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Monday, 26 May 2003
Page: 14883

Mr ANDERSON (Minister for Transport and Regional Services) (4:05 PM) —In rejecting the censure motion on the Prime Minister, I want to say at the outset that I regard child sexual abuse and domestic violence as truly horrendous, as I think all of us in this place would. But let me say this: the Prime Minister has my total and absolute respect for his integrity in relation to the needs of the nation's children—their economic needs, their social needs, their educational needs and their safety needs. Any attempts to dent his standing in these matters are, I think, grossly unfair and grossly unreasonable. They will be seen to be such by the Australian people, for I would have thought that, if there is one thing that political friend and foe alike would have acknowledged about the Prime Minister, it is his very deep love of children and his very real interest in their circumstances and in what their nation has to offer them.

I am sure it will titillate the opposition, but I am one of those who were consulted by the Prime Minister. I am quite happy to say that. He first rang me when I was in China pursuing gas deals. I, of course, have no intention of revealing in this place all of the conversation we had, but I do want to refer to one germane part of that conversation and of those that followed it. It was that I had never heard and was certainly not able to pass on any remarks which went to impropriety on the part of Dr Hollingworth. The member for Brisbane will recall that he and I participated in a forum in Brisbane once on rural poverty, which Dr Hollingworth had convened. In the dealings that I have had with him, the fundraising events and so forth from time to time in Brisbane, I have always found that he was regarded in terms of his own principles and behaviour as a man who set the highest of personal standards, and so I do record that.

I would be the first to say that child abuse is truly awful. Like domestic violence, it represents such a serious breakdown in human relationships that it threatens the very fabric of our society. Tragically, I suspect that is particularly the case in too many of our Indigenous communities. The previous speaker made the allegation that the Prime Minister, far from accepting the seriousness of child abuse, was prepared to try to sweep it under the carpet—to cover up. I think that is a grossly unfair allegation and that it fails the test of even the most superficial of scrutiny. It ought to be recorded that last year the Prime Minister placed child protection on the Council of Australian Governments' agenda—the COAG agenda. The Prime Minister put it on the national agenda with the state premiers.

Opposition members interjecting

The SPEAKER —Order! I remind the member for Gellibrand that she may wish to vote on this motion.

Mr ANDERSON —I hear from the other side, `And then he did what?' The truth is that the states were not very interested in it. That is the truth. Despite the fact that overwhelmingly they have responsibility for the institutions, particularly in relation to child welfare, that oversight the wellbeing of the nation's children, they were not particularly interested in Commonwealth involvement, although it was agreed—and I think this is very important—that the Commonwealth would work with the states and the territories on Indigenous child protection. That is happening; it is long overdue. I, as a member in this place, have one of the highest levels of Indigenous people amongst my constituents of any in this place, and some of the statistics which point to the level of abuse, particularly of pre-teenage girls in Indigenous communities, are absolutely terrible. Progress is being made and I believe that is a good thing. But the point of this exercise is to say that it was the Prime Minister who put it on the COAG agenda. This is in distinct contradiction to the claim made by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition that the Prime Minister was not prepared to tackle this issue and that he sought, in fact, to cover it up.

As I mentioned, in the circles that I have moved in, in my contact with Dr Hollingworth and, indeed, in terms of my own active involvement as a member of the Anglican Church, I have never heard any claim—and I was able to say that to the Prime Minister at the time—of impropriety on his part, particularly in relation to his attitude towards what could only be termed as abuse of sexuality and all that that might encompass. I have to say that I do see, though, more self-righteousness around on this than I am comfortable with, and there is quite a bit of it. I do think that some of it actually comes from an area that I would like to say a few things about: a desire on the part of some to attack the Christian Church in this country. I think this is quite an important issue that ought to be traced through. I do think that it ought to be noted that Dr Hollingworth, in the tradition of the Anglican Church, has shown great concern for the vulnerable, the weak and the oppressed.

Tracing through some historical figures in that great tradition, people like John Newton come to mind. He was a man who referred to his belief that a wretch like him could be saved. From what? He was saved from a despicable and utterly appalling record as a slave-trader and a sexual abuser of the vulnerable. He was responsible for the horrible trade and directly responsible for the abuse and the death of very large numbers of people. But he turned away. I heard the term `Amazing Grace', and that is the hymn that he is remembered for. He turned away from all that, having seen the light. I want to say this about him. We judge him now on balance to have been a huge contributor.

