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Melbourne-based academic and activist, Rob Watts (b. 1948), was in a children’s home and foster care before he was adopted.

Interview with Rob Watts


Transcript of Rob Watts’ Interview:
Early life in Parkville Babies’ Home

My name is Rob Watts and I was born on the 30th of October 1948, in what was then the Women’s Hospital and later became the Royal Women’s Hospital in Carlton, which is a suburb of Melbourne. My birth mother, Margaret Massey, delivered me there. I don’t have the full details of the birth. But I think it was not a short birth, from what I understand.

I have a very thick file, which I got, eventually, in the 1990s out of the Victorian unit that was looking after adoption-related file material, which says that I was transferred almost immediately to what was then called the Parkville Baby’s Home, which was just around the corner near the Melbourne Zoo. And that was about three days after my birth. I understand my birth mother had at that point been discharged from hospital. So that was the moment at which she disappeared, and I went off into the formal care system as it was then in Victoria.

There’s no material evidence to suggest whether my mother planned it or not, or anything that I’ve seen anyway. Of course, I have never spoken with her or indeed had any contact with her immediately after my birth. But my understanding is that the decision was probably an imposed one. My understanding is that she was a middle-class, young woman who was a nurse at the point that she formed an attachment with my birth father, a man called William Evans, who was a used-car salesman, it is recorded. Amongst the consequences of their liaison was that she both got pregnant and was also infected with syphilis. And that became a kind of added reason that was advanced for her surrendering her baby into care.

I’m assuming the premise would be that she came from a middle-class Presbyterian family in Brighton, which was then, as it is now, an affluent upper-middle-class suburb of Melbourne. I have to assume that there was a great deal of shame and cultural stigma attached to the fact that she was pregnant and unmarried. So, in a number of different ways, it was an imposed decision. How much coercion was applied is unclear, but you can imagine the family not being happy and the authorities taking a dim view of the fact that she had been infected with a sexually transmitted disease.

I have daily reports on me which were produced during the time I was in the Parkville Baby’s Home, which was a kind of baby or infant creche.

I was in Parkville for 14 months before I was fostered out to Bill and Dot Watts, the two people who subsequently became my adoptive parents. In one sense I am quite lucky to have daily reports on my height, weight, bowel motions, feeding, walking, and my social development. While the children of birth parents will have photo albums and all that, I have an administrative file as long as my forearm, which is quite extraordinary, because that’s something most children would not have such a historical record of.

Fostered then adopted by Dot and Bill Watts

I was fostered out initially. That went on for about 18 months during which Dot and Bill, who at that point were unable to have children of their own, put in an application for formal adoption. That application went through the standard legal route via an application to the Supreme Court of Victoria. They were supported by a family solicitor, and by the family doctor to secure the adoption order, which was granted in 1952. This goes to one one of the strangest memories I had. I was driven in a car at night in Footscray, where we were then living, to a solicitor’s office at night, which was unusual.

I remember the night and it was a foggy night, and there were those strange neon lights in the streets of Ballarat Road, Footscray, up near the junction of Geelong Road and Ballarat Road. I was kept in the car with my father whilst my mother went into sign some papers. I remember that phrase “signing some papers”, and there was an aura or whatever of secrecy about the whole thing. And only later when I make sense of that memory, I’m pretty sure that was one of the times when the formal process of adoption was being brought to an end.

Many, many years later in the late 1980s, I challenged my parents saying, “Why didn’t you tell me I was adopted?” And they said, “Oh, we did, we did,” And then I swore at them and said, “No, you didn’t”. So no, there was never any attempt on their part to tell me that I had been adopted.  There was certainly an opportunity to do so at the time when I was formally adopted as my parents were about to have their first natural child, and I can remember my mother was very, very big.  As it turned out she gave birth to my brother, Colin, a few months later in December. So they were able to have their own child as it were, naturally. I just think they had made their minds up to keep the adoption [process] secret from most people including me.

Growing up in Footscray with younger brother Colin

I hated the arrival of my brother, who I remember thinking was clearly an interloper.  I remember vividly the moment he was brought home from hospital. There was a bunch of relatives in the kitchen looking at him on the kitchen table and I crept in under the kitchen sink and shut the door firmly behind me feeling, “This is is absolutely outrageous. Who is this person?”

