Thursday, 4 February 2021
National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Amendment (Technical Amendments) Bill 2020; Second Reading
The original question was that this 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. If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.
I want to acknowledge again the member for Barton and the other contributors to this debate who have spoken on this very important issue. I rise to speak on the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Amendment (Technical Amendments) Bill 2020. 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. These were mixed-race children that the government had forcibly taken, the Commonwealth had forcibly taken, from their families as part of the stolen generations and institutionalised between 1946, when the home opened, and 1980, when the home was shut down. The centre was run by AIM, formerly the Aborigines Inland Mission, now the Australian Indigenous Ministries—same acronym, AIM.
The royal commission heard horrific, appalling evidence of abuse by the adults employed by AIM to run the Retta Dixon home. These were adults who were charged with caring for these children that had been taken from their mothers. I outlined some of that evidence in previous speeches. What I want to say is how incredibly brave the witnesses, the survivors who came forward, were to detail what they had endured. It was unspeakably difficult for them to do that after decades of living with the shame and with the 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 but who suffered all the same. They too were incredibly brave. They are survivors. It hardly needs saying, but I'll say it anyway: they did not deserve any of it. None of it was their fault. They were betrayed at every level by the adults around them and the church and the government systems that were supposed to support them. What happened to these children is unforgiveable.
It has been 40 years since Retta Dixon was shut down. It has been almost 80 years since it was opened. In that time, many former residents have died. They died waiting for an apology, an acknowledgement that what was done to them—the abuse—was wrong. They died waiting for redress. Seventy-one victims came to private settlement following a class action taken against AIM, but many others missed out. It has recently come to light that, AIM, the organisation that ran the Retta Dixon Home, to its credit, has tried to join the National Redress Scheme, but it has been barred from doing so by the Department of Social Services, which says the group doesn't have enough money to pay out potential claimants.
That's bad enough, but, on top of that, no funder of last resort has been identified for Retta Dixon Home survivors. That means that no state or territory government, nor the Commonwealth government, has stepped up to guarantee that any compensation payments ordered through the scheme be fulfilled. That means that those brave survivors have been left in administrative limbo. We have agreed that they deserve to be paid compensation, but there's no-one there to compensate them. How can this be happening? It is not right; it is clearly not right.
The federal government, the Commonwealth, administered the Northern Territory from 1911 to 1978, so the Commonwealth is responsible for what happened to these children during that time. It's really as simple as that. The Commonwealth must be the funder of last resort in the Northern Territory. The federal government has failed to properly manage the implementation of the National Redress Scheme, and survivors are not applying; they're missing out and facing even more distress as a result. The Commonwealth, the federal government, those opposite, have failed to step up and ensure that governments at all levels are funders of last resort when the offending institutions cannot pay or no longer exist. There are at least 10 Retta Dixon Home survivors who are now in this limbo, and that is just a handful of the people that we could help, that we should help. They are getting on in their years now and some of them are sick. We must urgently establish an early payment scheme for elderly and ill applicants to address issues with delays so that people do not die while they are waiting for this decision. This has already happened for far too many.
I have written to the Prime Minister about this and haven't had a response. I recently met with Eileen Cummings. Eileen is the chairperson of the NT Stolen Generations Aboriginal Corporation. She is a remarkable and tenacious woman. She was taken from her family as a young child and almost totally lost her Aboriginal identity. She lost her parents, her siblings, her cousins. She lost her connection to her country and all the associated learnings that go along with that. Eileen has worked tirelessly with other members of the stolen generations, giving them support and advice. She deeply understands intergenerational trauma and has done so much work to try to reduce that. Eileen was taken to Croker Island in the Northern Territory, not to the Retta Dixon Home that I have been speaking about. But of course she's very familiar with the Retta Dixon Home due to her work with NT Stolen Generations. Eileen took me out to the Retta Dixon site in Darwin the week before last. It's adjacent to Bagot Road—members would be familiar with it—a major arterial road that takes you from the airport into the city. To the untrained eye, it just looks like a vacant block. Sometimes I do roadsides from that block. I always stop at the stone and the plinth to remember all those young children who suffered so much. Thousands of Darwinites drive past the site of the home every day and most likely have no idea of the horrors that were perpetuated there. But we all have a responsibility to know, and I believe this is also part of the truth telling that we desperately need in our nation. Now that we know, we can't turn our backs on the people we've let down—and we have let them down terribly. It's beyond time to acknowledge that fact and to begin compensating as best we can.
