Senate debates

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Matters of Public Interest

Forced Adoption

1:40 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Acting Deputy President Moore, I am so glad you are in the chair for my contribution, because I rise to speak on a matter of public interest which is of interest to both of us—that is, the Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into former forced adoption policies and practices. Late last year the committee held an inquiry into this issue. As I joined the Senate I was thrown into the middle of the inquiry, and it was with great interest that I joined the inquiry as a member of the committee.

Given the work of the committee, I was extremely satisfied on behalf of not only other members of the committee, submitters to the committee and the committee secretariat but also those people directly affected by past adoption practices. Many were present in Melbourne on 25 October when my own state, Victoria, made a formal apology to those men and women affected by the forced adoption policies of the 1950s, sixties, seventies and eighties.

I would like to refresh the Senate's memory of one of the key recommendations from the inquiry. This recommendation was that we set up a national framework with elements to address the needs of those directly affected. Another recommendation was that there needed to be public acknowledgement that past adoption practices forced some parents to give up their children for adoption against their will and there needed to be formal statements of apology from state governments. Through our inquiry we also recognised the need for specialist support services for people affected by past adoption practices and that the people delivering these types of support services needed to be appropriately trained and specialised. We also recognised that natural parents and their children should as adults have free access to all their personal records, regardless of the state or territory in which the adopted person was born. We recommended that all extant organisations involved in past adoptions establish grievance procedures to appropriately redress where wrongdoing has been established.

Those were the elements that we recommended to be part of a national framework to deal with this issue. It was with great satisfaction that I was in Melbourne to hear Premier Ted Baillieu, leader of the coalition government in Victoria, move in the state parliament the apology. I will read his full apology, because I was quite moved by the words as were the people sharing the experience with me in the gallery:

That this Parliament expresses our formal and sincere apology to the mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who were profoundly harmed by past adoption practices in Victoria.

We acknowledge that many thousands of Victorian babies were taken from their mothers, without informed consent, and that this loss caused immense grief.

We express our sincere sorrow and regret for the health and welfare policies that condoned the practice of forced separations.

These were misguided, unwarranted, and they caused immeasurable pain.

To the mothers and fathers who were denied the opportunity to love and care for your children, and for the pain and trauma you experienced, we are deeply sorry.

To the sons and daughters for whom adoption meant continual anxiety, uncertainty and the deprivation of a natural family connection—we offer our sincere apology.

He then went on to say:

Today, with all Members of the Parliament of Victoria gathered in this House, we acknowledge the devastating and ongoing impacts of these practices of the past.

To all those harmed we offer our heartfelt sympathy and apologise unreservedly.

We undertake to never forget what happened and to never repeat these practices.

It was quite a momentous day to be sitting in a very tiny public gallery that our beautiful state parliament has, with people who had been lobbying all levels of government over a long period of time to have that apology—and to have members of the legislative council squashed into our tiny parliament was indeed fantastic.

The apology was publicly promoted. It was broadcast in the Queen's Hall because of the small space available in the public gallery, in the Speaker's Gallery, and also over at one of our lovely hotels in Melbourne's Spring Street, The Windsor, where the public could gather and witness our state parliament's sincere apology. On that day people decided to line up pairs of shoes, to represent some of the 19,000 Victorian children adopted under these past adoption practices. Nearly 1,000 shoes lined the steps of our state parliament, representing those children who were forcibly adopted, and hundreds attended to hear the apology.

The apology was bipartisan, which was fantastic, obviously. After the apology was given, the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of the Greens and my old local member, the leader of the National Party, all delivered apologies on behalf of their political parties. The minister responsible for this area, Minister Wooldridge, also delivered an apology. Parliamentarians then crossed the road, along with everyone listening in the Queen's Hall, to have lunch together and to talk in a more informal way with parliamentarians and Premiers and those affected, while the leaders of the parliamentary parties signed the apology itself. I congratulate the Victorian coalition government, as it now joins Tasmania, New South Wales, Western Australia and South Australia as the states that have issued a public apology for these practices.

