Oct 22, 2019

Motions – National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse – Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (16:36): I acknowledge the Prime Minister and thank him for his fine words now, just as I thank him for what he said last year. Likewise I acknowledge Bill Shorten for his heartfelt contribution on that solemn day, and of course I thank Julia Gillard for making it possible for that essential but overdue step to be taken. In establishing the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse it was Prime Minister Gillard who saw to it that the silence shrouding these terrible wrongs would at last be broken. It must be acknowledged that not only was it a courageous decision; it was a decision which was heavily criticised by some at the time. It took courage, it made a difference and it is a great part of Prime Minister Gillard’s legacy. Without that step, no healing could ever begin.

Most of all I acknowledge the victims, I acknowledge the survivors, I acknowledge your supportive families and I acknowledge your children. I acknowledge Leonie Sheedy and CLAN for your leadership. I acknowledge Andrew Murray, the former senator and one of the six royal commissioners, who is here today in the Speaker’s gallery. I acknowledge you who came to Parliament House last year, you who have come here for the very first time, you who are watching or listening elsewhere, you who have opened up and those of you who cannot yet. And to those of you who still cannot bear to be a part of this and may or may not find our words one day in the future, to all of you I say: here in this building we collectively try our best to represent and govern for all Australians, and today we collectively stand with you.

It is now a year since we gathered here to do what should have been done so long ago: to say sorry for all the wrong that was done against them, to say sorry for the destruction of trust, to say sorry for the violation of innocence, to say sorry for the negligence of the very institutions that were meant to be among the cornerstones of our society. There was so much that joined together in a chain of calamity: the masking of truth; the culture of concealment; the conspiracies of silence; the credence given to the abusers over the abused; the psychiatrists, counsellors, police, investigators and even family members who tried to prove them wrong. Did they try to prove them wrong because the possibility that they were right was somehow even worse than the possibility of ignoring a dreadful crime? We look back and wonder how such an instinct could possibly have taken root, but it did. It was an instinct that left many of the abused feeling like strangers within their own families and within their own homes—strangers in the very places where they should have felt most secure, loved and free. It was an instinct that took those who should have felt protected and left them vulnerable. It was an instinct that somehow managed to render the powerless even more powerless. It was an instinct that pushed those who already felt alone even deeper into isolation.

The royal commission exploded all of this. What we saw during the course of the royal commission’s investigations was a dam-burst of truth, and we saw courage so powerful that it should shake us still. Seventeen thousand survivors came forward. When we were in the cabinet room considering the royal commission, we couldn’t have comprehended the number of people—the sheer volume—that came forward. Eight thousand shared their stories. More than a thousand gave written accounts. Contemplate those numbers for a moment—what that looks like. They are multitudes. Then remind yourself of this: that, of course, not everyone did come forward. Let that swell in your mind.

The apology was where we in this place at last reached out to them. That they would accept a hand so offered will stand forever in our history as an act of grace—but accept they did; so many of them did. It took an inner strength that most of us can never know we possess until we are truly tested. The moment they took that hand, after the long months of the royal commission, into which so many hearts were poured, they broke the thread—the thread that had for so long been held by the abusers and those who protected the abusers, either deliberately or out of a carelessness that, as we look back now, seems barely any less callous.

The effects of what was done ripples through lifetimes—both the effects of what was done directly and the effects of a society that for so long closed its eyes and blocked its ears, unable or unwilling to brings itself to say the words: ‘We hear you. We believe you.’ We see Australia as a land bathed in the brightest sunshine. But along the way we let the shadows grow and multiply beneath our noses. I say to them: you jolted us out of this. You made us peer into the shadows, and you flooded the darkness with light.

A year after the apology, the testimonies remain. They are easy to find online. There is no excuse for any of us to be unaware. That’s why it’s important that we commemorate today, the one-year anniversary, and we continue to do it year after year, as the Prime Minister has indicated. There is no reason for any of us to ever become complacent or forgetful about what can happen in a society that chooses not to see.

Those testimonies are there in their multitudes. They will never lose any of their wrenching, heartbreaking power. To read them is to weep for what was done; for what was damaged; for what was destroyed. But to read them is also to feel awe at the resilience of the human spirit and the sheer courage of survivors who made the decision to turn their minds back to that bleakest corner of their memories. It must have been incredibly painful, as well as courageous, for them to do so. Often what you can sense in the adult voice in which the testimony was given is the voice of the child they once were—the child who deserved nothing short of society’s protection and nurture, only to be let down so cruelly. They faced their past and dragged it into the light because they wanted to do everything in their power to make sure it couldn’t happen again. I say to them: an apology to you was profoundly overdue, but, as it was delivered to you, it carried within it a gratitude for your courage. A year ago, you gave this institution the benefit of the doubt. After so many years when your truth and the carriage of justice were denied, we now look back at the first year after the apology.

An apology cannot repair all the pain in your hearts, your souls, your minds. It cannot make up for years of suffering. It cannot undo the years of your adult life lived in the shadow of that childhood cruelty and betrayal. An apology cannot bring back everyone who should have been here to hear it. Too many lives have been lost. We hold in our hearts those who did not survive to hear their suffering acknowledged, to know that their cries had stopped falling on deaf ears, to know that they had at last been heard, to know that they had been believed, to know that their words had at last been recognised for what they were: the truth, a truth that was so dark and terrible that we shut our eyes and turned away from it until at last we could turn away from it no longer. It’s a truth we should never have turned away from at all. That there are so many who are no longer here to hear that silence finally break leaves an ache that does not fade. Nor can an apology hold to account everyone it needed to, so many of the abusers having died before justice, so long thwarted, could finally catch up with them.

But an apology can bring to an end one era and, with hope, begin a better one. The practical initiatives outlined by the Prime Minister today are steps along that road. The National Office for Child Safety is working on the implementation of the priorities recommended by the royal commission. Since last year the National Redress Scheme has begun its work to hold institutions to account and to help survivors. Today, I join with the Prime Minister in urging anyone who thinks they should not be a part of that scheme to get on board today. But there is a way to go.

I say to them: for your patience, which must not be tested any further, I thank you. For your generosity in accepting an apology, I thank you. Those of us who have never endured what you have can never place ourselves in your shoes. We can never have a real sense of your ordeal. We can never truly know the feeling of years of feeling ignored or disbelieved or shunned. But we can tell you now, as you were told so very belatedly a year ago, that we believe you. We are sorry that it took so long. We can express sorrow for what was allowed to happen, and we can express it without ever expecting you to show forgiveness to those who did wrong to you and those who let you down. And we can hope that in the year since the apology, as action has begun, you have felt, at the very least, something closer to peace within yourselves.

So, to all of you—to the people who came forward, to Margret, to Dunstan, to Faye, to Gregory, to Gladys, to Leroy, to all the others; to all of you who shared; to all of you who came forward; to all of you who couldn’t; to all of you who suffered and suffer still; to all of you who opened our eyes, ears and hearts; to all of you who brought the light: we are with you and we thank you.

Debate adjourned.