So nothing really changed in terms of my relationship with my parents. I’ve always understood them to be my parents. I still just refer to them as either Dot and Bill or as mum and dad but no, nothing changed. Anyway, I always understood myself to be the favored one. That was clearly my understanding, and they never did much to disabuse me of that idea.

We grew up in a working-class suburb. They [Dot and Bill] were working-class people. They could not lay claim to a great deal of education. My father for example was not intellectually disabled, but he certainly wasn’t highly intellectual. He didn’t read, in fact couldn’t read in fact, and we’d now think of him as illiterate. My mother was much more ambitious, intelligent than my father. We grew up in a household with my mum’s mother, who I called Nanna.

I should say at this point that my mother and her brother were adopted, and even her own mother was adopted. So, there’s a string of adoptions in the family, which I only found out about many, many decades later because that was, as I have already said, never talked about.

The house we lived in was directly opposite to a big industrial foundry, in Shepherd Street Footscray, very near to the Footscray football oval. It was a happy household. My parents got on really well with each other. However, they found living with mum’s mother challenging, particularly after she became senile with what we would now describe as dementia in the late 1950s.

Otherwise, it was an entirely happy, harmonious family. We made do with what was probably not a great deal of money, but then we didn’t know much about how other people lived because everyone else around us lived in the same way. My father got by on what was called the ‘basic wage’ plus a little bit of overtime, and that was the sole income coming in, apart from the old age pension, which my grandmother got. We didn’t live in poverty, but we certainly put up with a degree of austerity.

But we made do is as a lot of us did at that point with found stuff. The kids could go make toys. You didn’t buy a football, but you wrapped up a newspaper with string and kicked it around the backyard, that sort of stuff. And I went to a really good school, which was within walking distance, the famous Geelong Road State School. After primary school, I went to the very first of the big comprehensive high schools, Maribyrnong High School, which was established to accommodate the idea that every kid needed a secondary education. Both of my parents had only finished primary school.

Positive school experiences

I think there was an element in the household which really valued education.  My grandmother was a doughty old Scott, who had migrated from Scotland via New Zealand to Melbourne in the late 1870s. She had a very strong, stereotypical Scottish idea about the value of education. In consequence, I was fully literate at the age of three because she taught me to read, sitting on her knee as she read the newspaper. Later as a primary school kid she or my mother would take me down about the age of five to the children’s library run by the Footscray municipality.

At age seven, I asked for and got permission to join the adult library. And all that was unprecedented, but it was also understood to be something that my folks and my Nanna supported strongly. So, there was always a very strong explicit valuing of education and the value of reading, and all that sort of stuff. And we only ever listened to the ABC on radio. So that was also part of this idea of uplift, I think that was very palpable in the house. I finished matric in 1966. This is not to say this was a foregone conclusion. There had been an attempt to get rid of huge numbers of us kids when we turned 15.

I remember having an interview with the woodwork teacher, who was given the job of pissing people off. As he said, “It’s time for you to go and get a job now,”. I really bristled at that point, because I had set my heart at least on finishing matric. Quite coincidentally, within the next few years, a bit like the song ‘Stairway to Heaven’, the Federal government began introducing scholarship schemes which I kept getting access to and winning, which took me through the last years of secondary school.

And then again, the Menzies government was into this at the time, universities were opening up, Commonwealth scholarships et cetera, et cetera. So, there’s always a sense that every next year, there is a step on a ladder that I could stand on, and one that would not constitute a kind of economic burden for my parents. I could sort of self-fund my way through the last few years of high school and then when I went to university. So in that sense, I’ve always understood myself to be really fortunate in being in the right place, at the right time.

University scholarships and political awakenings

I went straight to uni. And I had a choice. I did well enough to be offered a place at all the universities available in Melbourne. But I took the new one, which was opening up in 1967 at Latrobe. So, I was in the very first intake of that remarkable experiment in creating an Oxbridge in the Antipodes, which involved among other things one-on-one tutorials for the first year or two. So you think, “My God, how extraordinary.” I went to Latrobe University and enjoyed myself hugely in the first year as a student.

I had a moment of deep reflection, in which I not only changed all my political views, which at that point, until the end of 1967, were very strongly pro-Liberal government, pro-Menzies, pro-Vietnam War involvement. And I flipped that all over on its head, and I also made the decision to become active in university politics and to do so on the left. And there has been a certain trajectory set loose ever since as a result of that decision, which I took quite consciously because I thought I’d been a sponge. I’d just been focusing on doing well academically and I felt I needed to put something back.

