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Monday, 16 November 2009
Page: 11662

Mr TURNBULL (Leader of the Opposition) (2:01 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister. I refer the Prime Minister to the apology we have both spoken for on behalf of the government, the opposition and all members of the parliament in the Great Hall today to those forgotten Australians now remembered—never to be forgotten Australians—and child migrants. Would the Prime Minister explain to the House the significance of this apology and the significance of the bipartisan spirit in which it has been made, and convey to the House and to the Australian people the sentiments, the sympathy and the compassion of all of us here assembled?

Mr RUDD (Prime Minister) —I thank Leader of the Opposition for his question. Today we saw, I believe, the national institutions working at their best through the assembly of members both from the government and opposition in the Great Hall as we sought to right a great wrong, which is the extraordinary mistreatment extended to the forgotten Australians and Australian child migrants over the better part of a century. We the government and the Leader of the Opposition representing the opposition extended on a bipartisan basis an unqualified national apology to those Australians who had experienced this abuse and neglect.

We forget the numbers of those involved here and sometimes we are desensitised to this. But let us all remember that we are talking about half a million Australians during the course of last century who were placed in institutional or foster care in this country. This is a very large number of Australians. Regrettably, through the Senate inquiry reports—three of which have been done, two under the previous government and one under our own—we see example after example after example of physical abuse, of emotional abuse, of sexual abuse and the consequent damage to such a large number of our fellow Australians over such a long period of time. This morning it was important to reflect to the gathered representatives of these forgotten Australians and these former child migrants that the House and the parliament is at one in extending this national apology to them. Some have asked, ‘Why is this necessary? What is the point? These are things which happened a long time ago.’ For those who have received such mistreatment over time, the actual extension of the simple words ‘we are sorry’ of itself contains within it a healing balm to exceptionally raw wounds—raw wounds which have been left to fester for so many decades.

We also spoke about the impact on child migrant Australians. Here we have a group of some 7,000 who came from the United Kingdom and Malta and who were settled here from the 1920s on as part of a resettlement program by the UK in particular to various countries across the world including Australia. But the problem was this: children were often taken without their consent or in the absence of the full knowledge of what was happening, and often without the consent of their parents as well. For those child migrant Australians this has been an extraordinarily brutal experience: ripped away from one part of the world and taken to another, ripped away from childhood family and friends, and often losing forever connections with the family which gave birth to them.

The government of the United Kingdom has indicated that it too will now extend an apology to those thousands of children from Britain who were sent around the world. I understand Prime Minister Brown, in a letter to the relevant House of Commons committee which outlined the intention of his government this morning to apologise, has recognised the importance of giving voice to the traumatic experiences of many former child migrants:

It is important that we take the time to listen to the voices of the survivors and the victims of these misguided policies.

The chair of the House of Commons select committee noted the importance of the Australian apology in the decision of Prime Minister Brown to apologise himself on behalf of the government of the United Kingdom. To quote the chairman of the Commons committee:

The reason why this is happening now is that Australia itself has decided to recognise … what it did to some of its Indigenous population and to child migrants.

                    …                   …                   …

There is now a Government in Australia that’s prepared to go the extra mile as it were to apologise for what happened to its own children and to ours when they got there.

If our apology today in our parliamentary building has in some way influenced the decision by the British government to apologise, it is a good thing. As the Leader of the Opposition and I found today from speaking personally with so many of these victims of abuse, the extension of simple words of sorrow, remorse and apology on behalf of governments, who are responsible ultimately for the laws of this nation and for the institutions which provide care, so-called, is so important.

In addition to the extension of apology in both these respects, what I also outlined today on behalf of the government was some practical measures for the future. One was to say this: the stories told by this group of Australians should be recorded for the future. As I noted this morning in my remarks—and we are familiar with this quote from the historical sages of times past—any nation which forgets its history is condemned to relive it. Therefore, the extraordinary record contained already in the Senate reports is good, but what we have extended today through specific programs on behalf of both the National Library and the National Museum is an opportunity for those forgotten Australians and former child migrants to place their oral history or written history on the record and to have it there for the future so that we might reflect in generations to come on what went radically wrong in this country over the last 100 years. On top of that, I also indicated to those assembled today—and, I note, with support from the opposition—that we intend to provide a special category or recognition of assistance within the aged-care framework of the nation to deal with those who have come from this institutional background. This has been a particular request on behalf of so many of the peak bodies who have represented this group of abused Australians.

What we hear so often from groups across Australia is: ‘How do we find contact with those from whom we have been disconnected?’ So many times we hear the stories of those who have spent decades trying to track down a mother, a father, a brother or a sister. Decades later, they find that person, only to discover that they have just died. So what we are seeking to do is to establish a national find and connect service aimed at supporting the activities of the wounded Australians in these fields to make contact with their loved ones. This will not always be possible, but we can provide some practical means of assistance.

Finally—and the Leader of the Opposition was kind in his remarks on this today—we show bipartisan support for the advocacy groups which have stood up for so long in support of the interests of these abused Australians. These are groups like CLAN, the Alliance for Forgotten Australians and the Child Migrants Trust. What I indicated today on behalf of the government—and, again, with the support of the opposition—is that we will continue to provide funding support for these organisations in the future as they continue to advocate for the interests of their number.

I conclude where I began. This has been a good day for our parliamentary institution. We recognise on both sides of the House the extraordinary burden placed on anyone in public office to do whatever is physically possible to provide for the protection of children. We have seen, from governments of all political persuasions and all levels in the past, that task not having been properly performed. So this has been one exercise in bringing about some healing for these Australians. As I said this morning, the Senate, in their report, described these half a million Australians as the forgotten Australians. Let us henceforth instead regard these Australians, these precious Australians, as the remembered Australians.