House debates

Monday, 16 November 2009

Forgotten Australians

12:48 pm

Photo of Jenny MacklinJenny Macklin (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the House support the apology given on this day by the Prime Minister, on behalf of the nation, to the Forgotten Australians and former Child Migrants in the following terms:We come together today to deal with an ugly chapter in our nation’s history.And we come together today to offer our nation’s apology.To say to you, the Forgotten Australians, and those who were sent to our shores as children without your consent, that we are sorry.Sorry – that as children you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused.Sorry – for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care.Sorry – for the tragedy of childhoods lost – childhoods spent instead in austere and authoritarian places, where names were replaced by numbers, spontaneous play by regimented routine, the joy of learning by the repetitive drudgery of menial work.Sorry – for all these injustices to you as children, who were placed in our care.As a nation, we must now reflect on those who did not receive proper care.We look back with shame that many of you were left cold, hungry and alone and with nowhere to hide and nobody to whom to turn.We look back with shame that many of these little ones who were entrusted to institutions and foster homes – instead, were abused physically, humiliated cruelly and violated sexually.We look back with shame at how those with power were allowed to abuse those who had none.And how then, as if this was not injury enough, you were left ill-prepared for life outside – left to fend for yourselves; often unable to read or write; to struggle alone with no friends and no family.For these failures to offer proper care to the powerless, the voiceless and the most vulnerable, we say sorry.We reflect too today on the families who were ripped apart, simply because they had fallen on hard times.Hard times brought about by illness, by death and by poverty.Some simply left destitute when fathers, damaged by war, could no longer cope.Again we say sorry for the extended families you never knew.We acknowledge the particular pain of children shipped to Australia as child migrants - robbed of your families, robbed of your homeland, regarded not as innocent children but regarded instead as a source of child labour.To those of you who were told you were orphans, brought here without your parents’ knowledge or consent, we acknowledge the lies you were told, the lies told to your mothers and fathers, and the pain these lies have caused for a lifetime.To those of you separated on the dockside from your brothers and sisters; taken alone and unprotected to the most remote parts of a foreign land – we acknowledge today the laws of our nation failed you.And for this we are deeply sorry.We think also today of all the families of these Forgotten Australians and former child migrants who are still grieving, families who were never reunited, families who were never reconciled, families who were lost to one another forever.We reflect too on the burden that is still carried by your own children, your grandchildren, your husbands, your wives, your partners and your friends – and we thank them for the faith, the love and the depth of commitment that has helped see you through the valley of tears that was not of your making.And we reflect with you as well, in sad remembrance, on those who simply could not cope and who took their own lives in absolute despair.We recognise the pain you have suffered.Pain so personal.Pain so profoundly disabling.So, let us therefore, together, as a nation, allow this apology to begin healing this pain.Healing the pain felt by so many of the half a million of our fellow Australians and those who as children were in our care.And let us also resolve this day, that this national apology becomes a turning point in our nation’s story.A turning point for shattered lives.A turning point for Governments at all levels and of every political colour and hue, to do all in our power to never let this happen again.For the protection of children is the sacred duty of us all.

A nation’s most fundamental obligation, its most solemn and sacred duty, is to keep safe and cherish its children. For half a million children, our nation failed to do this—for those who were born here and for those taken from their families and brought here from Britain and Malta. Through this failure, they were deprived of their childhood. Through this failure, they were condemned to grow up in cold, cruel, loveless places without a voice, with no-one to protect them, no-one to speak out for them. That is why today, as a nation, we are saying sorry.

Today I want to acknowledge the suffering of the forgotten Australians and the former child migrants using their own words so that the words of those who were abandoned and voiceless when they should have been protected and defended are forever inscribed in the national record, telling it the way they have told me and the way it was told to the Senate over the course of many inquiries. Today I want their voices to be heard in the words they use to describe the loneliness of childhoods lived without love, never being—as a child must be—at the loving, caring centre of family life.

As one person said:

… I was never offered or given anything that even vaguely resembled nurturing. No affirmation of the person I was becoming, no encouragement, no warmth, and absolutely no affection, not under any circumstances …

Another said:

I never experienced the rich routines of everyday life with a much-loved adult. Without this bonding and learning I was unable to give and receive affection. I saw adults as powerful, strong brutes to be feared.