I’ve got a very clear memory of this process of reflection. I got my academic results at the end of the year, and I sat down in a sweat for two days thinking. It may have been a form of survivor guilt. I’m not sure how you describe it precisely. But it certainly was really an uncomfortable, intense experience of reflection, in which I held myself responsible for being selfish, and decided that I needed to rethink my political positions on many things, not least because of exposure to wonderful teachers who challenged me on all sorts of fronts.

But I also felt a strong sense of some obligation to give back, in this case to the university by becoming more active. I was instrumental eg., in setting up the first Labour club and all the rest of it would follow, including intense political activism around everything including student housing, and childcare, which I helped set up at LaTrobe. And, of course, there was the issue of the day, which was our involvement in Vietnam.

Political activism and teaching ambitions

In 1970 I was the editor of the Labour Club’s political newsletter we put out, named L’Enrages from the French revolutionary radical group. I put out a special edition on the Federal government’s attitude to censorship. I published images and texts that were freely available from Myer’s bookshop in the city. This got me arrested by the vice squad for producing an obscene item.

Police from the vice squad actually turned up at my parents’ house to arrest me. That was a moment when they said, “You’ve gone a step too far. You shouldn’t have done this.” They said very clearly that it would jeopardize my future career. Which at that point, I was inclined to disregard as well intentioned, but not all that relevant advice. So, they were concerned, I think, about my politics but only from the point of view of fearing that it was likely to frustrate my legitimate expectations about a career as a teacher, which is what I was then going to be.

I had been funded through my university years by the Victorian Education Department on the basis of what were called ‘studentships’. My parents were in awe of that prospect. That was their chief consideration. Otherwise, they probably were happy enough to share most of my political views and opinions, but were just worried about taking it a step too far by getting into trouble with the police. Of course, I had already been arrested many times and spent days and weeks in prison, and all that sort of stuff as well. But they had to put up with it, I’m afraid.

Getting married and leaving home

It also affected the marriage that I was going to enter into. I was due to marry the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who threatened to punch me out when the court case about my obscene publication case was all over the front page of The Herald that night because I hadn’t told my prospective ‘in-laws’ about that either.

I moved out only after I got married at the end of Honours year in 1971. I moved into a flat I’d helped set up as an off-campus student housing project. I was able to get myself an apartment in the block that I’d been instrumental in setting up. I was then on the board of directors of the company. I was interested at that point very much, as I’ve always been since, on how you work within systems to get significant change, partly by working out who you could align with.

There was an incredible fellow called Frank Barnes, who was the business manager at Latrobe, who would later go on to manage the Sydney Opera House. He mentored me and supported me and other sorts of left-wing or activist students in various enterprises designed to improve the student experience. So that was like an early learning process for me, which I found invaluable, I must say.

Higher degrees by research

Back then there was no particular or obvious idea that a PhD was a good thing to do.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many of the people that I was taught by at Latrobe made a point of not having a PhD. The idea was that this was sort of a bit of a try-hard thing that no chap, no gentleman would entertain. It was something Americans would do, of course, or Germans, but not us Anglo-Aussie chaps.

I held that idea for quite a long time. And there many people that I know of my age who still entertain that idea. They saw a PhD as sort of irrelevant, and that you only needed just to get on and be a scholar without the benefits of a PhD. But I did finish a major Master’s thesis in 1974, which was 120,000 word long history of Melbourne during the Depression years. I later finished a PhD in the mid-1980s looking at the origins of the Australian welfare state. All of this work was done in the field of history, which is where I’ve always had a sort of strong sense of anchorage, I suppose, partly shaped by the historical training I did. I was offered teaching straightaway, as soon as I finished the Honours degree.

University teaching career

I started teaching in 1971. So, this is my 51st year of teaching in universities. I enjoyed my teaching rounds in the secondary system, which was part of the teaching studentship contract I had with the Education Department. Eventually, when I was offered a university job, a deal was done where my teaching career, which started at LaTrobe, then Melbourne, and other places, was simply taken as fulfilling the obligations of the studentship contract I’d signed. I’ve done other things in and around all that. But yes, there’s been a solid commitment to being a university teacher. That said I only got a full-time permanent job in 1982, I think.