As I said to the Prime Minister in my letter to him, facilitating the redress of the Retta Dixon survivors would, in the big scheme of things, be a small but incredibly significant and appropriate step towards acknowledging their hurt and suffering. It would be in line with the acknowledgement and substantive response afforded to other Australian victims of institutional child sexual abuse. These children suffered the same hurts, and they deserve the same compensation. Compensation offers both symbolic and monetary meaning for the victims. It may help them, their families and their communities to deal with the ongoing disadvantage that they're grappling with. It may help them, their families and their communities deal with the ramifications of intergenerational trauma. It may even offer them, at this late stage in their life, some sort of closure. Surely, Madam Deputy Speaker Bird, they deserve that?
So I'm asking, as the federal member representing Darwin, the place where these young children were taken and where many were abused, that they be respected and that the Commonwealth fulfil its obligation. Just imagine the hurt. Just think of being taken away from your mum and brought up by people who abuse you and those around you. Just imagine that for a second, and then imagine the effect on all the relationships you then have in your life. Imagine the strength of those people to survive. Why are they still waiting for the Prime Minister to just acknowledge their hurt and suffering and say, 'Yes, the Commonwealth took these children away; the Commonwealth is responsible to step in as a funder of last resort'—to simply accept that responsibility, show some leadership and get it done. (Time expired)
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was announced by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in November 2012 and established in January 2013. During the five-year course of the royal commission, it handled over 42,000 calls and almost 26,000 letters and emails, and it held just over 8,000 private sessions with survivors of child sexual abuse. The final report of the royal commission, comprising 17 volumes, was delivered to the Governor-General in December 2017. I'm proud of many of the things the Gillard government achieved, but I feel that the royal commission will be shown to be one of that government's more important initiatives, an initiative that should have lasting benefit for the Australian community because it revealed the most appalling of crimes—crimes that had been hidden for decades behind walls of secrecy and cover-up.
So it is of great concern to me that the great work carried out by that royal commission and the bravery of the thousands of survivors who came forward to give evidence to it are being betrayed by the Morrison government. Every day, more Australians are discovering that this Prime Minister runs a government that is heroic when it comes to announcements and hopeless when it comes to delivery. In the context of the Redress Scheme that the current bill deals with, this means that we have a government that is happy to make announcements about how it respects the findings and recommendations of the royal commission into child sexual abuse and about how the government supports justice for the survivors of those terrible crimes. However, when we look at the Redress Scheme this government set up and how it actually works, it's clear that survivors of child sexual abuse have been hung out to dry by a government that has every interest in self-promotion and not enough interest in delivering justice for the survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
While this situation is appalling, it is, sadly, unsurprising. Boastful announcements with hopeless follow-up is how the Morrison government operates, and a very clear link can be drawn with what the Morrison government has done with the banking royal commission, conducted by the eminent lawyer and former High Court judge Ken Hayne. To begin with, the then Treasurer Mr Morrison and his Liberal crew fought against that vitally necessary royal commission tooth and nail, voting against its establishment 26 times, desperate to stop the inquiry. The then Treasurer described it as 'hot air' and 'a stunt' and declared to his lasting shame that such an inquiry was 'nothing more than a populist whinge'. Subsequent reporting about what went on inside Mr Turnbull's government—that was before the current Prime Minister knifed Mr Turnbull to take his job—revealed that the current Prime Minister was the last to hold out in cabinet, trying to shield the big banks from scrutiny.
