Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 18 June 2018
Page: 3144

Senator WATT (Queensland) (18:05): I also rise to speak on the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Bill 2018, this extremely important bill which has been many years in the making, and I think all Australians would agree that the changes that are being proposed in this bill are well overdue. Like Senator Brockman, I participated in the inquiry into this bill. It was certainly one of the more emotionally confronting inquiries and pieces of legislation that I've dealt with in the short time that I've been here. At the very beginning, I want to pay tribute to the many—too many—survivors of institutional abuse who have been waiting for so many years for the Australian parliament and institutions themselves to take responsibility for the awful abuse that was perpetrated against so many young people in years gone by.

Those who have read the committee's report will note that Labor's position is that we are supporting this bill. We think that survivors cannot wait any longer for the compensation, among other things, that is going to be provided as a result of this bill, but we do want to put on record our concerns that this legislation does not go far enough in a number of respects, and we would certainly seek improvement in future years to the scheme that is being put forward. However, this is one of those situations where we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We want to make sure that survivors of abuse receive the compensation and the psychological support that many of them continue to need immediately. We have listened to the views of survivor groups who want to see this legislation passed while themselves having many concerns with the detail of this legislation and the fact that in many respects it does not go far enough. I, as one of the Labor senators participating in this inquiry, see this legislation and the Redress Scheme that it will provide for as a good start but not the end of this journey in ensuring that people receive the recognition and compensation that they deserve.

This is not an area of law in which I practised extensively, but I did have some exposure to it as a lawyer prior to being elected here. I will never forget the phone calls that I received mainly from men but in some cases from women who had suffered abuse at the hands of representatives of churches, sporting groups and other institutions. I clearly remember speaking to particularly some men, probably in their 50s and 60s, who were telling me about the damage that the abuse they had suffered had continued to cause them over the decades that had passed since that abuse was perpetrated. They were clearly men who had never recovered from the abuse that they suffered. Their lives had been destroyed, and it pained them so greatly. It was not only that the abuse was not compensated, as we would see in any other form of injury that someone had suffered, but the lengths that some institutions had gone to to deny responsibility and deny legal liability for the acts of representatives of those institutions. For many people, this has never been about seeking a very large amount of money, although that is certainly deserved. Simply the recognition that this royal commission and now the Redress Scheme will provide is going to at least be something for people who have suffered far too much.

I obviously also should pay tribute to the many people who've been involved in this royal commission, starting with former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. This is certainly something that I think everyone in this parliament, regardless of their political party, is very proud that a former Australian government sponsored. It was a royal commission that was long overdue. It wasn't welcomed by all parts of the community, especially those institutions who had something to hide, but it addressed something our nation very much needed to confront, and I think it will provide a lot of good in the years ahead. As I've already said, Labor's position is to support this legislation, with some reservations about aspects of the bill. We have been influenced in that decision by the representations made by many survivors of abuse who want to see this legislation passed even though it isn't exactly what they would like. We are also persuaded by advice we received from Australian government departments over the course of the Senate inquiry that, if Labor were to seek to pass amendments to the bill in the way we would otherwise seek to do, it would jeopardise the national bill that has been prepared to see this Redress Scheme go forward.

Obviously and sadly, some of the institutions in which abuse was perpetrated against young people are institutions of state governments, and it has been very important to see a number of state governments opt into this scheme. We on the Labor side are conscious that any tinkering with the bill now would put those national arrangements in jeopardy and would most likely delay even further the compensation and other support that victims are so desperately seeking, and that's not something we want to see happen.

