National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Amendment (Technical Amendments) Bill 2020

The National Redress Scheme was created in response to recommendations by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The royal commission listened to thousands of people about the abuse they experienced as children. The abuse happened in places where children were thought to be safe, protected and cared for—schools, churches, recreational sporting clubs and institutions with the purpose of providing care. The horrors that emerged from the royal commission were nothing short of a national disgrace.

Before I get onto the substance of the debate, I might with the indulgence of the House mention a matter of some concern to me, which is related tangentially to this issue. The website Etsy is popular with people looking for interesting things to buy. They are often handmade or handcrafted. Unfortunately it has also been hosting outrageously unacceptable goods from sellers that perpetuate the sexualisation of children, and it has been far too slow in shutting such sellers down. Examples include the sale of child abuse and incest themed products, such as T-shirts sporting slogans and images begging fathers to violate their daughters. They are beyond disgusting. Australian fashion designer Anna Cordell pulled her wares from Etsy and has launched an online petition demanding that Etsy remove these sellers. As of a few hours ago, nearly 17,000 Australians had signed, and I am one of them. Sexualising children perpetuates their abuse. Children should never be regarded as sexually desirable. The nation's institutions, including governments, failed our children in the past. We must demonstrate that we have learned and we must not fail our children today. Etsy must shut these sellers down immediately. If it fails to do so, the full weight of relevant state and federal authorities should be unleashed upon it.

As of 15 January this year, the Redress Scheme had received 9,232 applications, had made 5,487 decisions and had finalised 4,660 applications, including 4,620 payments totalling around $385 million. In June, we know that there were more than 512 applications on hold, waiting on institutions to join the scheme. The Morrison government, frankly, has had plenty of time to make the National Redress Scheme more efficient and to roll out redress to the eligible survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. At the current rate the government is moving, it will take 32 years to complete the Redress Scheme. Many victims will have died by then, some from old age. These delays amount to neglect, they add to the trauma, and they are entirely avoidable and unnecessary.

The anxiety that many survivors experience at the possibility of missing out altogether due to their age or perhaps their illness is a further form of trauma. The slow rate of applications indicates the scheme is difficult to navigate, inadequate and hard to find. Survivors have spoken of the difficulty in preparing an application. The Joint Select Committee on Implementation of the National Redress Scheme heard that for one survivor it took 17 months to finalise their application—and that is only the time taken to complete the application. Then there is the processing, which, on average, according to the Department of Social Services, was taking eight months. That's on average. Many take much longer. Last October the Department of Social Services said in estimates that the processing time of an application was now 12 months. It's disgraceful. This is not the way survivors of child sexual abuse should be treated.

Survivors have waited decades and endured pain and suffering arising from crimes perpetrated against them as children. The prospect of justice is in sight but, agonisingly, just out of reach—and entirely because of the mismanagement by the government. I do support the National Redress Scheme as part of an apparatus that seeks to heal the wounds, but the system is failing too many survivors. It is the government's responsibility to know where the system is failing and why, and, most importantly, to fix it.

Labor supported the changes that the government made to charities law last year to prevent recalcitrant organisations that failed to join Redress from getting government grants and remove their charitable and tax deductibility status. However, these changes will not guarantee that survivors will get access if an institution remains recalcitrant and refuses to join, or if they deliberately restructure their affairs to avoid the obligation to join by hiding assets. The cases are rare but they are growing. Labor is calling on the government to place a levy on such institutions in order to cover the cost of redress and collect funds through the tax system if needed.

Survivors should not miss out on the opportunity to get redress because an institution refuses to take responsibility. Many applications are in limbo because institutions that are the subject of applications are now defunct or have no present-day links or entities. In other cases, applications for redress cannot be progressed because the institution itself does not have the financial capacity to meet obligations under the scheme. A notable example is the Retta Dixon Home in the Northern Territory. This is where the government needs to step up and provide a guarantee that it will act as a funder of last resort where there are no linked institutions that can take responsibility. No survivor of child sexual abuse should ever miss out on access to redress because the institution ultimately responsible for the abuse has folded or simply cannot afford to pay. Labor's amendments will seek to ensure that governments act as funders of last resort when people would otherwise miss out because institutions are defunct or do not have the capacity to join the scheme.

Labor's amendments also call on the government to establish an advance payment scheme for people who are elderly or ill. This could work similarly to the successful system used in Scotland, which has been well received by survivors and ensured that proper redress and justice was granted to survivors who otherwise faced the prospect of dying before receiving their redress payment. When processing takes months or perhaps years, that's a worthwhile investment. People deserve to see that institutions that have done them so much harm are held to account. They deserve to know that, eventually, they were believed, they were seen and they were taken seriously.