The Senate inquiry found that 225,000 children were removed from often young, unmarried women. Fathers were often left off birth certificates deliberately by the organisations involved in facilitating the adoptions. It is thought that 19,000 of those children given up for adoption were from Victoria. I noted the comments made by the Deputy Premier, Peter Ryan, in his contribution and apology, and I will directly quote. He said: 'Thousands of families, not just in Melbourne but right across rural and regional Victoria, were denied the opportunity to love and care for their sons and daughters because of policy implemented in this place in the last century.' I think that was important, because we need to acknowledge the effect these practices had in small rural communities. If you were the new baby being adopted by a couple within a country town, everybody knew that your mum had not actually birthed you, because you arrived and she clearly had not been pregnant. Similarly, there are stories about the young women who would be whisked away to Melbourne or Sydney for a specified period of time and then return home. So I thought it was really important for the Deputy Premier to recognise that the reality plays out differently in different places.

An anonymous submission to the inquiry shared how living in a small town only magnified their situation, as almost everyone knew what had happened to them. One mother who was forced to give her baby away told reporters on the day of the apology that she felt like she had been serving a life sentence. I cannot even begin to imagine what it might feel like. The enduring pain and trauma cannot be erased, and what happened was wrong and, in some instances, illegal.

I further commend the Victorian government in that it has actually announced practical assistance measures for those directly affected by past adoption practices. Minister Mary Wooldridge announced, with the Premier, a number of measures. Many were those recommended by the national framework elements that we set out in our report. These include an amendment to the Victorian Adoption Act 1984, which allows birth parents to receive identifying information about their adult sons and daughters, in line with other Australian jurisdictions. Many adopted people at the time ended up with two birth certificates. One was secret, stored in a place where it would not be found by the child—the one with the real information on it—and the other was the public birth certificate, which named only the adopting parents. For many adopted children, this might have been the only birth certificate that they saw. So that is a welcome change for Victorians. Our recommendation No. 13 was that all jurisdictions adopt integrated birth certificates and that these be issued to eligible people upon request, and that jurisdictions investigate harmonisation of births, deaths and marriages register access. So that is fantastic; thank you very much, Minister Wooldridge.

Another measure is a contact statement allowing adopted persons to regulate contact if desired—so facilitating adoptees and natural parents to find each other. In Victoria, we had restrictions on releasing the identifying information. Adult adopted people were entitled to receive information only about their origins—which was the name of their birth parents—whereas the new measure will facilitate greater freedom and access to information. There will also be enhanced support for access to specialised counselling to be available not only in metro areas but in rural and regional Victoria. That is exciting, and that shows the benefits of a coalition response in terms of ensuring that all those affected will be able to access specialised counselling. It is not just access to counselling that will be available; the minister announced professional development, specifically around the issue of postadoption psychotherapy so that those who need assistance can get it. They also removed fees. It used to cost people to find out the truth, so that is a welcome addition by the Victorian coalition government.

I commend those people who shared their journeys and their experiences with us at a Senate inquiry but also with Minister Wooldridge, the Premier and the Deputy Premier on the day. By speaking out, we uncover that which is hidden, and that is sometimes our role as leaders in the community. The submissions to the Senate inquiry show that it is clear that these experiences are not easy to cope with over time, and sometimes that makes it worse. So I am glad that there is some practical assistance to the people of Victoria.

One of the reasons I am so proud of my state and the state coalition government is because of the bipartisan approach to the apology. Every party leader stood behind it. Sometimes when we are living in the environment we operate in, our positions can be poles apart, but on this matter all parliamentarians were united, and I think that says a lot about the leadership of not only Minister Wooldridge and Premier Ted Baillieu but all leaders of the party within the Victorian state parliament.

Sittings suspended from 13:54 to 14:00

2:00 pm

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome former senator Baden Teague in the gallery. Welcome back and it is good to see you.