Looking back now, that isn't at all surprising. We can now see that cover-up is this Prime Minister's first instinct whenever there is a hint of crime, corruption or other wrongdoing by those with power. Of course, the reverse is true for the working poor—you only have to look at the cruel and unlawful robodebt fiasco to see how willing this Prime Minister is to pursue those who can't fight back. Whether it's sports rorts, dodgy land deals for Liberal donors or the use of forged documents by one of his ministers, Mr Morrison's approach to crime and corruption is always the same: deny, distract and cover up, and, above all, never take responsibility for anything.
Of course, when public pressure could no longer be resisted and the Liberals faced the prospect of a backbench revolt over the cover-up scheme it was running for the big banks, the government, finally, grudgingly, agreed to hold a royal commission into the financial services industry. And, as the horror stories of industrial-scale rip-offs and rapacious behaviour by unethical banks unfolded before Commissioner Hayne, the crocodile tears started flowing. 'Oh, how could we have known?' cried the Liberals! And after Commissioner Hayne delivered his report in February 2019, the Morrison government received it with furrowed brows, promising to act on the deeply concerning findings and recommendations for reform that it contained. Yet, now, almost two years after the Prime Minister committed to implementing all 76 recommendations of the banking royal commission, the government has still only implemented barely a third of them while it delays and waters down others.
Yet again, Australians can see a prime minister who loves to stand before the cameras to make grand announcements concocted by his marketing team but who afterwards quietly slides away from taking the action he promised and, as we saw just this morning, shutting down any criticism or any debate of their failure to implement the excellent recommendations of the Hayne royal commission—which brings me back to the current bill and the scheme it seeks to amend, the National Redress Scheme.
In September 2015, the royal commission released its report on Redress and Civil Litigation. This redress report was an interim report, but it set out the commission's concluded view on the question of redress. It was an unusual device, but it should have worked. Regrettably, it didn't. The commission issued that interim report more than two years ahead of its final report because, as it said in the report:
By reporting as early as possible on these issues, we are seeking to give survivors and institutions more certainty on these issues and enable governments and institutions to implement our recommendations to improve civil justice for survivors as soon as possible.
In keeping with this sense of urgency, one of the recommendations in the redress report was:
The Australian Government should determine and announce by the end of 2015 that it is willing to establish a single national redress scheme.
The report also said that the national scheme should be:
… ready to begin inviting and accepting applications from survivors by no later than 1 July 2017.
It is deeply regrettable that this Liberal government showed no real interest in doing the work required to establish a national redress scheme. This is demonstrated by the fact that it did not fulfil the royal commission's recommendations and deadlines. There was total silence from the government. Meanwhile, the survivors of child sexual abuse waited anxiously for justice to be done at last. Some of them have now died waiting. This is a tragic demonstration of the adage that justice delayed is justice denied.
Finally, on 1 July 2018, a year after the deadline set by the royal commission, a redress scheme was at last established, in response, once again, to growing public pressure. While we supported that scheme at the time it was established, we also expressed a number of very serious concerns about its design. Sadly, those concerns have been borne out, and, while it makes a number of technical and minor amendments to improve the scheme, this bill clearly does not go far enough. The very first recommendation of the royal commission's redress report is titled 'Justice for victims'. It is important that we do not lose sight of this fundamental point. The redress scheme must be about delivering justice to survivors of the heinous crimes committed against them. That first recommendation states:
A process for redress must provide equal access and equal treatment for survivors—regardless of the location, operator, type, continued existence or assets of the institution in which they were abused—if it is to be regarded by survivors as being capable of delivering justice.
Recommendation 2 sets out three foundations by which the proposed redress scheme would provide justice. It states:
Appropriate redress for survivors should include the elements of:
a. direct personal response
b. counselling and psychological care
c. monetary payments.
