APOLOGY TO FORGOTTEN AUSTRALIANS
November 16, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (5.19 pm) — It is an honour to rise on this historic occasion to support, on behalf of Gippslanders, this apology to the forgotten Australians and former child migrants and also record my personal sorrow over the events that have taken place in the past and offer my personal apology. Before I begin my main remarks I would like to comment on the events of the day. We have just heard from the member for Fremantle, who, in keeping with her style in this place, has exhibited an enormous amount of empathy and thoughtfulness towards and respect for the people whose lives have been affected in such a way as to warrant today’s apology. I think that is of great credit to the member for Fremantle and it is also of great credit to this place that we have gathered here today in such circumstances. I think all members present really appreciate being a part of today, particularly when we look at the remembrance ceremony earlier in the Great Hall. Serious work was certainly done in this parliament here today as we came together to deal with what the Prime Minister described in his motion as ‘an ugly chapter in our nation’s history’. We came together to offer our nation’s apology and also to say we were truly sorry to the forgotten Australians and those who were sent to our shores as children without their consent.
It was a day, really, for the forgotten Australians and former child migrants themselves. While politicians might want to wax lyrical and talk about the event, in a sense it really was a day for the people whose lives had been fractured by the experiences that they had had as young children in our care. As a father of four children and a member of this place, I really struggle now to understand the fact that our state failed so many people so badly, having abandoned them, given the sense of betrayal that they must have felt in those circumstances as young children. I find it hard to think that such events could occur in the past. I take up the member for Fremantle’s cautionary tone that we need to be mindful that such events might be continuing today in some form or other. We must be ever vigilant in that regard.
It is hard not to get emotional when you read the accounts in the Senate reports and also the personal accounts of the experiences of these children. The neglect and the abuse which have occurred are a fundamental breach of the trust that we have as a community and as a government, particularly as to our most vulnerable citizens, our children. I want to give credit to the Prime Minister for the way in which he spoke today and also to the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. I think for many of us who have not had that direct experience they made it all come to life that the challenge we in this place face as members of parliament is to ensure that we take steps to prevent such abuse from ever occurring again. So it goes without saying that the motion has the unqualified support of the opposition.
I think today was really a major step forward for us as a nation in recognising that appalling treatment has occurred in the past and that many of these young children have suffered at the hands of institutions, whether they be government run or church run ones or ones run by other charity-type organisations. I found the contribution before in the main chamber by the member for Swan to be quite captivating as he told of his personal experiences. He is an absolute inspiration to us, given the fact that he was placed in a babies home at the age of six months and was made a ward of the state of Victoria. He quoted some harrowing examples of other constituents he has met since that time. I think that the member for Swan is a very humble man and that perhaps would not like to be described in these terms, but he himself is quite an inspiration given what he has been able to achieve in his life after such a difficult start. If you read his maiden speech, which I recommend to other members, you note there is not a trace of bitterness as he tells the story of his life, in which two of his sisters were lost in tragedies related to alcohol abuse. I am sure that Steve Irons, as a survivor of the system that was in place, has taken a lot of heart from the apology that was given today by the Prime Minister and endorsed by the opposition in a great bipartisan way.
I just make the point, though, that I am concerned—and this is a very real fear in my mind—that once all the nice words are finished with today there will not be the will to go further and make sure that we do everything in our power as members of parliament to make sure that this emotion filled day is capitalised on with a commitment to prevent such abuse from ever occurring again in the future. It is not the size of the roof of the institution in which the abuse takes place that matters. If the abuse still occurs under a smaller roof we still have a major problem in our community. It is somewhat smug and perhaps idiotic of us to even pretend to think that this generation is not making at least some of the same mistakes with the current generation of children in our nation. The abuse continues to occur, albeit under a smaller roof—perhaps not with the blind acquiescence of the system that we may have seen in the past, but abuse does continue of Australian children on our lands and it is perpetrated by Australian sex offenders in foreign lands.
I refer to the contributions of the member for Warringah and the Leader of the Opposition who both join me in cautioning about the need to learn from past mistakes. The Leader of the Opposition said in his contribution in the Great Hall:
And just as we ask ourselves whether in different circumstances we too could have spent our childhood in a “home”, as you did, so we should ask ourselves whether we too could have neglected you and abused you as others did.
Or could we have been a Minister, a Bishop or a member of a worthy charity committee that presided over these homes, but did not know, or perhaps did not want to know of the neglect and the abuse that you were suffering.
Those homes are long closed and they will never re-open. But when we hear a child scream in pain in the next apartment, or we see a little boy at school with bruises, or a little girl who seems sleepless and withdrawn—do we say: it’s none of our business?
The Leader of the Opposition went on to refer to his meeting with the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. I have also had the opportunity to meet with NAPCAN on several occasions and regularly attend meetings of the Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse and Neglect. NAPCAN’s purpose is to stop child abuse and neglect and ensure the safety and wellbeing of every Australian child.
