Address - Anniversary of National Apology to victims and survivors of institutional sexual abuse

22 Oct 2019
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Mr Speaker I move that the House commemorate the anniversary of the National Apology to the victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse.

Mr Speaker, I join with all in our Chamber today, I join with the Leader of the Opposition, I join with all of those across the country as we mark the first anniversary of the Australian Government and Parliament’s Apology to the victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse.

I remember that day incredibly well. It is burned in my memory forever. And I remember on that occasion speaking of those around the country for whom they still would not be able to get out of bed without the horrific memory of what they have lived with ever since those un-utterable things were done to them all those years ago, or even most recently.

And so we come again today and as we commemorate this day, they, the survivors, are the ones we have in the front of our minds and deep in our hearts.

And we also remember those for whom it was just too much. And they are no longer with us.

A year ago our nation said sorry.

I described it as a sorry, that we dare not ask for forgiveness. A sorry, that does not insult with an incredible promise. A sorry, as if we lie just prostrate before those to whom it’s offered, with nothing to say other than to reflect on the terrible events that had affected their lives.

We acknowledged a national trauma, a national trauma that was hiding in plain sight.

The silenced voices, and what I described as the muffled cries in the darkness. And the never-heard please of tortured souls. That is still true today.

Ritual crimes of sexual abuse, committed by enemies in our midst. Enemies that all too often cloaked their evil in the roles where they should be trusted more than any: teachers, priests, pastors, coaches, and counsellors.

Because they held positions upon which our society deemed respectful, they were believed. A survivor named Ann said “my mother believed them rather than me”.

As a parent, those words still just make me shudder.

Our apology, that brought all parties, all people in this place, together in this House – was one of our most difficult moments, but always the Parliament at its best. And I particularly want to thank the then-leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten, for his partnership on that day. For sharing and carrying that burden on behalf of this Parliament with me on that day as we stood in this place as we spoke to those who stood, sat I should say, silently up on the chairs and around the galleries and those whom are back here today, and as we went out on to the lawns also, and when we went into the Great Hall. So thank you Bill. Thank you very much.

We both can tell those stories, and I met Aunty Mary Hooker a Bungelong women, who last year was on the lawns of Parliament after the Apology. I remember as I was reminded of that event today, and she told me she gave evidence at the Royal Commission because she said, the truth needed to be told. Now Auntie Mary, she passed away almost two weeks ago. And until the time of her death, she had on the television in her home, a photo of the two of us from that day. It wasn’t about any one Prime Minister, it was about what that day meant to her, and how that at least provided what we did in this place a year ago, some measure of solace.

The apology required us to confront a question. A terrible question, too horrible to ask even: why weren’t the children of our nation loved, nurtured and protected?

So we said sorry.

For the hurt and the horrors.

For the violation of dignity and self-worth.

For what was done; the acts- too unspeakable

And then sorry for what was not done, and should have been. As we looked the other way instead of helping or intervening.

Sorry to the families who were forever scarred or destroyed.

Sorry to those who weren’t believed.

Our failure as a nation was catastrophic and inexcusable, and no apology can undo it.

Yet we apologised because we should, and we must’ve. And I’d like to think of it as an on-going and continuous apology.

I agree with the survivor who said, “child sexual abuse is not just a crime against the person, but is also a crime that attacks the social fabric of the nation.”

And in these acts, the fabric of our society was rent.

And our apology was just one humble but important step in trying to mend it.

On this day one year ago, we paid tribute to the thousands of people who came forward bravely and with the courage to tell their story to the Royal Commission.

There weren’t just a few – the numbers make you shudder, 17,000 came forward and nearly 8,000 recounted their abuse in private sessions of the Royal Commission.

A year ago, we pledged that we would report back, I pledged we would report back to the Australian Parliament, to the people on the progress we are making on the implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission.

Because it’s only actions now that can prove the worth of our sentiments. And that is what today is the opportunity to do, but in providing these introductory comments I think it’s important for us to go back to where we were a year ago and just simply allow the horror of those events to impact us with a heavy blow.

Mr Speaker, the Government will continue to report annually on this progress as we should, of the Royal Commission’s 409 recommendations, the 84 regarding redress have been addressed, through the implementation of the National Redress Scheme.

The Commonwealth has a further 122 recommendations that we are working on, either wholly or partially with our state and territory colleagues.

I’m pleased that work on these recommendations is well advanced. Around a third have already been implemented and the remainder are well underway.

The Commonwealth has also taken on a national leadership role for more than 30 additional recommendations that were primarily addressed to the states and territories, and we’re working closely with those states and territories on these matters.

We tabled the first Annual Progress Report last December and we’ll continue doing that each year for five consecutive years. But frankly as long as it takes.

All states and territories also published 2018 Annual Progress Reports and will also provide annual reporting.

This year we have also encouraged a further 42 non-government institutions whose conduct was called into question at the Royal Commission to report on their actions and to change their practices.

The public accountability across governments and non-government institutions is crucial and vital

Mr Speaker, one year on I can report that the National Redress Scheme has been operating for just over a year and is giving survivors access to counselling and psychological services, monetary payments, and, for those who want one – a direct personal response from an institution where the abuse occurred.

So far, more than 600 payments have been made totalling more than $50 million, with an average redress payment of $80,000.

More than 60 non-government institutions, or groups of institutions, are now participating in the Scheme, and that represents tens of thousands of locations across Australia where this happened.

And there are other institutions who have though, chosen not to join.

Perhaps, captured by lawyers, legal advice, perhaps deaf to the cause of justice.

