House debates

Monday, 16 November 2009

National Apology to the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants

Debate resumed.

4:47 pm

Photo of Ms Julie BishopMs Julie Bishop (Curtin, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

Childhood should be a time of growing, nurturing and learning; a world of innocence, a world of trust. We hope that all children grow up in a loving environment with adults there to provide all-encompassing support and help heal any hurts. In societies around the world there is universal condemnation for those who rob children of their innocence or who betray their trust. Nelson Mandela once said, ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’

Today, as we support a national apology to the forgotten Australians and former child migrants, we feel a sense of shame that it was under the care of Australian governments that many thousands of children were subject to horrific abuse. Those of us who grew up under the care of loving parents cannot conceive of a childhood devoid of love or of being subject to mental, physical or sexual abuse, which in some cases went on for years. We ask: how this could have happened such a few short years ago? We are not talking about events of 100 or 200 years ago; these events occurred within many of our lifetimes. These terrible events took place behind closed doors, hidden from the general view of society. It is unforgivable that when children raised complaints of abuse they were in many cases told they were liars and were then subject to even worse treatment. In a submission to the Senate inquiry that produced the report Forgotten Australians: a report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children, one person said:

We had no one to turn to … No one believed us, not the teachers at school, not the police, no one.

The report detailed a culture of secrecy, silence and absolute control. Children were subject to a system that dehumanised them. They were robbed of their self-worth and their humanity.

Members of parliament can speak about the circumstances leading to this motion and this apology, but nothing replaces the words, the memories and recollections of the forgotten Australians—now the remembered Australians. One submission among many to the Senate inquiry was:

All my life, as a child in those dreadful homes I was told I was ‘ugly’, ‘would end up a prostitute’ and ‘should never have been born’. It took me years of struggle to even realise I was a person. … It is only recently I have gained enough confidence to believe I am a decent person and as good as everyone else … we really never knew what we were.

This process was taken to extreme lengths and to lengths far beyond what could possibly be necessary to maintain discipline. The only explanation for much of the behaviour of those responsible for the abuse is that they were motivated by malice or vindictiveness or just plain cruelty. Another submission from Western Australia revealed the pettiness that was, in its own way, as cruel as verbal or physical abuse. It says:

I received a parcel from an Aunt, it was a beautiful hand-knitted red jumper which I never wore as it was taken away from me and I didn’t know what happened to it until I saw it being used to wash the floor. For a little girl who was so pleased with her new jumper it was devastating.

Another submission from someone who was in a home in my electorate in Perth says:

We were never allowed to keep the presents as the nuns used to take them off us when we got back to the orphanage and would sell them at their fetes.

It is little wonder that it all had such a profound impact on the lives of children subject to such relentless mental torture. Yet another submission says:

Because of being constantly told I was nothing and would end up in the gutter and no one wanted me or ever would, the core negative beliefs I have are my reality. They are the deepest most profound assumptions and expectations I have of myself, and therefore I find it hard to function as a ‘normal’ human being, beyond my frontdoor. This is just the way life is to me now, and these negative core beliefs continue to govern my life and reality.

A submission from someone who was in Swan Homes in WA says:

The punishment inflicted was to have her hair shaved off, and she [a young girl of 7 or 8] was compelled to wear a sugar bag as a dress all day for a period of time .. .she even wore it to school, which was a public school some distance from the institution, and the children had to walk along public streets to get to this school. It would be difficult to imagine the trauma, that this child was compelled to suffer, or the effect it would have had on her in later life.

From another orphanage, the submission says:

There was no one to trust, to confide in, to cuddle, to read us bedtime stories. No one gave us an affectionate ‘goodnight’ or stopped for a chat. And yet all the while I ached with a question that would not go away. What can be so wrong with our parents that makes it better to be brought up by such cruel and uncaring people as this?

We cannot imagine the terror of very young children torn from their families and cast into what must have felt like the pits of hell. The stories that were submitted to the Senate inquiry are as bad as anything Dickens could have dreamt up for his 19th century tales of sordid orphanages and workhouses in London. These children were told that society did not value them, that they were worthless flotsam. The Senate inquiry heard stories of children who ran away from disgusting predators and sadistic people who had been employed to provide care to the children. Again, another submission from someone who was in a home located in my electorate says:

… if any girls ran away, when they were caught they were publicly flogged. Us girls used to have tears in our eyes watching this, but we couldn’t do anything.

Another says:

… you knew who ran away because when you got up the next day, the boy was standing in the ‘quad’ with his hands on his head. The punishment for this was not carried out until that night when he was caned on the hands in full view of the rest of us. If you pulled your hand away you were then whacked on the legs.

And the following description of the treatment of those who ran away and were brought back for punishment to a home, again, in Western Australia which says:

We were all assembled in the gymnasium where we were told to form up in a line in the shape of a horseshoe, the three boys being punished [for absconding] were instructed to remove their clothing … each of the boys was then told to get on to his hands and knees and they had to scuttle across the floor in this fashion to where the line began, as they did this they were lashed with a rattan cane across their buttocks, as they reached the start of the line they had to crawl between the legs of the other boys and were unmercifully bashed and kicked. … When they reached the end of the line they had to remain on their hands and knees and were flogged back to the start.

Did anyone ask why they were running away? While these stories of physical and mental abuse are heartbreaking, it is the stories of sexual abuse which are most profoundly disturbing. Again, a submission from a home that was in my electorate says:

The night times were hard on us as the brothers would come in and have their ways with us. There were other kids besides us all getting the same things done to them. We just didn’t know when it was our turn to be raped, so that’s why I still cannot live with the nights.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 4.54 pm to 5.02 pm

Before the division, I was recounting some of the horrific stories contained in the submissions to the Senate inquiry. I will finish on this one.

All the time while the priest was assaulting me (or other children) the sister would stand at the door looking the other way. If another sister came she would flash her torch on the ground and the priest would stand behind the partition until the sister flashed her torch again. After this he would resume his abuse. I don’t know how often this occurred but would estimate that the priest came 3 - 4 nights per week and would assault several children on the one night. I was raped on a regular basis. The older children were picked more often than the younger ones.

How could anyone read these submissions or hear these stories without feeling an overwhelming sense of shame? As the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition said in the Great Hall this morning, we must never again allow this systematic, institutionalised abuse to occur. We must always ensure that light reaches the darkest recesses of inhumanity and that the most vulnerable receive appropriate mental, physical and emotional care.