The major concerns that Labor senators on our committee had, which are outlined in our additional comments to the report of this committee inquiry, are around the maximum payment level that has been set by this bill, the adequacy of counselling, and the equality of all survivors of child sexual abuse before the scheme. Before I go into those, I also recognise that one of the issues raised by a number of witnesses and organisations at the inquiry was the fact that the redress scheme was to be limited only to sexual abuse that occurred. We received some very powerful evidence from witnesses at the inquiry, who made the point that, without doubt, the sexual abuse they experienced in institutions had devastating impacts that, in many cases, people have not recovered from. Unfortunately, that was not the only form of abuse many people suffered. Along with the sexual abuse many people suffered in institutions came physical abuse, extreme neglect, malnutrition, verbal and emotional abuse—a litany of forms of abuse that are horrifying if you have never gone through them.

I recognise that a number of witnesses had concerns that, in limiting the redress scheme to sexual abuse, this scheme does not go far enough. That is something Labor senators—and other senators, I'm sure—have considered. However, we are limited by the fact that, in the royal commission that was established, the terms of reference were clearly looking at sexual abuse, and that is why the redress scheme is also focused on sexual abuse, but I think it's important to recognise that the forms of abuse many people suffered went well beyond sexual abuse. There probably is some work still to be done by governments and this parliament to ensure that the other forms of abuse that people suffered, horrifically, are adequately dealt with in the years ahead.

I turn to the major concerns that Labor senators had, and continue to have, with this bill. The first concern is around the monetary cap that is being provided by way of compensation under this bill. This bill provides a system where the maximum amount of compensation someone will receive as a result of sexual abuse they experienced is $150,000. In some ways that's a large amount of money, but as a former lawyer I'm aware that people could very rightly expect significantly larger sums of money if they were to take legal action, whether it be for sexual abuse or for other forms of injury that people have suffered. Most importantly, not only is that amount of $150,000 below what someone might otherwise receive through legal action but it's also below the maximum that was recommended by the royal commission itself. Labor has taken very seriously the recommendations that the royal commission made, having done exhaustive work over a number of years. We think that it is important that the royal commission's recommendations are listened to, particularly in respect of the maximum amount of compensation that should be payable to survivors of institutional abuse.

We've never really received an adequate answer from the government as to why the monetary cap being provided for in this bill is below that recommended by the royal commission. As I was saying that I remembered very clearly that, when we asked departmental representatives about this in the inquiry, we were told repeatedly that the decision to cap compensation at $150,000—below the royal commission's own recommendation of $200,000—was a decision of government. While I haven't been here that long, I've come to understand that that means that that's something that has really been imposed on the department by the minister rather than something that has been recommended by the department to the minister. It would be good if at some point over the course of this debate we finally received an answer from a minister of this government as to why the monetary cap has been set at $150,000—below the maximum that was recommended by the royal commission—because we certainly haven't had an answer at all, let alone an adequate answer to date.

It's also important to recognise when we're talking about the amount of compensation that people may receive that it's not as if every survivor of institutional abuse is going to receive the maximum of $150,000. The maximum is what it says—a maximum. It's very likely that many people who experienced sexual abuse of a horrific nature are going to end up receiving a payment well below $150,000. I seem to recall receiving evidence over the course of the inquiry that it's estimated that the average amount someone will receive in the Redress Scheme is $70,000 to $80,000. I think that was the modelling that the department put forward at the inquiry—and I can be corrected if that's incorrect. It is important for people to recognise that, while the maximum may be $150,000, there is absolutely no guarantee that that's what they will receive. Over the course of that inquiry we did receive some extremely disturbing evidence from representatives and support groups that there were many people around Australia who, understandably, having waited so long for recognition and some form of compensation, were already making plans and budgeting in anticipation that they will receive that maximum payment of $150,000.

We on the Labor side think that the maximum should be higher. It should be in line with what the royal commission recommended, being $200,000. Having said that, we will support the legislation in its current form to at least ensure that there is some redress scheme available for people, but this is something that we think should be looked at in the future.

