Forgotten Australians

Frank Golding is a Melbourne writer and academic. Frank grew up in an orphanage in Ballarat and he has a very different view of Father’s Day. He says, ‘For children who grew up in institutions, Father’s Day can be an extremely difficult day. They think of the father they never knew, or the one they would like to have had. For some of us, Father’s Day is not a day to celebrate. It’s a day of sad memories and regrets.’

This week is a significant week because it is bookended by two important events. It ends with Father’s Day on Sunday. It began last Saturday, 30 August with the fourth anniversary of the Senate committee report into the forgotten Australians. This report shines a light on a dark chapter in our history, a history which still remains unacknowledged, unmentioned and very much forgotten. It is the history of forgotten Australians-our youngest children, many abandoned by their mothers and fathers, abused and neglected by the state and now forgotten by the history books.

Half a million children were placed into institutions in the 20th century. The Senate inquiry suggests that because of the sheer number of children placed in care:

… it is highly likely that every Australian either was, is related to, works with or knows someone who experienced childhood in an institution or out of home care environment.

Some had good experiences, but for many the memories of their childhood cast long shadows over the lives that they live now. They bear the scars of years of neglect and abuse. The Senate inquiry received hundreds of submissions detailing the graphic and disturbing accounts of mistreatment-stories of emotional, physical and sexual abuse; accounts of punishment so severe they amounted to torture; recollections of the traumatic effect of continual neglect and humiliation; and deprivation of food, education and health care.

This week Louise, a former state ward, wrote to the Premier of Victoria, John Brumby. She told the Premier: ‘Our courage to bring the truth of our past into the public eye depends on you having the courage to face it.’ It depends on the courage of us all to face it. And there is courage in the lives of the children who grew up in care. I have met such a woman; her name is Leonie. A few weeks after I was preselected as the Labor candidate for Blaxland, Leonie asked to meet with me. She told me the story of her childhood, how she entered an orphanage in Geelong at the tender age of three, separated from her two sisters and one younger brother. She offers her heartbreaking story with unflinching honesty and she forces you to go on her journey. She forces you into the shoes of a confused little three-year-old who entered an orphanage in 1957. She forces you to imagine the sense of loss and isolation from her family; to imagine living with a constant sense of fear and dread of every minor indiscretion; to imagine the sense of confusion when, as a 16-year-old, you are taken and dumped in the outside world and told to fend for yourself; to imagine trying to be a parent when you have not been parented yourself; and, above all, to imagine the empty feeling of a childhood deprived of love.

As Leonie told me her story and the stories of many like her, tears welled up in her eyes, and they also welled up in mine. She reminded me of my own mother, except Leonie had lived a life less fortunate. Together with Joanna Penglase, Leonie started the Care Leavers Australia Network, CLAN, in July 2000. Leonie affectionately calls the 900 members of the network ‘clannies’. Leonie and Joanna have worked tirelessly to tell the stories of the ‘clannies’: the pain they suffered at being abused, threatened and unloved by those entrusted to care for them.

Leonie and Joanna gave Jan Barnacle the courage to tell her story. During her time in five different orphanages, Jan was denied an education. In a letter to CLAN in November 2000, she wrote:

I am finding this very hard to write. You will know by this letter that I am uneducated. I only learned how to read I taught my self at the age of 47 I know I can’t spell but I try, there is a book in my head but it will never happen.

Jan also wrote another letter. This time she nominated Leonie for an Australia Day honours award, and in 2007 Leonie Sheedy was awarded the Order of Australia medal.

In my first speech in this place I repeated the words of Robert Kennedy when he spoke to a group of South African students in 1966:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.

Leonie Sheedy gives proof to the words of Robert Kennedy. Every day she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. Every day she provides help and support for the forgotten, and she fights for them with all the passion she can muster. For the past eight years she has been a determined and lonely voice crying out for someone to listen. Her lobbying prompted a Senate inquiry, which received in all 614 submissions. Many were deeply personal and very moving. Those who listened to the evidence were forever changed by these stories. One of those was Senator Andrew Murray. In his valedictory speech in June this year he said that the inquiries into child migrants and the forgotten Australians were his biggest achievements. He talked of the burden that we all carry to continue his work. He singled me out and my friend Richard Marles, the member for Corio, where Leonie grew up, to continue this work.

We often hear that it takes a village to raise a child; sometimes it takes a government. The responsibility of government is to protect the most vulnerable in our society. By this measure successive governments failed people like Leonie, Frank, Louise, Jan and so many others. Four years after the Senate report was tabled it is time to face up to our collective responsibility to give justice to these people. In 1992 Paul Keating asked us to imagine:

… how would I feel if this were done to me?

It seems to me that if we can imagine the injustice we can imagine its opposite.
And we can have justice.

People like Senator Murray and Leonie Sheedy and those who made submissions imagined the opposite: they imagined a government of compassion. In February this year a compassionate government apologised to the stolen generations. The Howard government lacked the courage and the compassion to do this. They also failed to respond to the recommendations of the Forgotten Australians report. I think this is pressing business. That is why I am working with the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Ms Macklin, to ensure that this new, compassionate government responds to this report. I think we owe it to the 614 people who made submissions. I think we owe it to the half a million people who lived in institutions in Australia in the 20th century. I think we owe it to Vera Fooks.

In two weeks Vera Fooks will turn 97. She grew up in the St Vincent’s Orphanage in Nudgee, Queensland. In a self-published book she tells harrowing stories of emotional and physical abuse and the emotional pain of being separated from her sister and her brother at just nine years of age. Vera has cancer, and doctors have told her that she does not have very long to live. That was a couple of months ago. She is determined to hang on to hear her government respond. I think it is time we did. It is time Vera and others like her were no longer forgotten Australians.’