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Monday, 18 June 2018
Page: 3157

Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (20:09): In this place and in this role it's a remarkable privilege to offer an opinion as a member of our community and try to put on the record the sentiment of the nation at this particular time around a matter of such importance. I know that before I came to the parliament I'd be driving along listening to the debate and never be able to predict exactly what it was that the parliament was going to be discussing. I'd pick up the threads of the conversations of our time and people trying to do the best that they can in this place to make sure that things that matter to ordinary Australians are acknowledged and given their proper recognition and that we do something good in the time that we're here.

Much of what we do in this place is maligned in the public media and in social media, and people can lose heart and hope. In my contribution tonight, not only do I want to address the specifics of the legislation that's before us—which have been well aerated by my colleagues who participated in the debate prior to me—but also I want to acknowledge the power of a great journalist to reveal the underbelly of any time in history. In particular, in my remarks I want to acknowledge the profound and important work of a great Central Coast journalist by the name of Joanne McCarthy, who has been awarded high recognition by her media colleagues for her dogged pursuit of an abuse of power and authority that she investigated in detail in Newcastle. With her dogged determination to tell that story she started to reveal an underbelly to our nation that is a great shame on all of us.

To anybody who has had the sorts of experiences that this legislation is seeking to redress in some small way who might be listening this evening, to anybody who loves somebody or knows of somebody through their workplace or through the community work they do who experienced the sort of predatory abuse that has sadly been a mark of some of our biggest institutions across the country, I want to put on the record that I, like so many Australians, am profoundly sorry for the experience that you've had. I don't want to pretend for a moment that the legislation that's before us can ever actually redress what's happened to these survivors of abuse by adults who should have known much better. To these survivors of abuse by adults who should have known much better, and whose crimes against young people were completely overlooked by people in positions of responsibility who could have done something, we can never go back and restart the clock. The experiences that people have had can never be undone. It's in the powerful telling of those stories by those brave enough and strong enough, despite their experience, to advance the telling of their stories through the media that we began this journey some several years ago.

I want to put on the record the comments at the time of the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who announced a creation of a national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. There was a lot of opposition to this royal commission commencing. I recall speaking with Nicola Roxon, who was the Attorney-General at the time, about the process to put in place a proper and thorough capacity for the commission to do the work that needed to be done. The care that went into delivering the terms of reference for this commission, and providing it with the resources that it was able to use to undertake the work that it did finally, was a journey of political will but also a journey of the heart. I can remember conversations with Nicola Roxon about the care and about who could be the right kind of person to undertake the leadership of such a commission into such a horror in our own time.

I think the point where we have now arrived at can only be called an imperfect response—a very imperfect response. But we're at a point that's much further down the track than where we were in November of 2012 when Julia Gillard said these words:

These are insidious, evil acts to which no child should be subject.

Australians know … that too many children have suffered child abuse, but have also seen other adults let them down—they've not only had their trust betrayed by the abuser but other adults who could have acted to assist them have failed to do so.

There have been too many revelations of adults who have averted their eyes from this evil.

I believe in these circumstances that it's appropriate for there to be a national response through a royal commission.

And that's how it commenced all those years ago.

The survivors of childhood sexual abuse have been waiting not just for that period of time—and I can think of so many things that have happened in my life in the last five years; it's a long time. People have been waiting for decades for somebody to accept their story and to give them the recognition that they deserve for the truth-telling of their experience. And I think about the words that have been put on the record just in the contribution prior to me by Senator Singh about the reality of actually coming forward and putting on the record through the commission your experience, and the personal toll of the retraumatising experience of going through telling the stories of your experience again—not just the recollection of experiences that people would rather never have had, let alone have to remember, but the personal toll in terms of the dark secrets of the past being revealed to others in the real time of their life right now. The decades washing away and the connection between the terrible experiences of these children and the reality of where they are today met up in the course of these last five years.

The good thing that we are doing here this evening in debating this piece of legislation is that we are debating a form of national redress scheme that goes some way to acknowledging the real and lived experience of thousands of young Australians. It goes some way to providing acknowledgment of the pain and suffering that they have experienced through a redress, through a payment of money and compensation. We've made some efforts at other forms of support, including through counselling, but I think it would be really incorrect of anyone in the chamber to indicate that this is a perfect response to those problems that were documented so thoroughly and awfully in the royal commission itself.

We know that 1,300 witnesses came forward and gave evidence and we know that commissioners, through the gruelling work of 8,000 private sessions, listened to personal accounts of survivors. And through all of their work I'm sure that they had great hopes for what we might do. I'm sorry that this piece of legislation doesn't rise to the level of the recommendations that the commission has made but, as has been said here by, I think, Senator Watt, we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I know we're never going to get to perfect in this. The only way we'll get to perfect is by being able to rewind the clock and prevent these egregious acts of terrible violence that have been inflicted on young Australians and visitors from other countries to our nation. We can't do that. We can never completely redress, but the bill that we have does something. It is a step in the right direction towards acknowledging this pain and suffering that's part of our lived history.

