Title Main Committee
Database House Hansard
Date 16-11-2009
Source House of Reps
Parl No. 42
Electorate Fremantle
Main Committee/Federation Chamber
Page 11792
Party ALP
Status Final
Speaker Parke, Melissa, MP
Context Motions
System Id chamber/hansardr/2009-11-16/0254


Ms PARKE (5:05 PM) —I rise to support this apology to the forgotten Australians and to former child migrants, many of whom experienced suffering, abuse and neglect while in care. I support it on behalf of the people of Fremantle and I add my personal apology as a member of this place. The apology that this national parliament has given today is certainly not made before time, and I understand that it is very welcome throughout the care leaver and child migrant support community. It is hoped that this act of saying sorry will give some comfort and perhaps some additional closure to those who have suffered while in care and that it will also be the springboard for concrete measures to alleviate the ongoing pain and difficulties they continue to experience.

There is no greater act of responsibility, there is no heavier weight of care and there is no larger placement of trust than that which exists in undertaking the care and custody of children who are without the benefit of a secure and capable and loving family. A society’s capacity to look after children who find themselves in those circumstances is one of the best measures of its compassion, of its commitment to a broad safety net for the protection of the vulnerable and the disadvantaged, and of its principles of social responsibility and social justice. But when the state or a private organisation or a church under the state’s supervision provides care of that kind, it of course does so with the mantle placed upon it of utmost responsibility. It does so with full acceptance of the highest duty of care. So at the same time as we recognise that looking after children who are without a family to provide for them is an expression of human society at its best, we also recognise that taking care of children brings with it a profound responsibility to deliver that care.

Unfortunately we know that children in our keeping—that is, children for whom Australian governments, state and federal, had ultimate responsibility—were not properly cared for. This is made clear in the Lost innocents and forgotten Australians revisited report, where it states:

The Committee concluded that there had been wide scale unsafe, improper and unlawful care of children, a failure of duty of care, and serious and repeated breaches of statutory obligations.

We made, at the start of this government, a national and bipartisan apology to Indigenous Australians, in particular the stolen generations. And this apology today, although of course substantially different, is aligned to that earlier act of responsibility and contrition because it too concerns a failure by government to anticipate institutional harm that would be done to the most vulnerable in our society, that would be done to children: a failure to adequately oversee their care and to recognise the harm being done, a failure to stop it occurring at the time and to properly acknowledge what had occurred when the evidence was there to be seen, and a failure to take responsibility and apologise for the grave wrongs committed or left unchecked.

The truth is that there were aspects of the system of institutionalised care of children in Australia and of the system of child migration that were wrong in themselves—some that can perhaps be seen more clearly now than they could have been at the time, but some that ought to have been recognised as being of great potential harm even then. And that is in addition to those aspects of the system of care that were not inherently bad, but which were administered or practised badly, harmfully, abusively, neglectfully. And so we apologise today for all of those wrongs and for the harm and hurt and suffering that was experienced by many of the 500,000 children in care and the 7,000 child migrants.

I encourage all interested Australians to consider the most recent report from the Senate Community Affairs References Committee, whose 2009 inquiry report, Lost innocents and forgotten Australians revisited, forms the foundation of this national apology and builds on the two earlier reports of that committee: the Lost innocents report of 2001 and the Forgotten Australians report of 2004. I commend both the current members and the former members of that committee who contributed to the work of those earlier inquiries and reports. I particularly want to pay tribute to former senator Andrew Murray’s perseverance and courage. Above all, I thank the inquiry participants, especially the care leavers and former child migrants who were part of the process which has delivered this positive step today, but which may have caused them further pain. I commend the Prime Minister and the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs for the government’s response to this issue and the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their extremely moving addresses earlier today.

As I have said, the apology itself is but one of the recommendations listed in the report Lost innocents and forgotten Australians revisited. Other recommendations go to issues like the need for reform to the existing national freedom of information and privacy legislation so that care leavers are not unnecessarily obstructed in their effort to repair those lost family connections.