And another said:

While in care there was an extreme lack of physical contact, I remember loving hair washing day. It was the only adult’s touch we ever felt…The nuns dried our hair with a towel, with the child facing in towards them and sometimes our heads would lean on their chests.

For these children there was no love, just the pain of separation from mothers, fathers and siblings:

My brother was put in a separate area away from us. I could only see him from behind a glass window. He was never held or picked up. When he was 18 years old, he committed suicide. My sister was mentally unstable. Neither of them survived the orphanages.

Why did they separate us from our brothers and sisters? It was only recently that I found out I had two brothers, but because we had no contact during our formative years normal bonding is no longer possible.

And with the loss of family came the loss of identity:

I had been denied all knowledge of my natural family, about the existence of my siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, mother and father. I had no knowledge of who I was or where I belonged. From this background I have nothing, no photos of me as a child, no school reports, no special toy. What I was left with was shame, insecurities, anger. They took my family and my confidence.

Today we all look back in national shame at horrific physical cruelty—the brutal beatings, the systematic humiliation and sexual violation of children.

She would beat girls with her fists and feet. I saw her hit a girl over the head with her bunch of keys and knock her out cold. She seemed to enjoy inflicting pain and humiliation. My brother, who has an intellectual disability, was physically abused and sodomised. We were just throw-away children.

Understandably, this treatment broke the spirit of many children.

Constantly put down and verbally abused, we crept around wishing for invisibility. I and the other children there would always be looking around and listening in fear. I was a child and powerless. There was no-one to turn to for help.

At five years of age I had adapted to institutional life. I maintained an outward appearance of being together, conforming while unaware of my inner turbulence, anger and impenetrable grief.

To this day many forgotten Australians and former child migrants vividly recall the shame and stigma of being orphaned or institutionalised.

We were different. Our clothes were different, our haircuts were different. We had no money for tuckshop. We were constantly reminded that we had no mothers.

I was constantly told by home staff, teachers, host families that I was stupid, recalcitrant, disobedient, totally unworthy of love and always facing threats that I would be put away permanently.

When it came time to leave these institutions, these teenagers floundered and struggled alone in the world outside.

They kicked me out at 15 years old with no life skills, very little education, but I was luckier than most—at least I could read and write.

After four years of working in the nuns’ commercial laundry and nearing our 18th birthdays we were called out of the workrooms, given a small suitcase containing our possessions and a £1 note and shown the door.

Today we also acknowledge the loss of country and the lies that were told to the former child migrants and their families.

While I was out here in Australia my mother went to pick me up from the orphanage and they told her I had a good Christian burial. They told me that I was illegitimate, I had no relations, no friends. They were all killed in the war. When I went to England in 1997 I had two half-brothers and sisters who I never knew existed. And the discovery of family that came too late, a photograph is the only link I have with my mother. She passed on five or six months prior to my finding out that she had been alive all these years. Why was I told that she was dead? Why was I told that she had been killed during the war? All I have left now is a photograph and a death certificate.

As adults, forgotten Australians and former child migrants have told me so many times that the past is always with them and with their families.

My wife suffers from my often irrational behaviour and my lack of knowledge as to what a family is. My children suffer from my not understanding … I cannot hold onto friendship.

I have brought up three children. I have been overindulgent and overprotective, but I have never been able to say to them, “I love you.”

As another person said:

I did get married and then divorced. I couldn’t hack it. Anybody who put their arm around me or put their hand on me, even gave me a hug, I would tell them straight out, “Don’t put your hands on me.”

But they speak with love and gratitude for those who stood by them and who stand by them and with them today—partners, friends and children—who helped them restore their trust in the world and faith in themselves. As one person said:

I often wonder if I hadn’t married my husband, how my life would have turned out. He has loved me through all the emotional turmoil.

And as another said:

He loves me unconditionally. We have laughed and cried, laughed and screamed in anger and in joy. He has saved me from a lifetime of bad choices.

I think all of us in this place today would like to add our thanks and gratitude to these wonderful husbands and wives, partners, friends and children.

