• The word 'Aboriginal' appears on the above certificate, and has been removed from the one below. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
The WA Department of Justice says removing 'Aboriginal' and derogatory terms from birth certificate records is not white-washing, with the NT following a similar policy for its electronic records.
Jessica Minshall

18 May 2018 - 7:58 PM  UPDATED 21 May 2018 - 5:02 PM

The WA Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages has had to defend its removal of historic race descriptors from birth certificates after accusations of white-washing history.

WA birth certificates have been issued with the word 'Aboriginal' erased, leaving family researchers and historians wondering why the word is considered offensive.

The Northern Territory government has also told NITV News it removed Aboriginal indicators such as 'half-caste' from documents as they were transferred from paper to electronic records.

Under state law in WA, the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registrar has discretionary power to determine whether "a word or expression appearing on an entry... is, or may be regarded as, offensive", and to issue a certificate without that word.

In a statement to NITV News, a spokesperson for the WA Justice Department said the state has never had a legal requirement to include race on birth certificates.

"However, that did not stop some past registrars including references that were unjustified and unsubstantiated personal observations on racial heritage, and using offensive terms such as 'Abo', 'Chinaman', 'native', 'nomad' or 'half-caste' on official documents," the spokesperson said.

"That has prompted the removal of all references to race, which were never required to be included in the first place, from the Registry’s records.

"This does not just apply to Aboriginal people and any suggestion we are ‘white-washing’ history is wrong."

The Northern Territory government took a similar approach when transferring historical birth records to an electronic system.

"It’s actually I suppose trying to make it sound like it didn’t happen or that those terms weren’t used." 

During that process, "any terms considered derogatory or offensive, such as half caste or blackfeller were not entered onto the electronic birth records," a spokesperson for NT Department of Attorney-General and Justice told NITV News.

"The original paper records were retained and not altered in any way.

"If access to those original documents is requested by a person who is entitled to view them, the Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages provides a verbal caution prior to viewing, to warn the record may hold some historical information that may be considered offensive."

'Aboriginal Jane'

Western Australia's practice of removing race descriptors from birth certificates might have gone unnoticed if Garry Smith hadn't seen the original.

Mr Smith was researching his family history online, according to ABC, so he had already seen his grandmother's mother listed as 'Jane (Aboriginal)'. When the word 'Aboriginal' was missing from the official copy he was issued he knew it had been intentionally erased.

To receive an accurate copy of the original, Mr Smith had to fill out a statutory declaration stating he would not be offended by the word 'Aboriginal'.

It was also erased from a second family member's record.

"If you're Aboriginal, it's offensive and deemed offensive — but the government calls us Aboriginals," Mr Smith told ABC.

However, when WA Greens MP Robin Chapple raised the issue in a parliamentary question on notice in 2015, then Attorney General Michael Mischin's reply suggested such an approach would be limited to "derogatory terms" used prior to the 1980s to describe Aboriginality and not include the word 'Aboriginal'.

"While the word 'Aboriginal' per se is not considered to be offensive, expressions considered by the Registrar to be offensive, are so are redacted from certificates pursuant to section 57(2)," the reply said.

The now shadow Attorney General's reply continued with advice he had received that the Registry was "often requested, by applicants, to re-issue a certificate to exclude reference to Aboriginality".

Consistent approach?

With the WA Registrar Brett Burns telling ABC in a statement that the "approach is consistent with practice across state and territory registries", NITV News put this to the other government registries.

It is not the case in Queensland, with a spokesperson for the Queensland Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages saying it "does not remove information from historical documents".

"If a person applies for a birth certificate from 100 years ago, they would receive an identical copy, irrespective of whether it contained what would now be considered offensive terms," the spokesperson said.

Similarly, Victoria "does not alter original historical birth records in this way", the Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria Director and Registrar James Lawson said in a statement.

In Tasmania, a Department of Justice spokesperson said: "A person’s Aboriginality is not, and has never been, printed on certificates issued by the Tasmanian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages."

An ACT government spokesperson said birth registration "has never collected data about the child's origin", and from 1985 parents could identify as Indigenous but this "has never been printed on certificates".

And a spokesperson for the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages said it "does not have the practice of redacting information relating to Aboriginality on its records".

Aboriginal woman and Greens candidate in the upcoming Fremantle federal by-election, Dorinda Cox, said even the hurtful terms such as 'half-caste' are an important record and removing them does amount to whitewashing.

"That’s part of that process and by erasing or removing that it’s basically trying to remove history and the acts that have been committed against our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the nation as part of our history," she told NITV News.

"It’s actually I suppose trying to make it sound like it didn’t happen or that those terms weren’t used." 

This story was updated on May 21 to include the responses from the Tasmanian Department of Justice and the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

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