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STANDING COMMITTEE ON COMMUNITY AFFAIRS
08/04/2009
Implementation of the recommendations of the Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians reports

CHAIR (Senator Moore) —We are continuing the hearings of the Community Affairs Committee into the implementation of the recommendations of the Lost innocents and Forgotten Australians report. I welcome Mr Harold Haig and Mr Norman Johnston from the International Association of Former Child Migrants and their Families. Before we start, I would like to assure you that we only have a few senators here today, but that does not reflect the interest in this inquiry. It is because of the number of inquiries that are going on at the moment and people have their calendars full, but all of the evidence you give will be considered by the whole committee. That is one of the joys of Hansard; we can be part of it even if we are not fortunate enough to be here for the hearing itself. Are you from Canberra?

Mr Johnston —I live in Perth and Mr Haig lives in Melbourne.

CHAIR —Thank you for travelling to be with us today. You have information on the protection of witnesses and evidence, and if you need any more information the secretariat can provide that for you. We have your submission. We almost have your beautiful banner up. We would now invite both or either of you to make an opening statement and then we will go to questions.

Mr Johnston —We appreciate this opportunity to contribute to the review of past decisions made by the Senate some eight years ago. The Senate recommendations were helpful in some areas but overall we felt disappointed that our request for a judicial inquiry was not granted. We asked for the time limitations statute to be changed, which would have enabled former child migrants to have access to legal remedy. We asked for adequate, long-term funding, for the specialist independent services of the Child Migrants Trust. Unfortunately, none of these crucial requests was accepted and they were by far the most important ones to us. Eight years later social justice still has not been delivered to us. In our view, the spirit of the recommendations was not accepted by the government of the day. Perpetrators of appalling degrees of childhood abuse remain free and escape justice.

On 13 February 2008 the world changed in relation to historical abuse, when the Prime Minister apologised on behalf of the government and the people of Australia to the stolen generation. This was an historic moment. We listened very carefully to the Prime Minister’s sentiments. This was recognition, indeed, and long awaited. Our pain, suffering and injustice continues to this very day. We feel the degree of discrimination. Australia can no longer live in denial of a painful, shameful chapter of child and family abuse in relation to former child migrants and their families.

Child migrants lost everything. When we were deported as young, vulnerable, innocent children. We lost the lot. We lost our mothers, our fathers, our country, our childhoods, our identities, our dignity and our basic human right to a family life. They are just some of the things we lost. We were told we were orphans, which was a very cruel lie. We were not orphans at all. Often mothers were told their children were adopted or dead. It is hard to believe that at 50 or 60 years of age we finally learned that we really do have families. What was it all for? This was all part of the deceit and corruption of that era. Sixty years without justice is a blight on both the British and Australian governments. The pain goes on and it is shameful. Every day without justice is another day of injustice to us.

CHAIR —Mr Haig, do you wish to add something?

Mr Haig —No. Mr Johnston has covered what we wanted to say.

CHAIR —Senator Humphries.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Gentlemen, thank you for presenting to us today. I have been looking at your poster. Is that produced by you or by another organisation that is under your umbrella?

Mr Haig —It is produced by the Child Migrants Trust on behalf of us.

Senator HUMPHRIES —What sorts of places has it been sent to for display?

Mr Haig —We take it wherever we can. We had it at the Senate hearings when they originally happened eight years ago. We think it is important for senators to understand what our mothers lost as well as child migrants in the way they were deceived.

Senator HUMPHRIES —I was looking at the things that you put to the original inquiry back in 2001. You record a number of things. You mentioned today the statute of limitations and the fact that there has not been much action to expand the statute of limitations arrangements. You also mention the pension entitlements and talk about the way in which former child migrants that are now permanently living in the UK to be with their families, although they spent a lifetime paying taxes in Australia, did not then have any entitlement to pensions when they were living in the UK. Do you know if that situation was reviewed at all?

Mr Johnston —My understanding is that nothing has changed in that regard. It is still a problem area for former child migrants. The nitty-gritty of what was passed on before, as mentioned earlier, was that we have said everything that we could say in the past on the detail of the subject. We are now trying to concentrate on the big picture of where we are at. Right now the big picture is the three major points we have just mentioned to the committee this morning. They are the issues that we now seek to be resolved. They are the three main core issues that we submitted to the previous Senate committee and, again, we put it to your committee: please look at these, because we need them addressed seriously.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Do you feel that the judicial inquiry you wanted is important for the sake of giving people who might not have taken advantage of the first inquiry to come forward and tell their story a chance to simply state what happened to them and put these things on the public record, or are you more concerned that this inquiry would be important in order to open up the possibility of prosecution of people who committed crimes against child migrants?

