House debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2021


National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Amendment (Technical Amendments) Bill 2020; Second Reading

6:14 pm

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I remind the House that the original question was that the bill be now read a second time. To this, the honourable member for Barton has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words, and, if it suits the House, I will state the question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question. I give the call to the member for Ballarat, in continuation.

6:15 pm

Photo of Ms Catherine KingMs Catherine King (Ballarat, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

I was speaking in relation to the National Redress Scheme and the very important amendments that the member for Barton has moved to try and actually get the scheme to live up to the promise that every member of this House made to survivors of institutional child sex abuse—that we would actually put in place the scheme that the royal commission recommended. I stated—in relation, particularly, to the issue of funders of last resort—that Labor's amendments will seek to ensure that governments act as funders of last resort where people would otherwise miss out because institutions are defunct or do not have the capacity to join the scheme. Equally, we think it's really important that there be the capacity for early payment under the scheme.

Finally, Labor's amendments are calling on the government to establish an advance payment scheme for people who are elderly or ill. As I said in my contribution previously, we've had instances of the scheme taking at least 12 months—in one case, 17 months—just to resolve an application, and many of these applicants are incredibly unwell and are incredibly distressed, and becoming increasingly so as they age, and the notion of an advance payment could be similar to a scheme that's currently being used in Scotland, which has been well received by survivors over there.

Given the decades and years that many survivors have waited for a chance at redress and justice, it is vital that people don't die waiting. People deserve to see that the institutions that have done them so much harm are held to account. They deserve to know that eventually they were believed, they are seen, they were taken seriously and the institutions that allowed this abuse to occur—and to be perpetrated not only once or twice but to continue, often for years and years—actually do acknowledge the harm that has been done.

Of course, changes have been made to this scheme before. Labor supports the changes the government made to charities law last year to prevent organisations getting government grants and removing charitable and tax deductibility status if they refuse to join the scheme within six months of an application being received. However, these changes will not guarantee that people will get access if an institution remains recalcitrant and refuses to join, or if they deliberately restructure their affairs to avoid the obligation to join and to hide assets. In these rare cases, we are calling on the government to consider placing a levy on such institutions, in order to cover the cost of redress and to collect funds from these institutions through the tax system if needed.

Survivors should not miss out on the opportunity to get redress because an institution refuses to take responsibility or does all it can to avoid taking responsibility. This National Redress Scheme is about assisting those who were done enormous harm, who had their trust violated and who've been forced for most of their lives to live with their trauma in silence. It has done enormous damage, and it has done enormous damage to people who live in my community and in the communities that many of us represent.

The scheme has the potential to do much good, but too many are being left waiting or being left with too little. I urge the government to support Labor's very sensible amendments. They are amendments that all members of this place should support, because they deliver on the promises that every one of us made, here in this House, to the survivors of institutional child sexual abuse: that we heard them, we believed them, we understood how deep the harm was to each and every one of them and to their families, and that they deserved, through redress, to have an opportunity—a small opportunity, at that—to actually live out the rest of their lives in the knowledge that that acknowledgement had been made, and with some small financial assistance to try and help them through what has been a life of great loss: lost opportunities to get educated, to get a career, to work in business—to actually live the lives that so many of us have.

So, with that, I ask the government to support Labor's amendments. And I again call on the government to listen to the survivors, at the very least.

6:20 pm

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There are days when there aren't many times when you can be too happy about what goes on in this place. The performance and the farce of politics can make Australians feel very distrustful at the way our parliamentary system works. It can make them feel like nothing meaningful gets done here. But there are good moments in this place. One of the proudest moments of my life was when the Gillard government established a royal commission into the institutional responses to child sexual abuse. For so many Australians that piece of legislation was a lifeline. It was an acknowledgment that the heinous abuse, which had fallen on deaf ears, was worth investigating.

My god, it was worth investigating: 15,249 individuals contacted the royal commission to report child sexual abuse. And, of those, 7,382 reported sexual abuse in religious institutions. That is probably the tip of the iceberg. A single case is too many, but the ripple effect of such widespread abuse is too much to comprehend, if you think about the impact on a child and the life not lived, the mental health struggles, the drug dependency and the breakdown in trust between child, parents and those they're meant to trust. The royal commission found that the appalling response of institutions to allegations of child abuse often led to a continuation of that sexual abuse by the perpetrators, and all the while institutions turned a blind eye.

I remember being in this building when those opposite, led by the then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, were decrying Labor's attempt to establish a royal commission. In fact he called it a witch-hunt against the Catholic Church. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's only a witch-hunt if the allegations are unfounded. Instead, the royal commission found that these religious institutions were a hotbed of vile predatory behaviour that went unchecked for too long.

I know there's absolutely nothing that can make up for the abuse that children faced. But that doesn't mean we can't try to right some of the monumental wrongs that were committed against these children. Among the recommendations of the Labor-established royal commission was a national redress scheme. It was a great initiative, so that survivors of child abuse could receive financial compensation from the institutions which had completely failed in their duty. The legislation for this scheme passed in 2018 with Labor support.

But, as with all great Labor ideas, this scheme has been left to wither by neglect and inaction on the part of the Prime Minister, a prime minister who talks the talk but refuses to walk the walk. He made a big and heartfelt speech in this place on the anniversary of the national apology to sexual abuse survivors, but beyond that the Prime Minister has shown no real interest in the substance of assisting survivors. His inaction after the announcement, the press conference, the photo op, all indicate that one should be concerned about the level of care properly funding this scheme. He's too busy running for cover, for people like the member for Hughes, when we should be facing up to this problem.

