Apology to the Forgotten Australians and former child migrants – Radio Interview – ABC Radio National with Fran Kelly
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FRAN KELLY: On this Monday morning it’s the 16th of November today and later this morning in Canberra, the Prime Minister will formally acknowledge one of the great wrongs of Australia’s past. Kevin Rudd will offer a national apology to the 500,000 Australians and former child migrants who grew up in institutional care between the 1920s and the 1970s. They’re called the Forgotten Australians and they were defenceless victims of exploitation, brutality and neglect. The Australian born children were placed in state or church run orphanages often because they were from single parent households or living in poverty. Seven thousand others came here as little children from Britain and Ireland with many suffering horrific abuse, both physical and sexual, in the care that they were afforded. Hundreds of victims have now travelled to Canberra today to hear the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader say sorry in Parliament’s Great Hall. Family Services Minister Jenny Macklin was a driving force behind today’s apology and she spoke with our political editor, Alison Carabine.
JENNY MACKLIN: This is an opportunity for all Australians to come together to say sorry. To recognise the terrible wrongs of the past, to help those who were so badly treated in institutions and orphanages, in foster homes, to help them heal. But to also say to their families that we have a greater understanding of what happened to so many children, around 500,000 children, and so many Forgotten Australians and former child migrants say to me how significant this is going to be, not just for them but for their families, to help their families understand what they went through.
ALISON CARABINE: The apology will take place in the Great Hall, not in the Parliament, not in the Chamber itself. Does that devalue the gesture?
JENNY MACKLIN: Not at all. The group that I had advising us chaired by Andrew Murray wanted this to be an occasion that was very specially theirs for the Forgotten Australians and the former child migrants, and it really was following discussions with them that we first of all decided to have the apology in the Members Hall in Parliament House, a place where people could come and sit with the Prime Minister. We then had such a huge response from people wanting to participate that we’ve moved it to the Great Hall of Parliament House and we now expect around 900 people will be able to come into the Great Hall and join with the Prime Minister in this very significant event.
ALISON CARABINE: Will the apology be the end of the matter or can the Government continue to help, by I guess providing assistance with counselling, family reunions and so forth?
JENNY MACKLIN: We understand just how important both counselling, family reunion, also history making, making sure that these stories are told and that they are there for everyone one to read and understand what went on in so many people’s lives over the last century.
ALISON CARABINE: Victims also want financial reparations but you’ve said no to compensation. Is there a danger that the apology could amount to a triumph of symbolism over substance?
JENNY MACKLIN: I don’t think so. There are many different views about the question of compensation. In this case of course we do have a number of States that have already put compensational redress schemes in place. We also have compensation arrangements that have been offered by the churches and other previous providers of institutional care. So those groups and the state governments will do and follow up on those issues as they see fit. As far as the Commonwealth is concerned we’re undertaking this very important commemorative ceremony really to provide a way for the nation to come together to say sorry and to recognise what happened to so many children.
ALISON CARABINE: Jenny Macklin, you’ve consulted widely about the wording of the apology. You’ve spoken with people who grew up in institutions, some of them badly abused in the process. How shocking did you find their stories?
JENNY MACKLIN: The stories are shocking. The complete loss of trust is a very, very prominent theme. One of the things that children learn right from the beginning of their lives is to trust largely by the wonderful love that’s provided by a mother and a father. And that absence of love, the realisation that little children were completely defenceless in the face of horrific abuse means that some of the most basic things that is so important to being, you know, a human being, has been very, very difficult for many people. Many of them feel deserted, feel terrible shame, and of course for the former child migrants on top of all of that, they also have for many of them the loss of identify, the loss of family, and for many of them the loss of country as well. So they’re just some of the very difficult themes that people have to live with.
ALISON CARABINE: And the UK cast off thousands of it’s young to Australia. Gordon Brown has just announced that the British Government will also apologise. Does this bring this sad chapter to some sort of closure?
JENNY MACKLIN: Well that’s really a matter for the individuals to be able to say whether or not they see it as closure. I don’t think I can make that judgement. I hope that it helps people heal. I think that each and every person will come at this in their own individual way, but I certainly know that for thousands of Forgotten Australians and former child migrants they’ve waited a very long time for this apology, and they’re very pleased that the day has come.