The issue of redress, especially in the form of financial compensation, is critical to providing a real and meaningful response to those who suffered institutional harm and neglect. Redress schemes, which operate at the state government level, are vitally important and the government of Western Australia deserves credit for being one of only three states to have established a redress fund. Redress WA was set up by the Carpenter government, with $114 million in administrative support services and redress funds. I am glad to see that, in her submission to the Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee, Dr Joanna Penglase, Co-founder and Project Officer of Care Leavers Australian Network, described Redress WA as ‘the best redress scheme operating in Australia’, but I am sorry that the current Barnett government of Western Australia has chosen to dramatically reduce the redress payments available to individuals under the scheme. I support the member for Swan, the WA Labor opposition and others who have called for the WA government to reconsider this shameful decision.

Aged care is one of the critical policy areas when it comes to addressing the current and future needs of care leavers, because those who have experienced institutional abuse and neglect have an entirely understandable revulsion at the prospect of, again, entering a similar, though benign, care environment. For that reason, I fully support the consideration and funding of appropriate models of aged care through the aged-care innovative pool and I applaud the federal government’s decision, announced by the Prime Minister today, that care leavers will be considered as a special needs group for aged care.

I want to talk briefly about two Fremantle constituents who are here in Parliament House today: Mr Laurie Humphreys and Ms Margaret O’Byrne. At the age of four, Mr Humphreys was given to the care of Nazareth House, an orphanage in Southampton, upon the death of his mother, who died giving birth to twins. Mr Humphreys subsequently migrated to Australia, arriving in Fremantle on the ship Asturias in 1947. He became a Bindoon boy at the Boys Town facility, operated by the Christian Brothers in Bindoon. Incidentally, Mr Humphreys’ friend Mr Eddie Butler, now of Balcatta, who arrived on the same ship with him in 1947 and was also a Bindoon boy, is also here in parliament today. Mr Humphreys has written a book about his life entitled A Chip Off What Block?: A Child Migrant’s Tale, which details the time he spent in care, his experience as a child migrant and his later attempts to reconnect with his wider family.

Recommendation 30 of the Lost innocents report called for the Australian government to acknowledge that the Commonwealth had promoted child migration schemes. It is interesting to see how the perceived benefit of those schemes was understood in Australia at the time. Mr Humphreys was landed in Fremantle on 22 September 1947 and, on 23 September, the West Australian newspaper reported a statement by Dr Prendiville, the Archbishop of Perth. I quote from that article, as reprinted in Mr Humphreys’ book:

His Grace said that he was glad to welcome not only the children, but also other migrants who were disembarking here. At a time when empty cradles were contributing alarmingly to the problem of Australia’s empty spaces, it was necessary to seek external sources of supply.

To some degree, the transport of child migrants to Australia was seen as remedying a shortage of supply. In effect, it was a shortage of labour. This was reflected in the lives of child migrants in WA, who, even if they were not abused or directly ill-treated, as many were, still spent their early years doing hard menial work. Because Mr Humphreys is plainly a resilient, resourceful and good-humoured man, his account treats the circumstances of his care and the emotional consequences of his upbringing in a very even, matter-of-fact way. While he was not subjected to the worst forms of abuse and neglect that are known to have occurred he did, nevertheless, experience a hard young life—a life in which he was put to strenuous and sometimes dangerous physical labour, a life in which he was physically punished and at times punished arbitrarily and brutally, a life in which education and training were minimal and which were provided without reference to his interests and wishes and a life in which the truth of his living relatives was not presented clearly to him. He was told his father was dead and that he was alone in the world, only to have news of his father later relayed to him and then, out of the blue, he was joined at Boys Town by his younger brother, Terry.

In his book Mr Humphreys describes what happened when they were introduced:

One of the men standing nearby said, ‘Go on, show some emotion,’ but for some reason I couldn’t. It was a shock to discover after all this time that I actually had a brother and I didn’t know how to react. Terry told me years later that it was good having a big brother at Bindoon as the Brothers left him alone.

