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Child safety reforms still progressing slowly

  • 14 October 2019


Trigger warning: sexual abuse, sexual assault, child abuse. Twelve months has passed since the national apology to survivors and victims of institutional child abuse. Such national and other official apologies for a variety of social calamities are now so common that it makes this anniversary easier to overlook because it is just one among many milestones. It also contained an important symbolic element. Nevertheless, the significance of what Senator Mathias Cormann described as a 'collective systemic national failure' demands that it not to be forgotten.

The national apology was delivered by the Prime Minister Scott Morrison on 22 October 2018. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also addressed the guests and the substantial matters were subsequently legislated in the Senate and the House of Representatives on 25 October and 12 November 2018. It followed extensive consultation with an independent survivor-focused reference group and with the wider community between May-July 2018.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, created by the Gillard government in 2013, had reported in December 2017 and the National Redress Scheme had begun operation from 1 July 2018. The apology contained an acknowledgement, an apology and a set of aspirations, including building community awareness, strengthening systems to promote children's safety across Australia, and committing to ensuring that 'all our institutions are child-safe'.

These aspirations signal the enormity of the task because they are clearly beyond the scope of the Commonwealth government alone. Eliminating institutional child sexual abuse is a task not just for the Commonwealth government and parliament but also for state and territory governments and thousands of non-government organisations. This enormous task parallels Bob Hawke's ill-fated promise to eliminate child poverty or Kevin Rudd's undeliverable promise to eliminate homelessness.

The Commonwealth government coordinated the redress scheme, and in seeking to implement the recommendations of the royal commission promised to create a National Office for Child Safety, to coordinate a national database and to eliminate the ability of child sex offenders to travel overseas without passports. The Commonwealth parliament also created a select parliamentary committee to provide oversight.

Much relevant action took place at the state level through relevant law reform. State governments were tasked with signing up to the national redress scheme and they all eventually did so. State law reform included removing time limits on the prosecution of offenders and overturning previously signed deeds of release between offending institutions and victims. Most controversially several states undertook to demand that the