and Canberra on this issue, by the way, ever mentioned that it had anything to do with removing children. The discussion about breeding out the colour was wholly confined to government control over the marriage of half-caste women.

Once Lyons and his ministers learnt about Cook’s plan, and especially after being subjected to embarrassing publicity it generated in both the Australian and English press, they wanted nothing to do with it. In response to a report in the Daily Herald, London, that his government was offering cash bonuses to white men who married half-caste women, Prime Minister Lyons himself cabled London that the claim was “absolutely incorrect and without foundation … It would not be entertained by the government. The report so far as it relates to the Commonwealth Government appears to be a deliberate invention.”

On September 19 1933, the Lyons Cabinet considered but failed to approve Cook’s proposal. It recommended an opinion be sought from the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. At the time, the Secretary was not J. A. Carrodus, a departmental officer who Manne wrongly elevated in status to bolster his case, but Herbert Brown, who advised his Minister: “My own view is that half-castes who have been given certain rights and enjoy the franchise, should have the same privileges in respect to selecting their husbands or wives, as are enjoyed by other citizens of the Commonwealth.” Perkins agreed and based his August 1934 statement on this advice.

A full discussion of these events is in my new book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume Three: The Stolen Generations 1881-2008 (Macleay Press), pages 383 to 398. Readers will find in the same chapter that Manne is not the only offender in distorting the historical record. Nonetheless, as a professor of politics, he had the greater public duty to report Commonwealth policy in full. To have told it all, of course, would have publicly undermined his case about the allegedly racist and genocidal objectives of the Commonwealth in the 1930s.

For a professor of politics at an Australian university to write about a policy of the Commonwealth Government and to omit its most telling decisions is a serious dereliction of his public duty. At the very least, and despite whatever interpretation he wanted to place on these events, Manne should have reported the decision of the Cabinet, the advice from the Department’s Secretary that Cabinet requested, and the statement the Minister made to the House.

In failing to mention these three critical responses, while pretending the government gave “full endorsement” to the very opposite approach, Manne falsified Australian political history on an issue that he, more than almost any other academic commentator in the country, had the opportunity, the interest and the ability to investigate thoroughly and report honestly. If Manne can get away with behaviour of this kind, it would mean Australian universities no longer demand any standard of truthfulness from their academic staff.

In recent years, universities in other countries have not tolerated such breaches of their expectations of proper academic conduct. When credible public accusations have been made, they have appointed independent investigations into the charges. At the University of East Anglia, the head of the Climate Research Unit, Professor Phil Jones, has recently stood down from his post while a review is conducted into allegations that his unit’s climate scientists have engaged in misconduct.

In 2005, the president of the University of Colorado stood down Ward Churchill, a Professor of American Indian Studies, and appointed a panel of academics from both within and outside his own institution to investigate public charges of academic misconduct against him. In May 2006, the committee found Churchill guilty of falsification and fabrication of history and of plagiarism. The president then dismissed him.

The charges I have made here against Manne are, if confirmed by a proper inquiry, serious breaches of academic conduct on a matter of considerable national significance. As a publicly-funded institution, La Trobe University has a responsibility to investigate them independently and impartially. Manne has a duty to follow other academics in his situation and stand down from his post until any investigation is complete.

Leave a Reply