I spent a decade doing what many people do nowadays, existing from year to year on contracts, but at least it was not casual work. It was a proper contract from year beginning to year end back then. So that made it possible to support a family. I had all my kids within that decade between 1971 and 1982. I had family and bought a house, and all the stuff that you could do back then, so unlike today.

Social class and imposter syndrome

I always felt like an imposter. You feel like you don’t really belong. And I certainly felt that because even Latrobe University, and even more so Melbourne University, was full of people from more or less upper-middle-class backgrounds, and private school education whose students came from the best schools in Melbourne. It was also very male, very masculine in the 1960s and 1970s. Women were still very much a minority whether as students or staff, and I found some of that very uncomfortable. I did my best to fit in, of course. I’m not sure I always was entirely successful. But ultimately, I came to a position, I think by the mid-1970s that said, it’s better to be on the page, but always on the margins. I was never going to be in the center of the arena. I was never going to ever be really accepted.

I didn’t really want to be accepted. But I’m happy to be part of the aggregate. I’ll take a critical view from the margins, which is a position I’ve upheld ever since I think. It’s a straight-forward, conscious strategy to survive, a psychological strategy.  I understood that I was part of a system that wasn’t always doing a wonderful job in terms of breaking down gender or class barriers, which were still very formidable then and remain pretty much so today.

Finding out about being adopted

It was a very simple moment, but quite unforgettable. New Zealand had just introduced the requirement for a passport. I was slated to go over to Christchurch for a conference in 1983. I needed to go to the Births, Deaths and Marriages registry to get a copy of my birth certificate. I’m in a queue. There’s a pimply adenoidal, 19-year-old clerk at the desk in the reception area. I go up and give him my details and say, “I want a copy of my birth certificate.” And he comes back minutes later and says, “Ah, sorry, mate can’t do that. You’re a Schedule 1234”, or whatever it was. “What does that mean?” He said, “Oh, you’re adopted”. I had to go and sit down at that point because the universe sort of did a backflip for a few minutes. And that’s how I found out. I had to just take account of that for a little while.

People might sort of expect I was traumatized, but I wasn’t. It was an interesting discovery. It made sense of a few things, like that memory I referred to earlier of that night in Footscray. But it didn’t alter anything because as far as I was concerned, the only parents I’d ever known, who were wonderful, were the parents who I now understood to have adopted me.

Some years later when something else happened I’d have a conversation with them about it. But in 1983 I just thought “Look, what’s at stake here is nothing much.” I’ve never suffered from anything like serious trauma, depression, anxiety. I’d always been happy, cheerful, resilient, all that sort of stuff. Nothing seemed to warrant any radical revisiting or re-thinking of who I was, or how my relationships with Dot and Bill were. Life just went on and then I got my extract of a birth certificate and went on to New Zealand.

In 1983 it didn’t seem to me to be anything. There were no high stakes for me at that point. Some years later, I think it was around 1988-89, I decided I’d like to get my hands on the paperwork. I had heard the Victorian Government had just at that point began to provide a mechanism for adopted children to begin to make contact with their birth parents. And I rang the relevant bureau or agency and I discovered that there was an ex-student of mine running it. And I asked him quickly, “If you could just find out how much file material there is.”

I would later visit this huge bureaucratic space with thousands of files all stacked in rows of brown manila folders. Anyway, he came back he said, “Look, there is an extraordinary amount of material on you.” I can tell you, and he really shouldn’t have done this, he said, “I can tell you your birth mother was a nurse.”  At this point, I flipped out because there’d always been in my head, a kind of sense of mystery about another part of my family. My mother and father had married, respectively another brother, sister pair. And my uncle and aunt had had a daughter, who was my only cousin and she was a nurse. And immediately I drew the conclusion that maybe that cousin was my birth mother, because she was of the age such that she could have been my mother.

I drove down in fury that night to talk with my parents then living in retirement in Barwon Heads. I was really upset thinking I’ve been lied to. I burst in on them and told them what I was upset about. They just laughed and said, “No, no, it’s nonsense. We know who your birth mother is because we’ve got all the paperwork on her somewhere,” though they couldn’t find it. They also insisted they’d told me, and I blew up again and said “No, you never did.” But I added “It doesn’t matter.”

But I was relieved to discover that my hypothesis that my cousin was actually my birth mother was not a possibility. That was the only time we substantially discussed it. That’s when I found out about my mother being adopted, and her brother being adopted, and her mother being adopted, and God knows how long that chain goes back.