Those are some of the stories of damaged lives, past and present, of little children who were never permitted to know the innocence and exuberance of childhood—children who were thrown into a world where the only adult touch that they felt was brutal, cruel or sexually violating. Stories of children abandoned by the nation—half a million children on whom society coldly turned its back. For this, we are deeply and truly sorry. So today, in sorrow and in acknowledgement of this dark and shameful chapter in our nation’s history, we offer this apology and stand in shared resolve to do all in our power to make sure that this never happens again.

1:06 pm

Photo of Tony AbbottTony Abbott (Warringah, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

May I say how pleased I am to have this chance to add something to the fine speech which we have just heard from the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and to the very moving speeches that we heard earlier today in the Great Hall from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Let me begin by thanking all of those forgotten Australians who have graced us with their presence in this building today. There was obviously a lot of pain in the Great Hall earlier, but there was a fine spirit. Let me say to all those members of that generation that they have clearly suffered but they have not been defeated, as was obvious today. They are rightly proud today, as they should be, to take centre stage here in the national parliament and to, perhaps, bring out a rare touch of bipartisanship and even a little tenderness from our national leaders.

When all is said and done, it is the job of this parliament to help bring out the best in Australians, so this apology is important and necessary. It should bring healing to people who have suffered greatly, but it should also help this generation to avoid at least some of the mistakes of our forebears. We are apologising to those 500,000 Australians put into institutional care as children. Many were mistreated; some were sexually abused; almost all were denied the support, the companionship, the encouragement, the tenderness and the love which should be the birthright of every child.

Today we are not especially singling out the institutions and the individuals who directed these former centres of institutional care. Inevitably, some were worse than others; some were oppressive, even by the harshest standards of those days. The bad food, the harsh discipline, the floggings and the sexual predatoriness were not the whole story, but there was more than enough of that for this generation to feel rightly ashamed of what has happened. Perhaps as bad as anything were the lies that were deliberately told by officials to reinforce the sense that these children were utterly alone and had been abandoned.

In general, this generation is not morally superior to those who have gone before us. Still, there are some important lessons that we have assimilated: that the support we give to people is as important as the demands we make of them; that people’s duties and obligations matter, but so also do their needs, especially the need to feel loved, sustained and nurtured by a system of human relationships.

I would like to make a personal confession. In the aftermath of the announcement of this apology, I was taken to task for stressing the ideals of at least some of the institutions concerned, and the good intentions of at least some of the people who worked there. Some people were indeed helped, while many were damaged. For many individuals there were entries on both sides of the ledger. But as David Hill, a former Fairbridge boy as well as a former managing director of the ABC, was at pains to point out to me, there had been a fundamental failure of humanity, which compromised the entire system. I want to thank David Hill for bringing this to my attention, and also for his fine book, The Forgotten Children, which is a thoroughly researched, deeply humane, balanced and moving account of the experience of those children. As David Hill’s mother remarked after visiting the Fairbridge school at Molong in New South Wales, ‘it was like something out of Oliver Twist’.

Although many Fairbridge children have good memories as well as bad, and although most Fairbridge staff had strengths of character as well as flaws, there was no love. There was no love. As one of the children told David:

Fairbridge taught us to work hard from 6.00 am until after tea. You did not show any emotion and you never let anyone know you were upset about anything. I don’t think anyone would have put an arm around a child there. I don’t recall hearing anyone ever say to a child, “You did well.”

David says:

The typical Fairbridge children had no-one. They arrived in Australia alone and later left to go out into the world, still completely on their own. They were likely to be poorly educated; socially and emotionally incomplete; lost, alienated and poor; and some went on to suffer mental illness, spend time in prison or even to commit suicide.

The children of Fairbridge are lucky to have found such a champion, and in telling their story, David Hill has helped to tell the story of all the forgotten children, of all the forgotten Australians to whom we apologise today.