Many did not survive the ordeal. As a society we must not allow young children under the care of the state to be cast into circumstances of institutional neglect and abuse of any sort. We must never lose sight of the fact that, regardless of one’s family background, we all have the right to live free from fear and free from the threat of physical and mental abuse.

The state failed more than 500,000 children over many years. For that we are sorry and we apologise. Permanent scars have been inflicted on many thousands of Australians, and for that we are sorry. We cannot heal these wounds, but we hope that our heartfelt and sincere apology helps many to take a positive step on the journey that lies ahead. I support the motion.

5:05 pm

Photo of Melissa ParkeMelissa Parke (Fremantle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support this apology to the forgotten Australians and to former child migrants, many of whom experienced suffering, abuse and neglect while in care. I support it on behalf of the people of Fremantle and I add my personal apology as a member of this place. The apology that this national parliament has given today is certainly not made before time, and I understand that it is very welcome throughout the care leaver and child migrant support community. It is hoped that this act of saying sorry will give some comfort and perhaps some additional closure to those who have suffered while in care and that it will also be the springboard for concrete measures to alleviate the ongoing pain and difficulties they continue to experience.

There is no greater act of responsibility, there is no heavier weight of care and there is no larger placement of trust than that which exists in undertaking the care and custody of children who are without the benefit of a secure and capable and loving family. A society’s capacity to look after children who find themselves in those circumstances is one of the best measures of its compassion, of its commitment to a broad safety net for the protection of the vulnerable and the disadvantaged, and of its principles of social responsibility and social justice. But when the state or a private organisation or a church under the state’s supervision provides care of that kind, it of course does so with the mantle placed upon it of utmost responsibility. It does so with full acceptance of the highest duty of care. So at the same time as we recognise that looking after children who are without a family to provide for them is an expression of human society at its best, we also recognise that taking care of children brings with it a profound responsibility to deliver that care.

Unfortunately we know that children in our keeping—that is, children for whom Australian governments, state and federal, had ultimate responsibility—were not properly cared for. This is made clear in the Lost innocents and forgotten Australians revisited report, where it states:

The Committee concluded that there had been wide scale unsafe, improper and unlawful care of children, a failure of duty of care, and serious and repeated breaches of statutory obligations.

We made, at the start of this government, a national and bipartisan apology to Indigenous Australians, in particular the stolen generations. And this apology today, although of course substantially different, is aligned to that earlier act of responsibility and contrition because it too concerns a failure by government to anticipate institutional harm that would be done to the most vulnerable in our society, that would be done to children: a failure to adequately oversee their care and to recognise the harm being done, a failure to stop it occurring at the time and to properly acknowledge what had occurred when the evidence was there to be seen, and a failure to take responsibility and apologise for the grave wrongs committed or left unchecked.

The truth is that there were aspects of the system of institutionalised care of children in Australia and of the system of child migration that were wrong in themselves—some that can perhaps be seen more clearly now than they could have been at the time, but some that ought to have been recognised as being of great potential harm even then. And that is in addition to those aspects of the system of care that were not inherently bad, but which were administered or practised badly, harmfully, abusively, neglectfully. And so we apologise today for all of those wrongs and for the harm and hurt and suffering that was experienced by many of the 500,000 children in care and the 7,000 child migrants.

I encourage all interested Australians to consider the most recent report from the Senate Community Affairs References Committee, whose 2009 inquiry report, Lost innocents and forgotten Australians revisited, forms the foundation of this national apology and builds on the two earlier reports of that committee: the Lost innocents report of 2001 and the Forgotten Australians report of 2004. I commend both the current members and the former members of that committee who contributed to the work of those earlier inquiries and reports. I particularly want to pay tribute to former senator Andrew Murray’s perseverance and courage. Above all, I thank the inquiry participants, especially the care leavers and former child migrants who were part of the process which has delivered this positive step today, but which may have caused them further pain. I commend the Prime Minister and the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs for the government’s response to this issue and the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their extremely moving addresses earlier today.

As I have said, the apology itself is but one of the recommendations listed in the report Lost innocents and forgotten Australians revisited. Other recommendations go to issues like the need for reform to the existing national freedom of information and privacy legislation so that care leavers are not unnecessarily obstructed in their effort to repair those lost family connections.

The issue of redress, especially in the form of financial compensation, is critical to providing a real and meaningful response to those who suffered institutional harm and neglect. Redress schemes, which operate at the state government level, are vitally important and the government of Western Australia deserves credit for being one of only three states to have established a redress fund. Redress WA was set up by the Carpenter government, with $114 million in administrative support services and redress funds. I am glad to see that, in her submission to the Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee, Dr Joanna Penglase, Co-founder and Project Officer of Care Leavers Australian Network, described Redress WA as ‘the best redress scheme operating in Australia’, but I am sorry that the current Barnett government of Western Australia has chosen to dramatically reduce the redress payments available to individuals under the scheme. I support the member for Swan, the WA Labor opposition and others who have called for the WA government to reconsider this shameful decision.

Aged care is one of the critical policy areas when it comes to addressing the current and future needs of care leavers, because those who have experienced institutional abuse and neglect have an entirely understandable revulsion at the prospect of, again, entering a similar, though benign, care environment. For that reason, I fully support the consideration and funding of appropriate models of aged care through the aged-care innovative pool and I applaud the federal government’s decision, announced by the Prime Minister today, that care leavers will be considered as a special needs group for aged care.

I want to talk briefly about two Fremantle constituents who are here in Parliament House today: Mr Laurie Humphreys and Ms Margaret O’Byrne. At the age of four, Mr Humphreys was given to the care of Nazareth House, an orphanage in Southampton, upon the death of his mother, who died giving birth to twins. Mr Humphreys subsequently migrated to Australia, arriving in Fremantle on the ship Austurias in 1947. He became a Bindoon boy at the Boys Town facility, operated by the Christian Brothers in Bindoon. Incidentally, Mr Humphreys’ friend Mr Eddie Butler, now of Balcatta, who arrived on the same ship with him in 1947 and was also a Bindoon boy, is also here in parliament today. Mr Humphreys has written a book about his life entitled A Chip Off What Block? It is a child migrant’s tale which details the time he spent in care, his experience as a child migrant and his later attempts to reconnect with his wider family.

