National Apology for Forced Adoptions

In the life of any great nation, it is appropriate to pause and reflect and ask: are there things in the past we could have done better? Are there things we should have done better? Are there things we should not have done at all? A great nation, while celebrating its overwhelming achievements, should also find within its soul and conscience the capacity to ask the tough questions and reflect. Australia, being the great nation that she is, with a record second-to-none as a country of hope, reward and opportunity, nevertheless does not have an unblemished record. We have left people behind, and shamelessly so. And it is in recognition of that realisation that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition made their heartfelt statements earlier today in the Great Hall: statements of apology on behalf of our nation for forced adoptions.

Let me recognise that people of good will can make errors and misjudgements. The most sincere can get it wrong. In recognising that to be the case, we can apologise to those affected by the errors and misjudgements of others without demonising all those that made those errors and misjudgements. I have no doubt that this generation of public policy makers in this place may well be similarly judged as making errors and misjudgements with the benefit of decades of reflection and hindsight. But let me be very clear: there is never an excuse to lie, to deceive, to bully or to coerce with harsh, unfeeling judgements, as occurred with the forced adoption policies.

Having reflected as I have, let it be in no way misunderstood as diminishing the impact, the consequences, the lifelong impact and the lifelong consequences on the parents, their children and their extended families. The impact of forced adoption is something that is hard to fathom by one who had the blessing of their parents throughout the full formative years of their life. Many who have not been as fortunate have been gracious and open by sharing their innermost private thoughts with me. I recall at university a mate who had his son adopted out without having a say and without acknowledgement on the birth certificate.

I also recall one constituent a number of years ago who was handed out at birth—and I use that term advisedly. You see, she was never even given a birth certificate and was literally handed out to a couple to rear. Her whole life had been one of uncertainty as to her background. There were the hints, the suspicions and the whispers as to what actually occurred that never resolved. My involvement began when this lady came to my office seeking proof and confirmation that she was an Australian citizen. You see, absent a birth certificate she could not get a passport. She had been fobbed off and treated shabbily by institution after institution—and, might I add, government institutions—in this and the last decade. No help was proffered. It was all too difficult. One of the things that I am extremely thankful for in my parliamentary life is that I was able to assist this person to undertake the research and collection of documentation that allowed her to obtain a certificate of Australian citizenship. As it happens, that certificate bears the signature of a senator who will be talking to us as a senator for the last time in a few hours. Senator Evans will never know how that certificate that he issued as Minister for Immigration and Citizenship changed this lady's life. The tears of joy when I presented the certificate made up for all the frustrations and the dead ends that the lady and I ended up in during our search of the bureaucratic maze. But this lady should not have had to wait for 40 years to get that simple official recognition that she was an Australian.

I am sure that all colleagues will have their own interactions to share, be they personal or professional, about the impact of the adoption culture of a time now, thankfully, in the past. I recall one client, back in the days of my legal practice, with whom we pursued the issue of whether the little coffin she was given to bury all those decades earlier actually contained the child she was told had died at birth. Long story short: there were no remains. She had been deceived, she had been lied to, she had been broken.

One of my personal staff gave me this brief statement which I will read out in full:

My brother and sister and I were all adopted as babies by our adoptive parents a year apart in Tasmania in the 1950s.

Mum and Dad never hid this from the three of us.

I can't recall when it was that Mum and Dad took me aside and told me but it seems as if I have known that I was an adopted child for as long as I can recall.

I do remember my Mum telling me that on the day she and Dad went to the hospital, there were four or five other baby boys there but they chose me.

For that I will always be grateful. I do sometimes wonder what ever happened to the others that were there on that day.

As my Dad always used to say to the three of us on those long driving holidays we'd take as a family together, 'Never forget, kids, we are a family and what do families do?' In chorus the three of us would reply, 'We stick together like glue.'

I guess it's for this reason that despite Mum and Dad having now passed away I have, out of great respect for my adoptive parents and the chance at life that they gave me, never attempted to try to discover my true identity.

Not that I don't think about it every day and will do for the rest of my life.

So there is no doubt that on this very, very dark cloud in our history there is the odd trace of a silver lining in those in society who gave these young Australians a real chance at and in life. But it will never compensate for the dislocation, the question of what may have been, whether there are siblings and all the other questions and uncertainties—all of which must impact heavily, manifesting in as many different ways as there were parents, children and extended family members.

There are countless stories of suffering and unbearable loss. But let us remember that these stories are not just stories; they are in fact real, actually lived out, accounts by individuals, who may be in or from our family, our workplace, our community organisation or sports club. The sense of loss for the mothers and fathers and the children is hard to imagine: the sense of abandonment; the sense of not belonging; the sense of being isolated; walking down the street wondering whether you had unknowingly passed your mother, father, child or sibling. Might I say, all of that has been excellently captured and compiled in the report of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee, on which the coalition had Senators Boyce and McKenzie.

Senator McKenzie will speak later on the coalition's behalf and in greater detail about the report. Suffice for me to say—I am sure on behalf of all senators—to all members of that committee: a very big thank you. You did yourselves proud as senators; you did the Senate committee system proud; and, yes, hard as it is for me to say, a Greens senator did exceptionally well. Congratulations to you, Senator Siewert.

Most importantly above those self-congratulations, the committee helped bring us to where we are today as a nation, by providing a sensitive and unthreatening forum for people to tell their stories and explain their hurt, which then formed the unassailable underpinning for today's national apology.

The coalition joins with this parliamentary expression of national apology to those impacted by the practice of forced adoptions. I conclude by using the powerful yet soothing words Mr Tony Abbott used in addressing the apology: 'May it bring self-respect where there was shame; peace where there was anger; and reassurance where there was reproach. May it be part of a healing process for our nation and all of us.' To that, coalition senators say: 'Amen', in supporting the motion moved by the leader of the government.

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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