Another major issue with the design and implementation of the scheme is the inadequacy of redress payments. The current $150,000 cap on the redress scheme is inadequate. It pushes people towards civil processes and away from or outside of the scheme. Anecdotally, we are hearing that survivors can get more generous payments, while receiving these payments in similar time frames to the scheme. This issue is undermining the fundamental purpose of the scheme, which is to make it easier and quicker for survivors to access payments and support. Redress payments are also being significantly reduced because of prior payments. The joint select committee heard an instance in which a payment was reduced from $50,000—$50,000, for child sexual abuse—to $20,000 because the survivor had been awarded a payment of $15,000 years prior. For example, prior payments to stolen generations survivors—a separate issue entirely from institutional child sexual abuse—are being used to reduce redress payments.

The government's reduction in redress payments when it becomes aware of a survivor's payment for previous inflictions is shameful. It is particularly outrageous given the cavalier way in which this government has allowed literally hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money to be handed to multimillionaire CEOs and executives under JobKeeper loopholes. This is a government that chases down every dollar in overpayments made to poor people and survivors of child sexual abuse but is happy to give truckloads of cash to its rich friends without a second thought. The mind boggles at the hypocrisy and the cruelty.

According to the interim report of the joint select committee:

DSS advised that as at 7 February 2020, 449 payments had been adjusted due to prior payments, with the average value of the adjustment being $34 574.02. DSS also confirmed that the maximum adjustment made was $150 000 which reduced the redress award to zero.

To that end, Labor's amendments would lift the cap on redress payments from $150,000 to $200,000, as recommended by the royal commission. Labor's amendments would also ensure that prior payments are not indexed when calculating a redress payment and that prior payments which do not relate to institutional child sexual abuse are not deducted from redress payments—for example, payments to members of the stolen generations for having been stolen.

The redress assessment matrix has also been widely criticised. As the joint committee found, the existing assessment matrix arbitrarily links the amount of redress awarded to the physical type of abuse perpetrated, and this 'fails to recognise the lifelong harm that any sexual abuse has on a survivor'. The report further states:

Of grave concern was the decision to limit the payment of exceptional circumstance to penetrative abuse. This approach fails to acknowledge the harm caused by other types of sexual abuse.

This was a noted departure from the original recommendations of the royal commission. One survivor stated, 'I don't know how they came up with the matrix.' If the royal commission recommends something and the government decides to do something else, surely the least that survivors deserve is to be told how the government came to that decision to do so.

Labor's amendments will require the minister to remake the redress assessment framework so that it recognises the impact of abuse when calculating redress payments, as recommended by the royal commission. The limited one-off payments for psychological counselling and support are contrary to the recommendations of the royal commission. Where are concerned that in many cases people are being provided with as little as $1,250 to cover future counselling and psychological care. The royal commission recommended that ongoing support should be provided. Imagine suffering child sexual abuse and being told that you've got a cap on the amount of counselling you can be provided with. It beggars belief. The royal commission report states:

Many survivors will need counselling and psychological care from time to time throughout their lives.

Further:

Counselling is not necessarily needed continuously throughout a survivor's life.

But it should available throughout a survivor's life. Child sexual abuse is a life sentence. Counselling should be available on an episodic basis, as needed. To that end, Labor's amendments will ensure that necessary ongoing psychological counselling and support will be provided to survivors.

Often we hear a claim from the government that it cannot make changes to the scheme on its own, that it needs the support of the states and territories. Of course, agreement is needed for certain changes. But so is leadership and so is action from the government. But so far we have seen too little. Improvements will not happen in a vacuum, just as this scheme and the royal commission that was asked to make recommendations on it did not happen in a vacuum. They happened because there was real leadership from the top, leadership from former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Rome was not built in a day, and neither will a successful national redress scheme be. The government has had years to get its act together, but it continues to fail to act. This is a government riddled with inertia. The legislated two-year review of the scheme is due to report soon. We know from talking to survivors that the issues reflected in Labor's amendments have been raised as part of that review.

Only the government can move amendments that have financial impacts. That is why Labor will put forward a series of amendments that require the minister to investigate changes and report back to the parliament. This is a sensible and flexible approach for the government. There is absolutely no reason why the government should not support those amendments. It is in the best interests of survivors all over the country. It is in the best interests of Australia's national integrity and reputation to be able to acknowledge its shortcomings and work to correct its past. Most importantly, it is in the best interests of the survivors of child sexual abuse.