The primary concerns we in Labor have about the Redress Scheme the Morrison government has set up relate to the failure of the scheme to properly provide for the second and third elements of the scheme recommended by the royal commission. There is not enough time today for me to discuss all of the significant failings of the Redress Scheme this government administers and what needs to be done to improve it, but I want to make it clear that we are moving amendments to encourage the Morrison government to provide a better response to survivors of childhood sexual abuse by making a number of significant changes to the scheme. I'll briefly outline some of the changes that we are calling for.
First, we are calling for the maximum payment to survivors to be increased to $200,000, as recommended by the royal commission. The royal commission made this recommendation after careful deliberation and extensive evidence regarding the appropriate monetary payment that would provide tangible recognition of the seriousness of the hurt and injury suffered by a survivor. While payments under the Redress Scheme are not meant to be compensatory in the same way in which damages from a civil claim against an abuser would be, I note that survivors of the most heinous forms of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts have been recovering in excess of a million dollars in civil actions against their abusers. These are, of course, in civil actions. The Redress Scheme is designed to serve a different purpose. In this context, the decision of this government to reduce the maximum amount of redress payable to survivors of the most serious forms of child sexual abuse to $150,000 reflects not only a failure to adhere to the recommendations of the royal commissioners but also a deep meanness of spirit. How is it that this government had no problem finding over $80 billion to give to big businesses in tax cuts and could pay $30 million to a donor for land at the new Sydney airport site worth $3 million but says it has no choice but to short-change the survivors of childhood sexual abuse?
We're also calling for the Redress Scheme to be amended so that it provides necessary ongoing psychological counselling and support for survivors of abuse. Recommendation 9 of the redress report of the royal commission stated that: 'Counselling and psychological care should be available'—and this was the commission's phrase—'throughout a survivor's life.' Recommendation 11 deals with the need for ongoing care by explicitly stating:
Redress should fund counselling and psychological care as needed by survivors rather than providing a lump sum payment to survivors for their future counselling and psychological care needs.
The Redress Scheme established by this government directly contradicts those explicit recommendations of the royal commission and instead provides for a lump sum payment for counselling and psychological services. This is cause enough for concern, but of even greater concern to us is that the maximum amount of the lump sum payment that will be available is $5,000. To put this amount in perspective, the Australian Psychological Society's current recommended schedule of fees sets the standard fee for a 45- to 60-minute consultation at $260. That means that a survivor who received the maximum redress payment for counselling and psychological services and who paid a standard fee to a psychologist for individual sessions would be able to pay for 19 sessions with a registered psychologist.
The royal commission consulted extensively with survivors, their families and mental health experts in making its recommendations, and—given that it has recommended the need to provide for psychological care on an ongoing basis, when it is required, for the rest of a survivor's life—it is very concerning that a decision has been made to instead provide a lump sum payment of only $5,000 for a lifetime of psychological care. That is 19 sessions only, even for survivors of the worst kinds of child sexual abuse, to support their mental health for the rest of their lives. Of course it's true that some survivors may not seek psychological support at all, but some survivors who will make claims for redress will need far more than the $5,000 on offer under this scheme. Some may still be teenagers, with many years of psychological struggle ahead of them. In ignoring the explicit recommendations of the royal commission for lifetime care in this context, the government was obviously not informed by any kind of medical evidence or concerns for the mental health of survivors. It's my sincere hope that this government recognises the many failings of the redress scheme it administers and makes further amendments beyond those contained in this bill, to ensure that the scheme delivers justice for survivors.
In conclusion, I reiterate that, while holding a royal commission can provide a powerful means to inquire into an injustice or other matter of great public importance that would otherwise remain hidden, just as important as holding that inquiry is how the government responds to its report and recommendations. This is clearly demonstrated in the case of the banking royal commission, many of the recommendations of which the Morrison government is doing all it can to delay, undermine and ignore, and it's also true with this royal commission's report. (Time expired)
I rise to speak on the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Amendment (Technical Amendments) Bill 2020. The National Redress Scheme act commenced on 1 July 2018 in response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. We cannot go further in talking about this bill without reminding ourselves of some of the very telling paragraphs of the report and some of the shocking stories and events that were brought to light by that royal commission.
