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Wednesday, 13 February 2013
Page: 1116

Mr DREYFUS (IsaacsAttorney-General and Minister for Emergency Management) (09:15): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

In January this year, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, the Governor-General issued Letters Patent appointing six commissioners who will work together as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. This bill makes important changes to the Royal Commission Act to assist the commission in conducting its inquiry.

This government has a proud track record of helping the vulnerable, and working to deliver reforms that will help future generations of Australians.

The Gillard Labor government has not shied away from the big challenges. It has not been afraid to take action and introduce the reforms, for example the Clean Energy Future Plan, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski education reforms, which will shape this country for years to come.

Establishing a royal commission into institutional child abuse is another of these important initiatives—one which will shine a light on the injustices that have occurred in places where the most vulnerable in our society should have been cared for and protected.

The commission will investigate and make recommendations on how to improve laws, policies and practices to prevent and better respond to child sexual abuse in institutions. Its recommendations will provide an opportunity to make sure that the failings of those institutions in the past are never allowed to happen again, and that survivors receive the support and justice they deserve.

The establishment of this commission is the government’s recognition of all those who have tried to bring the horrors of institutional child abuse out into the open and been ignored, scorned, shunned or simply disbelieved.

The voices of these individuals must be heard. Victims must feel properly supported to stand up to tell their stories, and the government must acknowledge how such horrific crimes have affected their lives.

The government recognises that for many people this will be very difficult. It is not going to be an easy process, but that does not mean that any of us should shy away from the challenge. We need to do away with the culture of silence. We need to listen to what has gone before so we can do everything possible to stop these crimes happening again.

Those affected should draw strength from the knowledge that, through their bravery, the royal commission will truly understand the horrors it is dealing with and be assisted in developing recommendations on what institutions and governments should do in the future to better protect children against child sexual abuse.

In developing the terms of reference for the commission, the government worked with people from all parts of Australia. The government listened to organisations representing survivors of child abuse, community and legal leaders, law enforcement, governments and religious organisations.

One of the key themes that arose in this consultation process was the importance of having hearing processes sensitive to the needs of victims, so that they feel supported in preparing and giving evidence. And this bill will assist the commission to put into place the most appropriate processes to hear the stories of those affected.

The bill will allow the chair of the commission, the Hon. Justice Peter McClellan AM, to authorise a fellow commissioner to hold a private session to receive information from victims and others affected by child sexual abuse. A traditional royal commission hearing setting will not generally serve as the best way to facilitate participation in the royal commission by those people affected by child sexual abuse.

For many, telling their story will be deeply personal and traumatic. While we cannot know at this time how many people will wish to participate, sadly we know that this crime has affected many in our community.

In order to carry out its inquiry, the private session mechanism will give the royal commission greater flexibility to directly hear from a potentially large number of people. Participants will not need to tell their accounts on oath or affirmation. These private sessions will not be open to the public and participation will be voluntary.

Acknowledging the distressing nature of these personal accounts, the commissioners will be able to authorise support people to attend with witnesses giving information at a private session. Importantly, the bill will also establish protections for those giving information at a private session. These protections are in essence the same as would apply when a witness is giving evidence at a hearing.

The second main purpose of the bill is to enable the chair of a royal commission to authorise one or more members to hold a hearing to take evidence. The bill refers to this measure as an 'authorised member hearing'. Currently under the Royal Commissions Act 1902 a hearing can only be held by the commission as a whole or by a quorum.

In the case of multimember commissions, the proposed amendment will give a chair commissioner the means to efficiently distribute hearing workload where he or she is satisfied that this would be appropriate. This measure would have general application to royal commissions, including the Royal Commission into Institutional Reponses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The royal commission must be thorough, but it must also move as quickly as possible to cover the masses of evidence, and personal stories, to help craft the necessary institutional reforms. This amendment will help to achieve that goal.

Child sexual abuse is a terrible crime. The royal commission will expose the far-reaching consequences of children affected by this abuse. It takes away the right of every child to grow up safe and happy. But as a community we have previously refused to face the fact that the systems and processes in place may have not only allowed this crime to occur in institutions where children should have been safe, but also assisted in making sure that the crime never came to light.

The government cannot undo the past. It cannot take away the pain. But we can listen and we can bear witness. And, when the royal commission has completed its work, we can act to prevent these crimes and injustices from happening again.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.