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The Forgotten Australians ask us: what sort of country are we really?

By Angela Sdrinis, Richard Hil and Nick Rose - posted Wednesday, 7 November 2007

It is interesting that in one of his latest pre-election ruses - the compulsory 150 hours' of Australian history in years 9 & 10 – John Howard has said that he wants teenagers to learn about the country's 'blemishes'. We wonder if the decades-long systemic abuse of children in care would be one of the ‘blemishes’ on his list.

Like a small child’s jigsaw puzzle, successive official inquiries and reports have been slowly constructing an image of Australia over the last two decades. But unlike the puzzle of a little girl or boy, the image that emerges is not some idyllic scene of love and happiness.

On the contrary, these Reports – from Sir Ronald Wilson’s Bringing Them Home (1997) to the Democrat-led Forgotten Australians (2004) – paint a very disturbing picture of systemic physical, sexual and emotional abuse of our country’s children in the 20th century that ranged from the ‘merely’ callous to the sickeningly sadistic. The numbers of children who passed through what many describe as a "living hell" are upwards of 500,000.


For these children the abuse did not stop when they left what were ironically depicted as 'caring' institutions. Like a lifelong poison, its sequels have pulsated throughout their adult lives, which are often characterized by depression, alcoholism, suicide attempts and the inability to form or maintain loving relationships. The abuse has become inter-generational and continues right now, today, in thousands of ways right across the country.

What these children suffered – and what they are suffering now as adults – raises fundamental questions about our national self-image. According to the newly introduced Citizenship test, "compassion for those in need" is one of the "central values" that provides a "common reference point for our free and democratic society". In the government-produced guidance, this value is said to be symbolized by the Australian tradition of "mateship", according to which, apparently, we "help each other, especially in times of adversity".

As Dr Martin Leet of the Brisbane Institute wrote last October when the new citizenship test was being discussed, the issue here is not how well we sing from the hymn sheet of nationalism and national values, but what we actually do when it matters. If compassion means what sort of mates we are towards those who need our help, our national well of compassion, like our river basins, is drying up.

The children who survived the horrors of institutional ‘care’ in this country during the 20th century need our help. The lives of thousands upon thousands of our young women and men were shattered by their experience in these institutions, broken into tiny ill-fitting pieces which they have not been able to re-assemble. This is an historic injustice of grotesque proportions. If we have any pretense at all to being a compassionate people, the survivors of this regime of state-approved neglect, trauma and punishment demand our urgent attention. If we tell ourselves that we believe in human rights, that we truly live in and form part of a ‘free and democratic society’, we cannot turn our faces away from the little boy who was repeatedly flogged because he was crying at night for his mum and dad, or from the little girl who was forbidden to go the toilet and then bashed because she wet the bed.

The thousands of men and women who were these children are crying to us now, asking us to take a stand in securing justice for them and help them begin the healing process that they so desperately want. But this issue goes deeper than the gross injustices of all the thousands of individual cases of horrific abuse and scarring. At its heart it is about us all; it is about truthfully looking at ourselves in the mirror, recognizing what sort of country we were, what sort of country we are, and asking ourselves what sort of country we want to be.

We have an opportunity, and a need, to engage in a process of national healing and reconciliation. The steps we need to take are well-known; they are documented in the official reports, and they are being implemented in Ireland and Canada through national reparations schemes, and official acknowledgement of wrongdoing.


However in Australia the Federal Government - which has had a good ten years to deal with this matter of national shame - has effectively washed its hands of an issue that goes to the heart of our national identity. Trapped within the narrow confines of fears about legal liability and responsibility, it has refused to accept the historic challenge offered by the Senate Community Affairs Committee to jointly establish with all state governments a national reparation fund. At the state level, to date only Tasmania and Queensland have acted to provide meaningful, non-adversarial redress to those whose childhood was taken from them.

However, the South Australian Government is conducting an Inquiry and it is expected that a proposal for redress will be one of its outcomes. In addition, the Western Australian Government is also looking at a redress scheme for former state wards.  In terms of state governments, it is now only the NSW and Victorian Governments who have proven to be recalcitrant in recognizing and dealing with the abuse suffered by 'their' children.

Litigation is no answer because it forces claimants to relive the abuse that they have suffered, it makes them feel – yet again – as though they are the ones who have done something wrong, who must prove that they are worthy of being listened to by society. Yet individuals will seek redress this way if they have no other option, at tremendous personal and financial risk. The damages recently awarded in the Trevorrow case (in excess of $500,000 including punitive damages) indicate that the cost to the public purse may also be significant.

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About the Authors

Angela Sdrinis is a Partner at Ryan Carlisle Thomas

Richard Hil is Senior Lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University, NSW.

Nick Rose is the Coordinator of the Bellingen Community Gardens Association and is the National Coordinator of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Angela Sdrinis
All articles by Richard Hil
All articles by Nick Rose
Related Links
Bellingen Institute
Care Leavers Australia Network

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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