Wednesday, 24 October 2018
National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse
I rise to speak on indulgence to the national apology to victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. There are some days in this parliament that stand out more than most. My first day in parliament was the day Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave the apology to the stolen generation. That was my first ever day sitting in this House. In fact, before that apology was given in the House of Representatives, there was the first ever welcome to country, right underneath the flag in the middle of the building. Even though Indigenous Australians had obviously been here for 50,000-60,000 years, my first day back in 2008 was when Matilda House gave the first welcome to country. That took place right in the middle of the building, underneath the flag pole.
This building is the people's house. I'm sure many wouldn't understand the architecture of it. The flag is right in the middle of it and then there are two crosses, effectively. One goes from the front of the War Memorial down through the middle of this building, under the great verandah, through the marble foyer and then through the Great Hall—the hall that belongs to the people. If you keep going through the doors of the Great Hall, you come to the flag and the fountain, which are right in the middle of the building, and then to the cabinet room and the Prime Minister's office. So, one line of that cross, which meets under the flag, is from the people through to the executive. That is the north-south line. The east-west line basically links the green carpeted House of Representatives, the people's representatives for the 150 electorates, through to the states representatives on the red carpet. That's the east-west line.
The reason I mention it is that on Monday, 22 October this year, the victims, survivors and supporters of those who suffered institutional child sexual abuse gathered in the Great Hall. They could have filled many more great halls. Members of parliament, the MPs, and many of the senators gathered in the House of Representatives and heard the apology to the victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse that was given by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. After that, some went to the Great Hall and some went out to the front of the building. The reason I mention people gathering in the Great Hall and the House of Representatives is its incredible symbolism. I have just come from an unveiling of the portrait of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who actually kicked off the royal commission that did so much to deliver this apology.
Monday was a day for acknowledging the pain, acknowledging the evil failings of many in our society and acknowledging that the apology is part of the journey but obviously not the final destination. Sadly, too many people never got far enough to hear the apology. There is a long road ahead for the survivors. Monday might have been a better day for some, but some of these days aren't easy. Most of us can't even imagine the pain that has been endured and is still felt each and every day, which people carry around in their head.
When I looked around the Great Hall yesterday during the apology, my heart broke to think of all those stolen childhoods, too many stolen dreams, too many shattered lives. There are so many stories. Some of those stories have been revealed. I've actually been hearing these stories basically since about 1992. Apart from the people I know in my own life—I was a school teacher and a lawyer. I know that two or three people that I taught with have since been convicted of being paedophiles, and I can think of two children that I taught whose parents had been convicted of being paedophiles as well. But there were so many other people that I taught or taught alongside, people I lived in the same street as—who knows. I first met my wife in 1992, who has worked in child protection, first as a frontline child protection worker and now as a lawyer working in that area, and I have heard horrible stories over that time. Obviously she would always be discreet and would never give names away or anything like that, but sometimes she had to vent just to cope with what she would see in her job. She's a pretty tough person, but she's still human.
I'm going to tell one story, because it's the one that has always jumped out at me. Many times she wouldn't tell me these stories; she'd go to the gym and work it out and then come home to our family and leave the horrors of the world at work. Many people can't do that job long-term, but she's been doing it for 30 years. You need to have coping mechanisms. But I remember one story she told of a young guy. Every sports day, one brother would select a child, ostensibly for special education or support or something like that, but it was really to be molested and assaulted. The kids knew, so every sports day, when the call would come out for so-and-so to go to see Brother Whoever-it-was, the kids were terrified. And the brother would pick on the most vulnerable children, because that's what paedophiles tend to do; they find the most vulnerable child, the child from a broken home and without a support network. So every sports day this would happen, and on this day the kid who was selected was so horrified of what was going to happen that he decided to put his foot in the lawnmower rather than experience that horror. That's just one story, and I don't know the details; I've only heard my wife telling me that story. It's not like you'd have to run the whole case the way she would or, worse, live with the horror that so many of those victims had to endure.
On Monday, as a nation, we were able to say sorry. It will not make up for such horrors, obviously—the physical scars, the mental scars, the taking of lives, the people who couldn't make it to the apology because they're in prison, because their childhoods were derailed. As a nation, we said sorry that we did not protect our children. We're sorry that we did not believe those children when they first spoke out. We're sorry that, even when the wrongs were acknowledged, we did not do enough to help them fight for justice. But saying sorry shouldn't be the end of the journey for the survivors or for those in this building. It is our responsibility to make sure that every survivor gets the justice they deserve. Our work is not yet done. The final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse made 409 recommendations. Until we have delivered in full on all of those recommendations our work is not yet done. Until we can protect the unseen children who are still suffering abuse our work is not yet done. We cannot and should not rest until we can protect all of our children.
I acknowledge the work of former Prime Minister Gillard. Her courage and dogged determination finally brought this human tragedy into the public discourse where perpetrators had nowhere to hide. I also particularly acknowledge former Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and the current member for Jagajaga. I congratulate them both on their legacy, particularly Jenny Macklin, the member for Jagajaga, who did so much work to make sure it happened.
It is up to those of us who now walk the halls of parliament to keep up the fight, to maintain the courage and conviction, and to make right the wrongs of the past. An apology is just words unless it is accompanied by conviction to change the future. Monday, just like my first day in this building, will be one that lives with me forever. I hope that it will be one that gives some comfort to victims and survivors.