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Child Migration Schemes: A dark and hidden episode of Australia’s history revealed [i]

Senator Andrew Murray
Democratic Senator, Parliment of Australia

For Australia’s child migrant population, the forces of luck and timing played a significant and justifiably positive role in the 1990s. On the one hand, hearing of a policy of social engineering that had gone horribly wrong, the hearts of the Australian people were touched. On the other, the plight of child migrants was placed firmly on the political agenda.

As a former child migrant myself, the forces of luck and timing have been influential agents in shaping my own personal history over the last decade.

Having been shipped to Southern Rhodesia under the Fairbridge Scheme at the age of four, I have naturally had considerable empathy with child migrant issues. However, on being elected to the Australian Parliament as a Senator for Western Australia in 1996, this empathy took on a more tangible form.

One of the entitlements of Senatorial life is access to a chauffeur driven car when required. Through using this service, I discovered that one of the drivers was also a former child migrant sent out from Britain to the Fairbridge Farm School in Pinjarra, Western Australia.

In December 1999, luck had it that this driver, Mr Rick Boyland, picked me up from the Perth airport to drive me home. In the course of conversation, he told me of a coming social gathering to be held at the Perth office of the Child Migrants Trust and that Margaret Humphreys was to be there.

Having read Margaret’s compelling book, Empty Cradles, I was tempted to go and meet the person responsible for lifting the lid on the sordid child migrant schemes. I tend to guard my personal life, so I decided against going. But, a wonderful and supportive friend – who also happens to be my wife – changed my mind and I agreed to attend.

It was only a matter of months before another timely event occurred.

It was the 15th February 2000. As a member of parliament, my office was informed that former child migrants were going to hold a peaceful protest outside Parliament House, calling for a judicial inquiry.

Luck had it that also present was the then Leader of the Opposition, Mr Kim Beazley of the Australian Labor Party who had been lobbied hard by former child migrants. Luck also had it that Rick Boyland was his driver too and Kim was well acquainted with the issues. On speaking with him about gaining his party’s support for a parliamentary inquiry, he agreed unequivocally. In due course and after negotiation, he delivered the numbers to get the Senate Inquiry up.

The terms of reference covered the child migrant schemes that operated in Australia between World War 11 and the late 1960s, and were developed after extensive consultation with, amongst others, Margaret Humphreys of the Child Migrants Trust, Bruce Blyth of the West Australian child migrant organisation, VOICES, and Norman Johnston of the International Association of Former Child Migrants & their Families.

The timing of this protest and inquiry was indeed right. After remaining an invisible part of Australia’s history for many decades, the issue of child migration was now a public and controversial topic.

From the late 1980s, a campaign prompted various Australian newspapers to run stories on the reality of child migrant schemes. Television programmes revealed in very frank interviews the assaults and exploitation that survivors of the child migrant schemes suffered under the now notorious Christian Brothers.

And who can forget the ABC television drama, The Leaving of Liverpool screened in 1992.

In addition, a number of books were published. In my own state of Western Australia, former child migrant, Lionel Welsh, had Geordie: Orphan of the Empire and The Bindoon File published in 1989 and 1990, and Bruce Blyth, a committed campaigner for child migrant issues, published In the Shadow of the Cross in 1997 and Counting the Cost: Christian Brothers & Child Care in Australian Orphanages in 1999.

And there was Margaret Humphrey’s Empty Cradles in 1994 that attracted a wide readership, and also Alan Gill’s comprehensive work, Orphans of the Empire in 1998.

Subsequently, there have been useful, popular works of historically based fiction, such as the well-written and impactful Trust Me written by Lesley Pearse.

And, throughout the 1990s, the Christian Brothers’ own historian in Australia, Brother Barry Coldrey – who has become a committed campaigner against child abuse – wrote widely on the history of the Order’s work for deprived children. By uncovering the vile and extensive underworld of paedophilia that operated, and writing about it, he has essentially become the Christian Brother’s whistleblower.

In reality, this quite extensive media coverage in the English speaking world would not have materialised had it not been for the timely and dedicated work of some fine individuals, notably people like Margaret Humphreys in England and Australia, and Bruce Blyth in Australia. Although not former child migrants themselves, their unwavering dedication has made a significant difference to the lives of former child migrants in particular and to institutionalised children in general.

While Margaret Humphrey’s contribution to the child migrant cause internationally is well known through her work with the Child Migrants Trust, Bruce Blyth’s contribution in Western Australia may not be as familiar.

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[i] To assist in understanding these remarks in context, reference should be made to the Child Migrant Report. See Senate Community Affairs References Committee, Lost Innocence: Righting the Record, Report into Child Migration, Canberra, Australia, August 2001. Copies may be attained by ringing Senator Murray's office on (08) 9481 1455 or emailing marilyn.rock@aph.gov.au

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