House debates

Monday, 16 November 2009

National Apology to the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants

6:32 pm

Photo of Dennis JensenDennis Jensen (Tangney, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I wish to speak on behalf of one of my constituents whose appalling experience as a child in Neerkol Orphanage in Queensland is, sadly, just one of many covered by the Prime Minister’s apology. Firstly, though, I would like to congratulate my colleague the member for Swan. He has a particular passion and commitment for this issue and his work in this area over a period of time deserves special commendation. I also wish to commend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their expressions of understanding of apology and of sympathy. They spoke, most of all, of their gratitude and admiration for the many people who had the courage to come forward and tell their own stories of suffering, to relive the horrors so that we may better understand what occurred but, more importantly, so it may never, ever happen again. This is a critical point. We need to move forward, acknowledge what has happened in the past and actually rectify some things that occurred in the past.

In this speech the people I am being particularly critical of are individuals at Neerkol but, more importantly, the Queensland government officers who were supposed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the children in these institutions. All of these people betrayed these young Australians in the most callous and indescribable ways imaginable—in some cases, unimaginable. Too often we hear of generic claims of abuse and sometimes of sexual and physical abuse, even institutional abuse, but often we do not appreciate the terrible reality that is too often glossed over by glib generalisations. Therefore, I shall lay out the story of Mrs Sandra Pollard, as provided by her and her current husband, to show that she was abused many times over not just by some of the priests and nuns running Neerkol but by the system—successive Queensland state governments, which not only sought to avoid taking any meaningful responsibility for what occurred but even attempted to blacken Mrs Pollard’s name in order to shift the blame. That particular exercise was possibly one of the most disturbing, disingenuous and malignant pieces of political posturing it has been my misfortune to read about, and I shall return to it later.

I shall now recount Mrs Pollard’s painful history as she has written it out for me. Mrs Pollard’s life started out in a manner which, sadly, was to echo throughout the formative years of her life. When she was eight years old she was sexually abused by her stepfather. Her mother was dying of cancer and could not protect her. After her mother died, the department of children’s services left young Sandra with her stepfather. After several years of abuse, her stepfather was caught in the act. He was given a good behaviour bond, and Sandra and her siblings were committed to the Neerkol Orphanage.

The Weekend Independent of November 1997 reported the hell on earth at Neerkol, outlining the physical, psychological and sexual abuse. One former inmate said, ‘I cannot recall a single happy day in that place. The physical and psychological brutality was unrelenting. Every memory I have is of being brutalised.’ This was Sandra Pollard’s childhood. The newspaper said:

Not only were the children ‘contracted out’ by the then State Children Department to work in harsh conditions on Queensland farms, but in some cases, years of meagre wages, supposedly kept in trust for them, simply disappeared.

Mrs Pollard wants to know who was responsible for this money. Where is the accountability?

There were outbreaks of typhoid which were made worse when ‘those who were sick were not notified to the doctor and isolated’, according to a medical report. Sick children were not getting the appropriate medical treatment for typhoid and, worse still, living with healthy children. What an absolute disgrace! Mrs Pollard said that, because of the substandard nutrition she received at Neerkol, she suffered serious bone degeneration which resulted in the removal of all of her teeth while she was there. Mrs Pollard spoke of children who died and were given no autopsy but just buried in the grounds at Neerkol. Again, who was responsible? Where is the accountability?

Let us look at something as simple as drinking water. An Irrigation and Water Supply Commission related to the state children’s department stated: ‘… this water would be suitable for stock watering and for the irrigation of … crops.’ These young children were drinking water fit only for animals and irrigation. Then a medical scandal: the Senate report Forgotten Australians stated in chapter 4:

Children in orphanages and Homes have been used for medial experiments for many decades. Some of these have been reported in medical journals. Many questions are raised, not least of all is that if these experiments were known, what other experiments may have occurred that were not officially reported?

Not only were these children used as guinea pigs, but it appears that there is a good chance that the vaccines they were given were contaminated by the SV40 virus, which has been linked to some cancers. Mrs Pollard wants to know: who was responsible for this program? Again, where is the accountability? An investigation by the Age found that at least four batches of vaccine—almost three million doses—were contaminated with the virus between 1956 and 1962. Two of those batches were released after testing positive to contamination.

Sandra Pollard was vaccinated and Sandra Pollard has cancer. She cannot even get insurance because her illnesses are all pre-existing conditions. For the sake of people like Sandra Pollard, it would be only right if there were tests available for SV40 to give them peace of mind. With all that Sandra and others have been put through, I think it would be the least that we could do. I stress the word ‘do’ because so often, in cases like this, there are many fine words, of sympathy, of apology, of apparent understanding, but the words only go so far. What I think would mean so much more for these victims of abuse and of experimentation, who have suffered from the repercussions for much of their lives, is action.

If that was not enough suffering and degradation, in 1967 Sandra was sexually abused by a priest, and the later court records are available to confirm this. She was sent out of Neerkol to a cattle station, where she was again abused.

She subsequently married John Pollard and finally found happiness. Unfortunately, in the late 1980s, awful memories started to surface. By 1994, Mrs Pollard could no longer tolerate these memories and she went to Queensland to get documents under FOI in an effort to deal with her problems. In a written statement given to me, she says, ‘I was trying to find the proof I needed—


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