Retiring Senator Steve Hutchins reflects on the Senate inquiries

Posted on 28 June 2011 by

The 30 June 2011 will see the expiry of the term of Senator for New South Wales, Steve Hutchins. During his time in parliament, Hutchins was a member of the Senate’s Community Affairs Reference Committee, which conducted the inquiries into child migration and children in institutional care. In his valedictory speech to the Senate on 22 June 2011, Hutchins reflected on the personal impact these inquiries had on him. He also paid tribute to people like Andrew Murray and Leonie Sheedy, whose tireless lobbying played such an important role in bringing these issues to the attention of the public and our politicians and policy-makers.

Below is an extract from his speech. You read the full text here.

After some years Senator Andrew Murray, a child migrant to what was then Rhodesia, was successful in lobbying both me and the then shadow minister Wayne Swan to consider an inquiry into children in institutions. This was one of the most harrowing periods of my time here.

The inquiry examined the treatment of children, whether born in Australia or child migrants, who had been either forcibly or voluntarily placed in institutions. This came to be known as the inquiry into the forgotten Australians. It was a very sad and painful inquiry. There were hundreds of written submissions—if you could call some of them written. There were many phone calls, mostly to the dedicated secretariat, led by the avuncular Elton Humphery, who I hope is here today—there he is—along with Christine McDonald and Ingrid Zappe. I read each and every one of these submissions and often cried at what was in them. They were all sad. They were from men and women, mostly in their 70s and 80s, attempting to provide us with an understanding of what for most of them was the nightmare they enjoyed as young boys and girls.

Even now, I think of them and their written words and their courage in coming forward to tell us what happened to them: the abandonment, the fear, the shame, the self harm, the loneliness—problems that exist to this day—and, not least of all, the suicides that resulted. These people’s stories are etched in my memory—the most reprehensible experiences and impossible to forget. We were all shaken to the base of our souls. Our hearts sighed. We were bewildered. We wondered time and time again how adults could do such things to children. How could men and women of faith routinely abuse boys and girls sexually, physically and psychologically? Why didn’t someone step in? Why were they able to get away with it? We all know the answers—and so do those still alive. They relive that terror daily. There is no way to describe what these boys and girls went through, other than to say that they entered the gates of hell. I wanted to share with you one story in particular but I thought that would be unfair. Instead, I encourage you to read the report and all the stories. Never let the suffering of these children be forgotten.

Senator McLucas went on to finish the inquiry, along with Senators Moore and Humphries. These three senators have tales that would make you sob—and, every now and then, we would. The Forgotten Australians report was a tribute to the lobbying of the Care Leavers Australia Network, particularly by Leonie Sheedy, which eventually led to the apology by the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on 16 November 2009.

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