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The Apology to the Forgotten Australians
Transcript of address at the apology to the Forgotten Australians
and former child migrants
Great Hall, Parliament House
16 November 2009
Today, the Government of Australia will move the following motion of apology in the Parliament of Australia.
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 toour 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, the absolute tragedy, of childhoods lost,-childhoods spent instead in austere and authoritarian places, wherenames 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 so many of you were left cold, hungryand alone and with nowhere to hide and with nobody, absolutely nobody,to whom to turn.
We look back with shame that many these little ones who wereentrusted to institutions and foster homes instead, were abusedphysically, humiliated cruelly, violated sexually.
And 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 leftill-prepared for life outside - left to fend for yourselves; oftenunable to read or write; to struggle alone with no friends and nofamily.
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 Australiaas child migrants - robbed of your families, robbed of your homeland,regarded not as innocent children but regarded instead as a source ofchild labour.
To those of you who were told you were orphans, brought here withoutyour parents' knowledge or consent, we acknowledge the lies you weretold, the lies told to your mothers and fathers, and the pain theselies have caused for a lifetime.
To those of you separated on the dockside from your brothers andsisters; taken alone and unprotected to the most remote parts of aforeign land - we acknowledge today that the laws of our nation failedyou.
And for this we are deeply sorry.
We think also today of all the families of these ForgottenAustralians and former child migrants who are still grieving, familieswho were never reunited, families who were never reconciled, familieswho were lost to one another forever.
We reflect too on the burden that is still carried by our ownchildren, your own children, your grandchildren, your husbands, yourwives, your partners and your friends - and we thank them for thefaith, the love and the depth of commitment that has helped see youthrough the valley of tears that was not of your own making.
And we reflect with you as well, in sad remembrance, on those whosimply could not cope and who took their own lives in absolute despair.
We recognise the pain you have suffered.
Pain is so very, very personal.
Pain is so profoundly disabling.
So, let us together, as a nation, allow this apology to begin to heal this pain.
Healing the pain felt by so many of the half a million of our fellowAustralians who were children in care - children 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 politicalhue and colour to do all in our power to never let this happen again.
For the protection of children is the sacred duty of us all.
This is the motion that later this day this Government will commend to the Parliament of Australia.
Care leavers from around Australia and abroad;
Representatives of the Care Leavers of Australia Network;
the Child Migrants Trust;
the Alliance for Forgotten Australians;
the Leader of the Opposition;
my ministerial and parliamentary colleagues;
representatives of the state governments of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria;
Her Excellency the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom;
His Excellency the Ambassador of Ireland;
His Excellency High Commissioner for Malta;
ladies and gentlemen;
friends, one and all;
Our purpose today in this Great Hall of this great Australian Parliament is to begin to put right a very great wrong.
To acknowledge the great wrong that has been done to so many of our children.
And as a nation, to apologise for this great wrong.
And, as a nation, to resolve that such systematic abuse should never happen again.
The truth is this is an ugly story.
And its ugliness must be told without fear or favour if we are to confront fully the demons of our past.
And in so doing, animate, once again, the better angels of our human nature.
I believe we do a disservice to those who have been the victims of abuse if in any way we seek to gloss things over.
And therefore hard things must be said about how this was all possible in this country of the fair go.
Unless we are now transparent about what has been done in our nation's name, our apology can never be complete.
Because let us be clear - these children, both from home and abroad,were placed in care under the auspices of the state, validated by thelaws of the land.
It is estimated that more than 500,000 children were placed in careunder various arrangements over the course of the last century.
This is no small number.
Let us imagine that more than half of the city of Adelaide was drawnfrom children who had been placed in institutional or foster care.
This is no small number.
In recent weeks, it has been my privilege to meet some of these children, most of them now middle-aged.
And I take the intervention from the floor - some younger than that again.
Here is something of their stories as told to me.
Last week I sat down with Garry for a cup of tea at his home here in Canberra.
