Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

The motion of the national apology to the Forgotten Australians and former child migrants

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

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Mr Speaker, a nation’s most fundamental obligation, its most solemn and sacred duty, is to keep safe and cherish its children. For half a million children, our nation failed to do this – for those who were born here and for those taken from their families and brought here from Britain and Malta. Through this failure, they were deprived of their childhood. Through this failure, they were condemned to grow up in cold, cruel, loveless places without a voice, with no-one to protect them, no-one to speak out for them. That is why today, as a nation, we are saying sorry.

Today I want to acknowledge the suffering of the forgotten Australians and the former child migrants using their own words so that the words of those who were abandoned and voiceless when they should have been protected and defended are forever inscribed in the national record, telling it the way they have told me and the way it was told to the Senate over the course of many inquiries. Today I want their voices to be heard in the words they use to describe the loneliness of childhoods lived without love, never being – as a child must be – at the loving, caring centre of family life.

As one person said,

‘… I was never offered or given anything that even vaguely resembled nurturing. No affirmation of the person I was becoming, no encouragement, no warmth, and absolutely no affection, not under any circumstances …’

Another said,

‘I never experienced the rich routines of everyday life with a much-loved adult. Without this bonding and learning I was unable to give and receive affection. I saw adults as powerful, strong brutes to be feared.’

And another said,

‘While in care there was an extreme lack of physical contact, I remember loving hair washing day. It was the only adult’s touch we ever felt…The nuns dried our hair with a towel, with the child facing in towards them and sometimes our heads would lean on their chests.’

For these children there was no love, just the pain of separation from mothers, fathers and siblings.

‘My brother was put in a separate area away from us. I could only see him from behind a glass window. He was never held or picked up. When he was 18 years old, he committed suicide. My sister was mentally unstable. Neither of them survived the orphanages.’

‘ Why did they separate us from our brothers and sisters? It was only recently that I found out I had two brothers, but because we had no contact during our formative years normal bonding is no longer possible.’

And with the loss of family came the loss of identity.

‘I had been denied all knowledge of my natural family, about the existence of my siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, mother and father. I had no knowledge of who I was or where I belonged. From this background I have nothing, no photos of me as a child, no school reports, no special toy. What I was left with was shame, insecurities, anger. They took my family and my confidence.’

Today we all look back in national shame at horrific physical cruelty – the brutal beatings, the systematic humiliation and sexual violation of children.

‘She would beat girls with her fists and feet. I saw her hit a girl over the head with her bunch of keys and knock her out cold. She seemed to enjoy inflicting pain and humiliation.’

‘My brother, who has an intellectual disability, was physically abused and sodomised. We were just throw-away children’

Understandably, this treatment broke the spirit of many children.

‘Constantly put down and verbally abused, we crept around wishing for invisibility. I and the other children there would always be looking around and listening in fear. I was a child and powerless. There was no-one to turn to for help.’

‘At five years of age I had adapted to institutional life. I maintained an outward appearance of being together, conforming while unaware of my inner turbulence, anger and impenetrable grief.’

To this day many forgotten Australians and former child migrants vividly recall the shame and stigma of being orphaned or institutionalised.

‘We were different. Our clothes were different, our haircuts were different. We had no money for tuckshop. We were constantly reminded that we had no mothers.’

‘I was constantly told by home staff, teachers, host families that I was stupid, recalcitrant, disobedient, totally unworthy of love and always facing threats that I would be put away permanently.’

When it came time to leave these institutions, these teenagers floundered and struggled alone in the world outside.

‘They kicked me out at 15 years old with no life skills, very little education, but I was luckier than most – at least I could read and write.’

‘After four years of working in the nuns’ commercial laundry and nearing our 18th birthdays we were called out of the workrooms, given a small suitcase containing our possessions and a lb1 note and shown the door.’

Today we also acknowledge the loss of country and the lies that were told to the former child migrants and their families.

‘While I was out here in Australia my mother went to pick me up from the orphanage and they told her I had a good Christian burial. They told me that I was illegitimate; I had no relations, no friends. They were all killed in the war. When I went to England in 1997 I had two half-brothers and sisters who I never knew existed.’

‘And the discovery of family that came too late, a photograph is the only link I have with my mother. She passed on five or six months prior to my finding out that she had been alive all these years. Why was I told that she was dead? Why was I told that she had been killed during the war? All I have left now is a photograph and a death certificate.’

As adults, Forgotten Australians and former child migrants have told me so many times that the past is always with them and with their families.

‘My wife suffers from my often irrational behaviour and my lack of knowledge as to what a family is. My children suffer from my not understanding – I cannot hold onto friendship.’

‘I have brought up three children. I have been overindulgent and overprotective, but I have never been able to say to them, ‘I love you.’

As another person said,

‘I did get married, and then divorced. I couldn’t hack it. Anybody who put their arm around me or put their hand on me, even gave me a hug, I would tell them straight out, ‘Don’t put your hands on me.’

But one thing they do do, is speak with love and gratitude of those who stood by them and who stand by them and with them today – partners, friends and children – who helped them restore their trust in the world and faith in themselves.

As one person said,

‘I often wonder if I hadn’t married my husband, how my life would have turned out. He has loved me through all the emotional turmoil.”

And as another said,

‘He loves me unconditionally. We have laughed and cried, laughed and screamed in anger and in joy. He has saved me from a lifetime of bad choices’.

I think all of us in this place today would like to add our thanks and gratitude to these wonderful husbands and wives, partners, friends and children.

Those are some of the stories of damaged lives, past and present, of little children who were never permitted to know the innocence and exuberance of childhood – children who were thrown into a world where the only adult touch that they felt was brutal, cruel or sexually violating.

Stories of children abandoned by the nation – half a million children on whom society coldly turned its back.

For this, we are deeply and truly sorry. So today, in sorrow and in acknowledgement of this dark and shameful chapter in our nation’s history, we offer this apology and stand in shared resolve to do all in our power to make sure that this never happens again.