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Thursday, 24 May 2018
Page: 4558

Mr SHORTEN (MaribyrnongLeader of the Opposition) (11:54): I thank the member for Swan for his words that we just listened to. I think a lot of Australians get rightly frustrated with parliament. They feel that we're not dealing with the issues which go to their daily lives. But sometimes you can hear speeches and contributions from across the political spectrum which I do think measure up to the hopes and ambitions which Australians rightly have of their parliament. This debate, I think, does pass the test of dealing with and improving the lives of Australians.

In saying that, I want to begin by acknowledging the magnificent Leonie Sheedy and her mighty CLAN army; Caroline, Carol and other members of the Alliance for Forgotten Australians; and Chrissie Foster and the late Anthony Foster. I want to acknowledge every survivor and loved one and carer that my colleagues and I have had the privilege to meet along the way—all those brave people who fought a very long battle to be heard. I say to you that the parliament of Australia is debating this legislation today because of your courage, because of your determination and because, somehow, you and other survivors and the people who love you found a strength which is quite frankly unimaginable in many circumstances, to refuse to be silenced, intimidated, ignored or, indeed, patronised. I want to thank the royal commissioners for the quite gruelling and thorough yet caring way they went about their work, and I want to acknowledge the work of the staff of the royal commission. I think it is appropriate to salute the leadership of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who had the conviction to establish the royal commission and put redress for child abuse on the national political agenda, and of course the member for Jagajaga, who has championed this cause for so long.

Within days of Prime Minister Gillard's announcement in 2013, Gerry Ann sent an email to the commission requesting a private session to tell her story. Over the next three years, she cancelled on numerous occasions. Sometimes she didn't feel psychological ready; sometimes she was just frustrated or disengaged. But one day, after reading reports of a particular priest's testimony, she ended up trying to take her own life, and ended in intensive care. This was a turning point for her. In 2015, with help from her daughter Rachel and from commission case workers, Gerry Ann came forward to tell her story. She said:

My time at [the orphanage] robbed me of my innocence, and set the benchmark of who I would become: frightened, petrified, scared, fearful, not worthy, introverted, isolated, segregated, sad and constantly suicidal. … My personality was destroyed by the very people that were supposed to protect me.

Gerry Ann's story is about the calculated, cold-hearted abuse of a scared but very precious little girl. It is unique to her.

Only she will ever know how dark the days were, just how deep the memories run, but it is the same trauma, the same betrayal and the same violation of sacred trust that fills the pages of the royal commission's final report. Thousands of our fellow Australians had their childhoods stolen and their faith in people shattered. Nine hundred orphanages across the time. Literally hundreds of thousands of our fellow Australians. The scars still cover our nation: crimes that were ignored; people whose stories were ignored; perpetrators who were sheltered, quietly tut-tutted and moved on; institutions who protected their reputation rather than the children who were supposed to be in their care; and, of course, the graves of those who did not live to see justice done.

We understand that no set of words can make this right. No amount of compensation can restore a childhood. No dollar sum can put back together souls that have been broken. But we can in this place show perhaps a fraction—a portion—of the courage and resolve that survivors already have. What we can do is match words of sorrow with deeds of redress. What we must do is vow that this cannot happen again. We must ensure that every single survivor gets every dollar they deserve and every second of support they need. We must deliver on the recommendations of the royal commission and live up to its spirit.

A national redress scheme has been Labor policy since 2015. However, we are not the current government. Today we're required to vote and judge upon the basis of the government's proposal. It's a little-known fact that sometimes the hardest decisions for an opposition are not to decide what to oppose but what to agree to. Today we have to ask ourselves: is this legislation good enough? Is it the best deal that we can strike in the circumstances? It's not the legislation that a federal Labor government would have drafted, but that doesn't mean that I think that the federal government hasn't done its very best. It is hard work wrangling states and navigating the legal arguments and strengths of institutions with deep pockets. To the states and institutions yet to sign up, I would repeat what I have said on many occasions: the time for lawyers is over; the time for justice is here.

In our view, the legislation is an overdue step in the right direction, but it cannot be the end of the road. Labor will be voting for this bill before the House because we believe the start date of 1 July this year is vital and because, as an opposition, and on an issue like this, we should not seek to make the perfect the enemy of the acceptable. But, as the member for Jagajaga powerfully indicated, we do have concerns about aspects, important aspects, of the legislation and we are prepared to work in good faith with the government of the day to address these issues prior to the scheme commencing on 1 July. If we cannot solve these problems from opposition, we will sit down with the states and institutions to work on fixing them in government.

