National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse

Federation Chamber
26 October 2021

When the national apology to victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse was delivered in this parliament in 2018, it meant many different things to so many different people. To those of us who heard the horrific and tragic stories out of the royal commission, it was an expression of grief for the pain and suffering of children and it was a promise that we would do what was in our power to ensure that never again would childhoods be violated by the people and institutions kids are supposed to trust. For the survivors who were ignored for so long, it was a moment to be heard, to be acknowledged and to have their experiences listened to. For the people of Australia, it was a moment of reflection upon the failures of our institutions and our leaders to protect children from the vilest of acts.

For too long victims were not heard, and they were not heeded. Their voices were silenced when those with more power and more 'credibility' spoke over them. However, many refused to be silent.

Since this apology, our nation has been fortunate enough to hear from the magnificent Grace Tame, who has used her platform as Australian of the Year to once again bring the realities of child sexual abuse to the forefront of the national conversation There's so much power in silence being broken. We saw it in so much testimony, and we saw it before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Over five years, the commission was contacted by 16,953 people who were within the terms of reference. It heard from 7,981 survivors of child sexual abuse in 8,013 private sessions. It received 1,344 written accounts and referred over 2½ thousand matters to police.

The royal commission led to the national apology, when both the government and the opposition stood together to say, on behalf of Australia, 'We believe you; we are sorry.' Of course, an apology cannot undo the suffering. It cannot change the past and it cannot erase the memories. It cannot bring back the many people we have lost as a result of their abuse, but it can go a little way to lifting the burden and to start moving on the path of reconciliation. But along that path must lie action. We've said sorry. Now we must do what is in our power to ensure that the scourge of child sexual abuse is stamped out and the wrongs of the past are addressed. The announcement of a national centre for the prevention of child sexual abuse goes some way towards this goal, as does the implementation of the National Redress Scheme. However, we would not be doing our job as an opposition if we did not highlight where we believe this government could be doing better.

I'm proud to stand as a member of the Joint Select Committee on Implementation of the National Redress Scheme. Joining this joint select committee has been probably the most rewarding thing I have done as a member of parliament. Understanding and listening to survivors, their supporters and also the amazing groups that support these survivors has been truly inspirational. Earlier this year, I expressed my concern that the government had not committed to implementing all the recommendations of the second anniversary review of the National Redress Scheme. The review was conducted independently by Ms Robyn Kruk AO, who delivered her report to the minister at the end of March this year. In conducting her review, Ms Kruk met with 81 survivors. She heard from support services, government agencies and ministers. In total, this review received 226 submissions, on top of their commissioned feedback study in which 503 survivors, support groups and institutions participated.

Using this significant insight into the scheme and the impact that its processes and operations have upon survivors, this review was able to collate a list of recommendations. Unfortunately, many of them have not been implemented, and what the review identified is that, as it stands, the implementation of the scheme is flawed. It's functioning is so complicated and slow that we face the very real risk that survivors may die before they see a single cent. Those who have been able to navigate the process also risk retraumatisation. So, whilst it's good that this parliament comes together to acknowledge the magnificent work of the former Labor government, as we just heard from the member for Mackellar, and whilst it's good that the Prime Minister and the minister and a number of speakers have spoken about the royal commission and spoken about the trauma, they also need to own up to the fact that the government are not delivering what they promised. This is political, but it must be said: this government has let down survivors. They haven't delivered what survivors wanted. They have delivered a scheme that is too complex to navigate and hasn't seen uptake in the numbers that we expected. Reforms need to be made with a sense of urgency. The maximum payout for survivors should be lifted with from $150,000 to $200,000. That some organisations have resisted entering the Redress Scheme is absolutely disgraceful, and I wholeheartedly support the government in taking action against them.

This scheme is just too important to get wrong. We know how important it is to the survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. It was a long time coming when it was first introduced, and we must continue to ensure it is working in the interests of victims and their healing. Survivors of child sexual abuse have been waiting their whole lives for redress for the horrific crimes that were perpetrated against them as children. Growing up in a privileged middle-class family in the southern suburbs of Brisbane, in Holland Park, with loving parents and an older brother and sister, with a joyous childhood, going to school and being fully active in our community, I have no understanding or no comprehension of what it would be like to be in an institution. I have no understanding of what it would be like to be an abused child who put their trust and faith in people who were supposed to be looking after them. I cannot imagine what that would be like. I think all of us who have had the most beautiful childhoods are horrified and simply can't believe that this happened. But it did happen. It happened under government's watch and it happened under the so-called guardians of these children.

The recommendations of the second anniversary review would serve to improve the experience of survivors in the scheme. Think of it like this. A survivor has dealt with this trauma their whole life. They see a light at the end of the tunnel. They see an opportunity for their voice to be heard. They're scared, they're frail, they're vulnerable, and they're worried again that no-one will believe them. They relive that experience once again. They then turn to government—who they don't trust in the first place, having deep-seated concerns about who is managing their lives—to enter a scheme that is so hard and so complex that it gets too much. They walk away, and the trauma is simply relived.

Our focus cannot only be on the crimes of the past. We must also face another harsh reality—that there are children facing this abuse today. It gives me no joy to say that. The eSafety Commissioner has found that children's online safety has worsened during the time of pandemic lockdowns. Child sexual abuse material is on the rise, as is online grooming, activity in online abuse communities and live streaming of abuse material. We must protect children from abuse, wherever it may come from. The national apology must be more than an anniversary, where politicians—from the Prime Minister to the Leader of the Opposition—hop on their soapboxes and talk about what has happened. We must commit to doing more. It must be a reminder that children deserve our protection, and we must do everything in our power to give it to them. Let's get this right now—for the survivors, for their loved ones and for the children, who deserve to grow up in an Australia free from child sexual abuse and violence. Today I commit once again to doing that.