Thursday, 2 September 2021
National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Amendment Bill 2021; Second Reading
At the outset of these remarks, I move:
At the end of the motion, add ", but the Senate:
(a) notes the Government has not committed to implementing all the recommendations of the second anniversary review of the National Redress Scheme; and
(b) calls on the Government to listen to survivors and:
(i) increase the cap on payments to $200,000, as recommended by the Royal Commission;
(ii) end the indexation of prior payments;
(iii) fix the assessment matrix and properly recognise the impact of abuse;
(iv) make sure funder of last resort arrangements are in place so survivors don’t miss out;
(v) address the limitations in the support that enables survivors to access redress, noting the large shortfall in expected applications, including among First Nations people;
(vi) guarantee that offers of redress will not be reduced on review; and
(vii) provide ongoing counselling and support".
The issues covered by this amendment will be well outlined in the remarks I will now make.
It has been almost a decade since the Labor government, under Julia Gillard, announced the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The whole point of this royal commission was to listen to people who had been abused and then betrayed, silenced and ignored. The scheme that was ultimately rolled out by this government in response to the findings of the royal commission did not fully realise the recommendations of the royal commission. The royal commission estimated 60,000 survivors would be eligible for redress. As of 26 March, the scheme had received some 10,000 applications, and the slow rate of these applications indicates that the scheme is difficult to navigate, inadequate and hard to find. Those findings have certainly been reinforced when the Joint Select Committee on Implementation of the National Redress Scheme has spoken to survivors. Survivors have spoken of the difficulty of preparing and making application. For one survivor, it took some 17 months to be able to put it in. A Senate estimates hearing last year revealed that the average time for processing was beyond 12 and 13 months and that the scheme has been plagued by delays, a lack of resources, low quality of support, and the geographic spread of support services. I've been particularly concerned, as has the redress committee, about the barriers the scheme throws up for First Nations people, people from CALD backgrounds and people with a disability.
Earlier this year, Labor moved a comprehensive suite of amendments to overhaul the scheme and get it back on track to end delays and ensure that survivors didn't miss out. The government then refused those amendments on the basis that the second-anniversary review was yet to report. That report has now been completed; it was completed months ago. What it found was largely consistent with what we moved to amend in the legislation last time—things like there not being enough staff or IT resources to provide for survivors; continued delays; and an inability to deliver for survivors.
While today we don't want to stand in the way of these amendments, they fall well short of what survivors have asked and what Labor proposed. Indeed, they fall short of what the review itself highlighted, which Minister Ruston said at the time that she would respond to. We have institutions still not joining the scheme, and they are shielding their assets or becoming defunct. While we welcome the government's power to revoke the charity status of such institutions and its pledges to name and shame them, this measure does not go far enough. It does not deliver the kind of justice that these survivors deserve. The government needs to seek financial contributions from these institutions through a levy or through the tax system, and where institutions are genuinely unable to pay or are defunct the government needs to act as funder of last resort. We know the government is considering this, but what we need and seek from the government is an ironclad guarantee to provide certainty for survivors. For years we've called for an early payment scheme to ensure that the elderly or unwell do not miss out on redress. We're glad the government has finally come to the table on this, and it's reflected in the bill today, but I'm sad that it's taken too long and that during that time we've had survivors die without compensation. If the government had acted sooner, as it should have, fewer people would have died waiting for this step to justice.
Survivors have also criticised the caps within the scheme, indexation of prior payments and the deduction of unrelated prior payments, including stolen-generations payments. Some of our First Nations people have suffered as stolen generations and as survivors of institutional child sex abuse. It is a shame that it has been constructed in this way when we should be seeking every opportunity to repair and not to discount this damage. Instead we have stolen-generations payments being deducted from survivors' redress, as if surviving one of these experiences means you don't deserve justice from the other. Is that really the way this should be constructed? We hear that these barriers and delays are forcing survivors to give up or to seek justice outside the scheme through more difficult, costly and lengthy civil claims. These are the things the scheme was designed to avoid.
The bill will reduce the time frame over which prior payments are indexed before being deducted from a redress payment. It will do this by ceasing indexation when an application for redress is made, not at the time when the application is finalised. I have to say that, in Labor's view, this is simply not good enough. We are once again calling for the indexation of prior payments to cease completely and ensuring that unrelated payments are not deducted. We're calling on the government to lift the cap on payments from $150,000 to $200,000. The government should provide a guarantee that a review of an offer of redress will not result in the offer being reduced. These are the things that survivors have been calling for, and they are what the royal commission recommended.
I'm also disappointed to say that the bill does not address major shortcomings in the assessment matrix. The government's assessment matrix sets low and arbitrary payments for the impact of abuse based on the kind of abuse, not on the scale of its impact on a survivor's life. Labor agrees with survivors and argues that the term 'penetrative' should be removed in acknowledgement that trauma is caused not only by penetrative abuse and that some victims have been unable to properly disclose the physical nature of their abuse in the application matrix. The bill also fails to provide the ongoing psychological support that survivors have called for and, again, that the royal commission recommended.
Sadly, the Redress Scheme under this government falls short of the original recommendations of the royal commission, and the improvements in the legislation before us today fall short of properly getting redress back on track and delivering real redress to survivors—redress that is timely, redress that does not retraumatise and redress that does not and should not leave survivors missing out.
