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Monday, 16 November 2009
Page: 11647

Ms MACKLIN (Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) (12:48 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the House support the apology given on this day by the Prime Minister, on behalf of the nation, to the Forgotten Australians and former Child Migrants in the following terms:

We come together today to deal with an ugly chapter in our nation’s history.

And we come together today to offer our nation’s apology.

To say to you, the Forgotten Australians, and those who were sent to our shores as children without your consent, that we are sorry.

Sorry - that as children you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused.

Sorry - for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care.

Sorry - for the tragedy of childhoods lost - childhoods spent instead in austere and authoritarian places, where names were replaced by numbers, spontaneous play by regimented routine, the joy of learning by the repetitive drudgery of menial work.

Sorry - for all these injustices to you as children, who were placed in our care.

As a nation, we must now reflect on those who did not receive proper care.

We look back with shame that many of you were left cold, hungry and alone and with nowhere to hide and nobody to whom to turn.

We look back with shame that many of these little ones who were entrusted to institutions and foster homes - instead, were abused physically, humiliated cruelly and violated sexually.

We look back with shame at how those with power were allowed to abuse those who had none.

And how then, as if this was not injury enough, you were left ill-prepared for life outside - left to fend for yourselves; often unable to read or write; to struggle alone with no friends and no family.

For these failures to offer proper care to the powerless, the voiceless and the most vulnerable, we say sorry.

We reflect too today on the families who were ripped apart, simply because they had fallen on hard times.

Hard times brought about by illness, by death and by poverty.

Some simply left destitute when fathers, damaged by war, could no longer cope.

Again we say sorry for the extended families you never knew.

We acknowledge the particular pain of children shipped to Australia as child migrants - robbed of your families, robbed of your homeland, regarded not as innocent children but regarded instead as a source of child labour.

To those of you who were told you were orphans, brought here without your parents’ knowledge or consent, we acknowledge the lies you were told, the lies told to your mothers and fathers, and the pain these lies have caused for a lifetime.

To those of you separated on the dockside from your brothers and sisters; taken alone and unprotected to the most remote parts of a foreign land - we acknowledge today the laws of our nation failed you.

And for this we are deeply sorry.

We think also today of all the families of these Forgotten Australians and former child migrants who are still grieving, families who were never reunited, families who were never reconciled, families who were lost to one another forever.

We reflect too on the burden that is still carried by your own children, your grandchildren, your husbands, your wives, your partners and your friends - and we thank them for the faith, the love and the depth of commitment that has helped see you through the valley of tears that was not of your making.

And we reflect with you as well, in sad remembrance, on those who simply could not cope and who took their own lives in absolute despair.

We recognise the pain you have suffered.

Pain so personal.

Pain so profoundly disabling.

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

Healing the pain felt by so many of the half a million of our fellow Australians and those who as children were in our care.

And let us also resolve this day, that this national apology becomes a turning point in our nation’s story.

A turning point for shattered lives.

A turning point for Governments at all levels and of every political colour and hue, to do all in our power to never let this happen again.

For the protection of children is the sacred duty of us all.

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

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

As one person said:

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

Another said:

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

And another said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understandably, this treatment broke the spirit of many children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As another person said:

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

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

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

And as another said:

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

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

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