There was this institutional coldness that affected all of them, but it was not just the emotional distance characteristic of that period that some people endured. Alas, there was psychological cruelty, physical torment and, in some cases, terrible sexual abuse, including repeated rape. In some cases these horrors went on for years because people refused to believe that those in authority were capable of such evil. I am personally indebted to Shane Nicholls, who has made this something of a personal crusade, for alerting me to the depravity that characterised some institutions of that period. Even the different standards of care prevalent in those days were clearly breached in his and in many other cases. Wherever possible, the perpetrators of these crimes against children should be brought to justice, and I applaud those state governments that have launched royal commissions into these abuses and call on those states that have not yet done so to have royal commissions, which can demand documents, can cross examine witnesses and, where necessary, recommend charges. Where the standards of care have clearly been breached, restitution should be made by those institutions and their successors.

For all Australians who have been subjected to the austerities of institutional care, today should be a day of healing. But for those of us who are making this apology, I fear there are no grounds for self-congratulation, because there are as many children in care as ever. Today, thankfully, little of it is institutionalised care, but that does not mean that every child’s needs are being fully met. We cannot be confident, for all our good intentions and for all our deeper understanding, that future generations, with their insights, will not be as critical of us as we now are of our forebears.

Today, though, should be an occasion to renew our commitment to all children in care. We can never do enough for them, but we should always be looking for ways to do more. Every day in this place all of us in our own way struggle with the largeness and the smallness of humanity, with our own flaws as well as the flaws of others. I think all MPs have been both humbled and uplifted by the proceedings so far. Our forebears let down those forgotten Australians and today we are indebted to them for the lessons that they have taught us. I should say, in closing, how pleased I am that the next speaker for the coalition will be a member of the forgotten generation: Steve Irons, the member for Swan, who is testimony that it is possible to draw strength even from great adversity.

1:16 pm

Photo of Jason ClareJason Clare (Blaxland, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Employment) Share this | | Hansard source

In 1957, a little girl’s life was changed forever. She was three years old when her family was torn apart, when she was separated from her brothers and sisters and sent to St Catherine’s Orphanage in Geelong. For the next 13 years she lived in constant fear of being punished for every minor indiscretion, and with the empty feeling of a childhood deprived of love. She would not see her brother again for 40 years. Hers is one of half a million stories. Today is an important day for that little girl and the brave and determined woman that she became. Her name is Leonie Sheedy and for the past nine years she has been fighting for an apology for that little girl and for others like her.

In 2000 she established a support group with Joanna Penglase called Care Leavers Australia Network—CLAN—and from a tiny office in Bankstown in my electorate they have helped hundreds of forgotten Australians. In 2004 their courage and tenacity prompted a Senate inquiry. In 2007 it earned both of them an Order of Australia. And now it has delivered an apology. Today I want to pay tribute to them and the hundreds of thousands of Australians who they have spent so many years fighting for—this really is your day.

This morning the parliament shone a light on a dark chapter of our history, until now unacknowledged and very much forgotten. For half a million children who were placed into institutions in the 20th century, the memories of their childhood cast long shadows. For many, silence was their best friend. A woman named Kayleen told the Senate inquiry: ‘As a child you learn to be quiet out of fear. Nobody will hurt you if you’re not heard.’ This apology means that people like Kayleen need not be silent anymore. An apology cannot undo the suffering. Nothing we say can undo the damage. For some, today will be like ripping off a scab, reviving hurtful memories they have spent a lifetime trying to forget. But for so many others it will help to heal these scars and start to set things right. One lady I met this morning said that since she had heard that the nation was apologising the nightmares had finally stopped.

I rang Vera Fooks on the weekend. Vera is the oldest member of CLAN. She has cancer and the doctors keep telling her that she does not have long to live, but she has been determined to hang on to hear her nation apologise. She told me, ‘I’m going on 99. I’ve been waiting a lifetime for this day.’ Vera is not here today—she is too frail—but she wants you to know that she is here in spirit.

