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Monday, 26 May 2003
Page: 14880


Ms MACKLIN (3:52 PM) —The Prime Minister yet again showed, at the beginning of his response to this censure motion, that his first response always is to go to the legal niceties and never to the essence of this issue, which is that child abuse is wrong. What this Prime Minister does not get is that covering up child abuse is wrong. Through his inability to deal with it, he has shown a very serious error of judgment in this very sorry saga.

We have heard a lot about the word `innocent' over the last few days. The people to whom it most applies are the children in our community. We all know that they are the most vulnerable. They are the ones who do not wield any power or authority; it is adults who do that. Children explicitly rely on us as adults to protect them from harm, and it is a distressing fact that so often we fail to provide that protection. The trauma and devastation that we have heard so much about, which has been suffered by those who have been victims of child sexual assault, stays with them for a lifetime. Many have found in their adult lives that they are scarred by deep emotional problems as a direct result of their horrific experiences. But what has been particularly traumatic for many who have survived such attacks has been the process of denial and cover-up they have faced when seeking some acknowledgment of and justice for what has happened to them, often over a very long period of time.

It is very hard for most of us to imagine the courage it must take for a victim of child sexual assault to come to terms with what was done to them as a child and to confront their abuser. How much harder must it be when they believe their attacker has been sheltered from justice by a major social institution and by people in high office? It is essential that all children—in fact, anyone who is abused—know that they can turn to those in authority and be believed and cared for. They must know that it is in their interests, rather than those of the abuser or the reputation of any institution of which they may be a part, that their story will be listened to. Tragically, though, it is apparent that all too often victims of child sexual abuse have been let down by us, with their claims dismissed, their cases covered up and their attackers sheltered from public scrutiny. Because of this, child sexual abuse runs to the core of our morality as a society. The way we treat victims of abuse reflects directly on how we regard the most vulnerable and innocent in our society and the importance we attach to their safety and their security.

It is a moral issue that we all know goes to the heart of society. Yet, at every tortuous twist and turn of the public debate that led to yesterday's resignation by the Governor-General, the Prime Minister has refused to act. He has hidden behind the law and invoked legal niceties to avoid dealing with the profound legal issues that this episode has thrown up. As early as 21 February last year, it was apparent to all of us—certainly to those on this side of the parliament—that Dr Hollingworth's position had been made untenable by persistent allegations that he had failed to deal properly with complaints of child sexual abuse while Archbishop of Brisbane. The Leader of the Opposition called for the Prime Minister to act. We said he should advise the Queen to terminate Dr Hollingworth's appointment. Instead we saw the Prime Minister's first attempts to hide behind legal semantics. Initially he said the Governor-General had not been given an opportunity to respond to these allegations, and then he dismissed the idea of an independent inquiry into the allegations. On 18 February last year, the Prime Minister said:

This business of every time an allegation is made against somebody then you immediately rush out and have an independent inquiry, that's just a way of trying to throw further mud.

The Governor-General of Australia was the subject of some of the most serious allegations that can be made against a person, and the Prime Minister dismissed calls for an inquiry as a mud-slinging exercise. Three days later the Prime Minister invoked another legalistic formulation to dodge the hard moral issue at the core of this controversy. He said:

There are no grounds to advise, on the information now available to me, Her Majesty to terminate Dr Hollingworth's appointment.

He also said:

I don't find any material evidence that Dr Hollingworth has been soft on child abuse.

Further:

... I cannot exercise my prerogative of final and sole advice ... based on unreasonable smearing of somebody's reputation. I have to base it on a sense of fairness and justice ...

According to the Prime Minister and many of his ministers, Dr Hollingworth was guilty of nothing more than errors of judgment and, as we have heard so often, a poor choice of words. The Prime Minister's determination 16 months ago to keep Dr Hollingworth in office was not just a breathtaking failure of leadership; it also betrayed a deep moral misjudgment. The Anglican Church had to hold the inquiry that the Prime Minister should have commissioned. It found that Dr Hollingworth had, in his own words, committed a serious error of judgment in failing to dismiss a confessed paedophile from the Anglican Church. This was the material evidence that the Prime Minister said he could not find. But, instead of taking on board the findings of the inquiry, the Prime Minister again retreated behind legalese. Instead of taking the findings of the inquiry seriously, he claimed he had found no evidence of any deliberate misconduct by the Governor-General in his then office as Archbishop of Brisbane. So, in less than a year, the Prime Minister's measure of Dr Hollingworth's conduct transformed from `material evidence'. Once the material evidence had been found, the test changed to `deliberate misconduct'. How he twists and turns.