Recommendation 30 of the Lost innocents report called for the Australian government to acknowledge that the Commonwealth had promoted child migration schemes. It is interesting to see how the perceived benefit of those schemes was understood in Australia at the time. Mr Humphreys was landed in Fremantle on 22 September 1947 and, on 23 September, the West Australian newspaper reported a statement by Dr Prendiville, the Archbishop of Perth. I quote from that article, as reprinted in Mr Humphreys’ book:

His Grace said that he was glad to welcome not only the children, but also other migrants who were disembarking here. At a time when empty cradles were contributing alarmingly to the problem of Australia’s empty spaces, it was necessary to seek external sources of supply.

To some degree, the transport of child migrants to Australia was seen as remedying a shortage of supply. In effect, it was a shortage of labour. This was reflected in the lives of child migrants in WA, who, even if they were not abused or directly ill-treated, as many were, still spent their early years doing hard menial work. Because Mr Humphreys is plainly a resilient, resourceful and good-humoured man, his account treats the circumstances of his care and the emotional consequences of his upbringing in a very even, matter-of-fact way. While he was not subjected to the worst forms of abuse and neglect that are known to have occurred he did, nevertheless, experience a hard young life—a life in which he was put to strenuous and sometimes dangerous physical labour, a life in which he was physically punished and at times punished arbitrarily and brutally, a life in which education and training were minimal and which were provided without reference to his interests and wishes and a life in which the truth of his living relatives was not presented clearly to him. He was told his father was dead and that he was alone in the world, only to have news of his father later relayed to him and then, out of the blue, he was joined at Boys Town by his younger brother, Terry.

In his book Mr Humphreys describes what happened when they were introduced:

One of the men standing nearby said, ‘Go on, show some emotion,’ but for some reason I couldn’t. It was a shock to discover after all this time that I actually had a brother and I didn’t know how to react. Terry told me years later that it was good having a big brother at Bindoon as the Brothers left him alone.

Later in life, Mr Humphreys took it upon himself to seek out and reconnect with his siblings and half siblings and their families, most of whom lived in Britain and Europe. He writes about the complex nature of rediscovering family:

In relation to blood lines there was no doubt of where I fitted in, but from lifestyle and habits formed I was completely different. … The emotional scars from these reunions are another story. Mary and I were never able to say goodbye. For both of us the emotion has been too much. … Most of the migrants I have spoken to have said that their reunions have left them in limbo. Some became even angrier. It was like tasting something pleasant and forgetting the name of it, thereby creating the fear that you might never taste it again.

Laurie Humphreys has made an enormous contribution to community life and the Fremantle electorate through his participation in local government with 21 years as a councillor for the City of Cockburn; as a representative for the Australian Timber Workers Union and, later, the Transport Workers Union; and as an advocate for child migrants. He is the WA representative of the Alliance for Forgotten Australians and he has formed a WA group called FACT: Forgotten Australians Coming Together.

At the end of his book Laurie Humphreys writes:

Overall, my life has been extremely blessed. I consider that I have worked hard: I have devoted much of my time to better the life of workers and the community. But most of all I value my family. I am not rich. I wasn’t well educated, but the life I’ve created for myself was built on a never-give-in attitude. I’ve travelled through life with my sense of humour intact, something I do share with my family. I imagine that my fortitude for not giving in was developed during those four to 14 years, when I was on my own with no one to advise me or show me how, and when I was, to all intents and purposes, an orphan.

Another Fremantle constituent, Margaret or ‘Margo’ O’Byrne, who is here in parliament today with her husband, Eitan, has also written a book called Left Unsaid, which was recently launched by Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, which documents her and her brother mother Michael’s experiences in Queensland institutions after they were taken from their mother. The flawed nature of the system under which children were institutionalised was highlighted in the Brisbane Children’s Court decision in which the judge found Ms O’Byrne, then aged 12, and her brother, aged 11, guilty of the charge of being neglected children.

Like Mr Humphreys, Ms O’Byrne found the process of writing a book cathartic. It is humbling to see that after all that Ms O’Byrne and her brother suffered through neglect and poverty; through the suicide of their father and the alcoholism of their mother; through the cruel, brutal treatment they had at the hands of the nuns and priests charged with their care, that both Ms O’Byrne and her brother have determined that they will not be the lifelong victims of their treatment. They have adopted the attitude that you can get bitter or you can get better, and their strength of spirit in outshining the damage done to them is something I acknowledge and celebrate today. Ms O’Byrne is now an accomplished facilitator within the Fremantle area.

I have been a representative of the Fremantle electorate for nearly two years and almost every week I undertake work or meet constituents, and make representations that remind me of what a privilege it is to be a member of this place. This is never more true than on occasions like this one. We are all transients here in the federal parliament, but we are part of a continuity that reaches back to 1901 and that casts forward into Australia’s future for who knows how long.

Today we rightly apologise, as a government and as a national parliament, for wrongs that were allowed to occur by the Australian government in previous incarnations. They may be wrongs that we, as members, do not feel personally responsible for, but I would observe that collective responsibility means nothing if the responsibility is not in some way felt by the individuals who make up that collective, from representatives to citizens.

Let us remember that the echoes of the cognitive mistakes of the past carry through into contemporary Australia. There was an unrecognised danger in regarding child migrants as the solution to a labour shortage. The same danger exists in the way we have approached, in recent times, short-term migrant labour. These people are not children, but they are often at a disadvantage because of their financial circumstances and their language skills. Some have been exploited and abused. The lesson for government is that people are not units of labour; that a society is not the same thing as an economy. It is the same lesson, but I suspect we will go on learning it for some time yet.

Finally, we should perhaps reflect that Australian governments in the future may well be obliged to apologise for our errors and failures. So by taking responsibility for things that have occurred in the past, as we do today, we also have the opportunity to remember that the duty of care, which was not discharged to the forgotten Australians and child migrants, is the same duty of care that we must remain ever vigilant to uphold.

5:19 pm

Photo of Darren ChesterDarren Chester (Gippsland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is an honour to rise on this historic occasion to support, on behalf of Gippslanders, this apology to the forgotten Australians and former child migrants and also record my personal sorrow over the events that have taken place in the past and offer my personal apology. Before I begin my main remarks I would like to comment on the events of the day. We have just heard from the member for Fremantle, who, in keeping with her style in this place, has exhibited an enormous amount of empathy and thoughtfulness towards and respect for the people whose lives have been affected in such a way as to warrant today’s apology. I think that is of great credit to the member for Fremantle and it is also of great credit to this place that we have gathered here today in such circumstances. I think all members present really appreciate being a part of today, particularly when we look at the remembrance ceremony earlier in the Great Hall. Serious work was certainly done in this parliament here today as we came together to deal with what the Prime Minister described in his motion as ‘an ugly chapter in our nation’s history’. We came together to offer our nation’s apology and also to say we were truly sorry to the forgotten Australians and those who were sent to our shores as children without their consent.

