The Leader of the Opposition got himself into trouble during yesterday’s speech in response to the Prime Minister’s national apology for forced adoption.

Tony Abbott, during the course of his remarks, was forced to issue an apology of his own when some in the audience at the Great Hall of Parliament took offence to his use of the term “birth parents” instead of the preferred term of “separated parents” or just plain “parents”. This apparent gaffe has attracted considerable media attention. However, there was another, more interesting, incident that illuminates the politics behind the national apology.

When Abbott said future adoptions “have to be for the right reasons” he was again heckled, with one women yelling out: “All adoptions should be banned!”

This is an example of what I call the use and abuse of the history of forced adoption.

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Approximately 150,000 babies of unwed, mostly teenage mothers were adopted between the 1950s and 1970s. An unknown number of mothers and their children, including some of those present in Canberra for the national apology, were traumatised by harsh treatment (including coercion to sign adoption forms) and have experienced ongoing pain and loss. Based on these experiences, opponents of adoption claim it should be banned in contemporary Australia (including adoption from overseas) because what happened to the “forced adoptions generation” supposedly proves all adoptions are inherently harmful for devastated mothers and their “stolen” children.

These ideas have been promoted by the anti-adoption academics and lobby groups who led calls for the federal Parliament to say “sorry”. Their aim was to ensure the national apology discredited adoption as socially and politically unacceptable in 21st-century Australia by insisting the nation learn from past mistakes and “never again” sanction any policy that would separate grief-stricken parents from identity-deprived children.

“Adoption is currently taboo in Australia, meaning that child protection services practice what is known as ‘family preservation’.”

The context for the efforts made to shape the meaning and significance of the national apology is the contentious subject of child protection policy. In reaction to past forced adoption practices, adoption is currently taboo in Australia, meaning that child protection services practice what is known as “family preservation”.

Even when parents are highly dysfunctional, all efforts are made to keep problem families together. Instead of removing children, priority is given to providing families with support services that frequently fail to address the serious and often intractable problems (welfare dependence, single motherhood, substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness) that impede the ability of an underclass of parents to properly care for their children.

This approach is coming under increased scrutiny from critics aware too little, too late is being done to protect children, who in the end finally have to be removed from their families but only after they have been damaged by prolonged exposure to abuse and neglect.

We know, for example, that the flawed family preservation approach is responsible for the increasing numbers of children in out-of-home care in Australia who have “high and complex needs” — serious developmental, behavioural and psychological problems.

The mounting toll of damaged children in care is encouraging state and territory policymakers to realise many vulnerable children would be much safer and have much better prospects in life if they were removed earlier and adopted by good families. This is unthinkable for the anti-adoption movement, which viewed the national apology as an opportunity to nip any revival of adoption in the bud.

The political strategy was to reinforce the taboo on adoption as wrong and harmful. This involved getting the federal Parliament as part of the national apology to endorse the continuation of family preservation policies or else (in the words of the Vanish lobby group) “any national apology will be undermined”. The political objective was to make state policymakers reluctant to publicly support adoption lest they be accused of backtracking on the apology and “stealing” children from parents.

However, my reading of the national apology is that our national leaders did not go as far as anti-adoption activists wanted.

The Prime Minister took a tactical approach. In the modern style of “share your pain” politics, Julia Gillard’s speech extended the nation’s sympathies and focused on acknowledging and expressing the pain felt by the victims of forced adoption malpractices.

Abbott, as befits a seasoned culture warrior, took a more strategic approach and risked mentioning the need for future adoptions in the right circumstances. This was code for using adoption for child protection purposes.

Neither the Prime Minister nor the Opposition Leader explicitly rejected the idea that all adoptions are illegitimate and harmful, but nor did they repudiate adoption based on the history of forced adoption.

Thankfully, therefore, what was said by way of apology yesterday is unlikely to stymie the debate we must have about using adoption to prevent child abuse and neglect in this country.

*Jeremy Sammut is a research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies. His report, The Fraught Politics of Saying Sorry for Forced Adoption: Implications for Child Protection Policy in Australia, was released by the CIS on Tuesday.