Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on the National Redress Scheme for victims of child sexual abuse

4 February, 2021


I rise to speak on the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Amendment (Technical Amendments) Bill 2020. The National Redress Scheme act commenced on 1 July 2018 in response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. We cannot go further in talking about this bill without reminding ourselves of some of the very telling paragraphs of the report and some of the shocking stories and events that were brought to light by that royal commission.

The sexual abuse of a child is a terrible crime. It's the greatest of personal violations. It's perpetrated against the most vulnerable in our community. The executive summary of the royal commission is titled 'A national tragedy', and that is what we must take note of. The sexual abuse of a child is a fundamental breach of the trust that children are entitled to place in adults. It is one of the most traumatic and potentially damaging experiences and can have lifelong adverse consequences.

The royal commission found that tens of thousands of children have been sexually abused in many Australian institutions. We will never know the true number. Whatever that number, it is a national tragedy perpetrated over generations within many of our most trusted institutions.

The sexual abuse of children has occurred in almost every type of institution where children reside or attend for educational, recreational, sporting, religious or cultural activities. Some institutions have had multiple abusers who sexually abused multiple children. It is not a case of a few rotten apples. Society's major institutions have seriously failed. In many cases, those failings have been exacerbated by a manifestly inadequate response to the abused person. The problems were found to be widespread and the nature of the abuse so heinous that it is difficult to comprehend.

The report and the inquiry found that a failure to act will inevitably lead to the continuing sexual abuse of children, some of whom will suffer lifelong harm. That harm can be devastating for the individual. It's also a huge cost to the entire Australian community. Many survivors will require help with health, particularly mental health; housing; and other public services. That is why it is so vital that the government act with haste in implementing all recommendations but also ensuring that the Redress Scheme addresses those so vulnerable within our society and the need they now have.

The proposed amendments to be made to this bill clarify the operation of the certain provisions and improve the administration of the scheme, and I support these amendments. But I note that the second anniversary review of the scheme is currently underway, led by Ms Robyn Kruk AO, who has a strong record in addressing institutional challenges with sexual abuse. That review is due for completion, and I understand from the minister's office that they expect to receive the report by the end of February.

Whilst I appreciate that the government is awaiting the outcomes of that review before making broader changes to the operation of the act, there have been a number of reviews and recommendations from the Joint Select Committee on the Implementation of the National Redress Scheme that warrant expedited action. We have an amendment before the House that, in fact, seeks to put that into effect. Some of these recommendations are captured in the amendment prepared by the honourable member for Barton and will be considered in consideration-in-detail stage. I'd like to address some of those briefly.

An amendment to section 116A seeks to legislate that institutions who do not participate in the scheme be named after six months. This is already government policy, and, to date, they have been consistent with adhering to that policy. But I am a supporter of legislating this policy provision to ensure that it is not likely to change this policy and to ensure consistency throughout changes of ministers and government. I also note that the amendment circulated is worded in such a way that the minister must develop a position on each of these provisions within 90 days of the commencement of the provision.

I support the proposal to increase the cap on payments under the scheme from $150,000 to $200,000. This is consistent with the findings of the royal commission and provides greater compensation to victims of child sexual abuse. I also support the end of indexing of relevant prior payments. At present, the most vulnerable victims who settled or were paid off years ago have their eligible compensation reduced by the indexation of that initial payment. This reinforces the psychological issues suffered in their initial compensation case and reduces the compensation they are now eligible for under this scheme. This is inequitable and challenging for the victims, and I support an end to that indexation.

Another amendment is to ensure that, where doubt exists about the purpose of any prior payment, we should err on the side of the victim and that that is a sensible and an appropriate response. This amendment is particularly relevant to the members of the stolen generation. Some have received small sums of compensation for their treatment. However, the purpose of that compensation is unclear. As such, if there is evidence of child sexual abuse, those prior payments would not be considered for the purpose of compensation.

I strongly encourage the government to consider the implementation of an advance-payment scheme for applicants who are ill, elderly or nearing the end of life. Scotland have established an advance-payment scheme, and it has been shown to be operating effectively. That is just one example the Australian government could look to. This is a compassionate response to provide closure for those who have suffered as a result of institutional abuse, in advance of them passing away or reaching the end of their years. The advance compensation may be smaller than that received upon the full completion of an application, but it is important to provide closure and to treat these applicants with compassion and an acknowledgement of the likelihood that their application will be successful in time.

The amendment would ensure that, in the event an institution no longer existed or did not have the capacity to pay because they had shifted money around or tried to make corporate changes to their structure to avoid liability, the government would become the funder of last resort. This is important for victims of these institutions. It would mean that institutions that refused to participate, or that restructured their affairs to avoid participating, would be forced to contribute to the scheme—for example, through a levy. For instance, this would capture organisations like Jehovah's Witnesses, who are allegedly restructuring their affairs to avoid liability as well as flat out refusing to participate.

Another amendment provides for ongoing psychological support, not just more one-off payments which are as small as $1,250. In light of the severity and the scope of the incidents of sexual abuse that were found by the royal commission, it's clear that those small, one-off payments will not be sufficient.

Some of these amendments would see the assessment framework changed so that the impact of abuse is properly recognised, in line with the recommendations of the royal commission. Currently, it's an arbitrary process which assigns small caps on how much can be paid for the impact of abuse. These caps are adjusted by the type of abuse, not the severity of its impact. This, I would argue, is not giving due regard to the impact and the consequences of abuse.

I commend the member for Barton for the amendments. I have had discussions with the minister's office and the member for Barton's office in seeking to understand the motivations and the situation between the two. Whilst I would normally be in favour of waiting for the outcome of the review, it's clear that some of these amendments are needed now to ensure victims of sexual abuse receive the compensation and assistance they need without delay. This is a tragedy; we all recognise that. We do need to act. So I commend the bill and the amendment to the House.