Mr Johnston —Without question, we would like to see the perpetrators brought to justice. You are right in regard to child migrants being brought before the committee. We feel the power required to be able to enact and have something positively done to address this question is going to help every former child migrant, whether they have come before the committee previously or otherwise. This will give credence to their grievances. This will give total belief in them in that suddenly now we have power behind us. We are now in a position to be able to seek justice across-the-board for all the issues. It can also bring the perpetrators in to ask questions. These are the people we want. These are the people that should be brought to account. The atrocities that were inflicted upon these children were atrocious, even for the day. We do not want to revisit that area. A judicial inquiry will give us the power, the drive and the incentive to be able to do this and achieve a good result for former child migrants. They will suddenly be believed and vindicated over everything that has happened to them. There would also be a sense of relief from seeing some of these beasts brought to justice. Some are still alive.

Mr Haig —I think the importance of a judicial inquiry is that it can look at the whole issue of child migration. It will have the legal power to interview everyone connected with it, including governments and politicians. It will be a transparent inquiry with the legal ability to deal with issues of reparation and compensation. We believe that if a judicial inquiry had been held 10 years ago, none of us would be sitting here today. We are about seeking justice. That is why we have appeared before the Senate committee. We appeared before the health select committee. We asked it for a judicial inquiry.

We cannot understand why it is not possible to have a judicial inquiry into the most shameful part of British and Australian history. As we said in our opening statement, we were deported. We are a unique group of people within the Australian population. We did not emigrate. We did not come here as refugees. As young, innocent, vulnerable children we were deported. We had no say in it. We were told our mothers were dead—a cruel lie that we have lived with for 60 years. We have spent 60 years seeking justice. We are still looking for justice today.

We believe that on 13 February 2008, as we said in our statement, the world changed in relation to matters dealing with past historical social injustices that happened because of government policy. We believe that was a very positive day in Australian history, but we are still waiting. I wrote to the Prime Minister on 21 February acknowledging the apology, explaining our situation and asking for a meeting. I wrote again to the Prime Minister on 11 January this year dealing with the same issues. On 30 March, I found out that once again funding for the Child Migrants Trust is uncertain. Mr Peter Templeton, who I believe is appearing before you later today, wrote a letter to the Child Migrants Trust. I met Mr Templeton in Canberra in late January about the issue of funding. The trust can fill you in on the finer details of that. We thought, ‘What can we do?’ I again wrote to the Prime Minister. Within that letter I raised the issue of discrimination and the growing fear among former child migrants about issues relating to discrimination, inadequate funding for the trust and whether there is going to be funding after every three years.

The Child Migrants Trust is the child migrant’s lifeline. They are the vital link between child migrants and their families. They provide a complete independent specialist family reunion and counselling service that child migrants need. They have been doing this for 20 years. They have the infrastructure in place to reunite families across the world, and they do. What we want to know is: when are child migrants going to receive the justice they deserve?

Senator HUMPHRIES —Did you receive replies to your letters in February last year and January this year from the Prime Minister?

Mr Haig —I received a reply to the first letter, not from the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, that letter was forwarded to the immigration department, so it was a very inappropriate reply. In fact, quite frankly, I could have written the letter myself. We have not received a response to further letters.

Senator HUMPHRIES —The usual arrangement for responding to recommendations of committees is that governments are supposed to respond within three months. They generally do not do that. It probably takes six to nine months for the governments to respond to committee inquiries. When they respond it sets the tone for whatever the government plans to do with respect to the issues. If they reject recommendations or do not propose to action them further then that is usually where the matter lies. You have raised a number of issues that arose out of the inquiry in 2001. It would not be normal practice for a government elected in 2007 to go back and respond to issues that were raised with by a committee in 2001, but we do know that they are looking at some of the issues that arose out of the Forgotten Australians report. They have, in fact, indicated in a submission to us that they are reconsidering some issues that arose out of that inquiry. In a sense, there is no other mechanism available for the government to formally respond to the issues that were raised in the original report. Would you like to see the present government formally respond to the recommendations of the report in 2001?

Mr Johnston —Yes. It would be appropriate. It would give us a level or a measure of how far the present government is prepared to take our cause. What needs to be put to the committee is the level of grief that is still being suffered today by hundreds of former child migrants. Many still have not met their families. Many have found their families only to find a grave at the other end, because the mother or the father had died some two months prior. In one case it was only a matter of two days. The child migrant got there in time for the funeral. It is a dreadful situation for us to find ourselves in considering that we were not responsible for it. To live a life for 60 years and not know that you have a family in Britain, not knowing because you were deceived all the way down the line and told, ‘You’re an orphan. You have no family’; that is me a thousand times over as far as the remainder of the child migrant community is concerned.