If you look at the historical evidence, we can see why this wasn’t exactly uncommon. The rate at which people were being fostered out, and the rates of illegitimate births in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were astronomical. You’d conclude there was a staggering extent of this kind of informal and or formal, fostering out and adoption going on everywhere that would affect generation after generation.

 Views on the ‘care’ system

If we extrapolate back from what we now know about the way contemporary fostering works. This is an absolute disaster in many, many cases, generating instability, abuse and sadness and all the other horrors that go on with that. Now possibly it might have been different in the late 1940s, early 1950s. But I wouldn’t want to take that risk. All I know is that my parents loved me deeply and they always made it clear that they had chosen me. That was part of my story in the late 1980s. They chose me and I chose them, a relationship made in heaven. It was important.

And I can’t say what it would have been like to have been brought up in a fostering situation where maybe there’d be a number of experiences, with different characters coming in and out of your life. I think that it would be tricky to put it mildly, I think.

They [Dot and Bill] had their own house. They had stable employment. They were teetotallers because it was part of the Baptist culture that they were brought up in, which I was also brought up in. The very thought of drug use or tobacco was anathema to them. So there was none of the sort of what we think of now as ‘risk factors’. I think it would have been unlikely that anything would have happened to the fostering arrangement. But you never can tell, I guess. Certainly adoption provided a rock-solid basis for them, I think. And that’s why I think they chose to go down that path to keep us together.

Views on biological family

I’m sure I saw her [birth mother] once in the mid-1980s as I walked through the National Gallery Hall here in Melbourne, in St Kilda. There was a young man with this very tall woman and I’m sure that it was them. I looked at him, and he looked at me. I’m sure it was one of my brothers.

Later I made a sort of half-hearted effort to track her down with a view to making an application through the Department of Human Services to try to arrange an introduction to her. It took a little bit of effort, but not a great deal. We used the Victorian electoral roll to establish her whereabouts.

My partner Judith and I sort of ‘staked out’ her house, which was only a couple of kilometers down the road from where I was then living. But she’d moved on. She had been there for quite a time, but it seems she had married, had four children, and then gone to live in the Wimmera region with her husband. So I thought she’s gone bush, and that’s fine. Any impulse I had, which was fairly minimal to start with, to make connection with her just dissipated. I was perfectly happy with my parents…

I did recently go into, because I had long harbored the fantasy that maybe I was really secretly a German-Jew, which I’d really like to be. I think I felt this chiefly because there’s an intellectual tradition that I like that comes out of that cultural tradition. However, I discovered I have an entirely Anglo-Scottish background, with not even a hint of anything exotic or European. So, it’s very unfortunate, really. Fantasies become possible, I guess, when you are not entirely sure about who your parents are.

Deaths of loved ones

When both my parents died, about eight years ago, it was a devastating experience because I’d always loved them, but it was then I really realized how important they were. That was an important discovery, you know, that experience of deep grief and loss. I really experienced that quite profoundly.

They really were wonderful, very interesting people. And I’ve actually begun thinking about a little project to write a personal history of Australia, year by year. They would figure in that story, that history. There is a marvelous historian who has done the same thing for Ireland, using his own life as a sort of schema for the writing the history of Northern Ireland. My brother was equally interesting and equally intellectually driven. They were very proud of me.

It was an Australian idea at the time that we want to make sure that you kids do better than us. And the circumstances for that to be possible were entirely within the realm of what governments and community standards and expectations were going to make possible, I think.

He [Colin] died only a few years ago and I was devastated by his death, which was really regrettable because he did the very manly thing of dismissing all the symptoms, which accumulated rapidly. He went from zero to dead [quickly] with dramatic liver cancer which he had ignored the symptoms of for a year. I was very attached to him. We always had a really interesting relationship. We were very fond of each other and kept up and I never felt anything other than he was my brother. I know from talking with other people who have been adopted that sometimes relationships with natural kids in a family have been more fraught. But there was never any feeling of ‘fraughtness’ in my relationship with my brother.

Theory and politics of adoption

In the late ’80s I thought it’d be interesting to have a few sessions with a Jungian therapist. It wasn’t for any particular reason. The first thing my analyst said to me after I told her about my adoptive status was “You should be dead” because I told her that I discovered I’d been adopted, and all that sort of stuff, and spent fourteen months in institutional care. She was deadly serious.