The sexual abuse of a child is a terrible crime. It's the greatest of personal violations. It's perpetrated against the most vulnerable in our community. The executive summary of the royal commission is titled 'A national tragedy', and that is what we must take note of. The sexual abuse of a child is a fundamental breach of the trust that children are entitled to place in adults. It is one of the most traumatic and potentially damaging experiences and can have lifelong adverse consequences.
The royal commission found that tens of thousands of children have been sexually abused in many Australian institutions. We will never know the true number. Whatever that number, it is a national tragedy perpetrated over generations within many of our most trusted institutions.
The sexual abuse of children has occurred in almost every type of institution where children reside or attend for educational, recreational, sporting, religious or cultural activities. Some institutions have had multiple abusers who sexually abused multiple children. It is not a case of a few rotten apples. Society's major institutions have seriously failed. In many cases, those failings have been exacerbated by a manifestly inadequate response to the abused person. The problems were found to be widespread and the nature of the abuse so heinous that it is difficult to comprehend.
The report and the inquiry found that a failure to act will inevitably lead to the continuing sexual abuse of children, some of whom will suffer lifelong harm. That harm can be devastating for the individual. It's also a huge cost to the entire Australian community. Many survivors will require help with health, particularly mental health; housing; and other public services. That is why it is so vital that the government act with haste in implementing all recommendations but also ensuring that the Redress Scheme addresses those so vulnerable within our society and the need they now have.
The proposed amendments to be made to this bill clarify the operation of the certain provisions and improve the administration of the scheme, and I support these amendments. But I note that the second anniversary review of the scheme is currently underway, led by Ms Robyn Kruk AO, who has a strong record in addressing institutional challenges with sexual abuse. That review is due for completion, and I understand from the minister's office that they expect to receive the report by the end of February.
Whilst I appreciate that the government is awaiting the outcomes of that review before making broader changes to the operation of the act, there have been a number of reviews and recommendations from the Joint Select Committee on the Implementation of the National Redress Scheme that warrant expedited action. We have an amendment before the House that, in fact, seeks to put that into effect. Some of these recommendations are captured in the amendment prepared by the honourable member for Barton and will be considered in the consideration-in-detail stage. I'd like to address some of those briefly.
An amendment to section 116A seeks to legislate that institutions who do not participate in the scheme be named after six months. This is already government policy, and, to date, they have been consistent with adhering to that policy. But I am a supporter of legislating this policy provision to ensure that it is not likely to change this policy and to ensure consistency throughout changes of ministers and government. I also note that the amendment circulated is worded in such a way that the minister must develop a position on each of these provisions within 90 days of the commencement of the provision.
I support the proposal to increase the cap on payments under the scheme from $150,000 to $200,000. This is consistent with the findings of the royal commission and provides greater compensation to victims of child sexual abuse. I also support the end of indexing of relevant prior payments. At present, the most vulnerable victims who settled or were paid off years ago have their eligible compensation reduced by the indexation of that initial payment. This reinforces the psychological issues suffered in their initial compensation case and reduces the compensation they are now eligible for under this scheme. This is inequitable and challenging for the victims, and I support an end to that indexation.
Another amendment is to ensure that, where doubt exists about the purpose of any prior payment, we should err on the side of the victim and that that is a sensible and an appropriate response. This amendment is particularly relevant to the members of the stolen generation. Some have received small sums of compensation for their treatment. However, the purpose of that compensation is unclear. As such, if there is evidence of child sexual abuse, those prior payments would not be considered for the purpose of compensation.