The royal commission estimated that 60,000 survivors would need access to the redress scheme over a 10-year life, but as of January 2021 the scheme had only received 9,232 applications and made 5,487 decisions. At this rate it is going to take over 30 years for the 60,000 payments to be made. Why has there been so little interest in the scheme, you may ask? The answer is, as it always is, mismanagement and pathetic, weak enforcement by this government. In 19 months since the commencement of the scheme a mere fraction of the projected numbers of survivors have received redress. Too many are waiting. Many are ill or dying and many have missed out altogether.

Make no mistake: this redress scheme is another step in addressing the reluctance of institutions to weed out paedophiles. Making sure the scheme works effectively isn't just a matter of administration. It's a moral obligation, one that the government is not upholding. The slow rate of application tells us a couple of things. First, the scheme is difficult to navigate, inadequate and too hard. At estimates in October the Department of Social Services said the average processing time was between 12 and 13 months. In some cases these individuals have waited decades for recognition and for justice, only to find that their efforts have been stymied at the final turn. The second reason for the slow rate of application is that some institutions are simply not signing up to the scheme, despite being named in applications for redress by survivors. I find it reprehensible that the same institutions which have completely failed to protect children now have the hide to deny victims compensation at the final frontier. It's disgusting. Giving access to compensation is the least they could do for people whose lives were impacted in their care. Therefore, Labor supports several amendments to this legislation. We supported the changes the government made to the charity laws last year to prevent organisations getting government grants and to remove charitable status if organisations refused to join the scheme within six months of an application being received. Those changes were a good move, but they don't go far enough. They do nothing to guarantee that people will get access to compensation if an institution simply refuses to join the scheme or if it restructures its assets to avoid paying out survivors.

Labor is calling on the government to place financial pressure on these non-compliant organisations in the form of rare but, to be fair, targeted levies. The levies would cover the cost of redress to individual survivors, who must not miss out on redress simply because an organisation feels it shouldn't have to pay redress or doesn't want to pay it. Too many refuse to admit what was going on. Too many are refusing to make amends for the harms they caused. So my challenge to the Prime Minister is: it's up to you to show survivors whether you're on their side in this fight or you back the institutions dragging their feet. The victims know Labor is on their side. We've always been on their side.

I recall my time before coming to this place, when an apology was given in the Victorian parliament. I remember meeting a gentleman when I was out on the back balcony of the Victorian Parliament House. I went outside to have a cigarette after listening to some powerful stories. This man was sitting there—tattooed, with earrings. You could see he'd done it pretty tough. He was clutching with both hands the letter he had received. I said to him: 'Bit of a tough day, mate?' He said, 'Yeah,' but this certificate, this acknowledgement by Premier Bracks and Minister Garbutt was recognition that what he had said was true. Finally, after decades, someone had listened to him and believed him, and it was showing that what he'd said was right. I'll never forget that fellow's face, and I'll never forget talking to him about the pain and the suffering he went through. It is after doing those things that you sit there and think: 'We have to commit, as a nation, to doing better. We must stamp out these heinous crimes.' We must fight to ensure that the victims who have had these horrible things done to them are given the support, the recognition, the help and the compensation that they deserve.

The government needs to step up and provide a guarantee that it will act as funder of last resort. This is not letting institutions off the hook by any means, but it's acknowledging that through unavoidable circumstances some institutions don't exist or don't have money to pay these survivors. Labor's reasoned amendments will protect the rights of survivors so they can claim the compensation they so justly deserve. If the government has decency and compassion, it will support and endorse these amendments. In line with this, the government needs to establish an early-payment scheme like the one used in Scotland. This would ensure that many survivors who are ill or elderly don't die waiting for redress.

This is a matter of our moral compass—what is fair, what is just. People deserve to see these institutions who have done them so much harm held to account, and they need to know that we see them. They need to know we hear them and they need to know that we believe them. An early-payment scheme would assist in this healing process. Survivors in Scotland have received it well.

The inadequate payments the scheme gives to survivors is another cause of concern. There is a $150,000 cap on payments, pushing people towards civil suits because they can get potentially more compensation for what they have suffered. Obviously, it undermines the fundamental purpose of the scheme, making it easier for survivors to achieve redress, to avoid complex litigation. Unbelievably, the scheme is using prior payments such as those given to members of our stolen generation to justify lowering out payments of redress. That is a completely separate and distinct issue. People can be abused by more than one institution in different respects. To this, Labor's amendments would lift the cap on redress payments from $150,000 to $200,000. That was recommended by the royal commission. The amendments would also ensure that prior payments that do not relate to institutional child sexual abuse are not deducted from the redress scheme. It is common sense and it is a matter of decency. What seems to be the never-ending issue with the government's distraction from this scheme is there are strong calls for the redress assessment matrix to be remade.

The Joint Select Committee on Implementation of the National Redress Scheme found that the existing assessment matrix fails to recognise the life-long harm to victims, limiting exceptional payments to penetrative abuse only. This is a major difference from the recommendation of the royal commission, which found grave harms can be caused by other forms of sexual abuse too. It can only be read as a callous cost-cutting exercise by the government to limit the amount that needs to be paid out. Labor's amendments will require the minister to remake the matrix to properly recognise the impact of abuse when calculating redress payments.

