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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 131


Senator MURRAY (11:16 PM) —Last year, on 30 August, this chamber was witness to some extraordinary scenes. The normally rarefied atmosphere of the Senate was broken when the Community Affairs References Committee tabled the Forgotten Australians report, which was the culmination of more than a year of chronicling the harrowing stories of abuse and neglect of over 500,000 children in children’s institutions last century.

Parliamentary inquiries come and go but few, if any, have had the emotional power of that tabling or of the inquiry process itself. The public gallery was filled with the forgotten survivors, either alone or with family members. Loud applause and cheers intermittently broke out as senators spoke to the report. Many a tear was also shed. And the tears were not just confined to the survivors. Senators wept as they delivered their speeches and afterwards at the packed press conference. The tabling of the report received extensive media coverage, as it should have. Every major paper carried substantial stories of this deeply moving event, with many an accompanying editorial. Every television news channel ran footage of the tabling, and it was the lead story in the ABC’s 7.30 Report.

Fifteen months on and what a different story. During the last parliamentary sitting, the coalition government finally handed down its long-awaited response to Forgotten Australians. Amid the media flurry on industrial relations reform and antiterrorist legislation no media coverage transpired. At the same time, the government also responded to the inquiry’s second report, Protecting vulnerable children, which covers the more contemporary problems of child protection. I spoke to the tabling of the government response and expressed my overall disappointment.

The first disappointment is that the federal government has failed to show leadership in the area of child abuse, now recognised by many, including the Australian Medical Association, as perhaps the most serious public health issue confronting Australia. It is serious because the long-term social and economic costs are immense. If you harm a child, a harmed adult will result. Mostly with little education and few life skills to cope on the outside, they got on as best they could. Some made it with the love and support of others; however, many struggled with substance abuse, homelessness, welfare dependency, mental health problems—the list goes on and on. Society at large is affected. For instance, Australia’s National Crime Prevention Program has identified preventing child abuse and neglect as a fundamental element of crime prevention. The associated economic costs are massive, reportedly costing us $5 billion annually.

The second disappointment I expressed was at the general shrugging of the shoulders by the coalition government at what the child migrant, Aboriginal and other Australian survivors of institutional abuse suffered and continue to endure. Its refusal to even consider a national reparations fund indicates a hard-edged approach. Recommendation 6 of Forgotten Australians was the one that so many care leavers were counting on. It recommended that the government establish and manage a national reparations fund for victims of institutional abuse. I wish to quote from the report. It says:

There was much discussion in evidence during the inquiry on the means by which reparation for past wrongs experienced by care leavers could be made. A variety of mechanisms were canvassed and these included:

  • legal options through the courts; 
  • various redress/reparations schemes, both overseas and in Australia;
  • internal Church-based redress schemes;
  • redress through victims compensation tribunals;
  • establishing a Royal Commission; and
  • significantly boosting and enhancing dedicated services for care leavers.

               …              …              …

The Committee believes that the Commonwealth Government should establish a national reparations fund for victims of institutional and out-of-home care abuse. The Committee believes that, while no amount of money can adequately compensate victims for the pain and suffering experienced while in institutions and other forms of care, monetary compensation can go some way towards acknowledging past abuse and affording a sense of justice and closure for many victims.

The Committee acknowledges that while monetary compensation can compensate victims to some extent it is unlikely to achieve healing for many care leavers, so other forms of redress, especially counselling is important ...

The Committee does not have a definitive view as to the amount of reparations that should be payable under the scheme, but believes that the reparations should be capped at an appropriate level. As noted previously, a maximum amount of $60 000 per claimant is payable under the Tasmanian Government’s scheme, and similar amounts are payable under several schemes operating in Canada. Under the Irish Government’s scheme the payments that have been made to date have ranged widely with an average value of €80 000 [$A136 000].

The Committee believes that the scheme should be funded by contributions by the Commonwealth and State Governments and the Churches and agencies directly involved in the implementation and administration of institutional and out-of-home care arrangements. The Committee considers that, while the Commonwealth did not have a direct role in administering institutional care arrangements, it should contribute to the scheme as an act of recompense on behalf of the nation as a whole. The Committee believes that State Governments should contribute as they were directly involved in the administration of institutional care arrangements. The Committee also firmly believes that the Churches and agencies should contribute to the scheme to share the cost burden and as a form of acknowledgment of their collective role in the failure of their duty of care.

The relative contribution of the various parties to the scheme should be based on their proportionate liability which, as discussed previously in this chapter, should take into account such factors as the relative roles of the respective groups in the provision of institutional care; their ability to pay; and the degree to which they are already providing compensation or funding services for care leavers.

The Committee believes that a board should be established to administer the scheme and that processes to establish claims should be non-adversarial and informal with the aim being to settle claims as expeditiously as possible. The Committee considers that in determining claims the board should be satisfied that there was a ‘reasonable likelihood’ that the claimant was abused—a lesser standard than the more common civil standard—on the balance of probabilities. The Committee considers that the introduction of this scheme should not preclude victims from pursuing civil claims through the courts as an alternative.

The Irish Redress Board actually sent a representative to Australia to seek out any Australian residents who spent time in industrial schools in Ireland, which are the institutions there, and who wished to put in a claim. What a contrast with the Commonwealth. Only last week the Canadian government announced another $2.2 billion compensation package for children taken from their families and abused in institutions. Not so, though, for those Australians who endured traumatic childhoods in orphanages and children’s homes. It seems they are to remain largely forgotten.

By this government dismissing the reparations fund out of hand, it has dispelled the widespread belief amongst these forgotten people that a measure of justice would now be forthcoming. Justice has been denied them at every turn because of statute of limitation laws. There was a belief that their government would not let them down and continue to forget them—all 500,000 of them. How wrong they were! And, for those survivors who have since contacted my office, how very shattered they are and how utterly disillusioned they feel. It is as if there is a general attitude that, sure, what happened was terrible and wrong and, as the government stated in its response, it is a matter of shame. But that was then and now is now. These survivors need to get on with the rest of their lives. An attitude like that smacks of just not getting it and of heartlessness. Listen to the emotion of the government when it is shouting at the Labor Party and the unions! However, when it comes to what happened to children, their reaction is cold enough to make you shiver.

I and my committee colleagues consider the survivors of institutional abuse to be the most worthy recipients of a reparations fund. Too many endured terror on a daily basis as children, the legacy of which has endured well into their adult lives. It was not their fault and they deserve the solace and compassion that a reparations fund would represent. I urge the government to reconsider this recommendation and show some compassion and a willingness to right the wrongs. With the expectation of an extremely healthy surplus, the opportunity for the government to make a contribution is certainly there. I will end with the quote from submission No. 219 that the committee used at the start of chapter 8 on reparation and redress schemes. It says:

In my heart I feel if there is to be real peace for myself and others like me, I expect some acknowledgment, some justice from society. I would like to be treated respectfully and fairly—to be given a fair hearing, the Australian ‘fair go’ ... Lawful institutions, whether under the State or Federal Government, the Churches or different religious organisations, play a legitimate role in creating justice for victims. There is no simple way for society to shirk the responsibility of recognising the torture and pain that was inflicted upon innocent children.