There are many people who deserve the thanks of this House for bringing this day about. There are the senators who were forever changed by the evidence they heard. One of those was Andrew Murray, who took up this cause and is perhaps more responsible for this day than any other. In his valedictory speech he asked Richard Marles and me to carry on his work. We have both taken this responsibility very seriously. On behalf of hundreds of thousands of forgotten Australians, I want to thank you, Richard, for everything that you have done. Steve Irons, one of my best friends on the other side of the House, has brought his own personal experience to bear and has helped to ensure that this day is everything that it is and that it should be. I thank Jenny Macklin for her caring heart and steely resolve. I thank Abbie Clark and Corri McKenzie for their support and assistance. I thank our Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their understanding and their stirring words. I thank Caroline Carroll and the Alliance for Forgotten Australians; Harold Haig and Ian Thwaites; and, finally, Leonie and Joanna. I was first drawn to this cause by them, by the force of Leonie’s personality and by the force of Joanna’s words. They helped me to understand.

If you do not understand what we are doing here today, take out your childhood photos, tear them up and throw them out the window when you are driving home tonight. Then come back tomorrow and try and pick up the pieces and put them back together. That is what Leonie has been doing for the past 40 years. A few weeks ago there was a story about Leonie in the Women’s Weekly. Last week she received an email from a woman who read that story. It reads:

Dear Leonie, I read your article and what caught my attention was the photo of your grandparents, and what attracted me was that I have the exact same photo, as they are my grandparents also. It appears that your father and my mother were siblings; therefore we would be cousins.

This is the power of what we are doing here today. ‘Sorry’ might be an easy word to say, but an apology has the power to change lives.

1:22 pm

Photo of Steve IronsSteve Irons (Swan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Today I rise to speak on the motion put to the House by the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Ms Jenny Macklin, and responded to by the coalition shadow minister, Mr Tony Abbott. I also thank the member for Blaxland for his kind words and I look forward to the member for Corio’s address after mine. I support this motion. Personally it is a privilege and an honour to be able to do so. I only hope that, in the time that I have, I can do justice to the people who so richly deserve the apology delivered this morning by the Prime Minister of Australia and the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, in such a bipartisan manner. Wasn’t it just an emotionally charged, electric situation? I think it was just fantastic. Well done to you, Malcolm, and well done to the Prime Minister.

I would first like to acknowledge a few people today, on indulgence. I would like to say hello to the CLANnies, to the forgotten Australians, to the Maltese and UK migrants who are in this chamber today and to those across Australia watching or listening. I welcome you and hope this day begins a new journey for you. I know the apology will never take away the memories and the pain of your childhood, but I live in hope that we will see the Australian community embrace you and we will see you, our fellow Australians, as our sisters and brothers and we as a nation will love you as sisters and brothers.

Talking about brothers and sisters, I would also like to welcome my brother Robert Dix, who was at the apology this morning and is in the chamber now. Hi, Bobbi. Robert and I were separated when I was six months old and reunited when I was 35 years of age. I am proud to have you here today, Bobbi. It is special for me. I am pleased you could make it here today to see the apology to our fellow Australians. Even though we missed 34 years of our lives together, we will make up for it with our remaining years. We can never make up for the loss of our brother Raymond and our sister Jennifer, who are both deceased. Both of them suffered in orphanages. I am fortunate to be here today to speak on their behalf.

The disconnection from family that many people experience when institutionalised or removed from their family and placed in care is something that only someone who has been in that situation could understand. The family—the mothers, the fathers, the grandparents and the siblings—left behind also experience disconnection and pain from the separation. I know from discussions with Robert that this deeply affected him when he was younger. He did not know where his siblings were, if they were being looked after or if he would ever see them again. Then he had to deal with his own levels of abuse at home—physical abuse from our dad and mental abuse from our mother. This is just an example of the dilemma and confusion and sorrow of thousands of Australian families and siblings who were left behind to ponder and wonder about the fate of the children entering orphanages.

