House debates

Thursday, 29 October 2020


National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse

11:00 am

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Two years ago we said sorry to survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. We said to them, 'We hear you and we believe you.' We made a commitment to delivering redress—redress that is timely, redress that does not retraumatise, redress that survivors can have confidence. Today we reaffirm that commitment. We also acknowledge the work of many brave people and advocates through the royal commission, the national apology and the National Redress Scheme. They made it a reality.

Survivors have been through so much and have waited so long. We have to get this right. Eight years since the announcement of the royal commission and two years since the apology, survivors in many cases are still waiting for redress. Many are ill, dying, and missing out altogether. To them—

Photo of Trent ZimmermanTrent Zimmerman (North Sydney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Due to the want of a quorum, the Federation Chamber will suspend until we have a quorum.

(Quorum formed) Particularly to institutions we say: do the right thing and, if you're named in an application for redress, sign up. We are also arguing very strongly that the cap should be $200,000, as recommended by the royal commission, not the $150,000 that the states and the Commonwealth have agreed to. It really does defeat the purpose of the scheme if survivors are not part of the scheme. The scheme was designed to make things easier for survivors. It says a lot about the current state of the scheme that people are actually taking the civil path. The redress matrix is absolutely unworkable. It has been widely criticised and needs redesigning. This was a noted departure from the original recommendations of the royal commission.

I want to take this opportunity to also briefly note what we learned at last night's senate estimates: 52 survivors passed away before payments were made; the average processing time for an application was between 12 and 13 months; 61 institutions that have been subject to an application for redress were now defunct; 10 breaches of privacy of survivors have occurred since the scheme began. It's a difficult, painful and complex process—we understand that—but we mustn't forget that our paramount duty to survivors is to get it right. Many of the deficiencies of this scheme arise from the fact that the scheme does not reflect the original recommendations of the royal commission. We should also ensure that governments act as funders of last resort for institutions which are now defunct or have no present-day entities.

We are arguing for an advanced payment scheme for people that are old and unwell, much like the scheme in Scotland. We are, as I said, arguing to lift the cap on redress payments. And we can assure that prior payments are not indexed when calculating redress payments. Prior payments which do not relate to institutional child sexual abuse, such as payments to the members of the stolen generations, should not be deducted from redress payments. That's just an outrage. The regress assessment framework must be also reformed to properly recognise the impact of abuse when calculating payments. Survivors should be able to rest assured that, should they ever seek a review of their payment, the end result won't be a reduction in their payment. The National Redress Scheme was the result of hard work and advocacy and courage and bravery of so many, and it is an important scheme. We owe it to survivors to get it right.

On the second anniversary of the national apology, let us renew our commitment to the Redress Scheme, let us renew our commitment to survivors and let us remind ourselves that there are many people out there who deserve redress and are not getting the redress that they deserve, and that goes very much to the heart of the matrix and the way in which the application process is designed. It should be designed so that—and people should get support to fill out that application—they get the maximum payment they are due. The pain is very real, and we must get this right.

11:11 am

Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Whitlam, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was a watershed moment in Australia. Because of it, we now know the horrible crimes committed by the powerful against the powerless and the innocent. The royal commission opened our eyes. It forced us to examine something so evil that for so many it was hard to believe that it could be true. Because of it, we all now do. The acknowledgement returns a modicum of power to those who had their childhoods stripped away from them by the very people they should have been able to trust the most. Compounding the unspeakable acts committed on our children was the tragedy that the crimes for many decades were covered up and the victims were not believed.

It's easy to think now, two years after the apology, years after the first hearings of that royal commission, that the holding of a royal commission into these historical abuses was somehow inevitable. After 1,300 witnesses and 8,000 private sessions hearing the testimony of survivors, the evidence of these crimes is overwhelming in its scale and overpowering in its detail. But it wasn't inevitable. It was resisted tooth and nail in this parliament and elsewhere. When those witnesses came forward and the evidence unfolded, we began to understand why: barbaric acts that can only be described as torture and rape committed by some of our society's most powerful institutions on innocent people—our children. This was magnified by the culture of denial and deceit by churches and other institutions. The acts robbed them of their childhood. The churches robbed them of their faith in justice and their faith in faith itself.

