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Wednesday, 25 September 2002
Page: 4857

Senator MURRAY —My question is to Senator Vanstone, Minister for Family and Community Services. I refer to the recent media reports concerning widespread serious allegations of child abuse, including physical and sexual assaults perpetrated on children while in the care of the Sisters of Nazareth. Is the minister aware that such evidence and allegations have previously been documented and reported on in the Queensland Forde inquiry, the stolen generation report and the child migrant inquiry? Could the minister indicate how the government proposes to provide services or assistance to meet the need for reconnection with their past for healing and to deal with major social problems for those many tens of thousands of Australian children who are now adults and who were placed in institutional care last century?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —I thank the senator for his question. Yes, I have seen some of those reports. The most unattractive report I have seen was in the Weekend Australian last weekend detailing the story of a Mrs Howard, now a grandmother, and the appalling circumstances in which that woman was kept as a child. In fact, she had her childhood taken from her. The stories that she and others, I understand, tell about the mistreatment at that home, if you can call it that—which you should not be able to—are very, very distressing.

Abusing children would have to be one of the worst crimes, if not the worst crime, that could be committed. I know that all senators and the House of Representative members would share your concern about those children and the past failures of child protection policies in some, if not all, states. It is not a policy that any state government can afford to get wrong. Unfortunately, the states—and this is not a political statement on my behalf—irrespective of their political persuasion, have not got it right. We know that as more and more stories come out.

I do not think it is certain as to what is the best way to handle these things. I know of people who have suffered one form of abuse or other as a child who believe that, when there is sufficient reporting and a public inquiry, they feel better. Even if they do not participate, they feel better because in some way it legitimises the concern that they have had and tells them that it was not their fault, which is often the problem with these children—they believe that it was their fault. Equally, I know of others who hate that publicity and who would just rather forget it and never ever go back. There is not an easy answer. How do we make a decision and say that it would be better to go one way rather than another? I do not believe it is necessarily the responsibility of, or appropriate for, this parliament to make that decision. It is a responsibility given to the state parliaments, which in my view—and I am not expressing a view on behalf of the government here— they have not appropriately taken up in the past or now, and not because they are Labor states now.

I notice that Judy Spence in Queensland has said that more money has gone into this and she is going to try and clean up the cases by the end of the year. I welcome them putting more money in, and I hope they can clean them up by the end of the year. But I do not know that I would have said that in August if I were the state minister and if I had the Public Sector Union saying, `It can't be done.' I would not have said it if I had the Public Sector Union telling me about the distress that their workers feel when they worry about whether one of the kids in their case load will not be there the next day. I think it was a very ambitious claim. The Prime Minister has said he will give serious consideration to whether this matter is appropriate to raise at COAG, because I do not think it is something that any one government can handle on its own. It is a reality they are all going to have to face.

Senator MURRAY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, I thank you for your answer and for your attitude in giving the answer. How is the government going to attempt to establish the scale of the problem of all forms of abuse and neglect of children in institutions and in care last century? How is the government going to evaluate and deal with the long-term, knock-on social and economic effects of abuse and neglect of children in institutions by members of religious orders and others?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —I do not know that the Commonwealth government can do that, because of the differences that I mentioned. Some people handle these things quite well. As I say, I have met people in both of the categories that I referred to. Both of them are in completely different circumstances now. As a matter of interest, the one that would rather it be forgotten is not handling his life well; the one that has dealt with it is. But I do not think it is up to us to make that decision and I do not think you can quantify it. We would all love to have a magic wand to make it right, but we all have to accept that we do not have one.