We see as nothing short of criminal the lack of support that we have had in trying to gain justice. The bottom line is we are seeking justice. We are seeking long-term funding for an organisation that, as Mr Haig has pointed out, is a lifeline to us and is the only independent professional service available. I do not want to go back to the church for counselling or advice on my family. They are the people that caused my problem in the first place. We have an independent organisation in place and they are struggling to receive funding from the Commonwealth in regard to their ability to undertake our problems—Australian problems—and it really is a shame.

Mr Haig —We requested a meeting with the Prime Minister, and that is what we would like, so that we can tell him directly what we feel needs to be put in place.

Senator HUMPHRIES —I would like to understand what you think are the important things that should happen. Do you want a judicial inquiry?

Mr Johnston —Yes.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Do you want proper resourcing of the Child Migrant Trust so that it can continue to do the work that you have been doing?

Mr Johnston —We need long-term funding for it. It needs to know that it is established. We need to know that they are going to be there.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Are they the two most important things you think that should happen?

Mr Johnston —There is also a very strong argument for some form of justice, in other words, the perpetrators of the abuse on us. They need to be brought to task. They need to be accountable and at the moment they are not. They are escaping justice because of the inactivity of the government to help us bring them to trial.

Mr Haig —What we need, and what we want to talk to the Prime Minister about, is a total reparation package that deals with the impact of social injustices, but will give child migrants back what was lost for 60 years. How do we get that?

CHAIR —How do you define that?

Mr Haig —A total package that deals adequately with the funding.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Do you mean funding for the Child Migrant Trust or funding for child migrants themselves?

Mr Haig —No, funding for the Child Migrant Trust to do the work that child migrants need them to do, and something that will give child migrants the choice to go back and see their families when they want to go back and see them. One visit is ridiculous. The travel fund, while it was helpful to many, was a lottery. Some child migrants were lucky that the trust could find their family within those three years and so they got one trip. Others since then have gotten nothing. When the trust finds their families they have to pay for it themselves. That is discrimination. Those are the issues that have to be addressed.

Senator HUMPHRIES —Thank you.

Senator BOYCE —What is the British government currently doing about this? You mentioned in your submission that you think it is unlikely the British government will continue to foot the bill without significant contribution from the Australian government. What are they currently contributing?

Mr Haig —I think the trust can answer that.

Mr Johnston —The British side of it is probably a question for the Child Migrant Trust. They would have far more accurate details than we could give you, and we prefer that you get the right answers first up.

Senator BOYCE —The other thing that I wanted to follow up on was the Centre of Remembrance and Learning, which I gather is a joint proposal between the two countries. You mention here that the plans have started. What has happened?

Mr Johnston —Not very much. Again, there is a funding issue. Because of the scarcity of resources to the Child Migrant Trust, most of these sorts of things have been put on hold, including research into families, the location of families and the organising of meetings. The whole lot has been restricted, which is part of our argument to this committee, namely, that the better the resources made available to the trust, the more child migrants are going to be able to get back and meet their mothers for the first time.

Most of us are in our sixties now, and we still have child migrants locating their families for the first time in their lives. In 2003 they found my brother—first time. That is the work that the trust is doing and it is restricted or curtailed in doing that because of the lack of resources.

Mr Haig —Once again, that would be part of the reparation package that we are asking for. This centre of learning would be invaluable to governments everywhere. Governments could learn so much from the work of the trust and their experience over 20 years of dealing with this issue. I am sure that the trust can fill in the finer details on that if you like. The funding for the trust to do their work is a separate issue from funding for the learning centre.

Senator BOYCE —Would you see this learning centre also seeking to identify alleged perpetrators of abuse against child migrants?

Mr Johnston —I think that is a job for the courts. Ours is not to point the finger, in that sense. We envisage the Centre of Remembrance and Learning to be something where, for example, students could come through and have a look at the progressive filming that will be going on at that time, and at the photographs and historical evidence that will be there and available to them.

Senator BOYCE —I was thinking about a model something like the Simon Wisental.

Mr Johnston —The message is going to be: do not let this happen again. That is the message that is coming out of that particular area: never let this happen again. Believe me, you would not want to live it.

Senator BOYCE —Would you see a judicial inquiry dealing with what happened to the child migrants once they came to Australia or the circumstances of their leaving Britain as well?

Mr Johnston —A judicial inquiry would encompass the entirety of the migration program, as it was called. They called it a migration program, but of course we are not migrants. We arrived here with no identity at all—nothing. How can you arrive in a country with no passports or birth certificates? Yet we got here.

