Oct 22, 2020

MOTIONS – National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse – Thursday, 22 October 2020

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (09:43): Childhood should be the haven of some of our most wonderful memories—a time when the world is filled with the brightest sunshine, when the future is exciting and every dream feels like it will one day come true. But for so many of our fellow Australians, when they look back at their childhood, that’s not what they remember. Instead of sunshine there were shadows. In the places they should have been safe, they weren’t. Instead there was fear, betrayal, shame. The destruction of the innocence of a child is an evil thing. Trust was shattered. Institutions that should have been the cornerstones of our society were instead the rot at the heart of it. For many who suffered, the future looked impossible. So many took their own life and never saw this debate and the change that has happened with recognition across the board by our society about the evil that was perpetrated. The daily reality for too many children was a society that wouldn’t believe them, a society that forced its own shame onto the shoulders of those it refused to hear.


That finally changed with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. I’m very proud to have been a member of the cabinet that made that decision. The royal commission was set in train by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She has a lot to be proud of from her period as Prime Minister, but no decision was as gutsy as that one. That’s because there was considerable opposition to it.


The courage of the survivors who gave their testimonies has not lost any of its power to humble us. Seventeen thousand survivors came forward—17,000—to smash the conspiracies of cruelty that had tried for so long to silence them. Eight thousand shared their stories, many for the first time. Last year I was asked to go to dinner with a friend I went to university with. I didn’t know. He’d never spoken about his personal experience. He wept over dinner as he recounted the difference that giving evidence made to his life—not just through that process, but through the courts system—to achieve justice for a childhood taken away from him, in his case by the Boy Scouts. More than 1,000 gave written accounts.


Once again, I want to acknowledge the great leadership shown by Leonie Sheedy from CLAN. She made her presence felt. She demanded that those in power use their power to make a difference. She travelled the country urging survivors to speak up. Then she told her own story. What happened right across the country was a dam burst of truth. Survivors spoke for themselves and for those who couldn’t yet raise their voices, and they smashed into that corrosive culture of concealment, that culture which routinely gave credence to the abusers over the abused. This meant that those who should have protected abused children instead doubted, shamed and silenced them.


On this day, two years ago, we reached the culmination of that royal commission. We gathered in this place and heard the Prime Minister and my predecessor Bill Shorten say the words that so badly needed to be said, the words that so desperately needed to be heard. Of course, an apology could never repair all the pain. It could never undo the suffering of a life darkened by a childhood lived under the shadow of violence and fear. It couldn’t bring back those who had been worn down by the weight of a truth they’d had to bear alone, and who did not live to hear the words, ‘We believe you.’


But the apology did mark the end of one era and the beginning of a more hopeful one, and the Prime Minister today has outlined the progress that has been made and recommitted the parliament as a whole to do better, which we need to do. Here in this place, we finally extended a hand to the survivors and to the memories of the victims. It is a very good thing that we will have the national memorial in this, our national capital, in 2022. As I said last year, the fact that survivors accepted that belatedly extended hand will stand forever as an act of grace. We thank them. It took an inner strength that most of us can never understand. The testimonies that survivors gave to the royal commission are online. When the truth is right in front of us, there is no reason for us to ever again become a society that chooses to look away.


When the royal commission handed down its report, that certainly wasn’t the end of it; nor did it draw to a close with the apology. This is a process that goes on. The National Office for Child Safety continues its work in implementing the recommendations of the royal commission. The National Redress Scheme must continue to hold institutions to account and offer support to survivors. And we in this parliament will take the action that the Prime Minister has suggested against those institutions that can’t show just a little bit of decency in responding and joining that scheme. So we stand ready to work with the government to get the scheme working as it should, to deliver survivors the redress that they deserve, in accordance with the recommendations of the royal commission. Each year we will join here in parliament and reaffirm the apology and everything with which it is imbued, because we cannot allow ourselves the false comfort of considering the job done and then letting it fade from memory. We will always hold in our hearts those who didn’t live to hear the words, ‘We hear you. We believe you.’ And, to the survivors—the gracious, patient survivors—I say this: after all those years in which you suffered beneath stifling layers of silence, we will not leave you to recede into the quiet once more. May the past two years have brought you somewhat closer to the peace that you deserve, and may some of that long lost sunshine find you and warm you at last.