The SPEAKER —Order! The member for Jagajaga was heard in silence. The same courtesy will be extended to the Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr ANDERSON —We form a weighted and balanced view, a total view, of the contribution that he made to a more humane, caring and just society. He in turn greatly influenced another man by the name of William Wilberforce, who spent his life seeking the abolition of the slave trade, of slavery itself—and they were different things—and also of other things such as the fair treatment by the British East India Company of the natives in India, which probably contributed to the fact that that nation has survived as a democracy to this day rather than having torn itself apart. That work led further to another great Anglican churchman's contribution to our culture's values. Lord Shaftesbury spent a lifetime standing up for vulnerable children, in particular getting them out of the coal pits, where they were required to work from the ages of eight and nine for 12 hours a day, and ensuring that they got an education.

I think that these men ought not to be forgotten. It ought not to be forgotten that the church, when being true to its charter, has always stood against oppression, violence and abuse and for the weak, the oppressed and the vulnerable. I do not think that it ought to be forgotten either—I make no apology for saying these things in this House—that Dr Hollingworth has been soundly in that tradition of standing for the oppressed and the vulnerable. We ought to be prepared to form balanced judgments and to take everything into account. Think of his work for the poor, I remember him being extensively quoted at this dispatch box on this side of the House by a Labor Prime Minister when I first came into this place. He was expounded upon in terms of the points of view that he was putting on behalf of his work with the Brotherhood of St Laurence, where he sought to reach out to the poor, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. He was appointed Chaplain of the Brotherhood of St Laurence in 1964, and he stayed with them—I understand not even purchasing a home of his own so that he could live in relatively humble circumstances amongst the disadvantaged—for no fewer than 25 years. Who of us can claim to have given up such a time in our lives in the pursuit of better outcomes for the poor and the weak, but most of all, in this context, for the vulnerable? He is widely recognised as a passionately outspoken champion of the disadvantaged and, in many ways, I think his work has been quite groundbreaking.

In that context I again make this plea: in passing judgment on him we should balance things in totality. He has acknowledged his serious error of judgment, and it was a serious error of judgment. All of us are grappling with this problem. I do not think I am known as someone who lacks compassion for children or an abhorrence of child abuse—I do not think I fall into that category—and I freely say to this place that I am still grappling with the enormity of this problem, how it is that we have unleashed this monster in our society, particularly in our Indigenous community, and what we do to address it. I am still grappling with it. I do not blame others who are still grappling with it at all. I would say to them, if they are grappling with it, `Good on you for not wanting to brush it under the carpet.' It is a very serious issue; it is a very hard issue to come to grips with. Many of us need to be very careful lest in some way we, as parents and as community leaders, have contributed to, or are continuing to contribute to, a softness or to an opening up of inappropriate values and approaches that encourage child abuse or domestic violence. We have to be very cautious indeed. I would counsel great caution in passing judgment on one who turns away from something that he has acknowledged was a mistake. On a personal note, I would always want to be treated fairly in that regard—I believe I have treated others fairly; I hope I have—lest I find one day that I have committed some serious error of judgment.

I want to refer very clearly in that context to something the Prime Minister said. The fact is that the Governor-General has paid a very terrible price for an error of judgment. It ought to be remembered that he has not abused children; he has not been some sort of pervert himself. He has made a serious error of judgment. He has suffered, is suffering and I suspect will continue to suffer hugely for it, notwithstanding his public acknowledgment of that error. I believe it is time now to stop hounding him. He has courageously put the office ahead of his own interests and he should be recognised for that—just as he is entitled to a balanced account and assessment of his life's work in which he has arguably done more for others than a great majority of us could ever hope to achieve. He is entitled to our forgiveness now that he has taken it upon himself to fulfil the painful role of falling on his own sword.

But to return to the Prime Minister, who is the object of this censure motion today, I want to say this: many of these attacks are deeply personal. I think the House will forgive me if I say that I do know the Prime Minister at a personal level. I do know that he is not a man who would take the sexual abuse of children lightly in any way, shape or form. I believe that the overwhelming bulk of Australians would accept that as a given. I do not believe he is a man who would seek to cover up. Quite frankly, I know that he has thought very deeply—even to the point of a touch of agonising at times, and who could blame him for that?—about this matter in all of its complexities in his desire to see a fair judgment and fair outcomes. In my view he deserves no censure in this place today. This censure motion should be roundly rejected. I do not particularly want to introduce politics into this debate; it ought to be too serious for it. But, frankly, I believe this whole matter smacks of opportunism. I believe that the Prime Minister deserves to see this censure motion roundly rejected today and I believe, in the same vein, that Dr Hollingworth now deserves our respect and understanding for his courageous decision to step aside.