It's worth reflecting on the experience of a child who has no language to describe the despicable acts, no words to cry out, no-one to turn to. The pain and suffering is theirs and theirs alone to endure. For those who were able to summon the courage to try and express the horrors that they'd experienced, they were believed. Indeed, compounding this injustice, the victim so often became the accused. They were accused of lying, of making it up, of besmirching the reputations of those who stood at a pulpit or stood in a powerful place. Those people should have been locked up. They should have been sent to jail. Instead they were moved on to somewhere else to commit their crimes again and again and again.

Too often the shattered trust and broken souls these crimes wrought were passed down in a barely traceable chain of suffering from one generation to the next. These are generational crimes. Because of the royal commission, we know something of the price our society paid for the retributions visited on those that were abused, and we still ask this: what did churches and schools and orphanages gain from the cost and the misery that they extracted from so many lives? The answer is pretty simple: protection of power, of reputation—of the institution's reputation over those who were held in their trust. Those were their priorities, not the protection of the young children in their care.

The power of a national apology to those children that came after the royal commission, and because of it, finished its work. It's something that we in this place should all be very proud of. It was an important moment but one that will ultimately be undermined if we don't follow through. The only action that can truly demonstrate to the survivors of abuse is a redress scheme that works as the royal commission truly intended it to. The member for Barton outlined a series of shortcomings between the scheme that was recommended by the royal commission and the one that was adopted by the government. We need to make the scheme more straightforward—for example, by allowing the relevant minister to declare a church or organisation by its name rather than by its subsidiaries. We must streamline the process by which redress payments are made, and we must authorise the disclosure of protected information about an institution that continues to decline to participate in the scheme.

The royal commission estimates that around 60,000 Australians could be eligible for redress—60,000. It's a staggering figure. At the current rate of applications, it will take the scheme 45 years to get through the backlog for proper justice for all of those victims. It doesn't take a genius to work out that in 45 years so many of those victims will have already passed on, perhaps not without passing on the horrors and the disadvantage to another generation of young Australians, which is why it's so important that we get this right. It's clear the application process is difficult to navigate. Survivors are getting old and in many cases have ongoing health complications. Average processing times are between 12 and 18 months. This is not good enough for a population that has already endured so much. Neither is the process that allows institutions to opt out of providing redress through this scheme. More must be done to force these institutions to get on board.

The time for the benefit of the doubt is long gone. These issues are of real concern to me and my community. I've spoken many times in this place about the school I attended and the community I grew up in, and how perpetrators were moved from one school to another, from one town to another, to continue their crimes, covered up by the institutions and schools who cared more about the reputation of the institution than the children that were abused. For the sake of the children, for the sake of the victims and survivors, we must get this right.

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There being no government member in the chamber, the Federation Chamber is adjourned until a quorum is formed.

(Quorum formed)

11:23 am

Photo of Susan TemplemanSusan Templeman (Macquarie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Two years ago this parliament said the words that so many survivors of institutional child sexual abuse needed to hear: 'We believe you.' Their willingness to share their stories through the royal commission revealed abuse, violation and horror that so many had carried in silence for decades. They revealed the power that had been used to silence them, as children and as adults, by institutions that had promised to care for and protect them—institutions like churches, clubs and charities. This was a national shame, and this parliament apologised.

But an apology was only the start. Even now some institutions do not accept their responsibility. They have not signed up to the scheme. As is appropriate, the government is talking about naming those institutions, but it could go further. Institutions who refuse to participate deserve a higher penalty, like losing their tax deductibility status.

