Condolences - Sister Eileen Heath

Every now and then we meet a remarkable person that leaves a lasting impression, some for good.

The person I want to speak of this evening is a person I only met once and the impression left was good - good writ large.

She was the exception to that proverb that says that only the good die young.

Her Maker gave her 105 years and 11 months on this earth. She devoted and dedicated her life to the service of others. This wonderful lady passed away one month ago today.

I met her on 9 August 2000 at a Senate committee hearing. She was 94 at the time. Lucid, gentle yet firm, the only hint of ageing was the slight deficit in hearing. She was giving evidence to the Legal and Constitutional References Committee on the stolen generation report. She was given a scant five minutes to tell us about her 60 years of service to the Aboriginal people, which, might I add, was five minutes more than the Royal Commission into the so-called ‘Stolen Generations’ afforded her.

I speak of Sister Eileen Heath. Her evidence was important and full of insight in relation to the issue of the so-called ‘Stolen Generation’. On the removal of children, she said in part, and I quote from page 399 of the Hansard of that day:

It was never an arbitrary intention to cause hardship, but was considered to be in the interests and welfare of the child or children involved. There were other considerations not mentioned in the inquiry which should not have been ignored, quite apart from colour distinctions. These were not investigated so that the claim of stolen children might be given credence. The report given to the inquiry was one-sided …


She later on said: “Bringing them home was inconclusive and ineffectual because it contained one-sided evidence only …”

She also said about the removal: “It was not unjust. It would have been, in many cases, unjust to leave them in such situations as many of them were in.”

The chair then asked about their removal because they were of “mixed race”. Sister Heath responded:

“They were removed because they were in what was considered a very unsatisfactory environment.” They were in an Aboriginal environment, not accepted by Aboriginal people. Their mothers were not accepted in many cases because their mothers had broken a tribal law. … So the mother was rejected and the child rejected.

As the Federal Court case of Gunner and Cubillo proved after the Bringing them home report, family oral history does not necessarily mesh in with the objective documentary evidence—evidence simply ignored by the royal commission.

Sister Eileen's story is told by Annette Roberts in an exceptionally well-written book called Sister Eileen—a Life with the Lid Off.

Its 300 pages are full of stories of a woman who took a vow of poverty to live in very difficult physical circumstances to be of service to the most underprivileged. The many testaments to her Christian witness and character cover the pages. The stories of thankfulness for her efforts overflow in every chapter.

Just one example of her wisdom and influence is on page 61, where two children were fighting about whether one was black or not. This is Sister Eileen's response:

You are black, and she's half black, and I'm white. None of us can help our colour. Fighting over it won't change us a bit. We've just got to accept the colour we are. All those flowers out there in my garden, they're all different colours, but if they were all just the one colour it wouldn't be half as nice.

On page 176 in the book, we see this said about the lady by Sonny Mori: 'I didn't know what an angel was, but this lady had a calming effect.'

As to the removal of children, Sister Eileen not only observed that which I have read out from the Hansard but also observed, in the book: 'That would never happen now.’ People these days are far more likely to say, "You won't take our children. We'll look after our children ourselves. Back then, however, things were different.”

Reflecting on those times and the complexities of today's stolen generation debate, she maintains that some children simply had to be taken.

If they had not been taken away, they would never have survived. Further on, in the epilogue of the book at page 282, this is said:

'After the Bringing them home report she'—Sister Eileen—'found herself a target for journalists, oral historians, academics and documentary makers, all keen to winkle out her experiences and thoughts on what had become an explosive issue—all, that is, except Sir Ronald Wilson.'  (The author of the ‘Bringing them Home Report’)

Although Eileen wrote a detailed submission to the inquiry, she was never called as a witness. That was a disgrace, a disgrace that the mainstream media refused to expose. Yet there is no doubt that, as historians reflect on this recent period of our history, the question will be asked: why was a life of 60 years dedicated to the Indigenous community not considered as providing at least a perspective, even if not a fundamentally important perspective?

The Bringing them home report falsely asserted genocide, a ludicrous and laughable proposition but for the fact that Sister Eileen Heath must, by implication, be guilty of that alleged genocide.

I know of no person in history guilty of genocide who took a vow to serve the alleged victims and of whom the victims said she was an angel.

As the dust cover of the book shows, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, known as Jedda, said, 'Sister Eileen gave to people of mixed heritage and she did it in the most positive way, instilled into us that we were worthwhile and that we could do exactly what we wanted to do with our lives.' And there is the testament of Freda Glynn, who said, 'St Mary's was my saviour, and I want that to be in the book.'

It is a disgrace and regrettable that the Bringing them home report deliberately refused to take these testaments into account—sadly, I fear, in the name of political correctness.

My contribution tonight has been designed to honour a wonderful lady and her service and to try to straighten the record.

Let me finish with the words of Sister Eileen spoken on 12 February 2002, which are also recorded in the book:

White society has learned to acknowledge Aboriginal rights, worth and entitlement, but perhaps the greatest lesson all alike must learn when dealing with deep hurts is not to curse or nurse them or rehearse them but to reverse them. That is what forgiveness is all about, isn't it?

Those few healing words are so authentic, so authoritative, so calming, so dripping in values and common sense, and we got them all for free from Sister Eileen without the need for an expensive royal commission.

Her legacy of good works and life of service speak so much louder than an expensive set of words through a Royal Commission.

May Sister Eileen rest in peace.

I for one salute her service.

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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