SPEAKING ON A BILL | WRONGS AMENDMENT (ORGANISATIONAL CHILD ABUSE) BILL 2016

Mr MELHEM (Western Metropolitan) — I also rise to speak on the Wrongs Amendment (Organisational Child Abuse) Bill 2016. The bill will amend the Wrongs Act 1958 to impose a duty of care that will allow an organisation to be held liable for negligence in relation to child abuse committed by individuals associated with that organisation. We all know the origin of this bill, coming out of the inquiry carried out by the previous Parliament in relation to child abuse in the state of Victoria.

The bill will now put the onus of proof on these organisations to demonstrate that they have taken reasonable action to address any issue they might become aware of in relation to any of their employees who have committed sexual abuse or a sexual act against a child in particular. The current legislation is a bit deficient in relation to that point, so this bill will provide a mechanism whereby organisations, employers in this instance, are responsible, whether the employees working under their control are paid or voluntary. The bill will provide the opportunity to victims and survivors of child abuse to sue these organisations. That is in line with implementing recommendation 26.4 of the Betrayal of Trust report. It also addresses recommendations 91, 92 and 93 of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse inquiry.

I am pleased that the bill has everyone’s support, because as legislators and custodians of the law in Victoria it is our role to protect the most vulnerable in our society, and in this instance we are protecting our children. Unfortunately, as we learned from the Betrayal of Trust report and the current Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse inquiry, a lot of organisations, instead of doing the right thing, instead of protecting vulnerable children in their care, protected the perpetrators who committed these abuses. The bill will go a long way towards addressing that loophole.

As I said earlier, victims will be able to sue the organisation in question. I think it is very important that they are able to do that because we are dealing with individuals who have committed a sexual abuse crime. They might get dealt with, but it is also important to send a message to these institutions. That includes the state government; the government is not immune from the bill. Whether it is the state government, whether it is a religious institution, whether it is a not‑for‑profit organisation or any employer who is in a situation where they are looking after children, if a person working for them commits these horrible acts against children, this legislation will act as a deterrent.

We are not just punishing the individuals who commit these horrible acts; we are sending a message to these organisations that they are responsible as well. That should be an incentive for the people who are running these organisations to make sure they have systems in place, regular audits and checks and balances, and that the people working for them are compliant with the law. They need to not only have processes to report child abuse but also take the necessary action. Organisations really need to look at whether they have proper systems and deterrents in place so that child abuse becomes a thing of the past and they can prevent any further child abuse under their care into the future.

This bill is not retrospective, so it does not deal with cases that have already been dealt with; it deals with future cases. It will provide a tool that not only can be deployed to ensure we fix the past but also can be deployed to make sure that child abuse perpetrators are dealt with as well as organisations, particularly organisations that have done the wrong thing over the years and that for whatever reason have hidden or moved an individual to another place or pretended that the problem did not occur or tried to sweep it under the carpet.

The victims or survivors who find themselves in that situation can go and sue these organisations. As I said, that will now give an incentive to these organisations to make sure that if such an unfortunate thing occurs they have taken all the necessary steps to make sure those sorts of abuses do not take place and they have taken all such steps to comply with rules and regulations and the law of the land. If they have done everything within their scope and within their power to prevent these things from happening and have taken all of the necessary actions, then they have nothing to fear. This bill gives the victims the ability to sue these organisations. Obviously the onus of proof will be on the organisations to prove that they have taken these steps, and the court will decide.

There is a bit of argument about what the reasonable steps that can be taken by a particular organisation are and how we can determine whether or not they have been complied with. My understanding is that purposely the bill does not clearly define that particular point. I think it is a matter for the court. I think it is very important that the court is able to hear the evidence and then make a judgement on a particular case, case by case, about whether or not a particular organisation has made a reasonable attempt to address a particular situation.

As I said earlier, this is a straightforward bill. It deals with recommendations from the royal commission into child sexual abuse and also gives effect to recommendations coming out of the Betrayal of Trust report. It is one of a series of many actions taken by the Andrews Labor government to address the outcome of that report and also the ongoing work of the royal commission to make sure we improve our systems in Victoria through legislation to make sure we have got the right tools in place to protect the most vulnerable people in our community, who are our children, and make sure that the perpetrators, whether they are individuals or organisations, are dealt with accordingly should they offend against any of our legislation. With those comments, I commend the bill to the house.

21 March 2017