Redress – Claytons or Fair Dinkum?

Redress – Claytons or Fair Dinkum?

In late October/early November I was invited to Sweden along with Associate Professor Jacqui Wilson of Federation University (another Care Leaver) to talk about the state of play with the Australian Royal Commission’s recommendations on redress.
We planned to present an essentially negative story about why the Australian government had rejected the Commission’s recommendations on redress.  Despite intensive lobbying by CLAN and other stakeholder, the government had been silent for more than a year on the whole question of redress.
A few days before we were due to present our paper, the government dropped a bomb. There would be a national independent redress scheme after all! There was much joy and excitement.
However, after frantic phone calls, emails and texts between us and our well-informed colleagues in Australia Jacqui and I were soon alerted to be cautious about changing the main thrust of our presentation. As the details (and the lack of them when Ministers were pressed for answers)  one commentator (Wendy Bacon) accurately summed up the position: it was like getting a kiss and then a kick.

The opt-in principle is a cop-out

The scheme was to be based on an opt-in principle – and it was (and remains) clear that some of the States and churches were (and are) not too keen to opt in.
With the ink hardly dried on the government’s media release and a government-inspired Q&A sheet which had more Qs than As, Jacqui and I quite dubbed it a Clayton’s Redress Scheme. The participants – from over a dozen nations – needed a translation! It’s like the drink you have when you’re not having a drink, we explained. They got the point. 
A couple of weeks ago, the CLAN CEO and I joined with a group of advocates, lawyers and other stakeholders in meeting with the Australian Minister for Social Services (Christian Porter) and (separately) with Opposition and cross-bench Parliamentarians in Canberra.
Minister Porter was not able to give us any firm commitments or expand on our knowledge about the National Redress Scheme that his government was proposing. Nothing had been clarified between the initial announcement and this meeting – at least nothing the government was prepared to divulge. 
Mr Porter acknowledged that his government has no powers to oblige anyone to opt in to the scheme (except the two Territories who are small players anyway). He conceded that at least one State was implacably opposed to it and the five other states were non-committal. Likewise, he was not able to say which churches and charities, if any, have opted in.
His stock answer to our long list of questions was, “We are still working on that”.
The only clear commitment was to set up an Advisory Council which would, he said, have its first meeting before Christmas.

The Advisory Council

A few days ago Minister Porter’s colleague, the Attorney-General George Brandis, issued a statement announcing the names of the Advisory Council. There will be 15 members, among them CLAN’s CEO, Leonie Sheedy, and Caroline Carroll, the current Chair of the so-called Alliance for Forgotten Australians. These are the only Care Leavers on the Advisory Council. 
The media release explains “the principal purpose” of the Advisory Council will be to give the government “independent advice”.  It also indicates four areas in which particular advice will be sought.
  • One of these areas is “the governing principles that underpin the scheme”, which is strange given the government already has a very detailed report on that matter from the Royal Commission.
  • Another area – “how to best encourage state, territory and non-government institution participation in the scheme” – seems very odd. Surely, it’s  the Australian government’s role to work out how to get other levels of government and the churches and charities to join a national scheme.
  • The fourth area – about how the proposed national scheme should interact with “other redress schemes” – is something that Jacqui and I commented on in our Norrkoping presentation. It goes to fundamental problems inherent in grafting a sexual-abuse-only scheme on to schemes that have given redress to survivors of other forms of abuse and neglect. It will also turn on the question of how a proposed  broad-based scheme for survivors of abuse in all forms of institutions can be integrated with schemes that focused on survivors in 24/7 closed institutions only.  
The members of the Council have not yet been given a date for their first meeting or a schedule of dates thereafter. 
In sum, an Advisory Council has been set up to provide advice to the Australian government, but the “opt-in-if-you-like”  principle of state/territory governments and churches and charities remains in place and as of today’s date there is no change to the position Jacqui and I outlined in Norrkoping.
That is, the Australian government has made a public announcement about a redress scheme but is a very long way from being in a position to make it work.  There is reason to believe it never will, unless there is a drastic re-casting. 

Lost and Found: Reconstructing a family at war

Lost and Found: Reconstructing a family at war

This was the title of a paper I presented at the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne on 13 December 2016 at a conference entitled (Re)Examining Historical Childhoods: Literary, Cultural, Social

The conference was organised by the Australasian Society for the History of Children and Youth.

I am working this paper up as a result of feedback and ideas raised in the discussion, and will publish it in full in early 2017, so I will only give the merest idea of what I covered on the day.

First I showed how the appalling language used by welfare and media over decades reflected  (and in some cases still reflects) the values that underpin the prevailing views of working-class children and their families. Essentially, it is the language of contempt and disdain.

At the same time, the language signalled the power relations which oppressed and silenced those on the bottom rungs of Australian society. In particular, the voices of children are missing from what passes as the history of child welfare. Nobody thought that children might have something worth listening to – a theme that emerged time and again during the Senate Inquiry (Forgotten Australians 2004).

In addition, the personal records that Care Leavers find in the archives are totally inadequate – many are short on real facts, and are inaccurate, unbalanced, and misleading. (Not to mention the knee-jerk reaction to censorship when ‘third-party’ people are found in our records.)

A great deal has changed in the ‘Age of Testimony‘ in which thousands of former residents of instituions have told their stories to commissions of inquiry – have gone on record, and have been believed. I likened these stories to a kind of counter-narrative or crowd-sourced alternative history.

This alternative history is challenging and changing the way many historians look at the past. I also briefly alluded to ways in which Care Leavers are (re) examining their childhood narratives and reconstructing more complex and nuanced counter-narratives of their lives and that of their families.

I gave a brief sampling from my recently-completed work on my mother’s side of the family. From an inauspicious starting point with an 11-year-old boy incarcerated at the wish of his brutish stepfather in 1865, I have discovered more than 30 members of the family who have been sent to a total of 16 different Victorian institutions over five generations. And the welfare system had no means of joining the dots that made up the story of this family.

Given the paucity of official records kept on these children, I have had to reconstruct my family’s story from a wide range of sources found outside the welfare industry. My manuscript is almost finished and I will be looking to publish the book in 2017 with the tentative title:

That’s Not My Child: The Welfare and a Family at War

The Past is Not a Closed Chapter

The Past is Not a Closed Chapter – It Shapes the Whole Book of Our Lives

This was the title of a talk I presented in Adelaide on 30 November 2016 at a workshop as part of the Routes to the Past Project, co-sponsored by the University of Melbourne, CLAN and the Dulwich Centre located in Adelaide.

If you do not know of the excellent work done on narrative therapy at the Dulwich Centre I strongly recommended you have a look at its website here .

The Routes to the Past Project is exploring the potential of  collaborative approaches to counter-narratives using a range of approaches including

  • history
  • genealogy
  • social work practices
  • therapeutic life story work.

My paper highlighted the absence of the voice of Care Leavers in their historical personal records – and how one-sided that makes the narrative. And, in many cases how inaccurate and misleading the story is that is told in the official record.

I talked about ways in which Care Leavers can be helped to become the experts and interpreters of their own histories and life stories. In the words of David Denborough of the Dulwich Centre:

“Every one has the right to define their experiences and problems in their own words and terms.”