I strongly encourage the government to consider the implementation of an advance-payment scheme for applicants who are ill, elderly or nearing the end of life. Scotland have established an advance-payment scheme, and it has been shown to be operating effectively. That is just one example the Australian government could look to. This is a compassionate response to provide closure for those who have suffered as a result of institutional abuse, in advance of them passing away or reaching the end of their years. The advance compensation may be smaller than that received upon the full completion of an application, but it is important to provide closure and to treat these applicants with compassion and an acknowledgement of the likelihood that their application will be successful in time.
The amendment would ensure that, in the event an institution no longer existed or did not have the capacity to pay because they had shifted money around or tried to make corporate changes to their structure to avoid liability, the government would become the funder of last resort. This is important for victims of these institutions. It would mean that institutions that refused to participate, or that restructured their affairs to avoid participating, would be forced to contribute to the scheme—for example, through a levy. For instance, this would capture organisations like Jehovah's Witnesses, who are allegedly restructuring their affairs to avoid liability as well as flat out refusing to participate.
Another amendment provides for ongoing psychological support, not just more one-off payments which are as small as $1,250. In light of the severity and the scope of the incidents of sexual abuse that were found by the royal commission, it's clear that those small, one-off payments will not be sufficient.
Some of these amendments would see the assessment framework changed so that the impact of abuse is properly recognised, in line with the recommendations of the royal commission. Currently, it's an arbitrary process which assigns small caps on how much can be paid for the impact of abuse. These caps are adjusted by the type of abuse, not the severity of its impact. This, I would argue, is not giving due regard to the impact and the consequences of abuse.
I commend the member for Barton for the amendments. I have had discussions with the minister's office and the member for Barton's office in seeking to understand the motivations and the situation between the two. Whilst I would normally be in favour of waiting for the outcome of the review, it's clear that some of these amendments are needed now to ensure victims of sexual abuse receive the compensation and assistance they need without delay. This is a tragedy; we all recognise that. We do need to act. So I commend the bill and the amendment to the House.
I thank members for their contribution on the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Amendment (Technical Amendments) Bill 2020. This bill will amend the primary legislation for the National Redress Scheme for People Who Have Experienced Institutional Child Sexual Abuse. This bill will increase the efficiency of this scheme for its remaining eight years of operation and assist in finalising outstanding applications. The amendments address minor and technical issues with the current operation of the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Act 2018 and will address unintended consequences or oversights in the initial drafting of the primary legislation underpinning the scheme.
Consistent with the survivor focus of the scheme, survivor groups support the passage of the bill, as does the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee. All jurisdictions have supported the progression of the bill in accordance with the scheme's governance arrangements and are required to be consulted on and approve all future changes to the redress act, due to the cooperative basis under which the scheme operates.
Regarding the amendment moved by the shadow minister, I acknowledge our shared desire to continue to improve the scheme. This bill adds to the strong improvements the Morrison government has already made to the Redress Scheme. The government has remained committed to improving the scheme and encouraging all named institutions to join. Already the government's progress is working. Pleasingly, 191 institutions have joined the scheme in its third year of operation. This number has been contributed to through the use of naming and shaming of recalcitrant institutions. The government has already implemented measures to name and shame institutions which fail to sign up to the scheme and financial penalties for those who fail to join the scheme. These two levers come into force six months after the first meaningful contact with an institution, once named.
The Morrison government has also commenced the legislative two-year review. It's currently being undertaken by Robyn Kruk AO. The report has a focus on all aspects raised in the shadow minister's amendments and incorporates extensive consultation with survivors. The report will be made public. Changes of this nature would also have to be endorsed by the redress board, comprised of state and territory ministers, meaning that the amendments would be unlikely to be able to be implemented regardless of their passage through this place. As such, the amendments will not be supported for these reasons.
I also wish to table an addendum to the explanatory memorandum that responds to concerns raised by the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills. The government thanks the committee for their comments. The Morrison government remains committed to improving the Redress Scheme. I commend the bill to the House.
The original question was that this 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. The immediate question before the House is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.