In large part, our concerns arise from when the government's legislation departs from the recommendations of the royal commission. For example, the royal commission recommended a maximum payment of $200,000. This legislation seeks to cap that at $150,000. It is near enough to vote for, but not enough to give up on. This isn't the time for haggling; it's not an opportunity to perhaps save $50,000. I think that Australians are more generous and more decent than this. I wonder, if we had a plebiscite on this question, whether or not Australians would vote for $150,000 or $200,000. The royal commission recommended survivors be given one year to decide whether to accept an offer of redress. Legislation gives them only six months. It is near enough, but perhaps not good enough. We're talking about a complex legal and emotional decision, because, by accepting the offer, you sign away your rights to litigation down the track. I think that, in this set of circumstances, every day does matter. After so many years of making Australians wait for justice, I do not feel comfortable in telling them that they must rush to a decision.

Of course, it's not just about the money. Support services are vital. The royal commission recommended survivors have access to counselling for the rest of their life. The legislation provides only for counselling services for the life of the scheme or to the value of $5,000. With regard to this particular proposal, I will not stand up in front of survivors and say that I think it is near enough. I will not say that this is all there should be. I think this is something we can work on fixing. I think we have a collective responsibility to make sure the right support services are available to every survivor, wherever they live and whatever language they speak. I do not regard the right to counselling as a charity to be rationed but a right that has been earned in the most unfortunate and undesirable of circumstances.

As it stands, this legislation limits redress to people living in Australia and to Australian citizens. Our nation has apologised to child migrants for the abuse they suffered in Australian institutions, but if, after what they've been through in this country, they've returned to their country of birth, I do not think that should put them beyond the umbrella of Australian justice. This legislation also seeks to place a restriction on access to the scheme for survivors who've served a prison sentence of five years or more. They would need special permission from the scheme operator to access redress. It is perhaps better than what was initially proposed, but I will not tell survivors that I think it is fair, because I do not believe that. I think it misunderstands or ignores the tragic reality that childhood abuse puts people on a path to incarceration later in life. What puts people into incarceration is a chain of events—it can be a range of circumstances—but, because of other mistakes, I do not see how we absolve ourselves of our contribution to that chain of events. The Senate inquiry heard a great deal of important evidence saying a provision like this not only was cruel but increases risk of reoffending. I think we need to revisit this restriction.

There is one final concern of ours, which is the indexation of past payments. It has been raised with me many times. Let me explain this briefly. As it stands, a small sum of compensation that someone received in the seventies, for example, will be subject to 40 years of indexation when their final redress amount is calculated. This could potentially create a set of circumstances where a survivor of abuse is left entitled to nothing on 1 July this year because of a token sum provided to fob off a claim not believed half a lifetime ago. I think, as a nation, we can do better, but I acknowledge that this legislation is an advance on where we are. I look at the end of Gerry Ann's testimony in 2016, she said:

I'm shutting Pandora's box this year … I've handed it to you now. It's not my problem anymore … I'm not carrying this anymore … It's not my guilt, my shame …

I say to Gerry Ann: you have no reason for guilt; no cause for shame. The system failed you; people betrayed you; the nation ignored you. But no more. No longer. Today we say that Australia believes you. The Parliament of Australia will do right by you.

Today is a most important start. It is a step forward after decades of inaction and denial. But today cannot, should not and must not be the end of the matter. On this question, near enough will never be the same as good enough. All of us in this place on all sides are measured by what we do next. I do not say that anyone can guarantee you that all of what is fair is what will be delivered. I do not say that it is automatic that all of the issues that we've raised here today will be fixed. There are hard conversations to be had with states and institutions, but let us all strive to deliver proper access to counselling, because injury is not time limited. Eliminate indexation of payments so survivors are not discounted and ripped off because of past decisions. Extend justice to forgotten Australians and to those whose childhood trauma saw them spend part of their adult life behind bars. And ensure that the levels of redress reflect the decency and generosity of Australian people.

When you stop to look at the photos, as I did, in the CLAN office, and you see how common the system of orphanages was for so long, and you see the photos and the faces of the boys and the girls in their second-hand uniforms, scrubbed up, you wonder what is really going on when those photos are not taken. When you look at how our fellow Australians who've survived can summon the courage to stare down dark corners of memories, and relive hard moments, I think that we can do better than near enough. We can do good enough.

In closing, for me, the reason why I support this legislation but will not tell people who survived that this is the end of the matter is that I wonder what would happen if my wife, Chloe, and I were no longer able to look after one of our kids. I wonder what would happen if one of our children went through a system and then came out the other end and were told, 'The legislation now deals with your matters.' I wouldn't want my children to be treated in this manner and I don't expect any other children to be treated in that manner either. I thank the House.