But today is about an apology to all of you here today and to all those who could not make the journey but who are watching and listening. This apology has not just occurred without years of hard work by some very dedicated people. Some of them are here today. I acknowledge my parliamentary colleagues Richard Marles, Jason Clare, Senators Claire Moore, Rachel Siewert and Gary Humphries and, especially, former senator Andrew Murray, who drove this process from a parliamentary point of view from the start, single-handed. I also acknowledge Jo Gash, who I know has taken a particular interest in this. I acknowledge Leonie Sheedy—how are you, Leonie? Where are you? Do not hide up there! How are you going?—and Joanna Penglase, the co-founders of CLAN, otherwise known as the Care Leavers Australia Network. They have toiled for nearly 10 years with this apology at the top of their agenda. About eight months ago I received a call from Leonie saying: ‘Hello, Steve. I have searched you. I have brought up your speech in parliament. You’re a homie. You’re one of us.’ I did not know what she was talking about, but I do now. It has just been a great pleasure to have been involved with this last eight months of the journey. Leonie is a fantastic person. You deserve everything you get, Leonie. I acknowledge Harold Haig, whom I met through this apology process, and Caroline Caroll, from the Alliance for Forgotten Australians. To Caroline Caroll and Harold Haig, well done. They served on the apology committee. To Minister Macklin and the FaHCSIA staff who are also on the committee, I acknowledge your work and the dedication to bring this event to fruition.

As we know, today is about the forgotten Australians and the lost innocents. This is your day. I would now like to relate some stories I have heard from these people. They are graphic, but it is important that these stories are told and that all Australians know about the physical, mental and sexual abuse that you suffered. Ralph Doughty today gave me some background information and I promised I would read one part of it. The report of the Senate inquiry into children in institutional care report concluded:

… that there has been wide scale unsafe, improper and unlawful care of children, a failure of duty of care, and serious and repeated breaches of statutory obligations.

It found:

Such abuse and assault was widespread across institutions, across States and across the government, religious and other care providers.

In other words, the abuse and cruelty occurred nationally, as was the case in Ireland.

Now I am going to talk about Cheryle Warner, who wrote to me recently about a redress scheme. Part of her letter was very powerful, and I thought I would read it out today. Cheryle, are you here in the chamber? Welcome, Cheryle. Cheryle recently spent some time in my office to tell her story to the local newspaper. She also took the time to send me this note. I will take some of those thoughts and relate them to you:

I was 49 when I began my redress application. I am 51 now.

I am standing at my third REDRESS.WA rally now, thinking how I had tried to tell the government they had opened a Pandora’s Box. We are talking about restoring peoples honor, dignity and self worth. We were talking about possibly the most abused child generation in the state, we are certainly talking about one of the most impoverished, both economically and psychological target groups in the state.

           …         …         …

This REDRESS.WA idea, as honorable and genuine as I believe it was, has never been important in the eyes of this Government.

There has been no processes or procedures implemented.

We are still in wading through the bleak black ice we know as “bleak depression” in limbo waiting for something….ANYTHING… to happen. Some sort of show of good faith, at least,…like where is the memorial we were promised, at the very least where is the blueprints or pictures of ideas for this memorial…where are the free psych sessions, how do you access them, etc…

Instead, here we are two years later, still attending Rallies outside Parliament house, crowds of fragmented, damaged and broken people waiting for Moses to lead us out of misery.

       …         …         …

The plan was to make amends to those thousands of forgotten, abused and not afforded the duty of care all child have a born right to, by previous governments. These applicants had been wards of the state and had been neglected by the governments of their times. Consequently children and babies where left open to the mercy of predatory ,cruel, tortuous inhume foster placements and subsequently these once innocent children’s lives had been affected socially, psychological, physically, for decades, and some continue to be to date, and others that may never thrive. Some have passed down their demons to there children without awareness.

Many countries around the world that have taken steps to acknowledge, apologise and make amends offer genuine support, with most countries offering an ex gratia payment. I have never made any secret that I see this as an obscene amount from the WA government—between $10,000 and $80,000. It was an indecent proposal to begin with. Good Lord! How does one arrive at any fair dollar value on these sorts of heinous crimes against children? What price for lost opportunities, lost childhoods and lost lives? Who can say?

