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Monday, 16 November 2009
Page: 11650

Mr ABBOTT (1:06 PM) —May I say how pleased I am to have this chance to add something to the fine speech which we have just heard from the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and to the very moving speeches that we heard earlier today in the Great Hall from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Let me begin by thanking all of those forgotten Australians who have graced us with their presence in this building today. There was obviously a lot of pain in the Great Hall earlier, but there was a fine spirit. Let me say to all those members of that generation that they have clearly suffered but they have not been defeated, as was obvious today. They are rightly proud today, as they should be, to take centre stage here in the national parliament and to, perhaps, bring out a rare touch of bipartisanship and even a little tenderness from our national leaders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

David says:

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

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

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

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

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