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Monday, 16 November 2009
Page: 11789

Ms JULIE BISHOP (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (4:47 PM) —Childhood should be a time of growing, nurturing and learning; a world of innocence, a world of trust. We hope that all children grow up in a loving environment with adults there to provide all-encompassing support and help heal any hurts. In societies around the world there is universal condemnation for those who rob children of their innocence or who betray their trust. Nelson Mandela once said, ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’

Today, as we support a national apology to the forgotten Australians and former child migrants, we feel a sense of shame that it was under the care of Australian governments that many thousands of children were subject to horrific abuse. Those of us who grew up under the care of loving parents cannot conceive of a childhood devoid of love or of being subject to mental, physical or sexual abuse, which in some cases went on for years. We ask: how this could have happened such a few short years ago? We are not talking about events of 100 or 200 years ago; these events occurred within many of our lifetimes. These terrible events took place behind closed doors, hidden from the general view of society. It is unforgivable that when children raised complaints of abuse they were in many cases told they were liars and were then subject to even worse treatment. In a submission to the Senate inquiry that produced the report Forgotten Australians: a report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children, one person said:

We had no one to turn to … No one believed us, not the teachers at school, not the police, no one.

The report detailed a culture of secrecy, silence and absolute control. Children were subject to a system that dehumanised them. They were robbed of their self-worth and their humanity.

Members of parliament can speak about the circumstances leading to this motion and this apology, but nothing replaces the words, the memories and recollections of the forgotten Australians—now the remembered Australians. One submission among many to the Senate inquiry was:

All my life, as a child in those dreadful homes I was told I was ‘ugly’, ‘would end up a prostitute’ and ‘should never have been born’. It took me years of struggle to even realise I was a person. … It is only recently I have gained enough confidence to believe I am a decent person and as good as everyone else … we really never knew what we were.

This process was taken to extreme lengths and to lengths far beyond what could possibly be necessary to maintain discipline. The only explanation for much of the behaviour of those responsible for the abuse is that they were motivated by malice or vindictiveness or just plain cruelty. Another submission from Western Australia revealed the pettiness that was, in its own way, as cruel as verbal or physical abuse. It says:

I received a parcel from an Aunt, it was a beautiful hand-knitted red jumper which I never wore as it was taken away from me and I didn’t know what happened to it until I saw it being used to wash the floor. For a little girl who was so pleased with her new jumper it was devastating.

Another submission from someone who was in a home in my electorate in Perth says:

We were never allowed to keep the presents as the nuns used to take them off us when we got back to the orphanage and would sell them at their fetes.

It is little wonder that it all had such a profound impact on the lives of children subject to such relentless mental torture. Yet another submission says:

Because of being constantly told I was nothing and would end up in the gutter and no one wanted me or ever would, the core negative beliefs I have are my reality. They are the deepest most profound assumptions and expectations I have of myself, and therefore I find it hard to function as a ‘normal’ human being, beyond my frontdoor. This is just the way life is to me now, and these negative core beliefs continue to govern my life and reality.

A submission from someone who was in Swan Homes in WA says:

The punishment inflicted was to have her hair shaved off, and she [a young girl of 7 or 8] was compelled to wear a sugar bag as a dress all day for a period of time .. .she even wore it to school, which was a public school some distance from the institution, and the children had to walk along public streets to get to this school. It would be difficult to imagine the trauma, that this child was compelled to suffer, or the effect it would have had on her in later life.

From another orphanage, the submission says:

There was no one to trust, to confide in, to cuddle, to read us bedtime stories. No one gave us an affectionate ‘goodnight’ or stopped for a chat. And yet all the while I ached with a question that would not go away. What can be so wrong with our parents that makes it better to be brought up by such cruel and uncaring people as this?

We cannot imagine the terror of very young children torn from their families and cast into what must have felt like the pits of hell. The stories that were submitted to the Senate inquiry are as bad as anything Dickens could have dreamt up for his 19th century tales of sordid orphanages and workhouses in London. These children were told that society did not value them, that they were worthless flotsam. The Senate inquiry heard stories of children who ran away from disgusting predators and sadistic people who had been employed to provide care to the children. Again, another submission from someone who was in a home located in my electorate says:

… if any girls ran away, when they were caught they were publicly flogged. Us girls used to have tears in our eyes watching this, but we couldn’t do anything.

Another says:

… you knew who ran away because when you got up the next day, the boy was standing in the ‘quad’ with his hands on his head. The punishment for this was not carried out until that night when he was caned on the hands in full view of the rest of us. If you pulled your hand away you were then whacked on the legs.

And the following description of the treatment of those who ran away and were brought back for punishment to a home, again, in Western Australia which says:

We were all assembled in the gymnasium where we were told to form up in a line in the shape of a horseshoe, the three boys being punished [for absconding] were instructed to remove their clothing … each of the boys was then told to get on to his hands and knees and they had to scuttle across the floor in this fashion to where the line began, as they did this they were lashed with a rattan cane across their buttocks, as they reached the start of the line they had to crawl between the legs of the other boys and were unmercifully bashed and kicked. … When they reached the end of the line they had to remain on their hands and knees and were flogged back to the start.

Did anyone ask why they were running away? While these stories of physical and mental abuse are heartbreaking, it is the stories of sexual abuse which are most profoundly disturbing. Again, a submission from a home that was in my electorate says:

The night times were hard on us as the brothers would come in and have their ways with us. There were other kids besides us all getting the same things done to them. We just didn’t know when it was our turn to be raped, so that’s why I still cannot live with the nights.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 4.55 pm to 5.03 pm

Ms JULIE BISHOP —Before the division, I was recounting some of the horrific stories contained in the submissions to the Senate inquiry. I will finish on this one.

All the time while the priest was assaulting me (or other children) the sister would stand at the door looking the other way. If another sister came she would flash her torch on the ground and the priest would stand behind the partition until the sister flashed her torch again. After this he would resume his abuse. I don’t know how often this occurred but would estimate that the priest came 3 - 4 nights per week and would assault several children on the one night. I was raped on a regular basis. The older children were picked more often than the younger ones.

How could anyone read these submissions or hear these stories without feeling an overwhelming sense of shame? As the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition said in the Great Hall this morning, we must never again allow this systematic, institutionalised abuse to occur. We must always ensure that light reaches the darkest recesses of inhumanity and that the most vulnerable receive appropriate mental, physical and emotional care.

Many did not survive the ordeal. As a society we must not allow young children under the care of the state to be cast into circumstances of institutional neglect and abuse of any sort. We must never lose sight of the fact that, regardless of one’s family background, we all have the right to live free from fear and free from the threat of physical and mental abuse.

The state failed more than 500,000 children over many years. For that we are sorry and we apologise. Permanent scars have been inflicted on many thousands of Australians, and for that we are sorry. We cannot heal these wounds, but we hope that our heartfelt and sincere apology helps many to take a positive step on the journey that lies ahead. I support the motion.