Blaxland resident Glen Fisher gave evidence at both the Wood royal commission in the nineties and to the one we're speaking of today. He spoke of his experience of being abused both physically and sexually while in refuges, homes and foster care, and during his recovery from heroin addiction. His evidence led to the conviction and imprisonment of several of his abusers, and additional cases are still underway. But it wasn't the royal commission that gave him closure; it was publishing a book last year, Predator's Paradise, about his experience. Glen runs groups for people who've been abused and wants to show them that it is possible to survive. The father of five and grandfather of five says he wants people to know it's safe to speak up. As Glen told me, survivors of abuse don't need to live in silence and fear. The shame doesn't belong to them. The shame belongs to their abusers.

Numerous lawyers have told Glen that he doesn't meet the criteria to be considered eligible for the Redress Scheme, but that doesn't stop him being concerned about the way the current processes are hurting people. He says the retelling of stories has been really damaging for some and redress is causing even more pain. The complexities of the system, he fears, are overwhelming some survivors. The Redress Scheme has received more than 8,200 applications and paid out more than $315 million, but the wait for payments is long, and we want to work with the government to improve this system.

One of my constituents wrote to me this week of his experience in trying to lodge an application for redress: 'I lodged an application for redress with the National Redress Scheme on 7 April. Upon lodging the application, I received a brief phone call acknowledging receipt of my application. Approximately six weeks later, I called to inquire as to the progress of my application. I was told that my application looked great and was progressing well and if I didn't hear anything I should call back in a week. There was no contact, so I called again after a week. The person I spoke to this time told me that I should not have been told to call back, that I had to wait for further contact from the scheme. When I inquired as to how long it would be or even how long the process normally takes, I was told that they couldn't give me any information at all regarding timeframes.'

And he went on: 'I called two weeks ago, around about 1 October and went through to voicemail. I left a message requesting a call back. A week later, I had not had a response so I called and left another message. Both of these calls were made during business hours. I then received a call later that same day responding to the first call. I was told again that there was no information that could be shared with me.'

He goes on to say that people lodging these applications have been forced to relive and describe traumatic experiences, often having felt that the institution involved with the original abuse was not likely to act on the abuse. The lack of information and clarity around expected time frames, he says, and the lack of feedback from the scheme can feel like another institution putting bureaucracy ahead of victims' needs. He says, 'I'm not asking for my application to be fast-tracked. I just need clarity around when I should except a resolution. If I'm feeling like this I'm sure there are many others who are also feeling this way and not speaking up out of a sense of hopelessness.'

Those words shared with me just earlier this week illustrate the problem that people are finding, but it's not a lone experience: the process is bureaucratic, survivors are ageing and they are feeling overwhelmed. As of September the scheme was still processing 3,187 applications. As the ongoing work of CLAN, who did so much in the lead-up and during the royal commission—and that of other advocate groups—shows, the redress system is not yet achieving the aims laid out by the royal commission.

There are a number of changes we'd like to work with the government on to make it a better system. The matrix used to determine payments is arbitrary and needs to be fixed. The cap on payments should be lifted to $200,000 as recommended by the royal commission. The ongoing psychological counselling and support for recipients needs to be increased. There's a need for an early release scheme, similar to that which operates in Scotland, so that people over a certain age or who are unwell can receive an early payment or part payment so they receive something in their lifetime. We've recently learned that if you're from the Stolen Generation and received a payment under that process, that payment is deducted from your redress payment. That's just simply wrong and an insult to people who have suffered immeasurably. We also need to see the Commonwealth commit to be a funder of last resort for those institutions that no longer exist or don't have the resources to provide redress. People who were abused as children in those institutions shouldn't be penalised because the responsible organisation is no longer around. And there needs to be provision that, if people ask for a review of the amount they've received, the reviewed amount can't be any less than they were originally given.

The royal commission was about justice. It began in 2012 and the report into redress was released in 2015, with a final report in 2017. The commission has carried a heavy load. There were 42,000 calls handled, 26,0000 letters and emails received, 8,000 private sessions held, and 2,500 referrals to authorities, including police. As the commission said in its final report:

For victims and survivors, telling their stories has required great courage and determination.

