Steve Irons MP Federal Member for Swan

National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse

Mr IRONS (Swan—Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister) (18:12): I rise to support the debate on the motion moved by the Prime Minister for the national apology to the victims and the survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. Before the member for Newcastle leaves the chamber, I’d like to thank her for her input to the reference committee and also, I guess, the journey of discovery along the way for her of finding out what the member for Jagajaga and I have been dealing with for a long time. There are some terrible stories, but there are also some wonderful stories, and we see humanity in a different light when we see it not being served well, as it should be, not only in this place but in every place around Australia, particularly in the institutions that treated our nation’s children with despicable behaviour and the destruction of their lives. So thank you for being a part of that and thank you for your contribution.

It was in this place 10 years ago that I delivered my maiden speech in the House of Representatives chamber. I said that I wanted to draw attention to the national issue of institutional child sex abuse. As a former ward of the state, I saw it as my responsibility to champion the issues of care leavers and children who had suffered abuse in institutions across the country. So for the last 10 years I’ve continued to advocate for a redress scheme, which we now have seen has commenced. We would see institutions that inflicted this abuse held accountable for what they did to far too many of the nation’s children. I mentioned the member for Jagajaga also. In her speech that she gave to Peter McClellan she said it was a problem of our entire society.

In my maiden speech I also mentioned a little girl named Shellay Ward. She wasn’t in an institution, but she starved to death in a home in New South Wales under the care of her own parents. We’ve heard many stories about institutional child sex abuse over the last 10 years. They’re often reflected in private homes around Australia as well. There will be no redress for them; there is no form or, I guess, visiting their experiences for us as well either. After our achievement today, we need to look at child abuse in private homes as well and how children continue to be returned to their abusers. That was in a speech that I made earlier this year.

I would like to thank many people for sharing experiences. Many contributions were made by many people over a long time to get to yesterday. First of all, I’d like to thank both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their heartfelt speeches. I met with some of the survivors and victims yesterday and today who said that they were happy with the way they were delivered. Some of them said that those speeches and the way they were delivered had actually restored their faith in this parliament—and the fact that politicians do have empathy for them. One of them, Peter, from my electorate, who I saw today in my office, came in and said that the words that the Prime Minister used in his speech to describe the horrors that were visited upon children, ‘under the shield of faith’, was something that hit home to him—that the politicians who were delivering these messages had actually got the issue. I also spoke with Patricia, who said that the word ‘anger’ used by the Prime Minister in his speech was something that really hit home for her.

So the speeches delivered by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition had differing effects, and the words that were used in those speeches made a different impression upon each one of these people, but they were delivered with genuine, heartfelt empathy. They weren’t delivered to achieve a closing of the experiences these people had—we’ve heard the word ‘healing’, but, as we know, these people never heal. It’s a lifetime of pain, a lifetime of fighting and a lifetime of horror and terror that they will always remember. But what the speech did yesterday was give them the benefit of the fact that we do believe, as a parliament, the suffering they’ve experienced and we recall their stories, which were delivered during the royal commission, to make sure that this nation never forgets. It would be very easy for us to stand up in here and promise for it to never happen again, and I notice the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition didn’t do that, because wherever there are opportunities for the evil in our society to exist and take place, it will happen.

We must be forever vigilant to make sure that we minimise the dangers to the children of our nation. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition did call for people to be ever vigilant and make sure that, if ever a child comes to us and says that they’ve been abused, we believe them or at least give them the opportunity to have that investigation visited upon those who would deliver that evil and criminal sexual abuse upon them.

I gave a speech last year and I spoke about what was mentioned by many survivors and victims, that they were often queried about the harm that was being done to them and the abuse that people were visiting upon them. And they weren’t able to give evidence sufficiently in the fact that they knew that when they were going to get back to that institution, or that person who was their abuser, they would be abused again.

We saw a case in New Zealand where that had happened, where the stepfather had abused the two daughters and, finally, abused them and then murdered them. That is a case where many times the authorities and the people who were there to protect the children just didn’t listen to the stories of the children. So, if there is one thing that can come out of all of this sorrow and all of this pain for these people, it is that we can promise them that we will make those institutions, in terms of child care, as safe as possible. Unfortunately, we can’t make it 100 per cent. As we know, even in the Northern Territory, there are still things happening today and all around Australia probably still. But we need to make sure that we get the pieces in place to make sure that we can try to let these children live a better life and be nurtured and protected and loved as they should be.

There are a few people that I’d like to mention: firstly, all the victims and survivors who turned up yesterday. I knew that there was an air of excitement, but there was also an air of a lot of pain and anger in the Great Hall when we walked in. I’m just trying to give a bit of a picture to the people listening who might not have been there yesterday. I warned both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition that they were going to get a few shouts at them, and they did, and I thought that they weathered the storm well. This is the way that these victims and survivors live. They have lived through antagonistic, angry and aggressive childhoods, and this is all some of them know. They’ve never had the education that we’ve been lucky enough to have. I think that their shouts reminded both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the anger and the pain that they’ve been through in their times.

I also thank the advocates of the victims and survivors who have been fighting for years and years to see redress finally implemented in this nation on a national basis and to make sure that we sign up as many as we can of the churches, charities and other institutions who so far haven’t been part of any of the redress schemes, because they need to pay up. They were paid handsomely by state and federal governments to look after these children, and they didn’t, so they should be part of the redress system and should be apologising, and I’m sure many of them have. Some of the institutions and churches have come on board, but some are still not committed enough, and we heard the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition both say, ‘You can’t get off the hook, you need to be a part of this scheme and you need to be able to support the victims and survivors whom people in your institutions visited abuse upon.’ As we heard yesterday, there was a system that fostered and ignored abuse, and the people who survived in that arena were the abusers. They used the system and were allowed to use the system. Stump up, please, churches and charities and other institutions! If you haven’t signed up, we need you to sign up for this redress scheme for the benefit of the children of our nation.

There are lots of people whom I’ve thanked over many years in many speeches on this road to national redress, and I reiterate that it has been a great journey for me. I know that my siblings went through hell when they were in institutions as kids. My sister, Jennifer, died at the age of 12 while in an institution. Luckily enough I found her unmarked grave about 2½ years ago and she now has a headstone. I’m sure there are many cases around Australia like that, and I’ve heard great stories of people being reunited with their families many years after they were separated as youngsters. To all of the victims and survivors out there, please get on with your lives, get your national redress, and I look forward to seeing you again back in this place or out in the communities around Australia. Australia does love you as you should be loved.

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