I wanted to pick up on Michael Brull’s recent post at Overland on the proposed Royal Commission into child sexual abuse. I think there are likely to be a number of structural and systemic issues likely to dog the Commission and its aftermath, and they are worth looking at.
Like the 1997 Inquiry into the experience of the Stolen Generations, and the 2004 Senate Report on the Forgotten Australians, the Royal Commission has the potential to cut to the heart of the Australian historical narrative.
This morning at my workplace I met with an Ambassador for the Forgotten Australians, Barbara Lane, who counts herself among the members of the Forgotten. The Forgotten Australians are of course likely to be overrepresented in any data gathered by the Royal Commission.
Royal Commissions into issues affecting Australian children have a problematic history, at least in terms of their outcomes, as Barbara pointed out. We had a long discussion about the Forgotten Australians, the imminent Royal Commission and how the service I manage could support those of the Forgotten who live locally. Barbara has a wide knowledge of the history of the Forgotten Australians, and a lived experience of it, and I want to thank her for sharing it with me.
The Royal Commission will apparently examine institutional care of children. Nicola Roxon said that the focus of the commission will be “public and private institutions and organisations” and “claims of institutional and systemic failures.” We don’t know exactly who are what will be subject, because the specific terms of reference haven’t yet been decided.
For any Royal Commission its terms of reference are critical. However submissions for the new Royal Commission’s terms of reference close in a few days, on November 26. This is clearly absurd. Still, it’s not unusual when state or federal governments suddenly want to enact vast changes to administrative or funding structures or initiate comprehensive inquiries of one kind or another, to propose very short submission or consultation time-frames Sometimes this can be put down to bureaucratic incompetence, and sometimes to the simple fact that the agenda has already been decided and the public consultation process is just for show.
Whether in this case it is incompetence or something else, it’s not a good look. Those individuals who may be of most use to the inquiry are of course going to be those who have the least faith in the ability of government institutions to act with justice and consideration. A ridiculously short time-frame for submissions on the terms of reference for an inquiry initiated by a government on abuses carried out by government and government-sanctioned bodies seems remarkably stupid and blatantly insensitive to the point of cruelty.
Whatever the terms of reference are, I think it will be interesting to see who gets included in and who gets included out. Either way, I’ll be making a comment at the government’s website and you can too. It doesn’t require specialist knowledge. You can ask for the submission deadline to be extended and for the commission’s terms of reference to be as wide as possible.
Let’s backtrack to the the Forgotten Australians for a moment. Their treatment after several government reports might be a marker as to what we can expect from the incoming Royal Commission. The best guess for the the number of people – children who are now adults – who make up the Forgotten Australians is 500,000. It’s a group whose numbers are divided up in various ways depending on who is doing the counting. Sometimes the Stolen Generations are included, sometimes not. But in terms of who these kidnapped, stolen and and terrorised children are, the numbers look like this: 50,000 children of the Stolen Generations, seven to ten thousand children who were forced child migrants. And 440,000 children who were institutionalised and imprisoned, because they were considered to be ‘morally at risk’, their parents had died, their mothers were single or young or they had run away from abusive families or were just plain troublesome.
Given that Australia’s population at the beginning of the twentieth century was only 3.7 million, and not even twenty million by the end of it, that’s a mind-boggling number. Maybe you should say it again, just to get your head round it; 500,000. It’s like understanding the conclusion of the BringingThem Home Report that the abduction of Aboriginal children was an act of genocide. It’s patently true, but so mind blowingly difficult to understand.
It might well appear to any impartial observer that for most of the twentieth century Australia operated as a huge gulag for children, in which the most appalling atrocities and abuse were commonplace. Children were kidnapped, locked up, beaten, tortured, enslaved, forced to torture each other, drugged, sexually assaulted and criminalised in their thousands. This is not ancient history by the way. One of the most notorious Queensland institutions for the imprisonment of children, the Wilson Youth Hospital in Brisbane, was only closed in 2001 after the Forde Inquiry.
Here are some images from the Wilson hospital given to me by Barbara Lane.