I also note the evidence that we received—obviously from some legal representatives and other groups—that it's so important for people to receive proper legal advice about their rights so that they are making an informed choice whether to accept a redress payment or not. In some cases it may be that someone would quite reasonably expect to receive a significantly larger amount by way of compensation if they were to take legal action. Of course, legal action does come with costs, both monetary costs and emotional costs. It's not easy to start litigation in any situation, let alone if that litigation is based on extremely traumatic experiences that people went through, in some cases many decades ago. It is important to make sure that people get proper legal advice. I'll certainly be monitoring as this scheme goes forward the legal advice that is available to survivors of sexual abuse under this scheme. We certainly received evidence from survivor representatives that they had concerns about the level of legal representation that was being made available by the government. I mean no disrespect to the very able and determined lawyers, particularly at knowmore legal, which is the legal body that the government is funding to provide legal representation to survivors of abuse; they are doing a fantastic job. But there certainly were concerns that the legal representation being made available was not enough and was not well-funded enough and that people were going to be forced to make very important decisions in a very short amount of time.

One of the other issues that I wanted to raise, around which Labor continues to have concerns, is the matter of lifelong counselling. Labor senators on the committee and in this parliament continue to support the recommendation of the royal commission that access to lifelong counselling be made available to those survivors who accept an offer of redress. We do continue to have concerns, especially based on the evidence that we received in the inquiry, that the amount of counselling support that will be made available to people as part of the Redress Scheme will, again, not be adequate. We need to understand, as I said earlier in my contribution, that in many cases people who have survived sexual abuse have undergone decades of trauma that is not properly dealt with. Simply offering a small amount of counselling to some of these people is not enough, and we would want to see the counselling that is provided in the future expanded. I note in particular that the arrangements in this legislation that are being put forward in terms of counselling are actually inconsistent with the government's own response to the committee's final report from the inquiry, so I think that it is important to make sure that people do receive adequate counselling in the years ahead.

One other matter that I wanted to deal with, just before I wrap up, is the exclusion in this legislation of survivors of sexual abuse who have a criminal history. It hasn't had a lot of attention over the course of this inquiry, and I know that it's not always politically popular to talk about the rights of criminals. But it was very disturbing to see, in the draft legislation and now in the final legislation, that the government is going to exclude survivors of institutional sexual abuse who have a criminal history from receiving a redress payment. The argument that was put at the time by the minister essentially seemed to come down to a populist decision that taxpayers wouldn't want to see their hard-earned money being paid to criminals. Most of the time, I would think that's probably right: most taxpayers wouldn't, in general, support huge compensation payments being made to criminals. But I think we need to again accept and recognise the weight of the evidence that was provided in this inquiry, which was that there are a disproportionate number of people currently in prisons across Australia who are themselves victims and survivors of sexual abuse, particularly in an institutional environment. There are immense amounts of research available that draw the link between suffering some form of sexual abuse in childhood and going on to perpetrate similar crimes in the future as an adult or perpetrate other crimes as well.

The proportion of prisoners in Australian prisons who have suffered sexual abuse is astronomical. To deny survivors of sexual abuse in an institutional environment their rights to be recognised and to be compensated for the sexual abuse that they experienced is, I think, profoundly wrong and is something that we need to revisit in the future. I will never forget the evidence that we received from one man, who I won't name, in the inquiry. He freely admitted that he had not led a perfect life; he had not led a blemish-free life. He had committed a number of robberies. This was a man who was in his 60s, from memory, and he traced the way that he had gone off the rails back to the abuse that he experienced as a child. That is a story that can be told so many times by prisoners. So I do think that we need to revisit this matter into the future.

In conclusion, this debate is a very important one for our country. The Redress Scheme, as I say, is not a perfect arrangement to compensate people for the terrible abuse that they experienced, but it is a good start. There are a number of aspects that do need improvement, and I look forward to playing a role in continuing to improve this scheme into the future, but this is a good start. It does recognise the awful abuse that was perpetrated against too many people in years gone by. By recognising that and providing some level of compensation, we're going to at last allow some people who really deserve our support to get on with their lives.