Cheryle goes on to say:

Hence there was no negotiating. I knew from the start $80,000 would seem like a lot of money to the lower socioeconomic group. In reality I knew it could make things a bit more comfortable for the abused and their immediate families for the short term but would not be life changing for the majority. Many applicants have subscribed to my views about the money but if you look at it in real dollars it just does not add up. When you consider that on average I was beaten and tortured 6,000 times between the ages of 13 months and 16 years, this works out at about $6 a beating, a rape, an indecent assault, assault and battery and, in some cases, torture in all of its military style. I have spent over $50,000 in psych fees. I am only one of the thousands with stories like this, and others have worse. However, I chose to go along with the Redress process. I figured I would get some benefit from it, be it emotional or cathartic, but I got that wrong. I thought I would be able to help my kids out—give them a small holiday and a small investment somewhere. Thus I chose to put in an application. Money is a great motivator to those in lower socioeconomic brackets. However, greater than this is the opportunity for me to reclaim my sense of dignity and autonomy. With these thoughts I opened the application form and began writing.

This is another letter written by Brad, who wrote about his experience in care:

During the Christmas period of 1979, in the early days of my admission to Parkerville, all the kids left in the home who had no-one to go to for Christmas were herded into one of the old disused cottages, St Pat’s. From memory there were approximately 20 children, possibly more, aged from younger than me to late teens, crowded into a cottage, and two hippie social worker types were employed to look after us. There were a few other adults who dropped by but they seemed to be friends of the two hippie types. This was a small one-bedroom cottage across from the cottage in a chapel. It was called Blue Cottage. It was rented by an ex-resident who was around 17, I guess. He used to hang around the group cottage a fair bit and some of the others had been to his cottage with him to listen to records. On my visit to Blue Cottage he played Pink Floyd’s album The Wall album, at my request, and after smoking either a cigarette or a joint, I can’t remember, he had a bit of a play around with my penis. By this time I had been regularly abused by my stepfather so he wasn’t exactly Robinson Crusoe in my sex life, and thus it’s never really been a big deal for me in the context of things. And therein lies the problem. Isn’t it a bit sad that a nine-year-old boy can push the situation of being abused to one side both mentally and emotionally without a second thought? As an adult, I think that’s sad.

From Bruce, one other Western Australian who contacted me:

I called your office last week as you are a friend who knows my journey and the effect it has had on my life. I thought I was one person who really needed to hear the ‘sorry’ word. I am a retired minister of religion currently on a disability support pension due to ill health. I was made a ward of the state of Victoria in 1954, born 1952. I was in St Anthony’s Home in Kew, St Joseph’s Home in Surrey Hill and the Taurana Boys Home. These days what I do recall has had a huge effect on my life in every way—ways that have seen much trauma, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, loss and separation in my life. I recall my days as a little boy working at Surrey Hills from the age of four in a laundry, being bashed and beaten, always being filled with fear, having one meal a day, no toys and no mummy or daddy to say they loved me and tuck me in of a night in a warm and secure home. No Christmas, no birthdays, just being beaten, seeing your little mates falling down in the laundry exhausted from malnutrition and at times falling down dead. Just the regimental discipline of the Black Cape Brigade (the nuns) waiting with canes to flog us again. Steve, we ate the moss off the walls, we drank our own urine and even at times tried to eat our own faeces. We were so hungry and neglected, while in the distance we could smell in the air the kitchen that provided them with their daily meals, while at night we were locked up like animals in cages, with a cyclone gate and padlock, to await another day of the same.

I have said in this place before that I began my life as a ward of the state of Victoria. I spent three years in an institution as a child and I was then taken into foster care. Even as a foster child I was a ward of the state; a responsibility of the Victorian government. All the children who were wards of state—and there were those who entered institutions without being made a ward of state: all the child migrants from Britain and Malta, all the children in foster care—were the responsibilities of the governments of the day.

I welcome this apology and support the motion and encourage all my fellow colleagues to support it and the forgotten Australians. We must not forget reparation. I call on the governments, churches and charities to deal with this now, not later. We can now only be judged as a nation by our ability to repair and rebuild these Australian lives, because we have failed these children in the construction of them. We have failed them in the nurturing and care that they would have expected to get from institutions, the nurturing and care they would have got in a family home. We have failed them by treating them with systematic abuse.

Everyone asks about the reasons for children being in orphanages—whether it was an economic situation or a breakdown of the family unit. There are numerous reasons, and I have even heard of people putting their children into orphanages to prevent them from being a burden on the rest of their family.