Later in life, Mr Humphreys took it upon himself to seek out and reconnect with his siblings and half siblings and their families, most of whom lived in Britain and Europe. He writes about the complex nature of rediscovering family:

In relation to blood lines there was no doubt of where I fitted in, but from lifestyle and habits formed I was completely different. … The emotional scars from these reunions are another story. Mary and I were never able to say goodbye. For both of us the emotion has been too much. … Most of the migrants I have spoken to have said that their reunions have left them in limbo. Some became even angrier. It was like tasting something pleasant and forgetting the name of it, thereby creating the fear that you might never taste it again.

Laurie Humphreys has made an enormous contribution to community life and the Fremantle electorate through his participation in local government with 21 years as a councillor for the City of Cockburn; as a representative for the Australian Timber Workers Union and, later, the Transport Workers Union; and as an advocate for child migrants. He is the WA representative of the Alliance for Forgotten Australians and he has formed a WA group called FACT: Forgotten Australians Coming Together.

At the end of his book Laurie Humphreys writes:

Overall, my life has been extremely blessed. I consider that I have worked hard: I have devoted much of my time to better the life of workers and the community. But most of all I value my family. I am not rich. I wasn’t well educated, but the life I’ve created for myself was built on a never-give-in attitude. I’ve travelled through life with my sense of humour intact, something I do share with my family. I imagine that my fortitude for not giving in was developed during those 4-14 years, when I was on my own with no one to advise me or show me how, and when I was, to all intents and purposes, an orphan.

Another Fremantle constituent, Margaret or ‘Margo’ O’Byrne, who is here in parliament today with her husband, Eitan, has also written a book called Left Unsaid, recently launched by Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, which documents her and her brother Michael’s experiences in Queensland institutions after they were taken from their mother. The flawed nature of the system under which children were institutionalised was highlighted in the Brisbane Children’s Court decision in which the judge found Ms O’Byrne, then aged 12, and her brother, aged 11, guilty of the charge of being neglected children.

Like Mr Humphreys, Ms O’Byrne found the process of writing a book cathartic. It is humbling to see that after all that Ms O’Byrne and her brother suffered through neglect and poverty; through the suicide of their father and the alcoholism of their mother; through the cruel, brutal treatment they had at the hands of the nuns and priests charged with their care, that both Ms O’Byrne and her brother have determined that they will not be the lifelong victims of their treatment. They have adopted the attitude that you can get bitter or you can get better, and their strength of spirit in outshining the damage done to them is something I acknowledge and celebrate today. Ms O’Byrne is now an accomplished facilitator within the Fremantle area.

I have been a representative of the Fremantle electorate for nearly two years and almost every week I undertake work or meet constituents, and make representations that remind me of what a privilege it is to be a member of this place. This is never more true than on occasions like this one. We are all transients here in the federal parliament, but we are part of a continuity that reaches back to 1901 and that casts forward into Australia’s future for who knows how long.

Today we rightly apologise, as a government and as a national parliament, for wrongs that were allowed to occur by the Australian government in previous incarnations. They may be wrongs that we, as members, do not feel personally responsible for, but I would observe that collective responsibility means nothing if the responsibility is not in some way felt by the individuals who make up that collective, from representatives to citizens.

Let us remember that the echoes of the cognitive mistakes of the past carry through into contemporary Australia. There was an unrecognised danger in regarding child migrants as the solution to a labour shortage. The same danger exists in the way we have approached, in recent times, short-term migrant labour. These people are not children, but they are often at a disadvantage because of their financial circumstances and their language skills. Some have been exploited and abused. The lesson for government is that people are not units of labour; that a society is not the same thing as an economy. It is the same lesson, but I suspect we will go on learning it for some time yet.

Finally, we should perhaps reflect that Australian governments in the future may well be obliged to apologise for our errors and failures. So by taking responsibility for things that have occurred in the past, as we do today, we also have the opportunity to remember that the duty of care, which was not discharged to the forgotten Australians and child migrants, is the same duty of care that we must remain ever vigilant to uphold.