It was a day, really, for the forgotten Australians and former child migrants themselves. While politicians might want to wax lyrical and talk about the event, in a sense it really was a day for the people whose lives had been fractured by the experiences that they had had as young children in our care. As a father of four children and a member of this place, I really struggle now to understand the fact that our state failed so many people so badly, having abandoned them, given the sense of betrayal that they must have felt in those circumstances as young children. I find it hard to think that such events could occur in the past. I take up the member for Fremantle’s cautionary tone that we need to be mindful that such events might be continuing today in some form or other. We must be ever vigilant in that regard.

It is hard not to get emotional when you read the accounts in the Senate reports and also the personal accounts of the experiences of these children. The neglect and the abuse which have occurred are a fundamental breach of the trust that we have as a community and as a government, particularly as to our most vulnerable citizens, our children. I want to give credit to the Prime Minister for the way in which he spoke today and also to the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. I think for many of us who have not had that direct experience they made it all come to life that the challenge we in this place face as members of parliament is to ensure that we take steps to prevent such abuse from ever occurring again. So it goes without saying that the motion has the unqualified support of the opposition.

I think today was really a major step forward for us as a nation in recognising that appalling treatment has occurred in the past and that many of these young children have suffered at the hands of institutions, whether they be government run or church run ones or ones run by other charity-type organisations. I found the contribution before in the main chamber by the member for Swan to be quite captivating as he told of his personal experiences. He is an absolute inspiration to us, given the fact that he was placed in a babies home at the age of six months and was made a ward of the state of Victoria. He quoted some harrowing examples of other constituents he has met since that time. I think that the member for Swan is a very humble man and that perhaps would not like to be described in these terms, but he himself is quite an inspiration given what he has been able to achieve in his life after such a difficult start. If you read his maiden speech, which I recommend to other members, you note there is not a trace of bitterness as he tells the story of his life, in which two of his sisters were lost in tragedies related to alcohol abuse. I am sure that Steve Irons, as a survivor of the system that was in place, has taken a lot of heart from the apology that was given today by the Prime Minister and endorsed by the opposition in a great bipartisan way.

I just make the point, though, that I am concerned—and this is a very real fear in my mind—that once all the nice words are finished with today there will not be the will to go further and make sure that we do everything in our power as members of parliament to make sure that this emotion filled day is capitalised on with a commitment to prevent such abuse from ever occurring again in the future.

It is not the size of the roof of the institution in which the abuse takes place that matters. If the abuse still occurs under a smaller roof we still have a major problem in our community. It is somewhat smug and perhaps idiotic of us to even pretend to think that this generation is not making at least some of the same mistakes with the current generation of children in our nation. The abuse continues to occur, albeit under a smaller roof—perhaps not with the blind acquiescence of the system that we may have seen in the past, but abuse does continue of Australian children on our lands and it is perpetrated by Australian sex offenders in foreign lands.

I refer to the contributions of the member for Warringah and the Leader of the Opposition who both join me in cautioning about the need to learn from past mistakes. The Leader of the Opposition said in his contribution in the Great Hall:

And just as we ask ourselves whether in different circumstances we too could have spent our childhood in a “home”, as you did, so we should ask ourselves whether we too could have neglected you and abused you as others did.

Or could we have been a Minister, a Bishop or a member of a worthy charity committee that presided over these homes, but did not know, or perhaps did not want to know of the neglect and the abuse that you were suffering.

Those homes are long closed and they will never re-open. But when we hear a child scream in pain in the next apartment, or we see a little boy at school with bruises, or a little girl who seems sleepless and withdrawn—do we say: it’s none of our business?

The Leader of the Opposition went on to refer to his meeting with the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. I have also had the opportunity to meet with NAPCAN on several occasions and regularly attend meetings of the Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse and Neglect. NAPCAN’s purpose is to stop child abuse and neglect and ensure the safety and wellbeing of every Australian child.

The figures are quite damning according to research that NAPCAN circulates quite widely. Thirty-three thousand individual Australian children are known to be abused or neglected each year. That is, one in four girls and one in seven boys are sexually abused by the age of 18. Thirty thousand children are living in out-of-home care for their care and protection, one in four children have witnessed violence against a parent and one in 10 teenagers regularly binge drink. When we talk about abuse of young people in our institutions over the most recent decades and still quote figures of that nature in 2009, as I said before, it would be smug and idiotic of us to think that our children are necessarily safe today.

NAPCAN works, as I said, to try to prevent child abuse and neglect wherever it occurs and to ensure the safety and wellbeing of every Australian child. It has a range of approaches in that regard: it does advocacy work, it promotes social change, it attempts to build resilience in our children and young people, it tries to develop a professional and parental skills and knowledge base, and it works to try and strengthen community capacity. The field that we are referring to is incredibly complex and difficult. It is emotionally charged. The underlying factors which contribute to the abuse occurring are the main reasons why it becomes so difficult for an organisation like NAPCAN to break the cycle of abuse and neglect. It is one of those topics that we have not liked to talk about as a community. Regretfully, we have turned away from where we may have held suspicions and have not necessarily believed the children as they have come forward with allegations. I congratulate NAPCAN on the work they are trying to do and urge all members to do whatever they can in their work as representatives of their regions to support NAPCAN and Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse and Neglect in the parliament.

There is another area that NAPCAN is focused on. I recently attended a function in the parliament titled Don’t Trade Lives. It is particularly relevant in the context of the motion today as it refers to insidious human trafficking and the impact it is having on young victims, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. As much as we refer to migrant young children who were forced to travel to Australia and were put to work, often in difficult and menial conditions, an ongoing form of abuse is occurring today. Reverend Tim Costello was the guest speaker at the function that I attended with NAPCAN. He made it very clear that there are reports through the Asia-Pacific region of children still vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, such as bonded labour schemes, commercial sexual exploitation and domestic servitude. It is challenging for us all to confront these very difficult issues and not simply look the other way.