The figures are quite damning according to research that NAPCAN circulates quite widely. Thirty-three thousand individual Australian children are known to be abused or neglected each year. That is, one in four girls and one in seven boys are sexually abused by the age of 18. Thirty thousand children are living in out-of-home care for their care and protection, one in four children have witnessed violence against a parent and one in 10 teenagers regularly binge drink. When we talk about abuse of young people in our institutions over the most recent decades and still quote figures of that nature in 2009, as I said before, it would be smug and idiotic of us to think that our children are necessarily safe today.
NAPCAN works, as I said, to try to prevent child abuse and neglect wherever it occurs and to ensure the safety and wellbeing of every Australian child. It has a range of approaches in that regard: it does advocacy work, it promotes social change, it attempts to build resilience in our children and young people, it tries to develop a professional and parental skills and knowledge base, and it works to try and strengthen community capacity. The field that we are referring to is incredibly complex and difficult. It is emotionally charged. The underlying factors which contribute to the abuse occurring are the main reasons why it becomes so difficult for an organisation like NAPCAN to break the cycle of abuse and neglect. It is one of those topics that we have not liked to talk about as a community. Regretfully, we have turned away from where we may have held suspicions and have not necessarily believed the children as they have come forward with allegations. I congratulate NAPCAN on the work they are trying to do and urge all members to do whatever they can in their work as representatives of their regions to support NAPCAN and Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse and Neglect in the parliament.
There is another area that NAPCAN is focused on. I recently attended a function in the parliament titled Don’t Trade Lives. It is particularly relevant in the context of the motion today as it refers to insidious human trafficking and the impact it is having on young victims, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. As much as we refer to migrant young children who were forced to travel to Australia and were put to work, often in difficult and menial conditions, an ongoing form of abuse is occurring today. Reverend Tim Costello was the guest speaker at the function that I attended with NAPCAN. He made it very clear that there are reports through the Asia-Pacific region of children still vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, such as bonded labour schemes, commercial sexual exploitation and domestic servitude. It is challenging for us all to confront these very difficult issues and not simply look the other way.
In my own electorate of Gippsland the challenge is there for us as a community as well. We have rates of child abuse which are a constant cause of concern in our community. We have a significant issue in the Gippsland region, where the rates of Indigenous child abuse and sexual assault are way beyond what would be accepted in any humanitarian and civilised situation. It is the same, I think, in the broader community. We must remain ever vigilant.
I am concerned about the situation in Gippsland. The government of the day at the state level has admitted that 60 per cent of child protection cases in Gippsland were not allocated a case worker because the government department is struggling to recruit staff. We are simply not on top of the situation we are faced with in Gippsland at the moment. I say to the House that we are kidding ourselves if we believe we are anywhere near on top of the situation of child abuse and neglect as it occurs throughout our nation at the moment.
We need to provide the resources and we need to understand that we have a whole-of-community responsibility to confront this problem. Today we have had the Prime Minister apologise on behalf of the nation, on behalf of the government, but I put the challenge out there to the community in a wider sense: we must all remain vigilant, not just those in leadership roles and members of parliament but those in our communities, wherever we find ourselves.
We need to be ever vigilant and look out for those children who are defenceless in the face of those who may prey upon them. I support the motion before the House, but I would like to add perhaps one more positive note. I would like to thank those carers and foster workers who have done the right thing and have worked tirelessly in the past to assist young people who have been abandoned or orphaned. The member for Swan noted in his maiden speech that some foster parents have in fact saved lives. We need to be careful that we do not become so risk averse, from the negative publicity about removing children from some situations, that they are left in the kinds of appalling conditions and risky situations that have often in the past resulted in serious injury and death.
In closing I would like to read from the motion before us today and offer my complete support:
As a nation, we must now reflect on those who did not receive proper care.
We look back with shame that many of you were left cold, hungry and alone and with nowhere to hide and nobody to whom to turn.
We look back with shame that many of these little ones who were entrusted to institutions and foster homes, instead, were abused physically, humiliated cruelly and violated sexually.
We look back with shame at how those with power were allowed to abuse those who had none.
I would like to take up the Prime Minister’s final words in speaking to the motion:
So, let us therefore, together, as a nation, allow this apology to begin healing this pain.
And let us also resolve this day, that this national apology becomes a turning point in our nation’s story.
A turning point for shattered lives.
A turning point for Governments at all levels and of every political colour and hue, to do all in our power to never let this happen again.
For the protection of children is the sacred duty of us all.
As I said earlier, a lot of words have already been spoken here today in relation to the apology to the forgotten people. I believe there is enormous goodwill in the heartfelt commentary on behalf of both sides of the House. What it needs now is action from us and a commitment to ensure that we never let this happen again. When it comes to the health and wellbeing of our children we must all commit ourselves to never looking the other way— to shining the light in dark places. Every child has the right to live in a safe environment that protects and fosters them in their formative years. We need to provide our children the environment where their physical, emotional and social needs are all catered for. That is an individual family responsibility and a community responsibility. But where those families and communities fail, for whatever reason, governments have a role and a sacred trust to step in and provide assistance to our nation’s children. We must make the prevention of child abuse a national priority for our community. The momentum gained from today’s historic apology must be capitalised upon.
Our nation’s people are watching us. Our children deserve the best chance to achieve their full potential in the future.