TRANSCRIPT - National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Amendment Bill 2021
01 September 2021
It is always an honour to stand in this parliament and try to give voice to the survivors of child sexual abuse in institutions. I'm therefore very pleased to be able to contribute to this debate today, and I do so in strong support of the amendments moved by the member for Fenner on behalf of the member for Barton. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was a necessary and essential response to one of the darkest and ugliest chapters in our national history. We remain forever grateful to the then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and a former colleague and friend, the former member for Jagajaga, for their outstanding work in establishing the royal commission and enabling the National Redress Scheme to become a reality.
The royal commission uncovered some of the most horrific abuse of innocent children, often perpetrated by the very people they were entrusted to. That was a gross violation of trust. It was felt deeply in my community of Newcastle; we are not dissimilar to the town of Ballarat, the dreadful epicentre of the institutional abuse that took place over many decades. Until the Redress Scheme, many survivors had not been able to access any form of justice for what had happened to them. While no amount of financial compensation will ever take away that trauma and abuse, the National Redress Scheme continues to serve as an important step in the healing process and a way for many to secure justice for the harm and utter betrayal that occurred.
Labor welcome the legislation before the House today. We believe that the reforms to the National Redress Scheme are absolutely necessary to start bringing that focus back onto the survivor and their experience of the Redress Scheme. The Redress Scheme must be unswervingly focused on ensuring that every decision is made in the best interests of victims and survivors. It must be trauma informed in its approach and practice. Victims and survivors of child sexual abuse in institutions have consistently told us about their concerns with the National Redress Scheme and its many inadequacies. These are issues that Robyn Kruk AO canvassed in her independent second-year review of the National Redress Scheme. But we need to put on record that that review is a reiteration of the many, many issues that are well known and have been put before this parliament since at least 2019.
There have been three reports handed down to this parliament since the royal commission. Many, as I said, have highlighted that the scheme is not working as it was intended to. I was in this House on 2 April 2019 when the final report, entitled Getting the National Redress Scheme right: an overdue step towards justice, was tabled in this parliament. I was here in May 2020 when the First interim report of the Joint Select Committee on Implementation of the National Redress Scheme April 2020 was tabled in this parliament. And, again, I was here on 23 June this year when the Final report of the second year review of the National Redress Scheme was tabled in this parliament.
Of course, the joint select committee, which I have been deputy chair of in both the former parliament and this current parliament, is right now deliberating additional reforms that are required. We're looking very closely at the issue of the funder of last resort, a matter which I'll come back to, and indeed issues around barriers to participation for First Nations people and CALD communities—people who we know are not currently accessing the scheme in numbers that we would expect or want to see. Labor supports the government's decision to finally take some action here. As I said, three reports down; glad to see some legislation now on the table.
We welcome all the parts of the bill, but I think it's also incumbent on us to acknowledge that many of the changes in this particular bill are what I would regard as the low-hanging fruit. They are relatively non-controversial, easy changes to be made. I'm glad that the governance council has agreed to it, but truly these should have been done some time ago.
The one that Labor is especially pleased to see in this legislation is the adoption of Labor's policy on advance payments. This is something that the Scottish parliament, in fact, led the way on. I give a shout-out to our colleagues in the Scottish parliament for advancing this proposition, which we have warmly embraced and now wish to take up in Australia. This is an issue that my Labor colleagues have been pressing for since April of last year. We put this to the Joint Select Committee on Implementation of the National Redress Scheme, and bipartisan support was received to ask the independent reviewer, Robyn Kruk, to do some more detailed investigation. I'm very pleased to see that this has finally been given the tick and we are now seeing an early release scheme in legislation.
Advance payments are really all about ensuring that those people who are old, sick or have multiple comorbidities get some compensation before they pass away, because, sadly, I am aware of at least 20 people who have passed away before receiving their redress. I am really very mindful of cases in my own electorate, and I'm thinking now of Frances, who was aged 96 and waited an eternity for redress in her lifetime. She finally was given a redress payment just months before she died, having, as I said, waited her entire life for redress. It just seems now, upon reflection, very cruel that she hadn't received that earlier payment and recognition so that she might have put her mind at rest and got rid of much of that anxiety she lived with. She might have got to enjoy that period of life—a bit longer period of life—before her death. For that and for every survivor that has passed without having that proper acknowledgement, I am deeply, deeply saddened.