They are photos of the exterior, the cells and the ‘Isolation Room’, a completely empty room where children were left for days at a time as punishment for such crimes as ‘insolence’.
Note the barbed wire on the hospital’s exterior.
Perhaps we could use this image as a representation of twentieth century Australia.
The Senate Report on the Forgotten Australians was released in 2004, and made 36 recommendations, of which only a handful have been adopted.
Apologies have been forthcoming, but practical support, things that governments could very easily provide, have not. Most significantly the recommendation for a national scheme for financial compensation hasn’t happened. Individual states have compensation schemes, but these are generally token amounts ranging up to $40,000. There are various barriers to claiming these amounts that vary from state to state. There are no special considerations for health care provision for Forgotten Australians, no dedicated government benefits, no targeted psychological services and so on.
What happened to the children of Australia in the twentieth century was a catastrophe of gigantic proportions, sanctioned by public institutions. Childhood sexual assault and torture as experienced by the children of the Forgotten Australians leaves marks in ways that those of us who had relatively normal neurotic childhoods will find it difficult to conceive of. It is something that we owe the Forgotten and Stolen children to familarise ourselves with: what vindictively-inflicted violent trauma does to children. Maybe I should just write a list sometime for you to print out and stick on your fridge.
The very fact that we as a nation have failed the Forgotten Australians so badly, even though we know exactly what has been done to them is just as appalling as the damage that was inflicted on them in the first place. To apparently acknowledge someone’s trauma in some detail, make promises of reparation and then forget them again, is to retraumatise them in a particularly pernicious and vindictive way.
The Royal Commission has the potential to go down that very route. The cynicism and ignorance and duplicity of our political parties should not be underestimated. On the experience of the Stolen Generations and the Forgotten Australians, we might expect a commission that can go certain places and not others, but that does whatever it is asked to do, and does it thoroughly. It will produce a massive document with many direct, practical and intelligent recommendations. And these will be almost completely ignored by political parties or watered down and slowly strangled by bickering between state and federal governments.
Still, one has to wonder if Julia Gillard is conscious of what she has done. Kevin Rudd gave an apology to the Stolen Generations without, I think, really understanding the import of what he was doing, and Gillard may have done the same thing. That is why the terms of reference of the commission are so important.
The Royal Commission has the potential to reveal, once again, the ordinary and sinister truth about the treatment of marginalised children in Australia: that it has been endemic and it has been sanctioned by elected governments. As various overseas inquiries have found, and as the recent revelations about the entertainer Jimmy Saville have demonstrated, once we go actively looking for the mistreatment of children, we will find it everywhere and we will find staggering amounts of institutional complicity, and we will find it inextricably entwined within the nature of mandated power. As Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers shows us, the abusive traumatisation and imprisonment of children continues. It is still right under our noses and we are still complicit. The abuse we want to look at it is always in the past never in the present. We still haven’t lost our gulag characteristics.
Sexual abuse will always garner more media space than forms of physical or psychological abuse. That is for many reasons I think, not all of them good. We are more tolerant of physical abuse (most Australians still think it’s OK to hit children) and also somewhat sceptical of psychological abuse. What that says about us a nation, I’m still not quite sure, but our history of violence has left its marks on all of us.
The brutalisation of the Stolen Generations and the Forgotten Australians looks to me like the central narrative of twentieth century Australia. The sexual abuse and torture of Australian children was not carried out by demented paedophile rings. It was enacted in broad daylight by respected community figures for decades in public institutions, sanctioned as part of a cosy narrative that punishes the weak the poor and the troublesome, and rewards the ruthless and the sociopathic. It was a gigantic co-ordinated exercise in misogyny, an enactment of a violent patriarchal nightmare which we are nowhere near freeing ourselves from. We have created public institutions that have been guilty of almost mediaeval cruelties, and very little in our political critiques has addressed the mass torture of children as an inevitable outcome of that misogyny.
Still, the Royal Commission gives us yet another chance to acknowledge the scale of the abuse of children in Australia’s history, and to make some serious redress. It’s only been the courage of the abused and the Stolen and the Forgotten that’s got us this far. Maybe this time we won’t let them down.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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