Finally, the limited one-off payment for psychological counselling support goes against the recommendations of the royal commission. In many cases, people have been provided with as little as $1,250 to cover future counselling and psychological support. That is paltry, it is insulting and it goes against the very spirit of the apology to survivors. The royal commission recommended ongoing support be provided, not one-off payments. I have met plenty of survivors during my time in this place, and I am very much aware of the trauma they face—$1,250 doesn't cut it. Counselling should be available through a survivor's life, not capped to save institutions some money. If a hypothetical company neglectfully exposed its workers to harmful chemicals, it would be required to cover the cost of the physical treatment that the workers incurred. The same principle should be applied to these institutions. They perpetrated the harm on these children who, in many cases, bear physiological scars for the rest of their lives. The institutions should be responsible for providing the psychological support to these survivors.

There is no reason the government should not support these amendments. There should be a two-year review so we can see that the improvements are actually being made. This is a government that can be held to account. This is what happens in a democracy. We need leadership on this issue, leadership like that shown by Prime Minister Gillard. It is sorely lacking at the moment. This needs to be addressed now and quickly, so I am urging the government members: look at your moral compass. Is this the right thing to do, not supporting Labor's amendments? No, it is not. You shouldn't be doing it for any other reason than to support the victims who have paid such a high price—the ones who are still here, the ones who bear the psychological and physical harms from years of abuse from people they trusted. Support these amendments because it is the right thing to do. At a time like this, these people who have suffered, these children, these victims, should be our focus. Our focus should be on doing what is right for this nation and what is right for those people. So I urge the government again, please, look at your moral compass, support Labor's reasoned amendments and do this as quickly as possible.

6:34 pm

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Oxley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Amendment (Technical Amendments) Bill 2020. I'll be offering my remarks today for the survivors and some of the groups I've had the privilege to meet. I say it's a privilege because I want to start my remarks today by acknowledging the bravery of so many Australians who have spoken out and given voice to many in the community who don't have a voice. When we sit in this chamber and have the honour of representing our communities and all Australians, I think sometimes we forget that one of our primary focuses as members of parliament is to be a voice for those who don't have a voice. I am so pleased that the member for Barton, the shadow minister, is here today to support my remarks. I acknowledge her amendment, but not only that; I acknowledge her lifelong commitment to giving voice to those who don't have a voice.

I know the speakers today have covered a lot of ground and it's important that we outline exactly why we are supporting these important amendments today. This is the first week of parliament's return. I attended the church service on Tuesday morning and heard sermons and readings from the Old Testament and the New Testament about hope—hope for 2021. I don't think it's a bridge too far if I say that the hope of survivors is that their voices are heard and the justice that they deserve is delivered in 2021. I pledge today to offer my continuing support to all of those Australians who have suffered so much and have bravely spoken.

As a member of the Joint Select Committee on Implementation of the National Redress Scheme, it's been an honour to hear the evidence from so many people—so many groups and so many different Australians—as they gave voice to what they have lived through. I feel extremely blessed to have had a comfortable and safe upbringing, with loving parents, in a safe and comfortable family environment. One of the things I have been most challenged by was listening to all of the evidence that was presented to us. The words that I speak in this chamber can't do justice to what people have been through. So I really was very, very keen to speak on today's legislation and to offer a couple of suggestions from my humble position as the member for Oxley.

We know that the bill is largely administrative in relation to the operation of the National Redress Scheme. It has a whole range of mechanisms which we of course support and endorse. But we don't think it goes far enough. We'll be making suggestions for practical and ongoing solutions, through the amendment process, that I hope many on the other side will agree with. I'm fairly confident they will agree. It's about having the courage of their convictions and joining with Labor to support the practical and sensible amendments that we're putting forward, such as increasing the maximum payment to $200,000, as recommended by the royal commission; ensuring that prior payments are not indexed when calculating a redress payment; ensuring that prior payments which do not relate to institutional child sexual abuse are not deducted from redress; introducing an advanced payment scheme for elderly and ill applicants similar to the one, we heard, is operating in Scotland; ensuring that governments act as funders of last resort for all institutions with no formal links; guaranteeing that the review of an offer of redress will not result in an offer being reduced; and providing ongoing psychological counselling and support for recipients of redress. What does that all mean? It means that survivors have access to support, that survivors have timely advice and information and also that the pain and trauma that they have gone through is recognised. Our amendments also require the minister to publicly name an institution and cease any Commonwealth funding; to remove the charitable and tax deductibility status of an institution—there was some debate about that for a while, and we did see the government acknowledge that; and to process applications as though an institution is part of the scheme and levy the institution for the cost of redress if it does not join the scheme within 12 months.

As we've heard from the member for McEwen, I really want to ask all members of the parliament to join with Labor members to ensure that these practical and sensible amendments can be delivered.

I want to acknowledge and recognise one of my constituents who contacted me. For the purpose of this debate, I will call the constituent Carl. Carl was in his late 50s and contacted my office recently, distressed and frustrated, having been told, back at the start of the National Redress Scheme in July 2018, that he could receive compensation and support within six months. Carl has had to wait for over three years, and he still hasn't heard about the progress of his compensation. Carl is one story, but every story is important. They've had to, obviously, live with the psychological and physical trauma for so many years from a system that badly let them down and, to be honest, they now feel that this government is letting them down. He was told that one of the two organisations would be in contact with him and provide him with the opportunity of help with access to the compensation. Both organisations have made no contact with Carl, although he's repeatedly tried to reach out over the last two years. So think about that. Think about someone on their own, not sure of the system, perhaps struggling with a number of social and health issues, having to try and negotiate with and talk to the institutions and some organisations that they're fearful of. That's one brave Australian, if you ask me. One of those two organisations haven't even signed up to the scheme.