The bill establishes in response to the royal commission's final report, which was delivered on 15 December 2017, a National Redress Scheme for institutional child sexual abuse. It's intended that it should operate for a 10-year period from 1 July 2018, providing a payment of up to $150,000 to survivors. In addition, it sets up a redress capacity to provide access to counselling and psychological services to survivors, and it provides an option for survivors to receive a direct personal response from the responsible institution.

Firstly, let me put on the record that Labor absolutely understands that no amount of money—no amount of money!—can make up for the pain, the suffering and the trauma experienced by survivors. But redress is a vital step along the path to healing for survivors of child sexual abuse, and it is a vital step for us, as fellow citizens in this nation who have been lucky to avoid that experience, to acknowledge that this is an appropriate response from us as a community—that their pain and suffering is borne by all of us in some way.

The royal commission recommended that the Australian government announce a willingness to establish a single National Redress Scheme by the end of 2015. I think it's a shame that here we are in 2018 and we're only just getting to this now. This Redress Scheme that we're debating this evening should have been operational no later than 1 July 2017. Why, given the exposure of the trauma that we have had documented for us, has it not been a priority for this government to bring forward this bill prior to today? I can only say that this is a government—in so much of its legislation—that continues to reveal how completely out of touch it is with the things that matter to Australians. Shame on this government for its delay in response to this important national issue.

I am pleased as a representative of the great state of New South Wales that the New South Wales parliament has already passed redress legislation and, indeed, that it was the first state to do so. That commenced the deep thaw of responses from other legislative jurisdictions.

For the record, let me indicate concern as a Labor member about, in particular, the time that people will have to consider the offers that would be made, the limits that exist around the scheme and the eligibility criteria. In particular, I come back to the counselling side of things. In my role as the assistant shadow minister for mental health, I've been out across the country talking with providers and people seeking access to mental health services. They are describing a country that is in crisis in terms of access to those services. The capacity to get to counselling, let alone the quality of the counselling experience, is so variable from place to place across this nation. This structural reality has been exacerbated by this government's determination to cut funding to health services from the day that they arrived here in Canberra to form government: the dissolution of the national partnership agreements, the withdrawal of funding for state service provision and community benefits that are really important to our community more broadly, and the freeze on access to GPs. All of these things create a context, and now, when we decide that we are going to provide redress and counselling support for people who have suffered institutional violence, the system is already compromised.

In addition to that, Labor is concerned that the adequacy of the offer of counselling is completely disproportionate to the profound need that exists for some individuals—there is a sense that you can get your counselling over and done with in one shot and leave this behind. I'm very pleased to think that that's possible for some people, but for so many these concerns that require counselling and support can be latent for many years and crop up when other life circumstances create a context in which the reliving of the trauma becomes a reality.

This government, through this bill, only provides access to state-provided services for the length of the scheme—that's the offer—or a payment of up to $5,000 to be put towards counselling. I think this is wholly inadequate. Survivors often consider the government responsible for their abuse and they don't want to use a state-run institution, and who can blame them after what they've been through? This needs to be taken into account by the states when they're delivering services. We know that survivors who are granted redress late in the life of the scheme will potentially be disadvantaged because they're going to be unable to access services for the same length of time as survivors who, once this law becomes a reality in this country, take up an offer of counselling early in the life of the scheme. So there's one very practical problem that exists in the bills before us.

I also have significant concerns about the timing: offers of redress will be made and this bill gives applicants six months to make a decision. It should be noted that the royal commission recommended a year. This is one more recommendation of the commission on which this out-of-touch of government has decided it knows better than the commission, despite the fact that the commission spent five years listening to thousands and thousands of people giving testimony. There are some of the most lucid observations embedded in the report, but the government has said: 'No, we won't go there. We'll just chop it back. We'll just cut it back.' So it is six months instead of 12 months. There's no policy rationale for rushing this process.

As Senator Watt indicated, in the time we've been in this place we keep hearing the department tell us, 'That's a decision of government.' We know that, without rhyme or reason—and certainly without policy recommendations based on facts, evidence and good judicious thought—this government makes arbitrary decisions that have the potential to completely derail a structured, holistic response, which is what was offered in the recommendations of the royal commission.

The bill places an upper limit of $150,000 on the amount of redress that will be payable to any survivor. This also differs from what the royal commission recommended. It recommended that $200,000 be the maximum payment, $10,000 be the minimum payment and the average payment be about $65,000. Again we see the government say: 'No, we know better. Trust us. We'll just make it up on the spot without the department advising us and without the commission. We'll get it right.' I don't think people believe that anymore of this government.

There have been a number of comments put on the public record about eligibility to access this scheme. The reality of the trauma of their experiences in institutional care—where they were not only abused in person but abused by a system that failed to accept the truth of their telling—means that we have before us an imperfect bill that begins to address the major concerns that were raised amongst Australians and by Australians for our Australian brothers and sisters who we are very sorry experienced institutional child sexual abuse.