We've got many survivors who are worried about COVID-19 and the impact that's going to have on their life, their quality of life and the length of their life. They would like to see this advance payment put in place, as it should be. We have really waited far too long for this to come, but it's a terrifically welcome part of the legislation today.
Another issue that's caused great distress and anxiety for survivors relates to the issue of indexation. This is an issue that CLAN and its advocates in particular have really pressed, both with the committee and I know with government members. Prior to the changes in this bill, survivors were forced to adhere to a very mean and unnecessary provision that left many with little redress. There have been some shocking examples where the indexation has actually reduced people's payments—potentially reduced them to zero—which was, of course, completely unjustifiable and outside of the spirit of the Redress Scheme. So we would like to see indexation as a practice ceased altogether. I need to make that very clear: that remains Labor's position, but at least the government has agreed to ensuring that indexation will not be deducted from the Redress Scheme payment—the clock can't start ticking—until the redress application is finalised.
I'd also like to say it's really hard to overstate how difficult the decision to accept redress is and the emotional trauma that it can really give rise to for a lot of people, so the bill allowing the department of social security to extend the time a person has to accept the offer of redress beyond the current six-month limit is welcome. I'd have to say that it was recommended by the royal commission that this should have been a 12-month period in the first place. So, again, this is another example where a deviation from the royal commission recommendations has not been to the benefit of survivors. I'm glad to see some remedy in this bill on that front.
On the requirement for the statutory declaration: we've had a lot of evidence from the Commonwealth funded knowmore Legal Service, which provides free legal services to survivors, to get rid of this ridiculous and unnecessary component. It's just another additional barrier. I know members have made reference to the fact that during COVID this has been especially difficult, but, regardless of COVID, this was an unnecessary hurdle. There are ample provisions to ensure that any instances of people being misleading—or, indeed, of fraudulent behaviour—can be dealt with through other avenues. It was not necessary to have a statutory declaration to accompany the application, so I'm glad to see that this is now going. And knowmore has been calling for this change since 2017, I think. Here we are in 2021, finally listening and acting.
This bill also finally allows redress payments to be made in instalments at the applicant's discretion. Again, this has been a really important matter for a lot of First Nations communities who have raised these matters with us about needing to have the choice to be able to take the payments in instalments. I know the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency raised this with the committee. It was raised with the committee in the last parliament as part of the evidence we took for our 2019 report, was repeatedly raised again in this parliament and was part of the interim report that was tabled here. So I am pleased that, many years later, the government has accepted this advice.
Every time this government has chosen to move away from the royal commission recommendations, it has been to the detriment of survivors. We need to keep calling that out. That is the value of having the Joint Select Committee on Implementation of the National Redress Scheme, because it is now the only platform for survivors to voice their experiences directly with members of the parliament. I want to trust the government's word that this bill truly represents the first real step in a long line of necessary and overdue changes to the Redress Scheme.
My colleagues who have spoken before me have outlined the many shortcomings that remain with the National Redress Scheme. The most egregious harm is actually the lack of reform around the assessment matrix, which sets such low arbitrary payments for the impact of abuse. The matrix is focused on the kind of abuse that takes place, not the impact of that abuse on a survivor's life. Again, this is in direct contrast to what the royal commission had recommended. In my view the term 'penetrative' needs to be removed altogether, as an acknowledgement that trauma is not only caused by penetrative abuse. The Morrison government must reconfigure the redress assessment framework to properly recognise the impact of abuse when calculating redress payments, as recommended by the royal commission. There are many aspects that still need to be addressed on this front. My Labor colleagues and I will be pursuing this throughout the joint committee hearings and holding this government to account at every opportunity.