I rise to make a contribution to this second reading debate on the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Amendment Bill 2021 and to indicate that the Greens will be supporting this important legislation. We see this as a down payment on the changes the government needs to make to the redress bill. I've spoken about these changes before. The Greens articulated this when we were in this chamber debating the bill in the first place: the redress bill did not, to turn a phrase, fit the bill—it didn't then and it doesn't now. It didn't go far enough, and there were significant problems with it. And, because it was one minute to midnight in getting the legislation through, those changes couldn't be made, and here we are all these years later having to make these amendments.
As I said, the Greens see these amendments as a down payment. It is the first step towards implementing the second anniversary review, the Robin Creyke review, which contained many, many important amendments that the community and survivors and care leavers have been calling for for a long time. A lot of the problems with the bill were evident even before the scheme started. I am actually pleased that there are moves to pass this first round of amendments, so that some of these important changes can be made.
First off, the advance payments are particularly important for those ageing and ill survivors. We support advance payments. We think they're a very good idea and have in fact been supporting them for a long time. Turning to the issues around indexation, this is a major bone of contention with the scheme. It has been ever since the scheme started. I remember standing—at that seat over there, I think it was—and trying to move amendments to fix the indexation issue, because it is simply not fair. Survivors have been complaining and raising their concerns about this. Now, while this change is a small step in the right direction, it does not address the concerns of survivors. It does not go far enough, and I'm disappointed that we are still having that debate here. Another point that has been raised many times, including with the joint committee on the redress scheme, relates to extending review and acceptance periods. The removal of statutory declaration requirements for applications has also been raised many times, as has the payment of instalments been raised—many, many times, in fact. So we are supporting those amendments.
But there are many things that still need to be addressed. One of those—as the minister knows, because I have raised it repeatedly—relates to funders of last resort. I will say that Minister Ruston has acknowledged this and has made some changes on funders of last resort. This was a major issue when the scheme was proposed and we were debating the first bill. It was blatantly obvious that the funder of last resort provisions in that bill would not work. And, as we see, that has proven to be the case. We need to make sure that people who were in institutions that are now defunct—institutions that no longer function—are able to get redress payments. It is my belief that, if the application is processed by the department and it is found that redress is due, governments should pay it, and then argue with the institution. Governments, state and federal, should be the backstop in terms of funders of last resort. I don't want to let institutions off, by any stretch of the imagination. Institutions should pay their due for the damage they have caused to generations of survivors and care leavers. That is an area that the Greens will continue to follow. Institutions should pay their dues for the damage they have caused to generations of survivors and care leavers. That is an area that the Greens will continue to follow.
I would also like to just touch very briefly on the issue of Fairbridge. We had another hearing of the Joint Select Committee on Implementation of the National Redress Scheme not that long ago where we heard some conflicting and concerning evidence around how the process is intended to work for those people that went to Fairbridge. I think we need to continue to pursue this issue, because I'm not convinced that this issue has been resolved. It involves the Prince's Trust and Fairbridge Restored. Whether there is going to be a separate scheme or not, survivors have conflicting understandings about the Fairbridge matter, and it needs to be resolved as a matter of urgency. Fairbridge operated homes in a number of places across Australia but particularly in Western Australia, in the south-west of Western Australia, and I am deeply concerned about ensuring that survivors get their due redress and for this matter to not be drawn out any further.
The Greens will be supporting this bill, but there is more work to be done. This is a down payment on addressing the issues that came up during the Kruk inquiry. I'd also like to congratulate Ms Kruk for the work she did in the second anniversary review. It brought out the issues that so many people have had with this scheme and that need to be addressed. Having said that, we will be supporting this bill, but we'll be keeping a very close eye on the next stage of amendments.
I thank senators for their contribution on this really, really important bill. I suppose I am somewhat disappointed by the contributions particularly made by the Labor Party and, to some extent, Senator Siewert. They know that this is a scheme that is voluntarily contributed to and also requires the agreement of states and territories for any changes to the act. To do otherwise would be in breach of our intergovernmental agreement with the states and territories. This bill reflects the initial action of the government. We have managed to get agreement for five amendments in order to progress five of the recommendations of the two-year review.
Senator Siewert, in relation to funder of last resort, the government has already publically stated that it supports the funder of last resort arrangements to cover defunct institutions where there is no government responsibility and where existing institutions do not have the financial capacity to join the scheme. We made that position very, very clear in our interim response to the two-year review and have reported that in the media as well. We've also received funding allocations through budget measures to make sure that we have the funding of the federal government's contribution, and we await the states and territories to come back and confirm to us that they also agree to do this, but clearly there were budget processes that they needed to undertake within their individual states and territories.
I'd also like to say to the chamber that the government has been very clear about its overwhelming support for many of the recommendations of the Kruk review, but we're also very mindful of the voluntary nature of the scheme, and we are very, very concerned with making sure we keep in the scheme everybody who has agreed to participate in the scheme, because that is the best way that the government can ensure that survivors who put their names forward and apply to the scheme for redress are able to receive the redress that absolutely every one of them deserves. We remain committed to making sure this scheme is survivor focused, and everything we do is in the best interests of ensuring that survivors are at the absolute forefront of everything we do. I commend the bill to the Senate.