Coincidence. It’s a word that is treated with extreme suspicion in Canberra. And rightly so. It cropped up at a Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee public hearing in Melbourne last week. We are looking at the Commonwealth Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Bill.
Late last week Victoria and New South Wales came on board. SA this week. The ACT and the NT will be forced by the Commonwealth to participate and the other states must be shamed into it. How, legally, will the royal commission’s recommendations be instituted? How will victims be financially compensated and counselled? How will the states and institutions be forced to pay, if, and when, they sign up?
So, where does a coincidence come in? Well, the royal commission recommended a maximum payment to victims of $200,000. Many groups that participated in roundtable discussions with the commissioners agreed with that figure. But when the government announced the scheme, that figure had somehow shrunk to $150,000 — which was the exact maximum recommended by the Catholic Church. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
I raised it at senate estimates and also with the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing CEO, Francis Sullivan, at the Melbourne hearing. But it gets worse. The late Anthony Foster — whose primary school daughters were victims of paedophile priest, Kevin O’Donnell, with tragic consequences — attended those round-table negotiations.
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He had advocated strongly for $500,000 — which I crassly told him was “an ambit claim”. His widow, Chrissie, wrote in her submission last week that Anthony “… then tried to hold out at the $300,000 level but was assured by the Commission that the churches and government would accept a redress maximum level of $200,000”. Chrissie Foster wrote that it was “to our great horror” when the then Minister for Social Services, Christian Porter, announced on TV that the figure would be $50,000 lower.
I have pledged to force it back up to the commission’s recommended figure of $200,000 (even though the average payment will be around $75,000) and, at our public hearing, got the Catholic representative to agree his church would accept that maximum and a $10,000 minimum.
One of the stalwarts of the royal commission (and even earlier) has been the Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN). Frank Golding is the passionate and eloquent vice president of CLAN, but he appeared before us in a private capacity. And he jolted me. In fact, he extracted a confession and an apology.
Golding, and CLAN’s CEO, Leonie Sheedy, graphically pointed out that, for years, all the headlines, all the attention, had been on sex abuse victims in institutions, when many of the 500,000 Aussie kids who have gone through state and church care had also been emotionally and physically abused. Used as child labor, used as child slaves cleaning the orphanages and working in the veggie gardens. They also deserved redress and counselling.
Golding said: “ I think it is not just the fact that the royal commission has focused for the last five years on sexual abuse only and has ruled out hundreds of people who want to talk to them about other forms of abuse; it is also that the media has been fixated on this. Headline after headline after headline, radio reports, television reports, hammered home the message of sexual abuse …”
“Because those stories are so shocking, that’s why,” I said.
“They absolutely are,” Golding said. “Please don’t get me wrong, they are the worst of all possible crimes against children. Nevertheless, there are lots of people who’ve suffered other forms of abuse of the sort that we’ve talked about … That is why, I think, the bill that you’re looking at needs to be scrapped and we need to start again. I know that is not the message you want.”
It wasn’t. But I pledged to campaign to get redress in another form. I even raised the prospect of a new broad royal commission.
One election promise I have been able to keep is to make monthly visits to rural and regional (yes, there is a difference) Victoria. Recently, it was Bendigo, Swan Hill and Mildura. Last week it was Ballarat.
On those visits I always visit the mayor, the local police station, the RSL and a shopping centre.
At the Ballarat RSL, I had a q&a with more than 40 vets. There are times when veterans have been treated, and are still being treated, as if Australia resented them coming home. And I’m not just talking about Vietnam. We get a new Veterans Affairs Minister every few months and I advised the Ballarat vets that sometimes they have to treat the department like the enemy.
One came up with a novel funding idea for vets’ pensions and medical treatment. I tweeted it:
“Great idea from vet at Ballarat RSL Q and A tonight: Before an Australian government can commit troops to a war they must set up a trust fund to pay for soldiers’ health and welfare on their return. Makes sense.”
That doyen of daytime TV, Mike Walsh, was back in the news this week and he turned out to be a bit of a pundit. The news tag was that highlights of The Midday Show had been enshrined in the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra. The flashbacks showed Dame Edna, Jeanne Little, Mel Gibson and an obscenely hirsute Hinch with Mr. T gold chains and shirt unbuttoned almost to the waist. Must have been 35 or 40 years ago. The TV daytime king asked me if I’d ever consider going into politics. The Hinch reply: “Nah … the pay’s lousy”.
Didn’t dream he could be right. But then, didn’t ever think I’d be sitting in The Midday Show host’s chair years later, either.