Child Protection – Royal Commission in to child sexual assult and abuse

Senator BARTLETT (2.50 p.m.)— My question is to the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Minchin. I draw the minister’s attention to the motion agreed to without dissent by the Senate this morning supporting the establishment of a royal commission into the sexual assault and abuse of children throughout Australia. Can the minister advise the Senate if and when the Prime Minister will be responding to or acting on this very important and significant resolution?

Senator MINCHIN—I first acknowledge Senator Bartlett’s long-term, consistent and diligent application of his time and energy to preventing this greatest of evils, the sexual abuse and abuse generally of children. I am sure there is not a senator in this place who does not share his overwhelming concern about this, as I said, great public evil that is regrettably abroad in our community.

We were happy to join with Senator Bartlett and his colleagues in supporting the motion this morning as a mark of our good faith and our concern as a government to do all that we possibly can to deal with child abuse in our community. Indeed, the subject is of considerable notoriety this week, given the appalling case of the person who came from New Zealand with his three-year-old daughter, that child’s mother apparently having been murdered in New Zealand, and abandoned the child at a Melbourne railway station. Child abuse can take many forms, and that is one of the most appalling forms of child abuse that I am aware of.

Of course, while all of us are concerned about it, those of us who are privileged to be parents—and I am one—feel it most particularly and feel enormous anger and despair when we read almost daily of the most dreadful cases of child abuse in this country. Regrettably, one of the phenomena of the breakdown of marriage seems to be that child abuse increases. When a single mother finds herself in a new relationship, she may find that her new partner does not have the same respect for children that parents always have. It is despairing to read of cases almost every week where child abuse occurs within the family environment, often in those sorts of situations.

Whether or not the commissioning of a royal commission for a major national inquiry into this matter is the best way to go about it is a matter for legitimate debate. Whether such a royal commission is the best way to go about dealing with this at a national government level is something that we are prepared to consider. It is one of the reasons we agreed to the motion; we will consider that question. I cannot give a timeline or a specific determination as to when we might respond but, in the meantime, I think the government have shown good faith. We accept that this is very much a bipartisan issue. We would not seek to suggest that there should be any partisanship or that we are better or worse than anybody else. I accept the good faith of all parties on this issue.

Our good faith and determination to do something about this has been demonstrated most particularly, of course, by our intervention in the Northern Territory. That has been motivated entirely by our concern over the continuing reports and evidence of appalling child abuse in communities, most particularly in the Northern Territory. It was by that motivation that we have engaged in this intervention. Frankly, as someone bought up as a member of the Anglican Church, I am staggered to find the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney questioning our motives and questioning that intervention. I think it is one of the finest things that our government has done and we welcome the support that we have had from across the board for that intervention, which was motivated by our concern for the welfare of the children concerned.

While much is said about the whys and wherefores of what is called cooperative federalism, I do note that we have been working very closely with state and territory ministers through the Community and Disability Services Ministers Conference to deal with this issue at a national level. (Time expired)

Senator BARTLETT—I ask a supplementary question, Mr President. I would remind the minister and the Senate that the coalition members—and I will read the actual part of the resolution—expressed:

… support for the longstanding call for a comprehensive royal commission into the sexual assault and abuse of children throughout Australia, especially in institutions.

Whilst I note that this is a mark of good faith, it suggests it might be problematic if the extent of any action consists of expressing support for resolutions and not actually acting on them. Could the minister indicate whether there will be an indication from the government at least before the election date about how this support for the longstanding call for a royal commission may be translated into action—even if that action does not specifically match that called for in the resolution but is some other form of action which does actually deal with child sexual abuse and assault in a more comprehensive, nationwide way rather than on an ad hoc, case by case basis?

Senator MINCHIN—As I was saying in answer to the first question before my time expired, through the relevant state and territory ministers conference there is an agreed national approach to child protection which I would assert on behalf of those ministers is a comprehensive approach by all relevant levels of government to protecting Australia’s children. It was a mark of good faith that coalition senators were happy to join in supporting the motion today with respect to a royal commission. But, of course, that motion would be a matter for the cabinet to consider and to determine what further action the national government might choose to take on this matter. I just want to reassert our bona fides on this matter. Our deep and abiding concern is that we, as a national government, do everything we possibly can to ensure a proper nationwide, comprehensive approach to the protection of Australia’s children.

TAKE NOTE OF ANSWERS – Child Protection Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (3.27 p.m.)—I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance and Administration (Senator Minchin) to a question without notice asked by Senator Bartlett today relating to child protection.

The question I asked related to a motion passed by the Senate earlier this morning without dissent—I presume it was with the support of all parties in this chamber. In that motion, the Senate recognised, among other things, the importance of following up expressions of concern with regard to the sexual assault and abuse of children and young people with genuine action to assist survivors of sexual assault and to bring perpetrators to justice. The Senate also expressed without dissent its support for the longstanding call for a comprehensive royal commission into the sexual assault and abuse of children throughout Australia, especially in institutions.

I appreciate that the minister could not instantaneously give a response that the Prime Minister and the cabinet had considered this resolution in the space of a few hours and resolved to implement a royal commission—although the government is capable of acting extremely quickly on some issues—but I do want to reinforce the key points of the resolution. It does not just support the calls for a royal commission; it also specifically recognises the importance of following up expressions of concern with genuine action. That is certainly the point that the Democrats will continue to push right through to election day and for as long as we have breath in our bodies.

It does need more than just expressions of concern and general statements about how terrible the sexual assault of children is and the need for us all to do more and all those sorts of things. That is all well and good, but it needs to be followed up with genuine action. The minister noted, quite understandably and correctly, that there are efforts through Commonwealth and state governments to work together to improve our performance in regard to child protection. As I have stated in this chamber a number of times before, as have people from other parties, there is certainly a lot of room for improvement in that regard. We have failed pretty dismally, collectively—and societally I might say—across the political spectrum in ensuring as much as is humanly possible a safe environment for children.

I should make the point that, whilst I am urging action from government and political parties in this regard, it is an issue where, as a society, we need to take more responsibility. It is not one of those issues, frankly, where you can expect the government to fix it. You can expect the government to show leadership on it; you can expect some comprehensive, cohesive national strategies, which in my view would include a royal commission or some similar type of independent commission of inquiry to comprehensively examine the issue rather than deal with it in an ad hoc way.

The concern that I and the Democrats have—and that is part of the motivation behind this resolution, as is probably fairly obvious—is that once again we had a particular incident generating a lot of publicity. This was the reraising of concerns about an alleged incident in a youth detention centre in Brisbane some time ago and the fact that the issues of justice in regard to that had not been resolved. It is a serious issue and it needs action. But obviously there is politics involved in that. Obviously that is a part of why it has resurfaced. I think we need to be making sure that we look comprehensively at this issue as a whole—and as much as possible in a non-partisan, independent way—and not have a sudden focus on one area because there is a political scandal, political opportunity or just media heat or whatever it is.

That is why we need to be having some national cooperation and leadership on the issue. That includes the sort of comprehensive examination of the totality of the issue that I do not believe we have ever had. We have had bits and pieces here and there in regard to specific institutions, specific groups in the community, specific regions, specific churches—some done by independent bodies, some by governments, some by departments—but we have not had a comprehensive nationwide examination. That is why the Democrats keep supporting this call, which others in the community have also made. That is why I would reinforce our request to government—and the opposition leader, who is obviously moving to a period where he is putting himself as the alternative Prime Minister—to act on this as a matter of urgency and get a comprehensive examination and action plan to follow up those expressions of concern with action and do so as a matter of urgency.

Question agreed to.

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