In closing, today we have heard stories from forgotten Australians with a range of emotions and experiences. We have heard about having trouble creating relationships, about having trouble trusting particularly authorities but anyone, about the abuse that these individuals suffered and about the lack of nurturing and care and love. They all have their own stories. They are all stories that must be told, and we need to recognise them, particularly in our role as parliamentarians as we go out into the community to make sure that we advise and look after those people and create an environment where all future children in Australia will be nurtured and cared for and loved. To all the forgotten Australians I can only say that I will continue to work to make sure that you are remembered.

1:37 pm

Photo of Richard MarlesRichard Marles (Corio, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Innovation and Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy Speaker, what you have just heard—the stories of Steve Irons—are just a few among half a million: each just as sad, each just as powerful. Collectively they represent a well of pain and a great wrong which today our country acknowledged. The member for Blaxland, Jason Clare, gave thanks to a number of people who have been involved in the apology on this day and I add my voice in thanking Andrew Murray, Steve Irons, Abbie Clark, Corrie McKenzie, Caroline Caroll, Harold Haig, Ian Thwaites, Leonie Sheedy, Joanna Penglase and all the senators who heard the initial inquiry. I would also like to extend my thanks to Jason, whose wisdom and perseverance have been critical to this day. The journey that we have walked together has given me the gift of his friendship, which I cherish greatly. I would particularly like to thank the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, who has been devoted to this cause. I would like to thank the Leader of the Opposition for his dignified words today and I would like to thank the Prime Minister for giving the apology and accompanying it with a beautiful speech. It will change the lives of hundreds of thousands.

Today is Andrew Murray’s day. Today is Steve Irons’s day. Today is Rod Currie’s day. Today is Trish Sumic’s day. It is the day of half a million Australians. But it is also Joanna Penglase’s and Leonie Sheedy’s day. These two have been at the core of this. They were the driving force behind the Senate inquiry. They were the driving force behind today’s national apology. Their shoulders have provided support for a multitude of forgotten Australians. Their ears have heard a thousand stories and in the process they have provided relief. They are great Australians. They are an example of a truth that I have come to learn in all the work that I have done with the Care Leavers of Australia Network: that the forgotten Australians and child migrants as a people, having dealt with the greatest adversity at the outset of their lives, are a determined and courageous people. Amidst all that we do on this day it is so important that we honour and celebrate that fact, because the forgotten Australians and child migrants are wonderful Australians and our country is much the richer for their being among us.

I have spoken with many forgotten Australians over the last few weeks in the lead-up to today’s national apology. Naturally forgotten Australians deal with their childhood experience in different ways. There are some who carried it as a weeping sore into their adult life. Many talk of feeling ashamed when thinking about their childhood and of feeling embarrassed to tell their story. For these people the national apology has not come a day too soon. Then there are others who I have particularly spoken to and who have buried their childhood experience deep inside and have said to me how unexpectedly emotional they feel about today’s national apology. While they know that this is a moment of great national significance, a great national act, it is also an act that comes with pain. In all cases it has been impossible to talk to the forgotten Australians about today’s national apology without tears. In each case people talk of this day as being a new beginning.

And so to those forgotten Australians and child migrants who do feel ashamed about their childhood, all of us here say to you that you do not deserve to feel shame. The shame is upon your nation, and today it has been acknowledged. To those of you who feel embarrassed to tell your story, all of us say to you that your story, good and bad, now forms a part of the nation’s story, good and bad. And to those of you for whom today opens a door into a painful part of your heart: it is so vital that all Australians—in the weeks, months and years ahead—stand shoulder to shoulder with you to help the healing. To all the forgotten Australians and child migrants: for all the embraces that you did not receive in childhood today—with all its failings and inadequacies and in the knowledge that what was taken away can never be given back—we give, with the deepest sincerity of heart, an embrace at last from your country. Today we say to the forgotten Australians and child migrants: we will not forget what you have suffered; as a nation we are sorry, and what you have endured is no longer a dark secret but a period of history on record for all Australians to remember.

Photo of Janelle SaffinJanelle Saffin (Page, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I ask that members please rise to signify support for the motion.

Honourable members having stood in their places—

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank honourable members.

Debate (on motion by Mr Albanese) adjourned.