Tears for victims, cheers for their courage
Sydney Morning Herald
Emotions ran high in the Great Hall as the people of Australia said sorry to abused and neglected children, writes Kelsey Munro.
THERE were tears and heckles, standing ovations and hugs. But one sentiment was voiced by many of the so-called forgotten Australians and former child migrants who came to Parliament House to hear the Prime Minister apologise for the abuse and neglect they suffered in state care.
The apology was important because their stories were finally believed and their suffering was recognised.
''I've been waiting for all my adulthood for someone to believe us and say sorry for what happened to us,'' said Edward Cogan, 73, a child migrant from Perth.
"[As a child] you would tell the senior Christian Brother what happened and they wouldn't believe you.
''We thank the Government for what they said today.''
A 55-year-old former resident of Dalmar home in Carlingford, who did not want her name published, said: ''The most important thing today is the recognition that it happened and that it was wrong. They're trying to make amends now by not hiding the stuff that happened, which I appreciate. A lot I'm still coming to terms with.''
The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, his wife, Therese Rein, the Minister for Families and Community Services, Jenny Macklin, and the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, were greeted with applause when they entered the Great Hall.
Mr Rudd's speech was interrupted with cheers when he vowed that such abuse would never be allowed to happen again in Australia. Emotions overflowed when he mentioned the former senator Andrew Murray, a staunch advocate for the apology. Mr Turnbull's speech referred to the story of Peter Hicks as a child in state care in NSW. Mr Hicks stood up and walked on stage to hug Mr Turnbull, to huge applause.
There were also a few calls for compensation from the crowd.
''It's about bloody time it happened,'' said Michael Turnbull (no relation) from Brisbane.
''I am glad I came, it was a good experience. It will help me move on. We've been waiting for the big one to come, and this is it."
Not everyone was happy with the apology.
Allan Allaway of Graceville in Queensland, has worked with the Alliance of Forgotten Australians for 25 years. "With this apology today, whilst we are now no longer the invisible ones, [the] fight is far from over.
''I am disappointed in the apology, because there was no mention of affirmative action in health, education, training, employment. I was hoping to hear something along those lines."
Brian McNair, 67, of Melton in Victoria, was physically and sexually abused at four boys' homes in Victoria as a child.
He tried to hang himself as a teenager.
"I want a chance to talk to someone and ask, are they fair dinkum? What justice are people going to get?'' he said, adding that most of the perpetrators of the abuse were dead or too old and would never face trial.
After the speeches, he was subdued. ''I liked it, but it upset me. I just hope something goes further, that we get some justice out of it. Money is not going to help any of us.''
Caroline Carroll, an advocate from the Alliance for Forgotten Australians, said that Mr Rudd's acknowledgement of the fear many faced about returning to an institution in their old age was important.
''Aged care was an important step. People say they will kill themselves rather than re-enter an institution for aged care.''
Personally, she had mixed feelings - ''joy and grief and overwhelming sadness listening to the stories of things that happened to people … but we are believed; they hear us."
At lunch, after the speeches, on the lawn outside Parliament House, the mood was still emotional. Some were still crying and did not want to speak; others, like Frank Handley, 62, a child migrant from Perth, were elated.
"Excellent. Ten out of 10. They showed compassion," he said.