In my own electorate of Gippsland the challenge is there for us as a community as well. We have rates of child abuse which are a constant cause of concern in our community. We have a significant issue in the Gippsland region, where the rates of Indigenous child abuse and sexual assault are way beyond what would be accepted in any humanitarian and civilised situation. It is the same, I think, in the broader community. We must remain ever vigilant. I am concerned about the situation in Gippsland. The government of the day at the state level has admitted that 60 per cent of child protection cases in Gippsland were not allocated a case worker because the government department is struggling to recruit staff. We are simply not on top of the situation we are faced with in Gippsland at the moment. I say to the House that we are kidding ourselves if we believe we are anywhere near on top of the situation of child abuse and neglect as it occurs throughout our nation at the moment.

We need to provide the resources and we need to understand that we have a whole-of-community responsibility to confront this problem. Today we have had the Prime Minister apologise on behalf of the nation, on behalf of the government, but I put the challenge out there to the community in a wider sense: we must all remain vigilant, not just those in leadership roles and members of parliament but those in our communities, wherever we find ourselves. We need to be ever vigilant and look out for those children who are defenceless in the face of those who may prey upon them.

I support the motion before the House, but I would like to add perhaps one more positive note. I would like to thank those carers and foster workers who have done the right thing and have worked tirelessly in the past to assist young people who have been abandoned or orphaned. The member for Swan noted in his maiden speech that some foster parents have in fact saved lives. We need to be careful that we do not become so risk averse, from the negative publicity about removing children from some situations, that they are left in the kinds of appalling conditions and risky situations that have often in the past resulted in serious injury and death.

In closing I would like to read from the motion before us today and offer my complete support:

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.

I would like to take up the Prime Minister’s final words in speaking to the motion:

So, let us therefore, together, as a nation, allow this apology to begin healing this pain.

                  …              …              …

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.

As I said earlier, a lot of words have already been spoken here today in relation to the apology to the forgotten people. I believe there is enormous goodwill in the heartfelt commentary on behalf of both sides of the House. What it needs now is action from us and a commitment to ensure that we never let this happen again. When it comes to the health and wellbeing of our children we must all commit ourselves to never looking the other way—to shining the light in dark places. Every child has the right to live in a safe environment that protects and fosters them in their formative years. We need to provide our children the environment where their physical, emotional and social needs are all catered for. That is an individual family responsibility and a community responsibility. But where those families and communities fail, for whatever reason, governments have a role and a sacred trust to step in and provide assistance to our nation’s children. We must make the prevention of child abuse a national priority for our community. The momentum gained from today’s historic apology must be capitalised upon. Our nation’s people are watching us. Our children deserve the best chance to achieve their full potential in the future.

5:34 pm

Photo of Amanda RishworthAmanda Rishworth (Kingston, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to support the motion before the House. It is with some sadness that I rise to speak because, over the last few months and years, I have heard many stories of the forgotten Australians, of some of the issues they faced and the emotional, physical and sexual abuse that some of them suffered. So it is with sadness that I rise to support this apology, but I am very pleased that this bipartisan apology has been made. I think it is very important that we do acknowledge that there are over 500,000 forgotten Australians—people who as children spent a period of time in homes, orphanages and other forms of out-of-home care between the 1920s and the late 1970s. I also recognise the 7,000 former child migrants who arrived in Australia through the historic child migration scheme and were subsequently placed in homes and orphanages.

I recognise that this apology does mean different things to different people. For some, this apology is something they have fought very hard for, and for others it only awakens a lot of memories of the things that happened to them in the past. So this apology does mean something different to everyone. It is my hope that this apology will start a process—whether it is a continuing process or the start of a process, for some it might be the end of a process—and will mark something in that process and mean something very special to people.

For me, the ongoing consequences of the abuse that these people suffered are not surprising. It is not surprising that the severity of abuse, the feelings of not being secure and of being lonely have led to the damage caused to these people. I am not surprised about that, but hearing firsthand some of these stories has been very moving for me and also, as I have said, very saddening.

I was particularly moved by the stories of two women in my electorate who have been fighting for an apology for a long period of time. In fact, in South Australia under a process before a former Supreme Court judge, Ted Mullighan, a lot of the state wards came forward. There was a large inquiry into what had happened to them. Both of these women were involved in that and have been involved for a long time in telling their stories. They have been brave enough to tell their stories so that others could identify with them and be willing to speak out.

The important part—the Prime Minister did talk about this; it was a theme in his speeches—is being able to tell one’s story, to be able to express it and be heard without people judging, to be heard without people not believing. Just being able to tell that story is an incredibly powerful process. I do know that Mr Mullighan also found the same experience during his inquiry. He said a number of times that telling their story was a huge part of the process. Certainly the two women in my electorate, Josephine Cavanough and Lila Ophof, have also found that telling their story has been an incredible part of the process. I would like to acknowledge some words from Josephine.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 5.39 pm to 5.59 pm

I was speaking about two of the women in my electorate, Josephine and Lila, who attended the apology today. I want to quote Josephine, who said: ‘We can’t change the past, but we can look forward to the future and let the healing begin.’ Today is a very special day for her. It was also a very special day for her because she finally got to meet some of the relations whom she had never known. In fact, today was the day that she met her aunties for the first time. Josephine had a very lonely childhood. She was separated from her 16 brothers and sisters. She says that during her time at the Sisters of Mercy orphanage she was fed bread and water, beaten and sent to solitary confinement. This was a very difficult and upsetting time for her.

At age 13 she was forced to relocate to Adelaide, where she lived on the streets for a few years. Since that time she has been piecing her life back together. She has been trained as a chef and has done courses in mining skills and communications. She has also raised two children. What she has been able to achieve is a real testimony to Josephine’s strength of the character.

Lila told me that the most important thing for her about the apology today was that she no longer felt forgotten, which she had for a long time. She said to me that now she would be one of the remembered Australians. It was also very empowering for her to hear that she was not to blame. How can a three-year-old be blamed? For so long she had believed that she was to blame for her mother giving her up. She still does not know why, and a question that she is continually asking is, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ But today was a time for the powerful realisation that it was not her fault. She was just a child and there was a duty to look after her. She experienced an awful childhood, one with no love and no care. That has been really awful for her.

Lila was not funded by any of the organisations to come here today. I want to pay tribute to a company in my electorate, Wirra Wirra winery. Many in this chamber may be familiar with their wine. They have no relation whatsoever with Lila. Our office spent some time trying to find some sponsorship that would enable Lila to come over and hear and see this apology. Wirra Wirra were incredibly generous, paying for her airfare and enabling her to be part of this. I cannot give a big enough shout out to them, because in a time of need for someone who had been forgotten for so long they acknowledged her and helped her get here.

