SPEAKING ON A BILL | NATIONAL REDRESS SCHEME FOR INSTITUTIONAL CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE (COMMONWEALTH POWERS) BILL 2018

Mr MELHEM (Western Metropolitan): I rise to speak on the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse (Commonwealth Powers) Bill 2018. In doing so I am reminded that the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Redress and Civil Litigation Report, which it released in November 2015, found that the current civil litigation system and past and current redress processes had not provided justice for many survivors. That is why it is important that this bill has the support of all members of this house, and I am pleased, based on the contributions of previous speakers, that this bill does enjoy the support of everyone.

In order to address this the royal commission recommended reform to civil litigation and the establishment of a single national redress scheme for survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. The Victorian government in March this year accepted that position and decided to join the national scheme. There are a number of points to make there. One is that I think it is very important for survivors. It is important to take away the stress and trauma which is in addition to the trauma and stress they would have endured over many, many years as a result of that abuse by people who were trusted. Trust had been placed in people to look after young children, and instead of looking after those children they misused that power and abused them.

In order for survivors not to have to go through and relive that trauma — because the alternative is to go through a civil litigation, and we all know how difficult and how traumatic that can be on survivors — it is very important that we have a system in place where survivors can meet the criteria in the form of statutory declarations, and this arises from the work of the royal commission. Basically you have got to establish that the abuse has occurred, but the threshold is obviously not the same as it is if you go through a court process.

Unfortunately in most cases the only beneficiaries from the litigation process are lawyers. You can end up with a situation in which survivors might win a particular case, but the issue can be whether costs are awarded against the institution they are prosecuting — and that is another question. You may or may not get your costs back, and even if you get your costs back, you probably will not get the full cost back. That results in not only a financial burden but also the stressful process that you have to go through as a survivor in reliving the trauma, suffering and abuse you have been through. The new redress scheme will take that away. There has been debate about whether $150 000 is an adequate amount or whether it should be $200 000, and that is going to be further debated. I think it is important to have a national scheme where all the states agree on one model so that we do not end up with different schemes in different states. I am pleased that the commonwealth will be taking the lead to coordinate the national redress scheme. We know the commonwealth does not have the power to administer a scheme like this unless the various states pass their own legislation to refer powers to the commonwealth to administer that national scheme. I think it is very important to have a national scheme and not just have the state governments opt in, because we know there are a lot of state government agencies that also are subject to that redress scheme.

I am also pleased that the other organisations — non-government organisations — have now joined the scheme. I was very pleased at the announcement a couple of weeks ago that the Catholic Church and various other organisations, including the Salvation Army, said they would join the scheme. It looks like we are going to have pretty much everyone joining the scheme.

This is about recognising the trauma suffered, giving effect to the apology and trying to somehow repair the damage that has been done to these survivors. No matter how much compensation survivors are awarded, we will never be able to take back what happened to them. What happened to them is absolutely tragic and terrible, and it is an indictment of us as a society that we allowed that to happen. That is particularly the case when we are talking about today’s survivors who were young children back then, and we failed them. We failed to protect them.

That is why I want to acknowledge all of the good work that has been done by the royal commissions, by various parties and by organisations that have been advocating for decades to make sure that we address that problem. People in this house as well did a lot of work during the previous Parliament, when Ms Crozier led that committee inquiry. This is an issue on which our Parliament and the commonwealth Parliament come together, despite being on various sides of the political divide. We do a really good job and actually perform at our best when we pick social issues like this and try to undo the wrongs where society has failed our children and abuse survivors over the years. We are finally trying to address that.

This bill is another way of addressing the wrong. It is very important to have that financial support without survivors having to go through the trauma, which I talked about earlier, so I am pleased that all the states are coming on board. The New South Wales government, on 15 May this year, passed legislation to transfer its powers to the commonwealth to enable that bill.

There was some debate about maybe some amendments being made to this bill. Without talking about the amendments — whether they are justified or not — I think the problem with amending this bill would be that it could cause further problems, because we are basically referring powers to the commonwealth and we need to make sure we have got uniform legislation throughout the commonwealth. Every state then putting up its own amendments might somehow compromise the ability of the commonwealth to have consistency across the board. I think it is very important that we pass the bill in its current form. There is no question that should there be a need for review down the track there would have to be a national approach to that issue, because otherwise you would not have consistency between the states and then you would probably cause more problems than you would fix.

The bill will now make it easier for survivors. They will be able to put in an application to the national scheme, and as I said, it will alleviate the impact of past child sexual abuse that occurred in institutional contexts by providing redress in the form of a monetary payment of $150 000 as a tangible means of recognising the wrongs survivors have suffered. The scheme will also give access to counselling and psychological services costing up to $5000 and the option to receive a direct personal response from the participating institutions responsible for the abuse.

I think it is very important that individuals who wish to not participate in the scheme and choose to, for example, take their own civil action against an institution will still have the ability to do so. My understanding is this bill does not take that power away from the individuals who wish to do so. I think it is very important that is maintained for individuals who would like to basically have their own litigation against an institution. I think that right should be protected, and it is protected.

Also, the bill talks about if a survivor wants to put in a claim against an institution or an organisation that no longer exists — for whatever reason, that organisation has been wound up or is no longer operating. So instead of that survivor missing out on being able to get the benefits of the scheme, my understanding is that the government will step in, depending on the jurisdiction, to actually allow the individual in that case to be able to access the $150 000, which I think is very important. We do not want survivors missing out not through their own fault. People who worked in those organisations many, many years ago abused them, and if that organisation does not exist anymore the survivors should be able to have access to the same compensation as if it were an ongoing organisation.

As I said earlier, the scheme is as recommended by the royal commission. Applications will be required to be verified by statute declaration and the scheme will generally not require further supporting evidence in recognition of the fact that many survivors will not have such evidence and to make a redress scheme as successful as possible. I think it is very important that we make it easy for people to access this scheme. We do not want them to have to carry the burden of proof and get them to relive the trauma which they lived earlier in life — we do not want them to have to go through that again. I think that is a very important step. Now it is in the legislation to make sure they are able to access this scheme.

Some people might already have had a civil settlement in relation to a particular case. They will not be prevented from putting in an application to access the new scheme, but obviously whatever settlement they may have had previously will be taken into account as part of accessing the redress scheme, which I think does strike the right balance. If the settlement was less than $150 000, that obviously could be topped up, but if the settlement was far in excess of that maybe there would be a question about whether or not they could access that amount. It is about making the system fairer across the board and making sure that everyone can take advantage of it.

I think it is a very important bill. I want to congratulate all the people who have worked on putting this bill together, on the whole redress scheme and on the whole royal commission process — putting that issue front and centre to recognise all the wrongdoing that was committed in our name, whether as a state institution, a religious institution or any institution that committed wrong against children through sexual abuse. Now we can hopefully move on and that will be a thing of the past. These sorts of horrible crimes by these horrible individuals against children will not occur into the future. With these words, I commend the bill to the house.

7 June 2018