She said, clearly drawing on the Bowlby maternal deprivation idea, that children separated, particularly from their mother, will literally physiologically shrivel up and die. I looked at her and I thought, “This is a case of way too much theory.” I just thought it was a nonsense proposal.

But I do get it, because at least six or seven people I know fairly well have been adopted. And in two of the cases, they would certainly report a much higher level of ongoing distress, sadness, anxiety, trauma. I can’t report any of that. There’s just nothing. I’ve looked hard to find any hint of this. I just can’t find it in me. But I can certainly see it and hear it and feel it in their accounts of their lives. In some cases, I know the adoptive parents really well, and there’s no obvious basis for this in terms of abuse or malfeasant behavior. But there’s some deep trauma and there’s a deep rip in the fabric which they feel continuously and acutely to this day. And it’s interesting because in these cases I’m thinking of, some of them were told early, like within the first years of the adoptive process that they were adopted.

Others discovered it like I did, decades later as adults. There doesn’t seem to be any particular pattern to the timing when you find out and the degree to which you’re in distress, or worse. The question of where resilience comes from is one of those very large, luminous questions that I guess we’ll never get an answer to. How much do we have an inherited capacity for resilience and how much is there an inherited capacity for anxiety and pain? I am persuaded by some of the recent epigenetic research that trauma can indeed be transmitted epigenetically. But I also think there’s some very interesting big questions, not likely to be resolved quickly.

I have this image, and it’s entirely fabricated, of me as a very stocky little boy in my diapers, or nappies, beaming at people and encouraging them to pick me up. I don’t know where this comes from. Maybe it reflects some kind of memory or something that goes back to those first 14 months. It feels like an old image, and it’s a very positive image. I’m assuming that the Babies’ Home must have had some decent, presumably, women carers in the joint, and that I was the recipient of that. I’ve always got on well with people. I imagine I bring out positive responses in other people.

I’ve always loved going through historical records. So here is all this photocopied material. There’s a sense that here is a palpable record of a life in its earliest formative year and a half. It’s fascinating to read, along with all the doctor’s reports and all the other stuff that’s been added in. For me, it provides a really solid narrative kind of framework or structure that I can hang on to. I certainly use that to craft a sense of self. Once I got my hands on it in the late 1980s, I was hugely impressed with the positivity in that third-party material. It’s something that a lot of people in normal circumstances don’t have. You might have films and video and photographs and so on. But this is more of a formal reportage system, a system of surveillance. I was a little object of surveillance and I find it comforting I must say because it’s a very positive story.

Academic career and activism

I’m not going to say distinguished [career]. But I will say it has been long, for sure. I started at Latrobe University as a student activist, and I have gone ever since being a mild activist in different forms. I was active in social movements in the 1980s. I was in a small number of people who helped set up the Greens Party here in Victoria and Ross House in Flinders Lane in Melbourne in 1991. Then we went straight into an election which the new prime minister Keating called without too much warning.

Right now, I’m in an attempt to stop the building of a tree canopy activity center down the road here, opposite a wonderful, big, natural parkland, which is full of old river gums which some private interests are trying to get their hands on. I’ve been active in the last eight months, preparing reports, going to meetings, talking about contacting councilors to try and stop that sort of stuff. It’s a long ongoing trajectory of work there. Some of it is more intellectual. I worked in the 1980s to try and create a new framework for social economic policy for the Australian Government. I’ve worked with the Labour Party in Victorian on welfare and prison policy stuff.

You keep doing this because you think you have to, assuming that if you don’t no one else will. I think I have always had a commitment to activism which hasn’t ever died. That commitment has gotten older and maybe, hopefully, it’s a little wiser. And less utopian, because, I think when I was younger, I kept thinking anything was possible. And I now know that’s not quite right. But you can still make an effort.

Until recently I was on an academic board at RMIT to try and stop the rot that’s spread through that university. That was a very dispiriting experience because I found very few other of my elected colleagues prepared to put their head above the parapet. It is a continuous attitude of just feeling some level of responsibility. I’ve always loved, and that is the operative word, that we need to cultivate a form of amor mundi or ‘love of the world’. And that means taking some responsibility for it. I thought that was a very fine way of putting the kind of commitment to speak up and to be in public spaces advocating for basic human rights, or justice and equality. I’ve always had a strong gut feeling eg., about bullies. When I see bullies doing their thing I get quite angry quite quickly. So that’s also animated, casual forays of one kind or another into campaigns or whatever.