This has been a great process for both of them. Both of these women are very keen to support and help others who have been in this. In fact, Lila says that since there has been some publicity and because her picture has been in the paper others have come up to her and thanked her for what she has done. Both of them have a very strong and real commitment to helping others.

I support this motion. It was a very emotional day for both of these women and for the many people here. It was a very emotional day for me. I feel honoured and privileged that these forgotten Australians have been able to share with me and with many other people their often very personal and sad stories, stories that have stayed with them for so long. I hope that sharing those stories—without judgement and without people disbelieving them—and gaining real recognition and acknowledgement will help some of these forgotten Australians move on. In conclusion, today marks a point when these Australians and child migrants are no longer forgotten. They will be acknowledged and remembered for many years to come. In saying that, while they will be acknowledged and remembered, I hope that we also—as other speakers have said—learn from those mistakes of the past. No child should ever have to experience what these close to 500,000 Australians went through. I commend the motion to the House.

6:05 pm

Photo of Bob BaldwinBob Baldwin (Paterson, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Science and Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak to the national apology to the forgotten Australians and former child migrants. Today we sat in the Great Hall and listened to the Prime Minister read the apology—a very heartfelt speech—and we listened to a very heartfelt speech by the Leader of the Opposition. We saw the gathering of people and we saw an outpouring of emotions. Then we gathered in the chamber and listened to the presentation by Minister Macklin and then a speech by the shadow minister, Tony Abbott. But the one that hit me was the speech by Steve Irons, the member for Swan. While many members can stand up and speak about the emotions of their community, none of us can truly understand what people like our friend and colleague Steve Irons has been through. Many tens of thousands of children went through what Steve went through.

It would be a mistake to believe that every child was abused, that every child was not cared for as they should have been; but many, many were abused. Listening to Steve talk about his brother and those lost years was very emotionally charged. Andrew Murray, a former Democrat senator, was a person I got to know during the time I served as the Chair of the Public Accounts and Audit Committee. The Sun Herald reported on 30 August 2009, after the announcement that there would be an apology, that Andrew Murray said:

… the apology represented the culmination of a decade-long Senate campaign.

And further:

… it would be a symbolic and emotional “Rubicon” for hundreds of thousands of people who had been let down by governments that had failed in their duty of care.

The Leader of the Opposition quoted from Forgotten Australians: a report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children today, which uses Nelson Mandela’s words:

Any nation that does not care for and protect all of its children does not deserve to be called a nation.

I am proud to be a member of parliament and represent my constituents in this place but I am somewhat embarrassed and somewhat concerned by guilt when I think that there were people who stood in parliament, like I do now, in years gone by, who not only allowed this to happen but actively promoted the stealing of children.

Between 1947 and 1967 there was collusion with the British government, when over 7,000 children were sent to Australia from England, children who were packed up and sent. They went to the wharf with a variety of stories. They were not bad children. One thing I believe is that no child is born bad; they are the creature of the environment in which they are raised. That is perhaps why the Nelson Mandela quote is important. We should not only protect our children; we should nurture our children. We should give them the best opportunities they can have in life.

The Commonwealth’s push to ‘implement good white stock’ into its dominions was nothing more than a cruel action by governments of the day, blinded by obsession at the expense of young people who knew no different. These were young people who were told they would be coming to Australia for a better life, young people who may have been told that their parents were deceased when they were not, young people who were told that they would be cared for and looked after and that this was the land of opportunity. Sadly, they were disappointed.

I can remember that as a young fellow at school we would have fundraisers. There would be fundraisers for things like the Barnardo homes and a variety of others. We would hear about these homes. I was very fortunate because I came from a very loving family but I can always remember that when I was a little bit mischievous my dad would say to me, ‘If you play up you’ll be going to the boys home.’ So if they used that as a threat to try and bring you back in line how bad was it for the people who were living there—who were growing up there?

As much as we, as members of parliament, might think that we can understand, unless you have been there you can never experience the emotional cruelty, the beatings and the torment. When I talk to young people who have experienced these things they say to me—and it is probably true too of people who suffer domestic violence—that they will stay and suffer the punishment because at least they feel loved in that environment. But can you imagine being placed into an environment where you are getting beaten, abused and raped and nobody loves or cares for you?

Perhaps the greatest crime in all of this was the fact that these kids had no-one to turn to. No-one believed them and the more they brought up the issue the more they were beaten and abused. Governments failed them; churches failed them; charities failed them; but, importantly, communities failed them. Communities knew what was happening and at the time they failed to bring churches, governments and charities to account. And that is something that is very hard to forgive. While I stand here today as a proud Australian participating in this apology, can I tell you I also feel like a guilty Australian because I am part of that generation that allowed it to continue.

As I have connected with people in my community I feel it is important to recount some of the stories from those people. One such story is from a local resident, Norma Collins, who in 1954 started her journey as a forgotten Australian. After the passing of her mother, eight-year-old Norma was too innocent and too young to understand. She was institutionalised at Rathgar Home for Girls, South Grafton, with her older sister. At the same time the bond with her older brother was lost when he was sent to work on a rural property.

Norma spent her formative years as one of half a million orphans neglected and forgotten by governments, churches and charities. Norma was not given the love and attention that an eight-year-old child should have been given. She was a child wanting the simple thing that we take for granted—love from a mother. She wanted love from a mother who died too young. Norma craved individual care; instead she often felt isolated and lonely. Norma recalls one night when she reached out for human kindness by creeping into a matron’s bedroom, requesting a simple hug. But like so many others, this simple display of affection was rejected; instead, she was smacked and sent to bed. For Norma this is a lasting reminder of how she and others in the home were treated like sheep. They had basin haircuts, a shared wardrobe and a long list of daily chores. You were no longer a child with a personality and needs; you were simply a number—one of many without a loving home to call your own.

What Norma missed was the love and attention that a family home could have provided. Norma was a strong child and made the best out of an otherwise hopeless situation. She made friendships that continue today. After four years in Rathgar, Norma was finally released into the care of family. However, she was so shy from shame and embarrassment that she regularly hid from other children and family members. This poor self-perception was only perpetuated when she learnt how others viewed and treated orphans from the school. She once heard that other local children were told to stay away from the orphans, who were seen to be a bad influence. This made Norma retreat even further from the community she could have been a part of.