Garry told me he had five brothers and sisters.
His father was an ex-serviceman who, in Gary's words, drank himself to death.
When Garry was four or five, he remembers being taken to the stepsof the local police station with his brothers and sisters and told towait until his mum returned, who had promised ice creams for all.
She never returned.
As Garry recalls, "I never got my ice-cream".
A fortnight later, he was committed as a ward of the state.
He told me his twin brothers had been fostered to a good family in Wollongong.
But he was taken to an institution and separated from his sisters, who were placed elsewhere.
All this, at the age of four or five.
Alone, absolutely alone, devastatingly alone in the world.
He told me that, at the age of six or seven, he tried to hang himself from the swings because he wanted to be with his brothers.
He was later placed in a rural home for older boys where he remained until the age of 13.
He remembers being picked up from the train station on a freezingnight in a big red truck with a row of numbered seats. He was told tosit in seat number 3.
He was given, a number.
As Garry said, "my number was always three, it sticks in your head".
The culture of this home, as Garry described it, was one ofinstitutional violence as boys were made to beat each other, to beatother boys to the ground, in front of their peers.
At 13, he was transferred to an institution where he remembers a kindly cook taking him under her wing.
But it was during this time Garry says, he suffered sexual abuse from other men.
Garry later got into drugs to help escape the psychological torturehe suffered through years of what was so-called institutional care.
Garry has led a tough life.
But Garry is a survivor.
He proudly introduced me to his seven beautiful children - all doingwell at school and the older ones already planning for their future.
And showed me with pride the carpenter's trade certificate he earned through study in 2005.
When asked by CLAN (a community organisation established to helpsurvivors of institutional abuse, and known to so many of you heretoday) when asked by CLAN to write down his story Garry said, "what amI going to write down, you can't put tears on paper".
It has also been my privilege to sit down with twins Robyn and Judy last Monday when I was in Bathurst.
They told me too, that their mother left home when they too were barely five years old. They were then placed in a church home.
Judy remembers the day they were first taken to the home and her sister Robyn bolted from the gate and ran away.
They later found her and dragged her back.
Robyn and Judy remember that they kept waiting and waiting for justsomeone, someone to come and pick them up - but no-one, no-one evercame.
They recall being hit with belt buckles and bamboo.
They said the place they grew up in was utterly, utterly loveless.
They said it always made them feel like second-class citizens.
At the local school, they were described as "Home Girls".
They looked with envy as other children were picked up by their parents after school.
Robyn told me that, 40 years later, "it stays with you, I still dream about it".
But you know something? Both Robyn and Judy too are fighters.
While emotionally scarred by their experience, they too havebeautiful children and partners who care for them. But the wounds rundeep. They run very deep.
And then there was Gus.
I spoke to Gus on the phone, he is from Queensland.
Brought out to Australia from Ireland, again at the age of four orfive, in the 1950s - as a child apparently born out of wedlock, havingearlier spent time in a Catholic institution in Ireland.
Gus' story was truly horrific. His was a tale of physical and sexualabuse over more than a decade. In Gus' words, "that did me terriblemental damage".
He finally tracked down his mum, 10 years ago.
She had gone to the United States. But he then discovered she had passed away.
Gus had limited educational opportunities and has been in and out of gaol a number of times during his life.
Gus too, is a fighter and survivor.
Whether it is Garry or Gus or Robyn or Judy, there is an eeriesimilarity to so many of the stories. Stories of physical, emotional orsexual abuse.
Stories of the lack of love. Experiences which stay with them to this day.
Each told me that such was the trauma they experienced ininstitutional care that they suffered such things as bed-wetting formany, many years - while in care.
This, of course, is deeply personal. Deeply, deeply personal.
But each wanted me to share this part of their story too because it underlined the trauma they had gone through.
But trauma with an ugly double-twist because each time thishappened, they were publicly humiliated and publicly punished by thosesupposedly responsible for their care.