I believe it's absolutely the government's responsibility to ensure the welfare and mental and physical wellbeing of all the Australian people. Our amendments don't solve every single problem, but what the amendments we are asking the government to support tonight do is ensure that those stories are addressed, that the redress the government promised is delivered and that the redress that survivors called for and fought for is delivered. I think they deserve nothing less.

There are a number of other issues I want to touch on tonight—just some practical advice, information and evidence that I have picked up during my work on this issue with the committee from some of the survivors and some of the organisations that I have heard from. This includes practical things, like the letter of offer and correspondence. I spoke with the shadow minister today about this. Currently, this can only be mailed out, not emailed. There's some argument as to why that would be the case. But, when you think about it in terms of how we do our tax, about myGov or about Medicare claimants—if you're living in supported or shared accommodation, you may not have access to your own mail. I won't get into the arguments about Australia Post; that's a separate argument. There is no mechanism for people who, for example, are worried about people reading their mail. I understand that some older Australians or other people are uncomfortable with that. But what I would like from the bureaucrats that are listening to this tonight and from the minister who is monitoring my speech in their office not far from here is a commitment that, for people who want that option, it could be provided to them safely and securely. It may not sound like the biggest issue in Australia, but the people that I've spoken to who are fearful about government and normally fearful about mail because it may be a bill or it may be bad news need another form of communication. When I questioned the department about this, they said that it was a good idea and they were looking into it. I really hope they are. Sometimes you hear government bureaucrats say these things and you don't hear much about it again. So tonight, in the Australian parliament, I'm just asking that, if you get one thing out of my speech tonight, it's that that becomes a practice so that people can have that practical advice. When I've spoken to survivors, they're fearful, waiting for the letter. We've just heard about my constituent who I've named Carl being worried about what was going to be in the letter. He hasn't got the offer just yet. For those people who are worried about what's going to be in the letter and whether it will be bad news, I just ask that an electronic process be considered.

There's also counselling and support for family members. This is another big issue that I have spoken to survivors about. As one survivor said to me, 'It really is a team effort, getting to the end of getting an offer.' It's a struggle; it's a battle—all of these words are used. Normally, if you're lucky, you'll have a team and a supportive family; not everyone does, but a number of survivors rely heavily on their carers and supporters, so I'd like to see more support for family members so that maybe they are not impacted. It is that team effort that survivors rely on, so I would call on the minister and the government to show more support for family members connected to survivors and, following on from that, counselling services as well. You cannot access specialist trauma counselling that takes you on the journey and builds the background, rapport and understanding of different needs. Instead, some survivors are referred to a small list of providers. That means they have to explain the situation and why they're calling. I think this needs to be a streamlined process in terms of offering support and counselling.

I see the member for Lingiari here. I can only imagine what it's like in remote and regional communities, where it is another step further, where those options aren't available. I know we've had our challenges with COVID, and, for survivors, it's been another layer they've had to deal with, but if we can look at how to re-imagine and deliver counselling support services, it would go a long way.

We know the numbers are way down on where they should be in terms of the 60,000 survivors. We know that we are behind on where we should be. I think that we are forming some practical suggestions tonight. I've offered my own suggestions that I hope the government and the minister will follow up. There are a whole range of issues that I know we'll continue to deal with. But I conclude my remarks tonight by saying to all of the survivors and all of the support people around those survivors: We're not going to forget you. We will not leave you behind. If I have anything to do with it, I'll continue to speak out, and I'll continue to make sure that your voices are heard.

6:47 pm

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

It gives me great pleasure to be able to participate in this debate. I commend those who have made a contribution. I thank our shadow minister for her fine words earlier on this afternoon. Labor is supporting this legislation, although we are moving a set of amendments. Clearly, survivors have waited for so long and have been through so much. We need to fix this legislation. We made a commitment to deliver redress that was timely, redress that does not retraumatise and redress that does not leave survivors missing out.

In the 19 months since the scheme's commencement, only a mere fraction of the projected number of survivors have received redress. I note that many have used the available figures. It's now time for us to get this redress scheme back on track and delivering on its promises for survivors, and that's why we're introducing our amendments. As we know and as you've heard already, the scheme that was ultimately rolled out has not fully realised the recommendations of the royal commission. It has failed to deliver on the promise of redress.

Labor's amendments will better reflect the reality of survivors and the spirit of the original recommendations. We want to work constructively with the government, as evidenced by the contributions made this afternoon. We want to get this scheme working and delivering for survivors. I'm not going to repeat all of the amendments, but I will commend them because they make significant proposals and changes that will have a dramatically positive impact upon the delivery of justice to the survivors and will address the recommendations of the royal commission.

I want to refer to one institution in particular that is not part of the Redress Scheme. I refer to the Retta Dixon Home, a home that was run by the Australian Indigenous Ministries, AIM. In January this year AIM was barred from participating in this scheme by the federal government. It says that the church group does not have the money to pay its potential clients. This institution housed members of the stolen generation, Aboriginal children, from 1946 till 1980. The royal commission in 2014 through its inquiries laid bare allegations of horrific sexual, physical and mental abuse at the home. I will go through a couple of them to remind us of the dastardly nature of the abuse that occurred in this institution, and I know in many others.