All they are doing in not joining this, is doubling down on the crime, and doubling down on the hurt.

And so to them I say, who have not joined, join.

Do the decent thing, do the right, do the honourable thing.

It’s not just what survivors expect. And their families and the families of those who did not survive, It’s what every, decent, honest, Australian demands.

And we, in this place, all as one demand as well.

I also acknowledge that the Redress Scheme needs to do better in supporting survivors.

The rate of response it is not good enough and it must improve.

Applications haven’t been processed as fast as I want them to be.

That is why earlier today Minister Ruston announced a further investment of $11.7 million in the National Redress Scheme to improve its operation and better support survivors.

The funding will support case management of applications to reduce the number of different people a survivor may be required to deal with while their application is being processed.

It will also allow the Government to hire more independent decision makers to finalise applications as quickly as possible.

On the 5 March 2019, the Government committed funding of $52.1 million also to boost support services for survivors of institutional child sexual abuse:

This funding will support 34 existing agencies to June 2021 as well as five additional providers to offer Redress Support Services to survivors in remote and regional areas, male survivors, survivors with a disability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors.

The Royal Commission made many recommendations for the Australian, State and Territory governments to work together to prevent the horrors of the past from occurring again.

One of those was a National Strategy to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse.

I can report that all governments are currently working on a 10 year strategy.

Over 350 consultations have taken place as part of that work.

I expect it will be released in coming months.

As recommended by the Royal Commission, the strategy will include education and awareness-raising; improved support services for victims; initiatives targeted at offender prevention and at children with harmful sexual behaviours; and, improved information sharing, data and research.

We’ve also been working with our state and territory colleagues to enhance Working With Children Checks in line with Royal Commission recommendations.

We’re closer to our goal of making the standard of checks consistent across the country, and have started rolling out a database to be able to share this information more easily.

This database will also allow agencies that issue these checks to be aware of whether an applicant has been refused a check in another jurisdiction.

In response to the Royal Commission, the Parliament has recently passed the Combatting Child Sexual Exploitation Legislation Amendment Act.

This Act introduces new ‘failure to report’ and ‘failure to protect’ offences, much needed for Commonwealth Officials who have care, supervision or authority over children.

It strengthens laws for forced marriage and for overseas child sexual abuse committed by Australian citizens and residents.

To address challenges facing our law enforcement agencies, the Act also strengthens child sexual abuse material laws, including in relation to material accessed online.

The Act also amends Commonwealth laws so they are no longer using the term ‘child pornography’, an outdated phrase that did not reflect the heinous criminal acts depicted in child sexual abuse materials.

We’re close to finalising our Online Safety Charter, which sets out the Government’s expectations, on behalf of the Australian community, for social media services, content hosts and other technology companies.

Businesses that interact with children in the real world have to meet high standards of safety, and digital businesses should be treated no differently.

The charter is due for release by the end of this year.

The eSafety Commissioner is making the online environment safer for children by developing resources for Australian schools and organisations to provide best practice online safety education.

The Royal Commission produced some ground-breaking research work on the nature and scale of sexual abuse in Australia.

And we want to build on that work.

And that’s why we’ve announced Australia’s first National Child Maltreatment Study.

This will be the most comprehensive study of its kind undertaken anywhere in the world.

We’re establishing a National Centre for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse.

The Royal Commission recommended the National Centre should:

  • raise awareness of the impact of abuse,
  • increase our workforce’s knowledge and their competence in responding to victims and survivors, and
  • coordinating a national research agenda.

The Government has committed $25.5 million over five years to establish that centre and I’ve asked all states and territories to contribute also.

We’ll be consulting on the scope, functions and governance arrangements in coming months.

The Royal Commission also found that more needs to be done to ensure that places where children and young people meet are safe.

So I was pleased earlier this year when COAG endorsed the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations.

There are ten principles, and they include things like making sure that organisational leadership take responsibility for child safety; staff and volunteers are properly trained to care for our children; and that children are taken seriously.

All Government agencies are implementing these principles.

We’re also working with state and territory governments to get them implemented consistently across our nation.

We also want, organisations that work with children to adopt these principles so they can guide their decision making and how they operate.

Mr Speaker earlier today Minister Ruston handed over to the Parliament the parchment etched with the Apology’s wording.

It will now take its place in the Members’ Hall, along with other items that tell some of the stories of our nation.

It’s not one of the pretty stories. It’s not one of the stories we can be proud of, only one that we can be deeply ashamed of.

The oak table used by Queen Victoria when signing the Royal Assent that enacted Australia’s Constitution is there.

The Yirrkala Bark petitions are there.

But also, are the apologies made to the Stolen Generations; to the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants; and for the forced adoptions.

These items of ceremony, struggle and suffering sit in the symbolic heart of our Australian Parliament, on public display because that’s who we are as a people. We do confront the ghosts and horrible deeds of our past, because it’s right to do so. But we also do it as a living memory to us all that we should never see them repeated. And for it to be here in this please, let it be a remembrance for us. Let it call us to account. Because these things are part of our national story, and we’ve got to own all our stories to be a complete people.

Many of the survivors, Mr Speaker, who gave evidence to the Royal Commission were asked to share a message with the Australian people about their experiences as part of this display and more than 1,000 Australians have done so.

One of them, whose name is not known, wrote to us and said, “Let our voice echo”.

Well it does Mr Speaker. In this chamber today, and may it ever be so.

May all those brave voices continue to echo. Let it bounce but not just that, permeate into how we remember what they have told us.

They are believed, we said a year ago. We believe you. We still believe you. We will forever believe you.

And we are sorry as we said a year ago, and we remain sorry.