In the conversations I was privileged to have with these greatAustralian survivors, for each of them this apology today was important.
And for countless thousands and tens of thousands besides, this apology is important.
Important because it does not seek to hide that which they experienced.
An apology that acknowledges the very personal pain that has been caused.
An apology which, it is hoped, will bring some healing balm to wounded souls.
And not just to the handful that I have been so honoured to meet.
But to all those whose cases are reflected in the Senate reportsover many, many years. And to those also whose stories will remainforever untold.
There are tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of thesestories, each as important as the other, each with its own hurts, itsown humiliations its own traumas - and each united by the experience ofa childhood without love, of childhood alone.
For some, this has become a very public journey of healing. Forothers, it remains intensely private - not even to be discussed withclosest family and friends even today.
And such privacy must of course, be respected.
Whatever your journey today, and whether you are here in ParliamentHouse in Canberra with us or watching or listening across the countryor across the world, my hope today is to reach out to you all on behalfof this nation, Australia, and to speak what has so often been unspoken.
And to offer you this profound apology.
To apologise for the pain that has been caused.
To apologise for the failure to offer proper care.
To apologise for those who have gone before us and ignored your cries for help.
Because children, it seems, were not to be believed.
Only those in authority, it seems, were the ones to be believed.
To apologise for denying you basic life opportunities; including so often a decent education.
To apologise also, for just how long it has taken for the AustralianGovernment to say sorry - so many Senate reports, nearly a decade ofdeliberation, and a unanimous recommendation that the Commonwealthapologise.
And finally we do so today.
Today is also a day for all those who have refused to remain silent.
The champions of this day.
Those driven by sheer tenacity.
By an unswerving sense of justice.
Those who kept the flame of hope alight.
People like Margaret Humphreys, people like Harold Haig, people likeLeonie Sheedy and Joanna Penglase, people like Bonnie Djuric, andPeople like Walter Tusyn who campaigned tirelessly for this day asTasmanian representative of the Alliance for Forgotten Australians,only to pass away on the 30th of last month.
And people like former Senator Andrew Murray, because Andrew Murray's work has simply been extraordinary.
His response was succinct when he wrote in reply:
"the Senate (and others) have carefully examined these matters andrightly and unanimously recommended an official Commonwealth apology.As a result, the states and the main churches, charities and agencieshave apologised (although some are better apologies than others...),
Andrew Murray continued "it is time for the Commonwealth to complete the circle."
It is also important today to honour the advocacy groups who havestood by you through thick and thin - advocacy groups such as: CareLeavers of Australia Network (CLAN); groups like The Child MigrantsTrust, advocacy groups such as the Alliance for Forgotten Australians -and many, many others.
But beyond these individuals and organisations stand an army ofpeople who have quietly gone about their business over the last decadeor more to take this story of sustained institutional and personalabuse from the margins of government deliberation to the very centre ofGovernment consideration.
For all victims of abuse, today, you are all owed a profound debt ofgratitude for having stood by them with such solidarity and strength.
So what then is to be done?
The Australian Government has assembled a comprehensive response torecommendations contained in the two Senate reports - "Lost Innocence"and "Forgotten Australians revisited".
This response will be tabled in the Parliament in the coming days.
The overwhelming message I have received and Minister Macklin has beenreceiving has been the need to be heard, the need to be acknowledgedand the need for the nation to apologise.
It is important however, that this not be regarded as a single pointin history. Our view is that it would be helpful for the nation,however painful, to properly record your experiences, where you deemthat to be appropriate.
This can assist the nation to learn from your experiences.
As a result, the Australian Government is supporting projects withboth the National Library and the National Museum which will providefuture generations with a solemn reminder of the past.
To ensure not only that your experiences are heard, but also that they will never ever be forgotten.
And in doing so we must always remember the advice of the sages - that a nation that forgets its past is condemned to relive it.
