‘We’ve stuck our necks out’

Written By komlim puldel on Jumat, 23 Januari 2015 | 20.01

Adopt change ... NSW Australian of the Year Deborra-Lee Furness. Picture: Toby Zerna Source: News Corp Australia

IN Canberra's National Museum, alongside our most cherished artworks and historical relics, now sits a child's wooden wagon.

Made from a simple milk crate, with red wheels and a knotted rope, it is only the lettering on the side of the toy carriage, filled with plastic bottles, which hints at the bigger picture here.

Oscar, the son of actors Hugh Jackman and Deborra-lee Furness, was five when he emptied the family's fridge of water bottles and dragged them around their New York loft apartment.

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No regrets ... Deborra-Lee Furness, Hugh Jackman, their children Ava And Oscar. Picture: Supplied Source: Supplied

Furness remembers it like yesterday, the seminal moment which has galvanised her advocacy for children and adoption change - and led to her nomination as Australian Of The Year.

"I asked where he was going with all our water supply and he said ' I'm going to Africa, because the kids there have no clean water.' If a little boy can be so moved to do something," she told News Corp Australia, "I really needed to get off the couch."

Sitting down for afternoon tea at a restaurant near her home in the Big Apple's trendy meat-packing district, it's hard to imagine Furness ever spent much time on the sofa, so frenetic is her life with her children, Oscar and Ava, and superstar husband Hugh Jackman.

In the 24 hours that follow our meeting, the NSW nominee was co-hosting a charity gala with New York's A-list, in aide of the Columbia University Medical Centre's stem cell research council - rubbing shoulders with former mayor Michael Bloomberg and designer Donna Karan, with performances by Paul Simon and James Taylor at a theatre inside the Lincoln Centre.

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On display ... Oscar Jackman's toy wagon at the National Museum of Australia. Picture: George Serras Source: Supplied

With her bags still to be packed ahead of the flight home to Sydney then Canberra for the gala presentation tomorrow, a glowing Furness is taking the acknowledgment of her public service in her stride.

It's the same energy which has seen her travel the world researching the problems surrounding adoption, including a poverty delegation led by President Bill Clinton two years ago which saw Furness hit the ground running in eight African countries in six days.

"We visited villages and I wanted to go that way so I could talk to them and say 'what's the deal?' Do these children have families? What's their story?' It's the most heartbreaking thing imaginable...to have to give your child up because you can't feed them and you want them to have a better life. It's just heinous."

Her learning on the road has broadened her ambition to make lasting change, both around the world (she's off to Haiti and the Dominican Republic next); as well as supporting the "triad of relinquishing parent, adoptive parent and adoptee' by establishing centres for excellence at a major university in every capital city of Australia.

Going global ... Deborra-Lee Furness poses with Charlie and Shalom Dombkins. Picture: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images. Source: Getty Images

The progress she has made in pushing for nationalised adoption laws and better support services at a state level has been swift in bureaucratic terms.

Only eight years ago, she spoke out in a Sunday Telegraph story about the frustrations of the adoption process in Australia which led to the establishment of Adopt Change, an advocacy group which now has the ear of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and has informed legal improvements in NSW.

"I'm a born optimist, so I wanted it yesterday. How can you not think one day you'll get there? But to be honest, it has been arduous. We faced the anti-adoption culture which was news to me...I got a lot of flack for them. I naively, when I first spoke out, had no idea of the complexities of the issue and Australia's history of it."

The shadows cast by the Stolen Generation and similar Government policies of intervention remain a source of great pain for many, Furness admits, but her work, she says, is focused on "healing."

"It's like any other country...the apartheid in South Africa, or the German community...unless you put it out there, look at it, acknowledge what's gone down, you can't move forward. That's why the first year out was about 'let's talk about adoption' because," she says, whispering behind her hand, 'we can't talk about it.' There's such stigma, shame and it's not only the birth parents, the adoptive parents and the child that carries that burden."

Happy couple ... Hugh Jackman with wife Deborra-Lee Furness at the launch of Adoption Awareness Week in Sydney. Source: News Limited

Putting the issue on the national and international stage has been helped by the spotlight which inevitably follows the celebrity couple, but Furness is not interested in playing the star.

"The question of celebrity is just not important. I think people hear when I speak. When you hear someone speak passionately, I think people have connected with that because I'm a straight shooter. I've stumbled, I've said the wrong thing, used the wrong syntax, I get in trouble. I just feel blessed that I have the opportunity to put this out there. I feel I'm the lucky one who can use something that speaks to me, something I feel passionately about to affect other human beings."

Deborra-Lee Furness starring in a new episode of the ABC doco series Family Confidential. Deb with her mum Fay Duncan Source: Supplied

As much as her family's experience with adoption has informed her work, it's not out of any sense of obligation that she pushes on with bigger plans, which includes ultimately eradicating orphanages around the world.

"If you do something under obligation, it's not sustainable. You think about it...your heart's not in it. Obviously I'm more aware of the issues because I have two adopted children, but I truly believe, I've travelled these countries, I've seen these children on the street...how can you see that and not feel empathy, be moved to act?"

Furness has revelled in the small victories - bringing families and children together.

"Over the years people have written to us and we've really stuck out necks out to help them. It's so great when you get that email from someone who we'd help get through the red tape. When they write to you and say it's been successful, it's just joyous. That's thrilling."

* An exhibition of personal items which inspired this year's Australian Of The Year nominees is open now and free at National Museum Australia until February 28.

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