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Monday, 30 August 2004
Page: 26617

Senator MURRAY (12:51 PM) —Let me begin by acknowledging and welcoming all those in the public gallery who have journeyed to Canberra today to witness this historic tabling of this groundbreaking report, suitably titled Forgotten Australians. This report means so much to so many—not just the half a million plus directly affected but the millions of Australians indirectly affected.

Three years ago, in August 2001, the Senate Community Affairs References Committee's child migrant report, Lost innocents: righting the record, was tabled in the Senate. That inquiry had an intensely personal dimension for me because of my own background. When I rose to speak to the report, I just could not; so Senator Sue Knowles delivered my speech for me. There is a message in that in itself, because these painful inquiries draw all senators together in a shared sense of outrage, compassion and a need to find remedies. We are forever bonded and affected by the pain we have witnessed. This report into children in institutional care is the third in the trilogy—the first being the 1997 Bringing them home report on the fate of the Aboriginal stolen generation and the second the 2001 report of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into child migration.

The day I encountered Norman Johnston and his band of protestors outside the parliament, pleading for a child migrant inquiry, is probably the birthplace of both these reports. Norman and Margaret Humphries personify the campaigners for the first report, and Leonie Sheedy and Joanna Penglase personify the campaigners for the second report. We owe them all a great debt of gratitude.

But it is to the witnesses I dedicate this tabling speech. To every care leaver who submitted their intensely personal story to this inquiry, I thank you and honour your courage in doing so. Often these stories were being told for the very first time. I saw wives, husbands and friends listening in amazement as they heard such personal, intimate stories put down on the public record. There were so many tears: from the witnesses, the audiences, the senators, Hansard and our secretariat. For many witnesses, a measure of healing was gained through being able to finally tell their stories, knowing that they were believed at last. I also wish to honour the many thousands who were unable to or could not relive their experiences through writing or making a submission.

With me on this committee has been Senator Steve Hutchins—the first chair—who helped me negotiate the terms of reference for this inquiry with Labor. I and we owe him a great deal, and he has done himself and his party proud. Senator Jan McLucas followed Senator Hutchins as chair, and she has been outstanding in her determination to do right by those who have been in care. Senator Sue Knowles is, as I am, a veteran of both inquiries. As deputy chair she has again shown her compassion and determination that justice be done and remedies be found. In Senators Gary Humphries and Claire Moore we have fortunately found people of great heart and great strength. My Senate colleagues: I salute your efforts and am deeply grateful for them. Your humanity and compassion honour you.

There was also Hansard, who had the painful task of recording it all. We have all experienced what the psychologists refer to as `referred pain'—none more so than the bruised, supportive secretariat to this harrowing inquiry. To Elton, Ingrid, Geraldine, Christine, Leonie and Peter, I extend my grateful thanks. It would be difficult to find a more hardworking group of people than these. Their commitment deserves the highest praise.

Then there is Dr Marilyn Rock, my electorate officer and senior adviser, who has dedicated five hard years to this cause of getting recognition, help and remedies to all those who have suffered in institutions and care. Quite simply, I could not have put in the effort that I have without her valuable professional and humane support. All over Australia, people turn to her for help.

This quote from a submission captured a fundamental truth:

While I have survived extreme deprivation I am left with deep emotional scars. I have a sense of abandonment, exploitation and not belonging ... I feel it impossible to fully recover from my experiences.

Understanding this truth is set to alter public policy towards children forever. What is that truth? If you badly harm a child you will have decades of a badly harmed adult to cope with. It does not end there. The effects of the harm are often transferred to the victim's children, creating generational social problems. Although there are good stories, the sheer scale of damaged people is staggering.

That so many endured a childhood deprived of love and security of their own families is certainly sad. That so many were subject to abuse and neglect, including criminal sexual and physical assaults, is unforgivable. That so many are scarred and live on the margins of society as adults without programs to assist them is scandalous. My hope is that this report, in conjunction with the two earlier reports, will mean that bureaucrats, policy makers and politicians will at last be able to comprehend the importance of the issues affecting the survivors of childhood abuse. The message is getting out that the abuse, neglect and assault of children can no longer be tolerated, not only because it is wrong but because of the long-term social and economic effects.

There is now an extensive body of research that clearly shows that if you hurt and break the spirit of a child you end up with a hurt and broken adult, with all of those consequences. Even the well-adjusted struggle. A 70-year-old wrote of the lasting effects:

Every now and then a door opens in the memory bank and the ghosts escape to make us lonely children again.

There were those who had good outcomes, in places run by good people. But too many have led and are leading lonely, marginal lives from which there appears no escape. They also live with the pain of lost family members and of lost identities. For too many, their childhood remains a private hell stained with memories of beatings, sexual assault and molestation, and exploitation as child labour. Sadly, because of the planted guilt, blame and shame, most have learnt not to rebel against injustice, not to speak out. They have remained silent. It is those who failed their duty of care that should carry the burden of guilt, blame and shame; not the survivors.

This powerful report records acts of at times unbelievable violence against vulnerable children in care. It records fear, neglect and the longing for love. It records siblings being torn and kept apart. It records the withholding of letters to and from loved ones. It records being stripped of all personal belongings and dignity. It records being deprived of sufficient nourishment and of education and basic health. The argument that this was how it was done back then holds little sway. Denial is shorthand for the abdication of responsibility. The report records adult lives plagued with mental health problems, alcoholism, drug dependence, homelessness, welfare dependency, failed relationships, prison terms, premature deaths due to suicide and the longing and searching for identities and family members. The report also bears witness to positive stories of overcoming adversity and of those who through the love and support of others have found their own healing.

Politicians and policy makers have to understand the scale and effects of child abuse. Professor Fiona Stanley, the 2003 Australian of the Year, is reported in the West Australian of 9 November 2002 as stating that Australia faced a looming social crisis and a lifetime of costly government expenditure if a national program for children's welfare was not established. It is not a question of isolated individual incidents that are sad or repugnant. It is a question of a widespread social problem with huge social and economic costs. With the knowledge we now have, the cycle of abuse that is often passed on to the next generation must become a priority for those in a position to make a difference. Here I look to the Liberal and Labor parties. A resolution is needed. Only by the Commonwealth and state governments having the political will to commit money and resources to bringing the recommendations alive will some justice be restored for these people. Not only is it time; they deserve nothing less.

Senator McLUCAS (Queensland) (1.01 p.m.)—I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.