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Wednesday, 13 March 2013
Page: 1857

Mr KEENAN (Stirling) (10:23): As is well known to all members in this chamber, in January this year six commissioners were appointed to work together as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. I wish to state at the outset of debate on the Royal Commissions Amendment Bill 2013, which amends the Royal Commissions Act to accommodate some of the needs of this commission, that the coalition supports this bill that makes those changes and we support the important work that the commission has been set up to deal with. We in the opposition are of the belief that whenever abuse has occurred it must be tackled vigorously, openly and transparently. But what will be clear to all members who have taken an interest in this royal commission is that the task that has been set before the commissioners really is enormous. The existing Royal Commissions Act, which dates back to 1902, does not have sufficient flexibility within it to be able to accommodate the needs of this royal commission.

This bill makes two important amendments that will assist the work of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The difficulties that the commissioners will face in pursuing their mandate have been brought home to me. We are all very familiar with these issues and instinctively have a very strong response to them, but sometimes when you talk to an individual or you see something it really brings home to you how difficult their task is going to be. In my case it was an interview that I saw with one of my predecessors as member for Stirling, Ian Cameron, who was talking about what the announcement of the royal commission meant to him. He outlined in the interview that he had been a victim of abuse within an institution. He was explaining in that interview about the dark shadow that this abuse had cast over his whole life, and not just his life but the life of his family as well, and how incredibly difficult it was for him to talk to people, even those who were close to him for many decades. Finally he did get a chance to give evidence, at another inquiry into abuse, which was actually being run by one of the institutions, but he was unable to do so because it was so difficult for him to recount what had happened to him. Ultimately his son gave the evidence on his behalf. You can imagine how difficult that must have been not only for him but for his family. These are the sorts of issues that the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse faces. I am pleased that this bill deals with some of those issues, in particular the amendment it makes to allow the commission to hear evidence in private.

The coalition strongly supports this royal commission into the evil of child sexual abuse wherever it has occurred within the context of institutions. We believe it is very important for the commission not to be constrained in pursuing its inquiries in relation to all institutions, both public and private, where there is a reason to believe that child sexual abuse might have taken place.

The letters patent that have been written by the Governor-General to Justice McClellan, who chairs the commission, allow a very broad scope for the commission to pursue its work. There is clearly going to be an enormous volume of information for the six commissioners to deal with. I will go through the commissioners because I think it is important to understand that they are a very distinguished group of Australians. The chair is Justice Peter McClellan, who since 2005 has held one of the most senior judicial positions in New South Wales, the Chief Judge at Common Law of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. The other five commissioners are Mr Bob Atkinson, a former Queensland police commissioner, Justice Jennifer Coate, a Family Court judge and former Victorian coroner, Mr Robert Fitzgerald, a productivity commissioner, Professor Helen Millroy, who is a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, and former senator for Western Australia, Mr Andrew Murray, who is well known and regarded in this place.

According to the commission's website, the commissioners have been appointed for three years and have been asked to begin their inquiry as soon as possible. They will prepare an interim report by no later than 30 June 2014. In the interim report the commissioners will also identify when their final report will be completed. The final reporting date has been set initially for the end of 2015, but this will be subject to advice from the commissioners in their interim report.

In a media statement issued on 16 January this year, Justice McClellan acknowledged the size and complexity of the task before the commission. He noted the need for amendments, some of which are contained in this bill, to allow authorised member hearings. Referring to those amendments, Justice McClellan stated:

Each of us has different backgrounds, professional experience, qualifications and expertise. We live in different regions of Australia. To assist the Commission in its work we understand that the government proposes to amend the Royal Commissions Act to provide that the Commissioners need not all sit when conducting a formal hearing. If that legislative change is made the Commission will utilise this capacity in an endeavour to gain a complete understanding of the problems in various parts of Australia in the most efficient manner possible. Even with this legislative change our task is complex and will take significant time.

In relation to the size of the task ahead there are some telling statistics that are available publicly that show the scope and the nature of the work that the commission will have to undertake. There have already been almost 12,000 visits to the commission's website since the middle of January, and there have been almost 500 calls to the 1800 number since 14 January, which is an average call volume of 25 calls a day. The hearing has not yet commenced and the commission is still in the process of hiring staff and training them to deal with what will be very difficult calls. So, at the moment, those almost 500 calls have been dealt with via an answering machine, which clearly means that there is going to be an enormous backlog for staff to deal with once they are hired and trained. This just reminds the House of the enormous work that the commission will be required to undertake.

The amendments to the Royal Commissions Act contained within this bill are going to do two very important things. The first will enable the chair of the royal commission to authorise one or more members to hold a hearing or take evidence. There are six commissioners and the present act would require that all of them sit in on any hearing that the commission were to undertake. The amendment in this bill very sensibly will allow them to conduct an authorised member hearing, which means only one member will need to be present for a particular hearing. So, presumably, the commission will use this to hold hearings at the same time in different parts of Australia to help it deal with the scope and complexity of its task.

The amendment will give the chair commissioner the authority to distribute the hearing workload where appropriate. This measure will apply to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and it will allow one or more of the six royal commissioners to conduct hearings. As I said, part of the reasoning for appointing those six commissioners to oversee the royal commission into child sexual abuse is the high volume of evidence that they are likely to be required to inquire into. The royal commission will clearly move as fast as it can to cover what is a vast amount of evidence and deal with people's personal accounts and therefore to report back about how we might craft necessary reforms. The amendment in the first part of this bill will make it possible to have the multimember hearings.

Part 2 of the bill details how the royal commission might respond to taking what is very sensitive and very personal evidence of people in private sessions. I outlined at the start of my comments how important this is. It would be so difficult for people to recount some of the events that the commission will need to deal with in relation to the abuse that these people would have suffered in institutions. You can imagine if you have been forced to go in and give that evidence in front of a royal commission how incredibly intimidating and difficult that would be even in normal circumstances. In this case, I think the bill crafts a sensible response to allow people to give evidence in a private session. We agree that it is important for those who are affected by child sexual abuse within the institutional context to be able to share their experiences in an appropriate way, recognising that many of the participants, in fact most of the participants, will be very traumatised. Of course, they will have particular support needs. Part 2 of this bill makes what I think are sensible amendments to the Royal Commissions Act to accommodate what will be the special requirements of participants in giving their evidence.

On behalf of the opposition, I would like to thank the six commissioners who have undertaken to be part of this very important work. It will be an extremely arduous and very emotionally demanding task. They will be engaged in it for several years. The time frame of reporting back by 2015 might not be possible, given the scope of the evidence that the commissioners will be forced to deal with. Clearly, they are going to be required to deal with many of the terrible things that have happened to people and their suffering as a result. Victims must be allowed to heal and perpetrators must be brought to justice.

I think this bill makes two sensible amendments to the Royal Commissions Act, which dates back to well over a century, to allow commissioners to deal with the volume of information that they are going to receive and also the nature of that information in a way that protects the dignity of victims and that recognises the difficulty which they will have in giving evidence in such a context. I commend the people who are prepared to come forward and share their experiences, because it must be such an incredibly difficult thing for them to do. I am glad that the parliament has taken these steps to enable them to do that in a private way that does meet the needs of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.