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Wednesday, 26 November 2003
Page: 18095


Senator MOORE (4:32 PM) —When Senator Harris moved his motion this afternoon he said that somehow the mention of the Heiner inquiry causes apoplexy on this side of the chamber. That is not true, Senator Harris. It causes us to focus deeply on the real issue of this process: child abuse. We concentrate on what we are able to do now and in the future—cooperatively at all levels of government—to work on the genuine issue of child abuse in our community.

Senator Harris and others will move—and they have every right to do so—to continue to review the issues surrounding Heiner in 1989 and 1990. My understanding is that there have been at least eight reviews of this process. That process may well continue to dissect, consider and question what happened—the process and the documents. However, we believe that the major target of our energy, here and in the community, should be the issue of child abuse. We must draw together the energies, the passion and the commitment of everybody to focus on this issue.

Today in Sydney there is a conference called Many Voices, Many Choices—a strong title for a conference. That conference involves community members from across the country looking at what we can do together to focus on child abuse. Our shadow minister, Senator Collins, is at that conference; otherwise she would be taking part in this debate. We should be taking up the last part of the motion that Senator Harris put before us to make sure that the issue of child abuse is discussed. That is the key part of the motion and we must work together on that.

We should take on board the work that has already been done. The recent report by the Kids First Foundation found a horrific figure—that 38,700 children were abused and neglected in the 2001-02 financial year. No-one can look at that number and remain calm or unaffected—and those cases are only the ones we have heard about. We all know that in this area, as in others, unfortunately we only hear about the cases that become public.

On 26 May this year the then shadow minister for children and youth, Nicola Roxon, tabled in the House of Representatives the A Better Future for Our Kids Bill 2003. Its aim is to make sure that children are protected from child abuse, particularly child sexual abuse—but not only sexual abuse; we have to understand that there are so many ways in which people are horrifically cruel to each other. Labor knows—as we all know—that research into the early years of childhood shows the value of building strong foundations upon which children can learn and develop. And those children then become the parents and the teachers of the future. In Labor's discussion paper Growing up—invest-ing in the early years we note that the research shows the importance of protecting children from traumatic experiences, such as abuse or poverty, which are emotionally scarring and which fundamentally affect children's long-term development.

Those challenges are before us all. Australia has particular challenges, as a developed country, to reconcile its achievements and successes in some areas with growing inequalities, particularly those affecting the health of young children. Of particular concern, of course, are the outcomes for Indigenous children—along with the high rates of poverty, abuse and early mortality. There are so many figures. We have seen the statistics on so many occasions. We have heard about the Senate inquiry that has been constituted to look at children in institutional care and we have heard from Senator Murray about some of the evidence that has come before that committee. No-one can remain untouched by that process. We hope that bipartisan and cross-government efforts are made to listen to the experiences of those people who have been brave enough to come before the inquiry.

One of the lessons of the longstanding reviews of what happened in 1989-90 is that there must be public awareness. People in the community must have the confidence to come forward and tell their stories. This must be what we should be aiming to achieve out of any issue of public importance. We must be able to work effectively to reinforce the value of our system and give people the confidence that their stories will be listened to, that their experiences will not be dismissed and, most importantly, that some action will be taken to look at what we can do to work through education and health programs. We must stop using the issue of children as a political football.

To regain any kind of credibility in this area, rather than using allegations of who is doing what we should be looking at how we can effectively put the plans and the programs that are there to work. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Mr Anthony, has announced a document called Towards a national agenda for early childhood. That agenda has now been on the table for several months. What we need to do—what the government needs to do—is put that agenda to work and use what we are able to achieve by the Senate inquiry into institutional care, which has now met in two states and will be moving through the other states in the early part of next year and going to Queensland early in the new year. This will give us a chance to listen to the people who have been talking about what has been going on in institutions in Queensland over many years.

We have the opportunity to work with the public to ensure that agendas, which are only documents and only words, are put into practice through real programs in schools and for community and help groups so that they can work with the people who have been so damaged in the past through levels of institutional abuse. In this way we can give them some reality, some support and some hope for the future. Otherwise agendas remain on paper in files, and we will be reviewing those agendas rather than reviewing opportunities and chances that people have to make real changes in their lives.

One of the issues that has come out over many years is that the saga of abuse is generational and that families continue to relive the horrors of abuse. If one person has been damaged by this experience, there is a large statistical possibility that that will continue through their children and so on. What we have are dysfunctional families who continue to cannibalise so that the pain, the danger and the real threat continue long after the experiences that one person suffers.

Through this process, and through the work that Senator Harris has done by putting this on the agenda, we can call on people at every level of government to stop talking about this issue and start doing something about it. We can achieve a truly national agenda for early childhood which pulls people together in this process rather than have people going into corners and continuing a form of abuse by yelling at each other instead of concentrating on the genuine issues at hand—identifying the dangers and realities of abuse in our community, working with the people who have suffered through this process and coming up with effective and personalised processes to move forward in this area.

There has been so much discussion about what occurred in 1989 and 1990 in Queensland. I think that will inevitably continue. We have heard today that it will continue. I do not often quote from the Courier-Mail, which is the major paper in Queensland and, as Senator Harris acknowledges, has had a role to play in this process. In a recent editorial, the Courier-Mail talked about the impact of the Heiner process and what is occurring in 2003. The editorial said:

The issue now is not what happened then, or even why. It is how to ensure that the reforms proposed by Leneen Forde—

who chaired a review of child abuse in Queensland which exposed the most tragic stories—

are carried forward and how the Families Department should be resourced and managed to protect children at risk in our community.

That must be our aim; that must be what we should be able to achieve. Then maybe the issues of the Heiner inquiry can be put to rest in the best possible way, which is addressing the genuine issue of abuse in our community.