For Leonie, for Vera, for everyone who suffered
In 1957 a little girl’s life was changed forever.
She was three years old when her family was torn apart, when she was separated from her brothers and sisters and sent to St Catherine’s Orphanage, in Geelong.
For the next thirteen years she lived in constant fear of being punished for every minor indiscretion and with the empty feeling of a childhood deprived of love. She wouldn’t see her brother again for forty years. Hers is one of half a million stories.
Today is an important day for that little girl and the brave and determined woman she became. Her name is Leonie Sheedy. And for the past nine years she has been fighting for an apology for that little girl and others like her.
In 2000 she established a support group with Joanna Penglase called Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN), and from a tiny office in Bankstown in my electorate they have helped hundreds of Forgotten Australians.
In 2004 their courage and tenacity prompted a Senate Inquiry. In 2007 it earned them both an Order of Australia, and now it has helped deliver an apology.
Today I want to pay tribute to them and the hundreds of thousands of Australians they have spent so many years fighting for. This is your day.
This morning this Parliament shone a light on a dark chapter of our history, until now unacknowledged and very much forgotten. For the half a million children who were placed into institutions in the 20th century the memories of their childhood cast long shadows.
For many, silence was their best friend. A woman named Kaylene told the Senate Inquiry: “As a child you learn to be quiet out of fear. Nobody will hurt you if you’re not heard.”
This apology means people like Kaylene need not be silent any more.
An apology can’t undo the suffering. Nothing we say can undo the damage.
For some today will be like ripping off a scab - reviving hurtful memories they have spent a lifetime trying to forget. But for so many others it will help these scars to heal and start to set things right.
One lady I met this morning said that since she had heard that the nation was apologising the nightmares had finally stopped.
I rang Vera Fooks on the weekend. Vera is the oldest member of CLAN. She has cancer and the doctors keep telling her she doesn’t have long to live. But she has been determined to hang on to hear her nation apologise.
She told me: “I’m going on for 99. I have been waiting a lifetime for this day”. Vera’s not here today, she’s too frail, but she wants you to know she is here in spirit.
There are many people that deserve the thanks of this House for bringing this day about.
The Senators who were forever changed by the evidence they heard. One of those was Andrew Murray – who took up this cause and is perhaps more responsible for this day than any other
In his valedictory speech he asked Richard Marles and myself to carry on this work. We have both taken this responsibility very seriously. On behalf of hundreds of thousands of Forgotten Australians I thank you Richard for everything you have done.
Steve Irons – one of my best friends across the aisle – who has brought his own personal experience to bare – and has helped ensure this is everything that it is and that it should be.
Jennie Macklin for her caring heart and steely resolve. Abbie Clark and Corri McKenzie for their support and assistance. Our Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition for their understanding and their stirring words.
Caroline Carroll and the Alliance for Forgotten Australians, Harold Haig and Ian Thwaites, and finally Leonie and Joanna.
I was first drawn to this cause by them – by the force of Leonie’s personality and by force Joanna’s words. They helped me understand.
If you don’t understand what we are doing here today, take out your childhood photos, tear them up and throw them out the window as you drive home tonight. Then come back tomorrow and try to pick up the pieces and put them back together.
This is what Leonie has been doing for the last 40 years.
A few weeks ago there was a story about Leonie in Women’s Weekly. Last week she received an email from a woman who read the story.
She wrote: “Dear Leonie, I read your article and what caught my attention was the photo of your grandparents, and what attracted me was that I have the exact same photo, as they are my grandparents also. It appears that your father and my mother were siblings, therefore we would be cousins.”
This is the power of what we are doing today. ‘Sorry’ might be an easy word to say, but an apology has the power to change lives.
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