It noted that they'd also heard from parents, spouses and siblings about the abuse of their relatives, many of whom had died, sometimes by suicide. To those survivors, we use the second anniversary of the apology to repeat: it was never your fault and you have nothing to be ashamed of; you did nothing wrong. It is this parliament's responsibly and will remain this parliament's responsibility to do everything we can to see that what was recommended for these people by the royal commission, what was promised by this parliament, is delivered.

11:31 am

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is an incredible privilege to be able to rise in this House to make a contribution to this motion regarding the second anniversary of the national apology to the victims and survivors of child sexual abuse. It's a little over two years ago that this House became the centrepiece of that apology. There were survivors from across the nation who had travelled to Canberra to bear witness to this parliament's unconditional apology. This was an incredibly important moment in our nation's history. I wish to acknowledge a number of events that really led us to that point of a national apology in parliament. Many of my colleagues have touched on this in the debate.

At the outset, I wish to pay tribute to the work of the royal commission. I don't think we can ever overstate the significance of that royal commission in terms of the forum that it provided to really shine a light on what had been a terribly dark and shameful part of this nation's history. A number of acts were required in order to get a royal commission in the first place. It's at this point that I want to acknowledge the former Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who, against extraordinary pressure from very powerful vested interests, signed off on committing this nation to a royal commission on the eve of losing her office. It was one of the last acts she committed as the Prime Minister of this nation and it will be part of her enduring legacy. There is another Prime Minister that I need to acknowledge, and they are no longer in this place either, and that is Malcolm Turnbull. I do so because it was under Malcolm Turnbull's leadership that the parliament agreed to the process of a national apology. He formed a national apology reference group, which I and three other parliamentarians were very privileged to be part of, along with wide-ranging representation of survivor groups, that provided the Prime Minister of the day—and it was Malcolm Turnbull for a significant part of our work—with some direction as to the—

Photo of Mike FreelanderMike Freelander (Macarthur, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

A quorum has been called in the House of Representatives. We'll suspend proceedings until the member returns.

Sitting suspended from 11:35 to 11:38

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll pick up where I left off. I was acknowledging the work of the former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in establishing the National Apology Reference Group, which I was very privileged to be part of along with Steve Irons, a member of this House; former senator Derryn Hinch; and current Greens Senator Rachel Siewert. In addition to the parliamentarians there was a diverse group of representatives of survivors. I want to acknowledge my fellow National Apology Reference Group members: Cheryl Edwardes, the chair of the reference group, from Western Australia; Caroline Carroll; Christine Foster; Craig Hughes-Cashmore; Hetty Johnston; Leonie Sheedy; and Richard Weston.

The reference group undertook a really extensive consultation program. We had 58 face-to-face consultations around Australia and took a very significant number of submissions in order to help provide advice to the Prime Minister—as I mentioned, it was Malcolm Turnbull that we were providing advice to at the time—to ensure that the apology, as much as possible from the government's point of view, would reflect the wishes of survivors. Regretfully, on the eve of the apology, there was a change of leadership and Malcolm Turnbull was no longer Prime Minister. So that work had to very swiftly transition across to advising the current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. To the current Prime Minister's credit, he delivered an apology that went a long way to address the issues that had been raised through our reference group consultations.

I really want to bring attention—given that this is the second anniversary of that national apology—to one of the very core components of the advice that we provided to both prime ministers. That was that the national apology needed to be meaningful and, importantly, supported by real concrete substantive action to bring about powerful, lasting reform that would ensure that, as far as possible, that level of systemic child sexual abuse was to never re-occur in this fashion. While I appreciate that it is difficult to say the word 'never' in this context, that absolutely must be the goal that we all seek to achieve.

I want to put on the record my concerns around the lack of progress that this parliament and the Australian government, in terms of its leadership, have made in terms of ensuring that the National Redress Scheme, which was one of the critical components of our response to the royal commission recommendations, lives up to the expectations of what that redress scheme should be. It really is lacking in so many ways, and I am deeply worried about its capacity to live up to expectations of the survivors of child sexual abuse of what that redress scheme should be. Their expectations are very grounded in the actual royal commission recommendations. As I have said before in this chamber—and it is worth repeating—each and every time the government have chosen to deviate from the actual recommendations of the royal commission they have done so to the detriment of survivors.