Second, we also know that you are deeply concerned about practicalsupport to help survivors and their families negotiate what can stillso often be damaged lives.
For example, I know many of you are concerned about living in agedcare facilities as you grow older and the need for access to properaged care.
The Government will identify care leavers as a special-needs groupfor aged-case purposes, to ensure that providers are assisted toprovide care that is appropriate and responsive, and provide a range offurther counselling and support services.
Third, many Forgotten Australians and child migrants continue toneed help in tracing their families. That is why we'll be providing aNational Find and Connect Service that will provide Australia-widecoordinated family tracing and support services for care leavers tolocate personal and family history files and the reunite with membersof their families, where that is possible.
The service will provide a national database that will collate andindex existing state identified records into a national searchable database, accessible to state and other care leaver services and alsodirectly to care leavers themselves.
Fourth, to make sure you are well represented, we have provided andcontinue to provide funding to advocacy groups such as the ChildMigrant Trust, the Alliance for Forgotten Australians and Care Leaversof Australia Network, as these organisations continue to work hard toput your concerns front and centre.
Finally, governments must continue to commit to the systematicauditing, inspection and quality assurance of the child protectionservices they administer today.
Some 28,000 - 30,000 children are currently in the care of State andTerritory Governments around Australia. Governments must put in placeevery protection possible to reduce the risk of mistreatment in thefuture.
And, as Andrew Murray reminded me recently,"if you hurt a child, aharmed adult will often result...aggregate those adults who were harmedin care and the social, the economic, the personal cost is huge".
In Andrew's words, we must do everything possible to break the cycle.
I recognise this is a difficult, complex and sensitive area ofpolicy. But the nation must continue to lift its game in doing whateverpracticably can be done to provide for the proper protection of littleones, of children.
Let us, therefore today in this Great Hall of this great AustralianParliament, seize this day and see this national apology to ourForgotten Australians and our Child Migrants as a turning point for thefuture.
For child migrants, for many of you, your mothers and fathers werealive and were made to relinquish their right to be your parents and towatch you grow into adulthood.
Some of you have said you would like to place the apology on thegraves of your mothers and fathers back in England and on their graveshere in this country as well. Today we dedicate this apology to them aswell.
Today, and from this day forward, it is my hope that you will be called the 'Remembered Australians'.
However, whatever I might say today, the truth is, I cannot give youback your childhood. I cannot rewind the clock on your suffering. Norcan I erase the past.
But what I can do with you is celebrate the spirit that has livedwithin you over the decades. A spirit that has stubbornly refused to bebeaten.
A spirit that has turned you into the survivors that you are. Thespirit that has enabled you to serve your country in times of war, evenif you had been deserted by your country.
The spirit that enabled you to bring up families, despite the brokenfamilies from which you came. The spirit that enabled you to work andto make your own contribution to this, our land Australia.
And the spirit that caused you to hold fast that one day you wouldbe heard, one day you would be believed, one day you would beacknowledged.
And that, one day, Australia's sense of a fair-go would finallyprevail. That our fair go would be extended to you, and that the nationwould offer you the public apology that you deserve.
My message to you today is that that day has finally come.
Let me also say this.
You were in no way to blame for what happened to you because it was the nation who failed you.
The institutions the nation created for your care, failed you.
To all of you here today in this Great Hall. To all of you watching around the nation.
Today is your day. Today is your special day. Today is your achievement.
This morning, I spoke to a 98 year old lady in my electorate in Brisbane.
Her name is Vera. If Vera is watching, 'hi Vera'.
I'm sorry that Vera can't be with us in Canberra today.
She said that the pain that she suffered having spent five years in a Queensland orphanage was pain suffered a lifetime ago.
But her hope that today, as a 98-year-old lady is that finally this day could herald a closing of the book on the past.
And today let us now go forward together, go forward withconfidence, go forward with confidence into the future - as equal, asvalued and as precious members of this one great family that we callAustralia.