A child at Retta Dixon who suffered seizures was allegedly tied up like a dog to a bed and fed on the ground with an enamel plate. One girl allegedly had faeces rubbed in her face, was tied to a clothes line and was deliberately burnt with hot water. Residents testified to seeing a male house parent force-feed a baby until the child choked. The inquiry heard that some children were raped so badly that they were taken to hospital for treatment but were watched by their abuser to make sure that they didn't alert authorities. One man told of having as a boy to wear nappies to school to stop the bleeding after being sexually assaulted. Other children were allegedly flogged with a belt until they bled. One woman said she had persistent hearing problems from repeated beatings around the head.

No funder of last resort has been identified for Retta Dixon Home survivors. That means that no state, territory or federal government has stepped up to guarantee any compensation payments ordered through the scheme are fulfilled. How can this be justice? I want to pause for a moment to acknowledge the work of many people who did get a private settlement in 2017 from an action that was taken in 2014 in relation to abuse that occurred at Retta Dixon. But not all the residents were party to this legal action. It was a private settlement. It had nothing to do with this government, although the government was a party. It was done in spite of this government's inaction and dithering. In the case of Retta Dixon it is also clear that some more claimants want to be done and some other support that was recommended and promised has not been done. Again, Retta Dixon is just one example of the failures to get the National Redress Scheme working sufficiently and in a timely manner.

I said earlier that Retta Dixon has been excluded from the scheme. One of the appalling aspects of the current Retta Dixon saga is that it appears that the effective operating group of Retta Dixon, which is the AIM, which I referred to earlier, may indeed have funds within its group so that it could join the NRS. Yet this operator has currently been allowed to claim it doesn't have the funds to join the scheme and thereby allow the claimants to be compensated. We know that there are at least 13 applications for redress that are now stuck in administrative limbo, with no funder of last resort identified.

What is key, though, is that a major law firm has now been engaged in some individual civil matters regarding Retta Dixon, and they are underway at present. One of these matters is an application being heard in the Supreme Court in Darwin this Friday, 5 February. The question the court is being asked to determine is whether the incorporated entity, AIM, Australian Indigenous Ministries Pty Ltd, is a related entity of the unincorporated AIM, Aborigines Inland Mission, that ran the Retta Dixon Home over the several decades during which the abuse occurred. That has severe implications for the way in which this organisation may have dealt with these victims of child abuse. It is also worth noting that, overall, Retta Dixon Home's operating group is in fact a thriving organisation across Australia, yet in January 2021 the operator could offer nothing more than a verbal apology for the abuse that occurred. If the outcome of the court application is favourable, it could well mean the incorporated AIM entity is held legally liable for the failings of the unincorporated AIM. This case is being seen as determining which of these entities should ultimately be held financially responsible for responding to civil claims for historical abuse.

Now, this is a Christian organisation. I go to church. And here we have an organisation which could well be hiding in another entity funds which should be available to pay compensation to victims of that institution's abuse. This would be laughable if it weren't so shocking. Sadly, unless the government supports the amendments which we are proposing, it will by its inaction demonstrate that it appears to be on the side of operators protecting organisations that could well have funds to pay the claimants. Even if we assume this is not the case, the government clearly has no ability to organise any other way to provide a settlement for the claimants. That is why the amendments which have been proposed by us should be supported by the government.

While the government dithers or avoids any action, claimants are dying. Yesterday my office spoke to another legal firm that has Retta Dixon claimants who have died while waiting for their just recompense. How can any reasonable person deny the rights that these people have and should have had—haven't had, sadly—to just compensation? This is a significant failure of the NRS. I personally know many of the people who were in Retta Dixon and I know many who have passed. It is so sad. We are left sitting in this parliament, trying to implore the government to do the right thing and support the amendments that we are putting up as a positive and constructive way of dealing with this outstanding issue, yet the government won't support us. What can their reason be? What is it that prevents them from seeing the justice in these proposals and accepting the propositions within them to make sure people who are denied justice get their justice and get the compensation which they so richly deserve?

I was, as an adjunct to this contribution, going to refer to the stolen generation. What we know is that there were over 2,000 Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory who were stolen over a period. I won't go through the reason, but what we do know is that many who were stolen were like those at Retta Dixon, physically, emotionally or sexually abused, and yet there is no Commonwealth compensation for members of the stolen generation. Why not? We, Labor, are committed to compensation for the stolen generation, a compensation scheme for survivors of the stolen generation in Commonwealth jurisdictions—the Northern Territory and Jervis Bay.

At the last election we undertook to address this issue of providing compensation and came up with a positive scheme to address it. We also said we would establish a national healing fund to support healing for the stolen generation and their families, and we said, because we need to address the current malaise, the current problem of high rates of Indigenous children currently in out-of-home care, that we would convene a national summit on First Nations children in our first 100 days. Why can't the government do it? Why is it? They can't address the issues of compensation, and they won't fix the NRS. That's a sad indictment on this government and something they should be ashamed of.

7:01 pm

Photo of Andrew LeighAndrew Leigh (Fenner, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

In speaking here on the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Amendment (Technical Amendments) Bill 2020 it is an honour to follow the member for Lingiari, who has followed this issue deeply during his long career in this place. The member for Lingiari is, as members know, the only person serving in this place who gave his first speech in the Old Parliament House. And, during his time in this parliament, he has worked to serve the most disadvantaged. His powerful speech today, telling some of the stories of those who were abused, is just another of his many contributions towards serving the people he represents and addressing the issues of deep disadvantage. He will be sorely missed when he leaves this place at the next election.