I’ve always felt deeply grateful to my parents in plucking me out of Parkville. Maybe this is just a positive way of thinking about how I can repay them, by just keeping on putting my oar in whenever I can to make things a little bit better for other people. This is not a big deal. It’s not something I like to boast or talk up,  but I’m happy to keep doing quietly.

Identity as an activist researcher

You know, I’ve got people who are really distinguished in mind, like Dave Graeber or others who combine a high level of public activism with high quality scholarship or research or writing as a form of public-advocacy. I absolutely think the hyphen is critical there.

We think of scholarship or research as a private, quiet activity carried out in solitude. Activism is something loud and out there in the public. I’ve always thought scholarship and activism are entirely connectable, and desirably so because I think each can inform the other.

I’m currently part of a project looking at climate activism and children and young people. It was funded late last year by the ARC, but minister Stuart Robert decided to veto it on Christmas Eve last year. But I think we’ll get it up this year. That’s for me an ideal role where we’re researching doing work with young people but feeding results of that back into their activism so that they can improve what they do. And that to me is an ideal paradigmatic example of what we should be doing more of, I think.

In 2017-2018, my partner and I began conducting research with school children up in country Victoria, influenced clearly by the likes of Greta Thunberg. We started making connections with them and then discovered that there was this huge movement evolving underneath our feet. Children and young people, school students, mostly, and some university people. We got started doing some work with them and making connections with some of them.

We’ve made some connections with other colleagues at ANU and Sydney Uni and University of Western Sydney to put together a big ARC grant to work on these questions of, what are these young people doing? Why are they doing it? Does it have significance for rethinking how we do democracy and how we do dissent? It’s just become a bit of a big thing now. It’s now bubbling along quite nicely. We’re just getting ready for the next round of activism on the streets, late November, December, coming up, both in Sydney and Melbourne.

I think there have been two kinds of what I’d call “‘civilizing movements’, that have been directed at Indigenous people here and then children of working-class people, in particular, but others as well, that has led to two iterations of stealing children. And I think that has undoubtedly been traumatic. But I really like the attempt to rebalance that emphasis on the trauma and the harms. Without downplaying the really bad stuff that happened, we also need to value the positive aspects, the resilience, the way that people have worked through what could have been, in some cases, quite horrific.

‘Care’ history and activism

I think that’s the nice part of your project, which I have really responded to. I think it’s keeping both in mind, you know. We shouldn’t forget the horror, but we should also value the good stuff that’s happened as well. I tend to be an optimist.

I think I’ve always tended to favor acknowledging the good stuff, but we should never ever forget the bad stuff, either. Because these are truly bad parts of what otherwise we like to think of as a historical progress or historical project characterized by progress and enlightenment. I’m not sure that’s entirely right.

In the ’90s, I got really quite interested in the question of, how do we make sense of the policy-driven exercises which we’ve seen around the world of taking children from their birth parents? I got quite interested in that whole question and obviously, the big one in the mid-’90s was the Indigenous case here, but there are plenty of other examples in modern Europe. It seemed to me that we were still having quite a lot of trouble coming to terms with the state-sponsored elements of that. What was also imperative was getting more access to the life story of the people who are the true victims, which were the birth parents and all their kids. I think there’s still a job of work to be done here.

I’ve gotten very interested in the various imperial schemes for relocating kids from Britain to far-flung parts of the empire. David Hill’s written about that in his context of someone who was stripped away and the lies that were told about their parents being dead, and all this sort of stuff. It’s just hideous.

I’ve made an effort to find out about the process of clearing the Highlands of Scotland, which has really been not the first experience example of ethnic cleansing including stripping kids away from their families and sending them out to the empire. It was in the 18th century,19th century, and the 20th century. It’s a long history that I think we need to get a better grip on. There’s been some good work done, but it’s not gone far enough. I met some Canadians when I was in Canada in the ’80s who were doing some work on that. The magnitude is beyond belief in Canada because Canada was closer. They just shipped kids out of the UK across the Atlantic and away they went.

This is an edited transcript of an interview between Rob Watts and Dee Michell which took place on 3 November 2022.


“Victorian Children’s Aid Society Home (c. 1902-1985).”