Time to step up for survivors of institutionalised abuse

It should be an election issue

By Ben Hubbard. Former Chief of Staff to PM Julia Gillard; member, Melbourne School of Government Advisory Board

Many of the issues discussed at this election are a bit like fast food: predictable, transactional, common; but lacking in substance for the long term.

For many Australians a deep frustration will be bordering on distress that a substantial issue – indeed one that has affected people across every corner of the country – has not been discussed.

Who is going to stand up for the dignity and healing of survivors of institutionalised child sexual abuse during this election and beyond?

"Survivors deserve better and they have waited long enough."

I was lucky enough to once work at the centre of a government that had the courage to consider and tackle big questions – after all, what is the point of government if you do nothing?

The Gillard Government established the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2013.

In the past, Royal Commissions have been – and should be – institutions deserving of gravity and respect by lawmakers and citizens. This high regard is crucial to their purpose in society.

While there has been a drift of Royal Commissions into the political domain, people largely would still agree that Royal Commissions play an important role in unpacking big legal and policy questions when ‘Business as Usual’ doesn’t cut it.

This is absolutely the case with respect to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. This has sought not just to get to the bottom of what happened, but to provide survivors with a chance to re-establish a sense of well-being, to talk about the wrongs of the past and to try and ensure such abuses do not occur again.

Former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, speaking to the survivors of sexual abuse said, "The Royal Commission is an opportunity for your voice to be heard … I hope we can provide some measure of comfort to survivors."

The Royal Commission Chair, Justice Peter McClellan, subsequently stated that survivors "can share their experiences to assist with healing and to inform the development of strategies and reforms."

The Commission’s recent report included recommendations for a process for redress where survivors receive equal access and treatment, for the removal of statutes of limitations that restricted legal rights to redress for survivors, and for redress to include a direct personal response and monetary payment.

The Royal Commission further recommended that, whether in the form of a single national redress scheme or separate state and territory redress schemes, that the scheme/s should be established and ready to receive applications from survivors by no later than 1 July 2017.

Urgent action is needed

Noting this timeline, the Royal Commission made clear it wanted Government to act with some urgency – to “give survivors and institutions more certainty on these issues and enable governments and institutions to implement our recommendations to improve civil justice for survivors as soon as possible”.

However, in the eight months since its release, there has been very little substantive response made by either the Commonwealth or State governments, particularly on a national redress scheme.

The ALP has, at the least, promised $33 million if elected to establish a National Redress Scheme and to follow the Royal Commission’s recommended timeline. Further, they have stated that they will “establish a National Redress Advisory Council to work with all governments on the development and operation of the National Redress Scheme.”

Victoria, New South Wales, and Western Australia have gone some of the way to acting with respect to limitation periods. In May, the Queensland Minister for Child Safety held an open forum about the lifting of limitation periods, however no timeline has been announced and the other states and territories are yet to act at all.

While these measures are welcome, they remain only a piecemeal approach to a substantial, national problem.

The lack of consistency and drive between state and territory governments to respond is clear evidence for the need for a national scheme.

They deserve all governments to take a proper lead in responding seriously to the Royal Commission’s recommendation for a redress scheme, starting with the Federal Government.

It’s time for some fundamental respect for the authority and value of the Royal Commission as an institution.

It should be an election issue

And with a federal election imminent, now is the time to be promoting policies around this as an election issue.

Whilst the Royal Commission recommended the scheme/s be funded by a combination of charities, churches and governments, for this to actually happen we need to see all governments move together first, and quickly, to agree on a position so the process of setting up a scheme can begin.

The ball is now in the incoming Federal Government’s court, along with responsibility for outlining what will happen once the Royal Commission is wound up, ensuring survivors remain properly supported.

Whoever is elected must not delay any longer in setting up a national redress scheme to address the hurt, pain and humiliation suffered by survivors of sexual abuse.

Survivors deserve better and they have waited long enough.

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