Patty, also from my electorate, tells of the heart-breaking story of her experiences at Rathgar in the 1970s. After losing her 36-year-old mother from heart problems, Patty and her three sisters and brother found themselves facing an uncertain future and were placed in institutionalised care. Patty’s strength, despite her troubled childhood, is evident today. She remembers better not her own story but the stories of her sisters and brother. Being separated from her siblings at such a young age forced bonds to be broken that never should have been. She tells harrowing stories of her sister being sexually abused by her holiday parents. Another sister was sent to a prison like Parramatta Girls Home for being rebellious. Her brother was shunted from home to home. Patty attributes the lack of a father figure in his life as a major contributor to his gambling problem now.

Patty recalls two loving house mothers during her time at Rathgar—Mrs Tibbs and Mama Joyce—who tried their best to bring up the girls in a close-to-normal environment where possible. In another harsh reminder, she realised she was not part of a real family when these motherly figures retired and the centre was taken over by a husband and wife whose approach to the home was very different. Suddenly, contact with the outside world ceased and so, as a 14-year-old, she ran away looking for a better life.

For girls like Norma and Patty and the other half a million forgotten Australians, childhood had to be survived rather than enjoyed. The Australian government robbed them of the chance to be children, a right which every person in this nation deserves, and for that I am deeply sorry. Today’s apology to the forgotten Australians and former child migrants is a milestone in our nation’s history. It was a sad era which will never be repeated.

Those who attended the apology today, listened to their radios or watched at home on the television acknowledged the survivors, remembering their stories and allowing the Australian government to shelve the responsibility for decades of pain and suffering in institutionalised care. We can only hope now that this burden has been lifted from the shoulders of orphans and migrants who believed for years that they were to blame; they were not.

As I sat in the great hall watching the apology this morning, I could not help but recall my own childhood. I was one of the fortunate few children that emigrated from Britain with loving parents wanting a fresh start for me and my siblings. Even with the constant and loving support, the transition to a new country and culture was very, very difficult. I cannot begin to imagine what life would have been like if I had migrated alone, as 7,000 former child migrants were forced to do through historical migration schemes.

Through three unanimous Senate inquiries, the consequences of institutionalised care were frighteningly illustrated. With emotional and physical deprivation and shocking levels of neglect and abuse, children lost family connections and, in the process, much of their identity. As adults, many still grapple with the demons of their childhood and yet have been brave enough to come together today to share their stories with the nation. Thank you, Norma and Patty, for being amongst those with enough courage to say, ‘I will not be forgotten any longer.’ You are certainly survivors, having now raised your own loving families despite the failure of your government as a protector.

So I stand as the member for Paterson, an elected member of the Australian parliament, to echo today’s apology, which is long overdue. I understand that this will not change the past or the lasting legacy of these experiences for those who suffer. However, with sincere respect, I place my apology on the public record for constituents like Norma and Patty, who have travelled to Canberra today to take the first step in their journey towards healing. They also hope to rediscover their fellow orphans who took the place of extended family. Norma was quite adamant that her message should be passed, reinforced and remembered by others. ‘Leave the shame in the past’, she said. ‘Let others know you were in and out of home care. This way, institutionalised brothers and sisters may be able to find one another again and reform the bonds that were lost.’ I promise Norma and Patty and the other forgotten Australians and former child migrants, ‘You will now and forever be remembered Australians.’

6:19 pm

Photo of Ms Catherine KingMs Catherine King (Ballarat, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I add my voice to those of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in giving my apology to the Forgotten Australians and former child migrants. Today’s apology extends to a large number of Australians—around 500,000 of them; 500,000 people who spent time in children’s homes, in orphanages and in out-of-home care, alongside some 7,000 former child migrants who came to Australia at part of child migration schemes to then be placed in children’s homes and orphanages. Today’s apology extends to these people; it also extends to their families and to future generations, to give us a better understanding of this disgraceful tragedy in our past century.

It is a particularly important apology for the people of Ballarat. It is important for the many Ballarat people who were residents in institutional care and their families. It is also very important for those of us who were not to formally apologise for what happened in these institutions in our community and to recognise what happened to the children, now adults who live among us. Ballarat had three major institutions: Ballarat Orphanage, St Joseph’s homes for boys and Nazareth House for girls. The Alexander babies home and a number of smaller institutions also existed. One estimate is that over 15 institutions operated in Ballarat at some point over the course of the past century.

A significant number of children grew up in Ballarat institutions. The Ballarat Orphanage alone saw some 4,000 children in care. Many of these children continue to live in Ballarat and have raised their families there. The stories heard in my region are similar to those heard from all corners of Australia in this debate so far—stories of children accommodated in large institutions without love, without the sort of nurturing care and warmth that is every child’s right; unfortunately, all too often, stories of abuse, of children beaten with a belt or a cane and of young boys and girls sexually abused—raped by their carers and abused by the people who were supposed to give them care. We have heard of staff bashing children senseless while other children watched in horror and despair. Those are stories of children who wanted just one thing: to be loved.

One of these stories is of Frank Golding. Frank, who was only three, and his two brothers found themselves in institutional care on Christmas Eve in 1940. While many children were thinking of the joys of Christmas, the beauty of family and the laughter of friends, Frank and his brothers found themselves alone. Frank’s once forgotten story has been realised in his book An Orphan’s Escape: Memories of a Lost Childhood. I highly recommend Frank’s book to anyone who truly wants to understand what happened in institutions in Ballarat. Frank tells many stories throughout his book, few which give a sense of his larrikin and kind-hearted nature and many of which give an explanation of his harrowing experiences suffered in institutional care. The book tells a story of a child forgotten. The book is one of thousands of stories that exist around Australia.

To do justice to Frank’s story, I want to quote fairly extensively from it. Like many others, the picture of arriving at the orphanage is a vivid one, one which has clearly stayed with him. He wrote:

I touched each shaft of the iron fence as the policeman pulled us towards the great double gate. The spikes towered above our heads as I ran my hand over the cold bluestone base. The gravel crunched under our feet as we drew near the dark-red building. Looking up at the balcony on the second floor, Billy read to us the words cast in iron ‘Orphan Asylum, 1865.’ This was a grim place, this Ballarat Orphanage. Solid like a fortress.

Like many children, Frank and his brothers questioned what they had done to have this happen to them.

Why were we in this place? … orphans haven’t got parents. We were not orphans. What did they mean by Asylum? Mum told us about the lunatic asylum up near the lake. That was the place where mad people got locked up. Why were we being punished? What had we done?

Frank was lucky in one way: at least his two brothers and he were in the same institution. But the sibling groups meant little as children were separated according to age.

