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Apology to the Forgotten Australians

The Australian Greens also wholeheartedly support this motion. Anybody who was in the Great Hall and heard the apology could not fail to be moved by the words that were spoken and the genuine emotion that people felt upon hearing those words. It is genuinely a very significant step in helping the forgotten Australians and former child migrants to heal.

Over seven years ago, the Senate delivered its first report on this issue-the Lost innocents: righting the record report-which focused on the issue of the suffering of child migrants, predominantly from Britain but also from Malta. Over four years ago, the Senate then delivered its second report-the Forgotten Australians report-which tackled the issue of neglect and abuse of children in institutional or out-of-home care within Australia. In June this year, it was my privilege to deliver, on behalf of the Senate Community Affairs Committee, its third-and, I hope final-report: Lost innocents and forgotten Australians revisited.

Today in parliament the Prime Minister delivered a formal apology on behalf of the nation to all from these groups who suffered neglect and abuse when their welfare was the responsibility of the state and they were supposedly under the care of the state. It was good to see Australia finally acknowledge the hurt and damage that has been done.

Hopefully, in the weeks and months to come, we will see all the states and territories which have not yet done so, including South Australia and Victoria, deliver apologies. Hopefully we will also see the churches and institutions who were involved in providing care-or, rather, failing to provide care-and who have so far not formally apologised to forgotten Australians and former child migrants offer their sincere apologies for the harm that they have caused.

We want to hear-and justice demands-a clear, public, unreserved expression of sincere apology in acknowledgement of the awful wrong and injustice that was done to these innocent and accepting children during their crucial formative years when they had every reason and every right to expect that they would be cared for, nurtured and, most importantly, loved. The overwhelming comment that you hear from people is about the lack of love given to children who were in care and could have expected better.

We understand now-and I believe there was every reason for it to be understood then-that the long-term consequences for children growing up in loneliness and great hardship in institutional care can be significant and severe. The neglect and abuse suffered by these children cannot be excused by any reference to good intentions or to the prevailing norms of the day. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. It was an injustice knowingly committed on the innocent. Childhood should be a time for growth and nurturing, a time for exploration and play and, above all, a time to learn about and experience friendship, family and love. It should not be stark, grey and regimented. It should not be a time of loneliness, fear and abuse. It should not be spent on hard, menial tasks or wasted on pointless, repetitive tasks. It should not be lived in fear and misery. Yet half a million Australians lived that way.

For those children who were not only neglected but experienced physical and sexual abuse, I know that even the most sincere and heartfelt apology is only the start. The damage that has been done by the years of neglect is significant and severe and has left scars that take a lifetime to deal with; in fact, they impact on the next generations. We have acknowledged today that this abuse happened and we have said sincerely, as a nation, sorry. We wish that it had not happened. We would do anything to turn back time and undo the harm, but unfortunately we cannot. Now that we have taken this first step of an apology, we must do our very best to help those who have suffered. We have to ensure that the consequences of what occurred are dealt with. We need to support these people for the rest of their lives. We need to show them care and support and do all in our power to ensure these abuses do not happen in the future.

It has been challenging and at times emotionally gruelling for the people working on the three committees that looked at these issues. We listened to stories and to evidence and experienced second-hand the neglect and abuse. But what we felt pales into insignificance compared to the pain and discomfort experienced by those who were brave enough to tell us their stories. Today in the Great Hall I was sitting next to a lady called Therese Williams. She had been in an institution in Geraldton and she told me a story which I promised to relay today so that other people could hear it and remember Elaine Synnot. Elaine died on 26 June 1948, aged 10, as the result of a kicking applied by a nun in Geraldton. Therese had never told this story before today. She had with her a little framed picture of Elaine's headstone. I promised that I would tell that story today so that Elaine is remembered and so that we never again allow that sort of thing to happen to a 10-year-old.

I also had the privilege recently to read a book by Margo O'Byrne, who is in the gallery and who, with her brother, Micko, is also an institutional survivor. The book tells of their institutionalisation in St Vincent's in Brisbane and then in boarding school. It holds stories that are common to all the people who were in institutional care, those formerly forgotten, now remembered Australians, the former child migrants. The theme that comes through in Margo and her brother's story, as well as in many other stories, is of powerlessness-of seeing abuse but not being able to do anything about it. Margo tells of seeing her brother abused and being powerless, as a child, to do anything about it. Another common theme of the stories the forgotten Australians tell is of wanting to be invisible, because if you were invisible in an institution you could survive a bit better. Of course, abuse and trauma come through all the stories you hear, and they do in Margo's story.

Margo also tells of visiting the nursery in St Vincent's and seeing cots and cots of babies putting their arms up to be hugged and loved. She tells of runny noses and the smell of wet nappies and of no-one dealing with that. She tells of not wanting to go back there because of the feeling of helplessness and not wanting to have to deal with that. I know that story has been repeated in institutions across this country. Those are the things that people remember and will carry with them to their graves.

It is our duty as Australians to support these people. It is a question not only of the half a million people who were directly affected by an institution but of their parents, many of whom went to their graves thinking their children were dead. Many of these people thought their parents were dead. And of course there is also the question of the impact on these people's children. If you grow up in an institution-you are not shown love and care; you are shown abuse-you do not learn how to cuddle your children; you do not learn parenting skills. What was done to these people has had a direct impact on the next generation. We need to be aware that we also need to help those people.

I very strongly support the Prime Minister's commitment to the new initiatives. The Senate made many other recommendations, and I implore the government to implement those recommendations as well. This apology is a first step. It is an absolutely essential first step-you only had to see and feel the emotion in that chamber to know how important this apology is-but we need to back it up. We cannot let it be just words. As I said, the Greens very strongly support this motion, and I am very pleased to see that finally the recommendations of the committee reports have been implemented.

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