National compensation scheme: a clear cut case for moral leadership
October 25, 2015 | The Sydney Morning Herald
A national scheme is the most likely to deliver fairness, justice and consistency for Australia's child sex abuse survivors.
Off a busy road in Blacktown there's a heartbreaking museum. Among the modest items, a chipped jug, a tambourine, a child's little red jacket with a white collar. There's a worn blanket, a toilet brush, and a sign: "Visitors are requested not to touch the babies".
The collection is memorabilia from childrens' homes around Australia donated by former inmates and members of the Care Leavers Australia Network. It has little monetary value, perhaps, but is of immense value as a reminder of a bygone time. It was a time when families experiencing misfortune were often broken up and their children dispersed into institutional "homes". It was an era when unquestioned respect for authority combined with the lack of it for children put society's most vulnerable individuals at high risk from the very institutions that were meant to be protecting them.
Now, thanks to two solid years of dogged, exhausting and exhaustive work at the royal commission led by Justice Peter McClellan, we know what happened to so many of those babies who were not meant to be touched. We know that not just in children's homes but in religious organisations, schools, sporting organisations, charities, hospitals, childcare centres, in institutions lacking outside scrutiny where children have been at close quarters with adults, they have been sexually abused. And we know that the impact of such abuse can be devastating. It can last a lifetime and leave a traumatic legacy down the generations.
So now we know, what should we do about it? The answer boils down into two simple parts: we can try to prevent institutional child sex abuse from happening in future, and we can do our best to make amends to survivors for the crimes of the past.
On making amends, the commission's latest report gives Malcolm Turnbull's government a practical blueprint as well as an historic opportunity to exercise the moral leadership which has been so long lacking on this issue. After consulting deeply with survivors and their advocates, the commission has concluded that appropriate redress has three elements: a direct personal response from the institution involved if the survivor wants it; counselling and psychological care; and a tangible recognition of their suffering with monetary payments administered by the federal government through a national redress scheme.
The commission's actuarial modelling suggests 60,000 people might seek redress. With an average payment of $65,000, the scheme would pay out just more than $4 billion over 10 years. Of this, governments would pay out $1.9 billion.
Survivors have argued a national scheme is the most likely to deliver fairness, justice and consistency. Many have been burnt by bitter past experience of piecemeal state-based schemes which give survivors a better deal in one state than another. It is unfair that the type or amount of redress available has depended on where it occurred or what type of institution it was.
As the commission points out, primary responsibility for the sexual abuse of children must lie with the abuser and the institution they represented. The Herald has argued that survivors should have to forfeit their right to sue individuals and/or institutions for compensatory damages if they receive a payout from the scheme. It is a pity that the commission, probably mindful of the need to make the scheme politically palatable, has argued otherwise.
A national scheme will involve complex negotiations with the states and with institutions. It will be hard to set up and run. But that is no reason to reject it as the federal government did when Tony Abbott was prime minister. The states have moved quickly to get it on the agenda for next month's COAG meeting. They want the federal government to make its position clear as soon as possible. The commission wants the Commonwealth to announce its willingness to establish a national scheme by the end of this year, and to have it up and running by July 2017.
The Care Leavers Australia Network takes heart from the fact that Mr Turnbull is one of their patrons and attended the 2011 opening of their Blacktown office. Here is a chance for him to distinguish his leadership from that of his predecessor. Sticking with the default position of state by state schemes would send a signal to survivors that nothing has changed: that they are not being listened to, and that their interests will always run second to institutional interests. Justice demands otherwise.
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