18 November 2009

Forgotten Australians: justice, or just an apology?

The Prime Minister’s apology to the “Forgotten Australians” (children who were placed in State “care”) and former Child Migrants is without doubt an important step, acknowledging as it does the great wrongs that were done to hundreds of thousands of children who were meant to be under the protection of the state in one of the world’s oldest continuing democracies.

My attention is particularly taken by the following words:

We look back with shame that many of these little ones who were entrusted to institutions and foster homes – instead, were abused physically, humiliated cruelly and violated sexually.

We look back with shame at how those with power were allowed to abuse those who had none.

This is a formal acknowledgement by the Commonwealth Government that many of these children were the victims of criminal assaults. When I read the speeches in the House of Representatives Hansard for Monday 16 November (available here) I see genuine and moving language of apology and shame, horrifying case histories, and expressions of determination to see that it never happens again.

What I do not find is any suggestion that any of the criminals involved in these assaults are to be pursued and brought to justice. There is not much we can do about institutionalised psychological cruelty, but there seem to be countless cases of specific criminal acts, including criminal neglect, that could be investigated and acted upon where there is a reasonable prospect of securing a conviction.

This is rather strange. Subject to the outcome of an appeal, we are about to acquiesce in the extradition of Mr Charles Zentai to face trial in Hungary for a crime he allegedly committed in 1944. But what are we planning to do about the crimes of violence committed here in Australia within state institutions or in foster homes to whom the state entrusted helpless children? Surely we owe the Forgotten Australians and the Child Migrants justice as well as an apology.

And, as Tony Abbott remarked, there are as many children in care now as there were back then. What actual steps are proposed to ensure that nothing like the crimes we hear of will ever be perpetrated again?

Words are cheap, however well meant. Governments show that they are serious about something when they commit resources to it. The great former Secretary to the Department of Defence, Sir Arthur Tange, was wont to say words to the effect, “Until you are talking dollars you are not talking strategy”. So it goes for the pursuit of justice.

So I would like to know the answer to two questions:

(1) What specific measures is any jurisdiction in Australia planning to take in order to investigate the crimes of violence and/or sexual assault against these children and bring their perpetrators to justice, and what staff and budget will be allocated to implement those measures?

(2) What measures are proposed to ensure as far as possible that nothing like it does happen again, and that if it does happen there is rapid redress? Again, what staff and budget will be allocated to this purpose?

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