Prime Minister, it is obvious from Dr Hollingworth's comments on ABC television last year—and, of course, now we see again in the contents of a letter that he wrote just recently to the Archbishop of Brisbane, Phillip Aspinall—that he still fails to grasp the nature of child sexual abuse. In both instances, he implied that it was the victim—in both cases, a 14-year-old girl—who had initiated a relationship with the abusive adult. This is a critical part of this whole sorry saga. Whether or not a child seeks to initiate a sexual relationship, it is the adult who bears sole responsibility, first morally, Prime Minister, and then legally. The power and authority of the adult and the vulnerability of the child mean that any sexual relationship between the two is one of abuse. That is why child sexual abuse is wrong. It is a simple proposition, but one that Dr Hollingworth seems to have been unable to grasp.

But where Dr Hollingworth has shown through his actions that he simply does not get it, the Prime Minister has shown through his conduct that he has been prepared to cover up. That is what we are so distressed about on the part of those victims of child sexual abuse who have had cover-up for far too long. They have been subjected to what is now almost 18 months of evasion and so much cover-up by this Prime Minister as he has tried to squirm his way out of this political mess. Forced to decide between the morally correct course of action to terminate Dr Hollingworth's appointment and toughing it out for political reasons, the Prime Minister has taken the latter course. As a result, we know that the office of Governor-General has been diminished, but I would say that this is a minor note compared with the message that the Prime Minister's moral turpitude has sent to victims of child sexual abuse.

What his moral turpitude has told them is that the practice of cover-ups and conspiracies of silence that has immeasurably added to their suffering extends to the highest office in this land. The Prime Minister has, for the past 18 months, put the interests of his appointment above those of victims of sexual abuse—exactly the same crime that Dr Hollingworth was found to have committed by the Anglican Church inquiry. But the Prime Minister is, of course, not alone in his moral bankruptcy on this issue. Like a compliant chorus over there, members of the government have surrendered their moral judgment as well. Once again, they have obediently taken their marching orders from the Prime Minister, one after the other. The minister for immigration thought Dr Hollingworth should be forgiven, while the minister for workplace relations peddled the line that the Governor-General was guilty of nothing more than an `error of judgment' and had done nothing wrong while being in vice-regal office.

Yesterday, the minister for education, who so prides himself on values, declined repeated opportunities on national television to say that child sexual abuse is wrong. That is the essence of this: child sexual abuse is wrong. But, after repeated questioning yesterday, the minister—who originally welcomed Dr Hollingworth's appointment as `inspired'—could not bring himself to even mention the issue of child sexual abuse and again passed up the opportunity to condemn the cover-up of abuse. This is the standard of morality to which this government, in its efforts to avoid political embarrassment, has fallen. This is how far it has fallen. It has locked itself into what can only be described as a moral nether world, where the rights of victims of child sexual abuse are sacrificed in the name of politics. That is why this Prime Minister stands censured today.

The Prime Minister might have wanted to portray this whole episode as one involving principles of law. But Australians do not need lawyers to tell them that child abuse is wrong. They do not need lawyers to tell them that the Prime Minister should have acted 16 months ago. If he had, the level of trauma and distress that so many victims of sexual abuse have already been through may have been reduced. But, by choosing to tough it out, which is exactly what the Prime Minister has done, he and his government not only have added to their pain but have severely undermined the trust and respect felt by many for those filling the highest offices in this land—not only the office of Governor-General but the office of Prime Minister and the office of senior ministers of this government who, one after the other, have refused to acknowledge that child abuse is wrong, that cover-up of child abuse is wrong and that cover-up and protection of paedophiles is wrong.

This is a truly dangerous and terrible legacy that this government has left us. It has meant that so many people who are victims of child sexual abuse do not feel that they will get the protection that they deserve when they come forward. We censure the Prime Minister for the cover-up that he has been engaged in and for the way in which he continues to turn to a legal answer rather than recognising the moral basis on which this criticism has been based for the last 15 or 16 months. He stands censured by this parliament and by the Australian people for not acting to remove a Governor-General who failed to protect children in their greatest hour of need.