With scores of children to play with, the idea of brothers and sisters soon lost its meaning. We shared surnames but not much else. Some children told us they had brothers and sisters in other orphanages. Years later I met people who never knew they had siblings until they discovered them while piecing together the jigsaw of their families decades after their stay in institutions. Some have tried to reunite as family but found that physical resemblance is not a sufficient basis to make up for the lost years. To stare across a train station at a 50-year-old stranger who looks like you can be both thrilling and disturbing. To become sisters again can be stressful.

Frank spoke of those who worked in these institutions. He wrote:

A hard core of staff stayed for ever but otherwise there was a high turnover and constant shortages. It has been said that staff in children’s institutions fell into three categories, the devoted, the dull and the deviant. To which I would add the disciplinarians. Many of those with compassion couldn’t bear to stay after they saw what the orphanage was like and what they were expected to do to keep the children under control.

Frank outlined story after story of his experiences that are chilling to read. Unfortunately, for Frank, they are not only a story; they are his reality. These are stories that are difficult to hear but they must be told and we, as members of the Ballarat community, have a responsibility to listen to every one of them.

I know there will be people in my own electorate who served, or whose parents served, on the boards of these institutions or who worked in them and who will say, ‘But these institutions did good things as well,’ and that the children were happy; that at the time people thought it was the right thing to do. Again, I refer to some powerful words from Frank:

I have been asked, sometimes with aggression: isn’t all that positive achievement the result of the stable upbringing provided by the Orphanage? It has been said I thrived, and I should remember what we were taught all those years ago: “For what we have received may the Lord make us truly grateful.” I thank the authorities for a roof over my head and three meals a day for more than ten years. I lived with two hundred children in the Orphanage and I made friends with many of them. They, and the extraordinary diversity of experiences we shared, taught me important skills for coping and surviving. We had some good times and managed together through some bad moments. Those chosen by the State did not sexually abuse me as they did other children. But I do not feel grateful for the salvation of avoidance. I should never have lived under the dark shadow of chance and I should not still be weeping for those little kids who were picked out to be buggered by paid predators.

It is incredibly important that we do not gloss over what these places were like for the people who experienced them. No matter how difficult or embarrassing it is, these forgotten children should expect no less from us.

Frank, along with others who grew up in my electorate, was here today in Parliament House, and I thank him for his permission to use his story. I encourage Ballarat residents to learn a little about Frank’s story and what happened, in our own community, to Frank and to the hundreds of children just like him in care in Ballarat institutions.

Today’s apology has been a very long time coming. The federal government, through the Senate Community Affairs References Committee, has reported in detail on this issue over the past decade. Three separate reports of inquiries under the committee include Lost innocents in 2001, Forgotten Australians in 2004 and Lost innocents and forgotten Australians revisited in 2009. These reports told us something that many Australians had known for years. They spoke of the abuse that children in institutional care suffered, the physical and emotional suffering, the neglect. These reports unanimously called for a national apology. The Senate committee recognised that a national apology was an important part of the healing process for those who had suffered at the hands, the poor policy decisions, of our governments.

The first report, Lost innocents: righting the record, gave a stark assessment of the treatment of children who were brought to Australia from the United Kingdom, Ireland and Malta via child migrant schemes. Australia made a commitment to protect these children. The report showed parents consented for their children to migrate because they were told of the wonderful care their children would receive in Australia. Some of these children were sexually assaulted and were abused by their carers. They were alone.

In 2004, the Senate committee delivered its second report, Forgotten Australians: a report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children. This report reflected on the half a million children who spent time in institutional care from the 1920s to the 1970s. It outlined many of the horrific things that occurred in this care, including many of those that I spoke of earlier.

In June this year the Senate committee released the Lost innocents and forgotten Australians revisited, a report on progress with the implementation of the recommendations of the two previous reports. With the Australian government’s formal apology today we have specifically addressed the report’s first two recommendations. They advised, as had been stated in the previous reports, that the Commonwealth formally apologise to our forgotten Australians and former child migrants.

The hard work of the Senate committee is to be congratulated. We have also seen hard work from many over recent years, and decades, to address this issue. I would like to recognise the hard work of the following: the Child Migrants Trust, Families Australia, the Alliance for Forgotten Australians, the International Association of Former Child Migrants and Their Families and the Care Leavers Australia Network.

Today we recognise the mistakes of the past. We as a nation placed our children in a position that was cruel and ugly. Children went to sleep in the coldness of the night, alone and afraid, and they awoke cold, alone and afraid. Because these children, these forgotten Australians and former child migrants, suffered enormous pain they did not have somebody to turn to when they needed care, when they were being neglected. They did not receive the love, the care, the security and the compassion that many of us take for granted today. When many of these children suffered both physical and sexual mistreatment they did not have anybody to turn to and, if they did, many of them were just not believed. The situation these children found themselves in was through no fault of their own. I apologise that we as a nation did not intervene to stop what was happening to them.

I support the motion moved by the Prime Minister today, because these experiences must be publicly recognised. With today’s apology we start that process. I hope that this apology brings some small relief to our forgotten Australians and our former child migrants. I hope that, by coming together as a parliament to reflect on this dreadful past, we can realise the true extent of what has happened. Today’s apology is long overdue. This apology should not be seen as the final step in a difficult journey but, instead, as the first page of a new book.

I recognise that scars never truly heal, that few memories will ever fade and that we cannot return lost childhoods and, in some cases, lost lives. But today I apologise. I would like to place my apology firmly on the record and say that what happened to these children was wrong and should never have occurred. I apologise to the over 500,000 forgotten Australians and former child migrants. I apologise to the thousands of children, now adults, who grew up in institutional care in my region. I apologise to those men and women who were placed in the Ballarat Orphanage, in St Josephs, in Nazareth House, in the Alexander Babies Home and in other institutions that operated in Ballarat. I apologise for the loss of your innocence and for the loss of your childhood. Most of all, I salute you as extraordinary survivors whose courage contributes to who we are as a city. Your stories should forever be recognised as a central part of Ballarat’s history.

Finally, I want to give the last words to Frank Golding. I quote:

I have won some control over my past and understand the story, but the scabs still itch. What if we had not been infants in wartime when family life came under profound stress? What if the struggle of our parents to get us out of the orphanage had succeeded earlier? What if the welfare department had been in less haste to condemn our parents? What if the state had supported and helped them through our hard times, instead of condemning them as not fit to be parents? What if the child welfare system of the day had been instead a family welfare system. What if?

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—

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Hindmarsh, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 192, and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.