It is very timely for this parliament to reflect on this now. We will soon be debating some amendments, I believe, to the National Redress Scheme, and I am forever hopeful that the government will indeed take on some of the big reforms that are necessary. I have tabled in this parliament reports in April 2019 and recommendations in April 2020 that have given this government every piece of advice and guidance that they require to make this National Redress Scheme the scheme that the royal commission envisaged it to be. I know that the shadow minister, Linda Burney, is undergoing negotiations with government to try and get bipartisan support for key reforms of the Redress Scheme. It is appalling that it is not survivor focused and guided by trauma informed practice; that must be at the centre of the Redress Scheme. Labor and survivor groups have long argued for a change to the matrix to increase the cap, to ensure that nobody can be disadvantaged if they seek review. There is much work to be done and there is no time to waste. Frankly, I have tabled way too many reports with way too many recommendations for this government to refuse to listen any further.

11:45 am

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

When I addressed the House in October 2018 I described the emotional day when the parliament came together to deliver the national apology to the victims of institutional child sexual abuse. It was only right that we acknowledged what had occurred and expressed our profound sorrow for what had occurred under our collective watch, and said sorry for our ignorance, sorry for our collective failure to listen to the children—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Proceedings suspended fr om 11 : 46 to 11 : 53

Prior to our little interlude, I was talking about what I spoke about in 2010, about the national apology. It's clear, as a nation, we accord more respect, or we did accord more respect, for those in authority than for the children under their care. I remember I spoke about how I found—

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Proceedings suspended from 11:54 to 11:59

When I addressed this House in October 2018, I spoke about the deeply emotional day when parliament came together to deliver the national apology to the victims of institutional child sexual abuse. It's only right that we not only acknowledge what occurred to children, but express our profound sorrow for what occurred under our collective watch.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Proceedings suspended fr om 11 : 59 to 12 : 02

I will try for the third time, Deputy Speaker Freelander. Colleagues, I was talking about when I addressed the House two years ago, and I was talking about how it really was a deeply emotional day to have the parliament come together to deliver that national apology for victims of institutional child sexual abuse. The apology was right. We understood that. Not only was it to express sorrow for what had occurred to children, but, more importantly, that this all occurred under our collective watch. We were sorry for our ignorance and, probably above all, sorry for our collective failure to listen to children. Clearly, as a nation, we, at that stage, accorded more respect, more trust in those in authority than in the children under their care.

I remember I spoke about how I found it utterly incomprehensible that people of faith could perpetrate such evil against innocent children, all the while hiding behind their positions of trust within their communities. I also recall talking about my cousin who, like me, grew up in a deeply religious family. We both attended Catholic schools, but, unlike me, his experience was vastly different. He was a victim of abuse. For his benefit, and moreover, I think, so this place could properly understand what had been undertaken and what he had gone through, I undertook to read his words to the parliament, and I will quote his words: 'My name is Anthony, and I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I'd like to express my gratitude for the opportunity to share some of my story, and to continue with my healing journey. Trust is a major feeling that is lost as a result of sexual abuse. My abuse was at the hands of a Catholic priest, a person I was taught to trust without question. It is, therefore, extremely difficult for me to trust myself, let alone anyone else. I felt like some trust was beginning to grow for me in the process of the royal commission and the apology to survivors and victims of the horrendous crimes that were perpetrated against innocent children like me.

'The process of the royal commission was amazing, an opportunity to be able to speak about the abuse and also to be heard in private session with Commissioner Bob Atkinson. I was working as a principal in Catholic education when I was able to face my abuse. Working hard to become a principal was my attempt to show that I could cope with the abuse, and I was driven to change the system that allowed me to be abused. It became too much for me, because of the ongoing hypocritical nature of the institution regarding children and how they run schools and churches.'

Sitting suspended at 12:06

Federa tion Chamber adjourned at 17:01 upon the adjournment of the House, in accordance with standing order 190(c)