I spoke in December about some of the institutional abuse stories, about the accounts of Lars and his brother Willem, about Imelda and about the institutions here in the ACT. I did so aware of the risk of retraumatisation that always occurs with these stories, and I acknowledge those who had the bravery to share their stories with the royal commission and allow the royal commission to include those accounts of what had happened to them in its final report. Those accounts are heartbreaking. It is shocking, mind-numbing almost, to imagine these things being done to young children.

Perhaps one of the most shocking things past the stories is the statistics reported in the royal commission's report on the percentage of church figures behind alleged abuse over the period 1950 to 2010. There were four orders which had allegations of abuse against more than a fifth of their members—the Brothers of St John of God, 40 per cent; Christian Brothers, 22 per cent; Salesians of Don Bosco, 22 per cent; and Marist Brothers, 20 per cent. The incidents ranged from Jehovah's Witnesses to Knox Grammar and included those from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. The abuse ranged across Australia, as survivors knew when they began calling for a royal commission as early as the 1990s. There were voices speaking out about the dangers of abuse and challenging the government of the day to do something about it by setting up a royal commission, but it was slow to take effect. The survivors simply weren't believed as they should have been. It took the Gillard government to establish the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Nobody now, I think, imagines that the establishment of the royal commission was a mistake.

It's been 19 months since the commencement of the redress scheme and only a small fraction of the projected number of survivors have received redress. Too many are waiting, many are ill, many are dying and some have missed out altogether. As of 15 January 2021, there were 9,232 applications lodged, 5,487 decisions made and 4,660 applications finalised. At the current rate, according to the member for Barton, it would take 32 years for the estimated 60,000 people eligible for redress to receive a payment, and those delays are just another form of trauma. The Joint Select Committee on Implementation of the National Redress Scheme heard that for one survivor it took 17 months to finalise their application. The Department of Social Services said in the first half of 2019 the average processing time was eight months. In October, the department advised the average processing time was between 12 and 13 months. That's just not good enough given we are dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in Australia.

Therefore, Labor will be moving a number of substantive amendments, as the member for Barton has foreshadowed. We'll be moving to institute a levy on organisations that do not join the scheme. As I noted in my speech last year, Labor supports the changes the government made to charities law to prevent organisations getting government grants and removing charitable tax deductibility status for organisations that refuse to join the scheme within six months of an application being received. If institutions continue their recalcitrance, if they deliberately restructure their affairs to avoid the obligation to join by hiding assets then we believe the government should consider placing a levy on some institutions to cover the cost of redress and collect funds from those institutions through the tax system. There are only a handful of organisations that were named in the royal commission report but have not indicated they intend to join the scheme—the Australian Air League, Boys Brigade New South Wales, Jehovah's Witnesses, Lakes Entrance Pony Club Incorporated, Kendra Communication, Fairbridge Restored Ltd.

Labor will also be moving amendments to ensure that the government steps up and acts as a funder of last resort—for instance, in the case of Retta Dixon Home in the Northern Territory, which was referred to by the member for Lingiari—to ensure that no-one misses out because institutions are defunct or because they don't have the capacity to join the scheme. Labor is calling on the government to put in place an advance payment scheme for people who are elderly or ill, as has been put in place in Scotland. We are calling on the government to increase the cap on redress payments from $150,000 to $200,000, as recommended by the royal commission. The royal commission listened to the survivors; we the parliament should listen to the royal commission. The cap should be $200,000, and payments not related to institutional child abuse, such as payments to the members of the stolen generation, should not be deducted from redress payments. Labor's amendments will also cover the necessity for ongoing psychological counselling and support for survivors. As anyone who has worked with people experiencing deep trauma knows, one-off payments are often insufficient; counselling frequently needs to continue for decades, if not for a lifetime.

I thank the hard work of the royal commission and acknowledge the important advocacy of the member for Barton and others on this side of the House. We need to make sure that the royal commission's report is fully implemented and that survivors get the assistance they need in a timely fashion.

7:10 pm

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The National Redress Scheme was created in response to recommendations by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The royal commission listened to thousands of people about the abuse they experienced as children. The abuse happened in places where children were thought to be safe, protected and cared for—schools, churches, recreational sporting clubs and institutions with the purpose of providing care. The horrors that emerged from the royal commission were nothing short of a national disgrace.

Before I get onto the substance of the debate, I might with the indulgence of the House mention a matter of some concern to me, which is related tangentially to this issue. The website Etsy is popular with people looking for interesting things to buy. They are often handmade or handcrafted. Unfortunately it has also been hosting outrageously unacceptable goods from sellers that perpetuate the sexualisation of children, and it has been far too slow in shutting such sellers down. Examples include the sale of child abuse and incest themed products, such as T-shirts sporting slogans and images begging fathers to violate their daughters. They are beyond disgusting. Australian fashion designer Anna Cordell pulled her wares from Etsy and has launched an online petition demanding that Etsy remove these sellers. As of a few hours ago, nearly 17,000 Australians had signed, and I am one of them. Sexualising children perpetuates their abuse. Children should never be regarded as sexually desirable. The nation's institutions, including governments, failed our children in the past. We must demonstrate that we have learned and we must not fail our children today. Etsy must shut these sellers down immediately. If it fails to do so, the full weight of relevant state and federal authorities should be unleashed upon it.

