ABC Lateline with David Lipson
Fifteen months since the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse recommended a national scheme of compensation, today survivors learned they will be entitled to up to $150,000 each.
But the money set aside by the Federal Government only covers a small number of survivors and the states and institutions, including churches, are expected to cover the rest.
Their involvement in the scheme, though, isn’t compulsory and there are already some signs of resistance.
Still, survivors like Dr Cathy Kezelman have today welcomed the announcement as a major first step:
CATHY KEZELMAN, DR, CHILD SEX ABUSE SURVIVOR:
Look, I mean, people who’ve been abused in institutions have been waiting decades. Some of them obviously are not getting any younger and many have struggled right through their adult life, just to get to first base.
So, you know, finally – and people have lost their lives in this process. So what we want to see is that survivors all have an opportunity to build a path to recovery and this will help survivors make a start.
Social Services Minister Christian Porter announced the compensation scheme today. I spoke to him earlier.
Minister, thanks for your time. You’ve estimated that somewhere around 3,000 survivors will be covered by the Commonwealth in this redress scheme. That leaves somewhere around 60,000 or so other survivors not covered by the Commonwealth.
This is an opt-in scheme so that means, for the states, churches and institutions, they have to decide voluntarily to be involved. How confident are you that they will do that and cover the vast majority of survivors?
CHRISTIAN PORTER, SOCIAL SERVICES MINISTER:
Well, I mean, that’s something that we have been working on and will continue to work on. The decision that we took was that it’s better to work on that process in the context of a known, clear and transparent blueprint for the scheme, which is what we’ve put out today. So that those organisations you’ve mentioned – states, territories, charitable institutions, churches – know exactly what it would be that they’re opting into.
And what the royal commission in effect said was that, when people were – if they did opt into a scheme like this, they’d do so on a basis where they are responsible for the redress payments to people in institutions for which they have control or responsibility.
So look, there is a degree of confidence. Certainly the negotiations with private institutions, non-government institutions, charities and churches have been so far very positive. And the design that we’ve put out today has been deliberately structured in a way to maximise the ability of the Commonwealth to encourage those organisations to opt in.
Is there room for negotiation on the dollar figure, the dollar amount, that they do opt in on? Or is it a “take it or leave it” deal?
No, there’s no negotiation on that maximum figure of $150,000. And again, what the royal commission in effect said was that, if there was to be a scheme of national reach, that when people came into that scheme they’d have to abide by the procedural rules that were designed by the operator; but also, of course, those financial parameters.
And so those basic principles that I spoke about today: they are set. We will set up an advisory committee of survivors of sexual abuse as children in these institutions and their supporters and they will assist us in determining the very finer and final detail of matters of process, like the matrix upon which claims are considered.
But the basic principles that we outlined today are not negotiable, in the sense that when someone opts in, whether that be the Catholic Church or a territory or potentially a state, that they opt in in accordance with those basic principles.
Today South Australia and Western Australia have voiced some resistance to your announcement. New South Wales and Victoria are somewhat uncertain as well.
You can’t compel them, but do you have any other leavers at your disposal to encourage them to be part of this scheme: for example, federal grants?
Well, what the royal commission said was that redress has to operate on a basis, if it were to be a larger scheme with national reach, that each jurisdiction or institution that opted in would need to be responsible for the payment of redress, in terms of the people who applied, according to their level of responsibility.
And part of that is about the process of ensuring that the conditions that let this arise through previous decades would never be allowed to arise again. And you can’t have a situation, I think – and this was, in my observation, at the heart of the royal commission’s recommendations – where one institution or one government is responsible in a global sense for the organisation that caused the harm, but someone else pays the redress. And that is not conducive to ensuring a better Australia where this doesn’t happen again.
So we won’t be offering the sort of levers that you’ve noted. We have said, very importantly, that with at least two jurisdictions – which is the ACT and the Northern Territory – it’s fairly clear to the Commonwealth that we will have the constitutional and legislative power to compel participation. We will go through the appropriate process of consultation and negotiation with those jurisdictions, but absolutely reserving our right to compel them in, if you like.
You’ve South Australia have not been at all enthusiastic about the notion of a national scheme. The South Australian Government has said, in effect, that they do not want to be in it. New South Wales and Victoria are in the process, as I understand it, of developing basic rules and parameters for schemes that they might run.
Now, we have designed these rules and parameters in a way that we would hope very much encourages NSW and Victoria to have a good look at the possibility of opting into our scheme. And the negotiations with the churches and the charitable institutions, in my observation, offer great room for optimism that they will join this scheme.
If a church or entity no longer exists or can’t afford to pay recompense, the Commonwealth will step in only if it’s partly responsible for the abuse that occurred. What if there’s no shared responsibility? Do the victims get nothing?
Well, in every set of circumstances we will look at it on a case-by-case basis. And of course it will be complicated.
But in essence, you’re talking about situations where an organisation like a church or a charity either no longer physically exists as an entity or doesn’t have any capacity now to pay. Now, what we have said – again, consistent with the recommendations of the royal commission – is that, in those circumstances, if there’s a real and not remote connection to the Commonwealth and we are, if you like, the level of government whose overarching responsibility it was for the institution, then we will be the funder of last resort.
But again, consistent with the royal commission recommendations: in those circumstances, if the deeper connection is with a state government, then they must be the funder of last resort. So we have tried very much to be carefully consistent with what the royal commission has said in this regard.
Just on another matter: the Federal Court today has thrown out the case of three Queensland University of Technology students who were facing a lawsuit for posting messages on Facebook about an Indigenous-only computer room. What does this tell you about Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act? Is it working or not?
Well, David: I mean, all sections of all acts work in a procedural and substantive sense.
I must say: I’ve been a lawyer of 20 years’ experience, on and off. The question this raises for me is a procedural question that I think is best directed at the Human Rights Commission and that is: how did a matter this frivolous and vexatious be allowed to go this far?
And surely there must be a responsibility on the organisation in charge of bringing these matters and ensuring procedural fairness to make themselves absolutely certain about the merits of the case before they take it this far. And it did go too far.
So you don’t see any need to change the Act, though?
Well, I’m not saying that. But I think the primary question here is: how did something the court considers vexatious and frivolous – and I think most Australians would agree with that view – how did it get this far?
I mean, how did it come into the Human Rights Commission? Were procedural fairness rules observed? Was proper consideration given to the merits and substance of the claim before it went as far as it did? And getting to the Federal Court is very, very far.
Christian Porter, we’re out of time. Thanks for joining us.
Thank you, David.