Senator BOYCE —As the international organisation, have you raised the need for a judicial inquiry with the British government?

Mr Johnston —We have raised it not only with the British government; we raised it here as well to the previous Senate inquiry.

Senator BOYCE —What has been the British government’s response to your request?

Mr Johnston —That is still ongoing. I believe there are still questions being asked about it. Perhaps the Child Migrant Trust may have more information on that issue. We do not learn too much about what is going on over there. Our problem is here. Our child migrants are here.

Senator BOYCE —I was just working from the name of your organisation. I assumed that you operated in Britain and Malta as well as Australia.

Mr Johnston —We have some members, yes.

Mr Haig —We write letters to politicians and so on in Australia, but we also have strong communication with politicians in Britain. We are pressing the same issues, if you like, with the British government as we are asking of the Australian government. When we were deported, the Australian and British governments cooperated fully. We cannot understand now, when it is all out in the open and we have had two major inquiries into it, why these governments cannot work together to give child migrants what we deserve, and that is justice. Why? Can you tell us? We would like to know. We are frustrated.

Senator BOYCE —I can understand your frustration. Unfortunately, our role here is to try to ask questions and not answer them.

Mr Haig —Yes, we understand that.

Senator BOYCE —You talk about the travel fund being restrictive and discriminatory. When you say ‘restrictive and discriminatory’ is that talking about what you have already mentioned, the timeframe that was set for finding your family and so forth? It discriminated against people whose families were not easy to find; is that what you are saying?

Mr Haig —Yes.

Senator BOYCE —Were there no other ways in which you saw it as restrictive and discriminatory?

Mr Haig —No. If you were fortunate enough, as I say, to win the lottery you went. We find it hard to believe anyone could possibly think that one trip back to see your family after a separation of 40, 50 or 60 years, with all the emotions, the expectations and the worries about rejection could be enough. We all know what it is like in making friends. You do not make friends in two weeks. Yet people expect child migrants to go back to their country of birth, be reunited with mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters and everything will be hunky-dory. ‘We have given them a trip back.’

Mr Johnston —‘Therefore, problem is solved.’ The problem is a long way from being solved.

Senator BOYCE —Do you have any proposal as to what would be suitable? Obviously, we cannot say that you have unlimited travel, because that would never be funded by any government. In your view, what would be a reasonable proposal?

Mr Johnston —As Mr Haig pointed out earlier, there needs to be a reparation package where individuals can decide themselves how many times they want to go back, whether they want to stay here, or whether they want to continue the relationship, which is going to take a lot. The older we get the more difficult it is to bond, as you could probably appreciate. It gives them independence and also gives them the knowledge that they have said that they are sorry or they have said it was a flawed exercise bringing these children to Australia and they mean it, because they have given us restitution for what has happened as well. There are two major problems for child migrants. It would be a wonderful thing for former child migrants to say, ‘I’m going back to England tomorrow. I’m going to meet Mum.’ Most of us have difficulty even saying ‘mum’; we are just not used to it. That is the position we are in. That is where we have been placed by the circumstance of our deportation. We did not deserve that, and no child deserves to be treated that way.

Mr Haig —We ask: why can’t the governments deal with it now? They dealt with it then quite easily. These are things that both governments can deal with.

Senator BOYCE —One of the biggest flaws, from your perspective, is that governments had the sense that it was a one-off situation, recommendations were made, action was taken and it is fixed, and they have not accepted that the healing of it is a long-term issue; is that right?

Mr Haig —Yes, it is a long-term issue.

Senator BOYCE —Are the main components of the reparation package an apology and a lump sum payment?

Mr Johnston —I would see that as being probably the best way around it. We need to take into account the role that both governments have played. Both governments initiated this. A big hurdle we have faced is that we have the British government saying, ‘We handed you over to the Australian government’, and then we have the Australian government, such as Senator Smith, for example, several years ago saying, ‘They’re not our problem. We didn’t bring them here. They’re British.’ We have infighting at government level as well. That needs to be looked at, because the governments need to get together. It is a serious problem and a problem that most of us, who are now Australian citizens, are facing. We are stuck with a situation that we have no control over. We are hurting in our hundreds. We know what the problem is and yet we cannot seem to be able to get through to the people who are in the best position to help us get through it. We deserve that help.

It has taken us a very long time to get a voice because of what happened to us as children, but now that we have found who we are, what we are about and have woken up to what on earth happened to us as children we are saying, ‘For goodness’s sake! How can such brutality and cruelty have occurred in a country like Australia and just go totally unrecognised and be accepted as part of the norm?’ It is not fair. The lives that were destroyed by this process, by this illegal transportation of children en masse to another country beggars belief. It is incredible to realise the extent and the devastation it has imparted on so many Australian citizens, as we are now.