As of 15 January this year, the Redress Scheme had received 9,232 applications, had made 5,487 decisions and had finalised 4,660 applications, including 4,620 payments totalling around $385 million. In June, we know that there were more than 512 applications on hold, waiting on institutions to join the scheme. The Morrison government, frankly, has had plenty of time to make the National Redress Scheme more efficient and to roll out redress to the eligible survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. At the current rate the government is moving, it will take 32 years to complete the Redress Scheme. Many victims will have died by then, some from old age. These delays amount to neglect, they add to the trauma, and they are entirely avoidable and unnecessary.

The anxiety that many survivors experience at the possibility of missing out altogether due to their age or perhaps their illness is a further form of trauma. The slow rate of applications indicates the scheme is difficult to navigate, inadequate and hard to find. Survivors have spoken of the difficulty in preparing an application. The Joint Select Committee on Implementation of the National Redress Scheme heard that for one survivor it took 17 months to finalise their application—and that is only the time taken to complete the application. Then there is the processing, which, on average, according to the Department of Social Services, was taking eight months. That's on average. Many take much longer. Last October the Department of Social Services said in estimates that the processing time of an application was now 12 months. It's disgraceful. This is not the way survivors of child sexual abuse should be treated.

Survivors have waited decades and endured pain and suffering arising from crimes perpetrated against them as children. The prospect of justice is in sight but, agonisingly, just out of reach—and entirely because of the mismanagement by the government. I do support the National Redress Scheme as part of an apparatus that seeks to heal the wounds, but the system is failing too many survivors. It is the government's responsibility to know where the system is failing and why, and, most importantly, to fix it.

Labor supported the changes that the government made to charities law last year to prevent recalcitrant organisations that failed to join Redress from getting government grants and remove their charitable and tax deductibility status. However, these changes will not guarantee that survivors will get access if an institution remains recalcitrant and refuses to join, or if they deliberately restructure their affairs to avoid the obligation to join by hiding assets. The cases are rare but they are growing. Labor is calling on the government to place a levy on such institutions in order to cover the cost of redress and collect funds through the tax system if needed.

Survivors should not miss out on the opportunity to get redress because an institution refuses to take responsibility. Many applications are in limbo because institutions that are the subject of applications are now defunct or have no present-day links or entities. In other cases, applications for redress cannot be progressed because the institution itself does not have the financial capacity to meet obligations under the scheme. A notable example is the Retta Dixon Home in the Northern Territory. This is where the government needs to step up and provide a guarantee that it will act as a funder of last resort where there are no linked institutions that can take responsibility. No survivor of child sexual abuse should ever miss out on access to redress because the institution ultimately responsible for the abuse has folded or simply cannot afford to pay. Labor's amendments will seek to ensure that governments act as funders of last resort when people would otherwise miss out because institutions are defunct or do not have the capacity to join the scheme.

Labor's amendments also call on the government to establish an advance payment scheme for people who are elderly or ill. This could work similarly to the successful system used in Scotland, which has been well received by survivors and ensured that proper redress and justice was granted to survivors who otherwise faced the prospect of dying before receiving their redress payment. When processing takes months or perhaps years, that's a worthwhile investment. People deserve to see that institutions that have done them so much harm are held to account. They deserve to know that, eventually, they were believed, they were seen and they were taken seriously.

Another major issue with the design and implementation of the scheme is the inadequacy of redress payments. The current $150,000 cap on the redress scheme is inadequate. It pushes people towards civil processes and away from or outside of the scheme. Anecdotally, we are hearing that survivors can get more generous payments, while receiving these payments in similar time frames to the scheme. This issue is undermining the fundamental purpose of the scheme, which is to make it easier and quicker for survivors to access payments and support. Redress payments are also being significantly reduced because of prior payments. The joint select committee heard an instance in which a payment was reduced from $50,000—$50,000, for child sexual abuse—to $20,000 because the survivor had been awarded a payment of $15,000 years prior. For example, prior payments to stolen generations survivors—a separate issue entirely from institutional child sexual abuse—are being used to reduce redress payments.

The government's reduction in redress payments when it becomes aware of a survivor's payment for previous inflictions is shameful. It is particularly outrageous given the cavalier way in which this government has allowed literally hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money to be handed to multimillionaire CEOs and executives under JobKeeper loopholes. This is a government that chases down every dollar in overpayments made to poor people and survivors of child sexual abuse but is happy to give truckloads of cash to its rich friends without a second thought. The mind boggles at the hypocrisy and the cruelty.

According to the interim report of the joint select committee:

DSS advised that as at 7 February 2020, 449 payments had been adjusted due to prior payments, with the average value of the adjustment being $34 574.02. DSS also confirmed that the maximum adjustment made was $150 000 which reduced the redress award to zero.

To that end, Labor's amendments would lift the cap on redress payments from $150,000 to $200,000, as recommended by the royal commission. Labor's amendments would also ensure that prior payments are not indexed when calculating a redress payment and that prior payments which do not relate to institutional child sexual abuse are not deducted from redress payments—for example, payments to members of the stolen generations for having been stolen.

The redress assessment matrix has also been widely criticised. As the joint committee found, the existing assessment matrix arbitrarily links the amount of redress awarded to the physical type of abuse perpetrated, and this 'fails to recognise the lifelong harm that any sexual abuse has on a survivor'. The report further states:

Of grave concern was the decision to limit the payment of exceptional circumstance to penetrative abuse. This approach fails to acknowledge the harm caused by other types of sexual abuse.

This was a noted departure from the original recommendations of the royal commission. One survivor stated, 'I don't know how they came up with the matrix.' If the royal commission recommends something and the government decides to do something else, surely the least that survivors deserve is to be told how the government came to that decision to do so.

Labor's amendments will require the minister to remake the redress assessment framework so that it recognises the impact of abuse when calculating redress payments, as recommended by the royal commission. The limited one-off payments for psychological counselling and support are contrary to the recommendations of the royal commission. Where are concerned that in many cases people are being provided with as little as $1,250 to cover future counselling and psychological care. The royal commission recommended that ongoing support should be provided. Imagine suffering child sexual abuse and being told that you've got a cap on the amount of counselling you can be provided with. It beggars belief. The royal commission report states:

Many survivors will need counselling and psychological care from time to time throughout their lives.


Counselling is not necessarily needed continuously throughout a survivor's life.

But it should available throughout a survivor's life. Child sexual abuse is a life sentence. Counselling should be available on an episodic basis, as needed. To that end, Labor's amendments will ensure that necessary ongoing psychological counselling and support will be provided to survivors.

Often we hear a claim from the government that it cannot make changes to the scheme on its own, that it needs the support of the states and territories. Of course, agreement is needed for certain changes. But so is leadership and so is action from the government. But so far we have seen too little. Improvements will not happen in a vacuum, just as this scheme and the royal commission that was asked to make recommendations on it did not happen in a vacuum. They happened because there was real leadership from the top, leadership from former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Rome was not built in a day, and neither will a successful national redress scheme be. The government has had years to get its act together, but it continues to fail to act. This is a government riddled with inertia. The legislated two-year review of the scheme is due to report soon. We know from talking to survivors that the issues reflected in Labor's amendments have been raised as part of that review.

Only the government can move amendments that have financial impacts. That is why Labor will put forward a series of amendments that require the minister to investigate changes and report back to the parliament. This is a sensible and flexible approach for the government. There is absolutely no reason why the government should not support those amendments. It is in the best interests of survivors all over the country. It is in the best interests of Australia's national integrity and reputation to be able to acknowledge its shortcomings and work to correct its past. Most importantly, it is in the best interests of the survivors of child sexual abuse.

7:25 pm

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to acknowledge the member for Barton and the other speakers and thank them for giving a voice to the survivors and their families. I'm a proud and practising Catholic, so I've been troubled deeply by the way in which young people were placed in the care of our church, and other churches and organisations, by the Commonwealth—by governments—which failed them dreadfully. A lot of wrongs have been done; a lot of hurt has been caused. Although we cannot undo those wrongs, although we can't erase the hurt that's already been caused, we should compensate the victims, those whose lives have been marked in some way. That is something that we can do. In some cases their lives have been totally destroyed. It is now well beyond time to begin righting those wrongs.

I've got a short period of time now, so I want to paint a picture for those listening, and tomorrow I'll continue and call on the government to act. Back in 2014, more than six years ago now, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse travelled to the Northern Territory. They went to hear evidence from surviving Aboriginal people who had as children been housed at the Retta Dixon Home in Darwin, which some speakers have already mentioned. These were mixed race children, part of the stolen generations, that the government forcibly took from their families and institutionalised between 1946, when the home opened, and 1980, when Retta Dixon was shut down. For those listening, maybe at home, out on the road or wherever, the last thing I want to do is retraumatise people, but in painting this picture of Retta Dixon I will be mentioning some heinous acts that were performed so that others listening understand the gravity of the situation and why the Commonwealth needs to act.

Hundreds of kids who were put into Retta Dixon were abused in horrific ways—physically, emotionally and sexually. They stayed at the home until they were 18 years of age. The centre was run by AIM, formerly the Aborigines Inland Mission and now called the Australian Indigenous Ministries. They have the same acronym, AIM. The royal commission heard appalling evidence of abuse by the adults employed by AIM to run the Retta Dixon Home—adults who were charged with caring for these children. There was evidence of children being chained up like dogs, a baby force-fed until it vomited, children whipped with electrical cords or sexually punished, a girl who was stabbed with a can-opener until she bled, another girl who was punched so hard her nose broke and who was left for days without medical treatment. Kids who wet the bed would be undressed and paraded in nappies in front of the other children—humiliated. They were molested and they were raped, both by adult staff, one of whom was widely known by all the children as a serial rapist of children, but also by some of the other kids, who had themselves been molested.

These witnesses painted a horrifying picture at the hearings that were held in Darwin. Many of them wept for the entirety of their evidence. They spoke of how, understandably, the abuse they'd suffered marked their entire lives. It destroyed their relationships with partners, with their kids and with their families. They told of how, decades later, they still lived in fear and still suffered from nightmares. They recounted their inability to reconnect with their parents and siblings once they were released. They spoke of their depression, their drug addiction and alcoholism, and the suicidal ideation that they grappled with as a result of the demons that they carried.

I want to take a moment to highlight the incredible bravery of those witnesses who came forward to detail what they had endured. It was unspeakably difficult for them to do that after decades of living in shame and silence. I want to take a moment to pay tribute to the dozens and dozens of other victims who we did not hear from at the royal commission—

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! It being 7.30 pm, the debate is interrupted. The member will have an opportunity to continue his speech tomorrow.