Mr Haig —It is the pain and the loss. I do not know what you think about when you get up. I am sure there are lots of different things. For the majority of child migrants, every day of our lives when we get up we live with the pain and the loss. So many of us have never met our mothers.

Senator BOYCE —And never will.

Mr Haig —And never will.

Mr Johnston —It is too late.

Mr Haig —Our mothers never had the opportunity to hug their child. It is a disgrace. There is no other word for it.

Mr Johnston —The truth has always been known. The truth has always been here through the welfare departments of the various states and federal governments.

Mr Haig —I would like to make a point in regard to Australian government responsibility. The 1948 Commonwealth Children’s Act states that the immigration minister had the overriding legal responsibility for all child migrants until they reached the age of 21. He delegated those responsibilities to different ministers in each state, but that does not take away his responsibility.

Senator BOYCE —No, that is right.

Mr Haig —I am just trying to point out the government involvement in what happened.

Senator BOYCE —You mentioned the First International Congress on Child Migration being planned. When is that to occur?

Mr Johnston —I am sorry?

Senator BOYCE —Your section 9 recommendations talk about that. Are they the previous recommendations?

Mr Johnston —There were the 2001 recommendations.

Senator BOYCE —I understand. Thank you.

CHAIR —Does the Western Australian state reparation scheme that they are currently working on cover people who had their care as child migrants in WA?

Mr Johnston —It covers the abuse that happened to these children because the state government failed in its duty of care to monitor the institutions that these children were placed in. That is not what we are seeking here. We are seeking the big picture here. That is an individual thing. The state, as well as the federal government, has responsibility to these children. The states are taking up their responsibility, but we are yet to see something from the federal government insofar as its role in this whole sordid affair.

CHAIR —The other reparation schemes in place in Tasmania and Queensland do not cover child migrants?

Mr Johnston —Yes, they do if they are applicable.

CHAIR —If they were state wards.

Mr Haig —If they were in the state, yes.

CHAIR —They are a designated group.

Mr Johnston —That is correct. There is an investigation going on in South Australia at the moment, too.

CHAIR —Clearly, in Western Australia it has been written in. You, as a group, are given that identity within their package.

Mr Johnston —Yes. This includes all Indigenous people, all Australian children and former child migrants.

CHAIR —They spelt it out, which is good.

Mr Johnston —That was the state’s role. I admire that. It is certainly not going to take all the problems away from the child migrants.

CHAIR —No, but it is an acknowledgement.

Mr Johnston —It is an acceptance and an acknowledgement. To us, it is a huge acknowledgement, especially for us in Perth, because that is where the majority of the child migrants were sent.

CHAIR —We have run out of time.

Mr Haig —Could I just have one last word?

CHAIR —Yes.

Mr Haig —Once again, this raises the issue of discrimination. Child migrants in Victoria and New South Wales have no redress.

CHAIR —That is right.

Mr Haig —We have written to both governments. They refuse. They say we have to go before the courts.

CHAIR —On a case-by-case basis?

Mr Haig —On a case-by-case basis. We cannot. The statute of limitations stops us from going to the courts. It is another obstacle. It is another moment of discrimination for child migrants.

CHAIR —I would like to get something on record from you. In your previous evidence before the 2002 inquiry there were issues about citizenship. You said in your evidence this morning that most people now have sorted out their citizenship and they have chosen to become Australian citizens. I have read the response from the government of the day to the citizenship issue. Is there anything that you want to put on record on that particular issue this time around?

Mr Johnston —No. The nitty-gritty of what we are seeking would be part of the big picture or the big resolution. The address for justice and all those sorts of issues would come through in that.

Mr Haig —I think the issue of citizenship has been dealt with.

CHAIR —A gentleman who was deported a couple of years ago may not agree with that.

Mr Haig —That is true. I meant insofar as the child migrants do not have to pay to become a citizen. As far as that, child migrants were deported before that. We walked around for 40 or 50 years thinking we were citizens.

CHAIR —That was one of the things that came out in the first inquiry.

Mr Johnston —Actually believing that we were Australians.

CHAIR —You had no reason to think that you were not. You only found out if you wanted to leave the country.

Mr Haig —Or when you went to get social welfare payments.

Mr Johnston —After 1981.

Mr Haig —You could not prove who you were or how you got here.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for your evidence. We do appreciate your time and your continuing contribution to these inquiries.

Mr Johnston —Thank you.

Mr Haig —Thank you.

[9.52 am]