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Controlling information about child abuse


There is a certain bitter irony in the fact that widespread child abuse is occurring within the Federal Government’s regime of immigration detention at the same time that the government sponsored Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is seeking to achieve justice for victims of past abuses. 

This begs the question of why Immigration Minister Scott Morrison continues to enjoy popular support for his management of border protection policies that facilitate child abuse even though there is overwhelming public backing for the work of the child abuse Royal Commission.

Surely the explanation lies in the extraordinary level of resourcing that the Government allocates to the Immigration Department to manage and manipulate public opinion. In March Fairfax reported that the Department employed a 66 strong team of ‘spin doctors’ and communications staff, up from just 13 under the previous government in 2011. By June this year, Fairfax was reporting that the number had risen to 95. 

If churches and institutions caring for children had made that kind of investment and successfully controlled the flow of information, it is less likely that there would have been the groundswell of public opinion that prompted former PM Julia Gillard to call the Royal Commission in November 2012. The scale of institutional child abuse would remain hidden and many victims denied eventual justice.

In July, the Human Rights Commission invited Sydney University Medical School paediatrician Elizabeth Elliott to join Professor Gillian Triggs in observing the health and well being of children in detention on Christmas Island. Her report, which described the children’s chronic physical and mental illness, was chilling. 

In commenting on the the minister’s announcement on Tuesday that 150 young children and their families would be released into the community on bridging visas, Dr Elliott asserted that ‘when it comes to children in need, most Australians feel compassion’ but compassion had ‘gone missing’. 

Most likely this has happened because the channels of communication – and consequently compassion – had been blocked by the Department’s media managers and the stories of these children have not been allowed to reach the hearts and minds of ordinary Australians.

Such compassion is a vital trigger that helps people access legal protections that they have a right to. It involves individuals talking and having their stories heard, far and wide if necessary. The stories become common knowledge, at least in general terms, and the compassion of Australians follows. This has occurred in the case of victims of past child victims of sexual abuse in churches and institutions.

Dr Elliott says ‘conversations with teenagers who could articulate their predicament were particularly poignant’. It is a pity that most detained children are not afforded the opportunity to reach professionals such as Dr Elliott, who could then advocate on their behalf. It is outrageous that the system actively denies this such opportunity in a calculated manner, particularly as the minister is, in many cases, their legal guardian and therefore responsible for their well being.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Image - Human Rights Commission 'A Last Resort' Report

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, child abuse, Royal Commission, Scott Morrison, Christmas Island, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

We need a Parliament where there no aides - no "spin doctors" - no right to withhold information from the people (or their journalist interrogators) no right to be unavailable for comment! It is our right as citizens to be kept informed - not the politicians right to keep us uninformed. It should mean instant dismissal - by-election! And that Scott MORRISON operates in the interests of the denial of human rights - where men/women and children are harmed - even to death - should see him in gaol. I fail to understand how there is no legal way for him to be charged - why the GG has no power to sack him; why the Court of Human Rights in The Hague has no right/power to be able to summons him (or his boss, Tony Abbott) to front its court! We are living in a semi-dictatorship, it strikes me, when there is no accountability by this Minister!

Jim KABLE | 22 August 2014  

I've been heartened to read recently that Scott Morrison does intend to reduce the number of children in detention - a worthy goal and one to be encouraged. I have some trouble understanding Michael's fourth paragraph. It was my understanding that the Church did indeed control the flow of information about child abuse victims, in a very calculated way, for some considerable time. Children in detention need access to caring professionals who can gain their trust and form a relationship. Writing to Scott Morrison would be one way of reminding him of his responsibilities as legal guardian of these children.

Pam | 23 August 2014  

The Human Rights Commission can't be trusted in its evaluations of the situations in detention camps. The HRC is not an arms length observer. It is a political body with an anti-conservative agenda. Proof: 1. When the inflow of boat people was at its height in the years under Labor, the HRC did not at any stage conduct an investigation of the physical and mental condition of detainees. Yet barely had the Abbott government been sworn in, the hypocritical HRC leapt into action, moralizing furiously about distressed children. 2. The HRC did so much as even express a view as to the effect of the very substantive Labor/Green proposals (since shelved) to curtail press freedom in Australia. 3. Why doesn't the HRC advocate the dismantling of the state-engineered aboriginal remote communities, in which the rate and degree of child abuse dwarfs anything going on in detention camps? The HRC - is just another a partisan political body run at taxpayers' expense. It should be dismantled post-haste.

HH | 23 August 2014  

I also welcome the release of any children being held in detention. Please note for over a year, clergy abuse survivor networks have identified asylum children in detention as child abuse. Some have asked the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse to consider a case study on the kids in detention. I have trouble with paragraph 4 as well. The Truth Justice & Healing Council in Australia and ex Murdoch PR man at the Vatican are just two examples of the global Catholic spin machine. It is a machine that has been effective in covering up child abuse allegations. Admittedly, the Church, like the government, has mostly relied on exploiting gaps in the law to protect its interests and objectives, which has led to re traumatizing clergy victims. The Vatican is not transparent, & has refused to hand over documents on clergy abusers to authorities; you cannot FOI the Holy See like you can government. Consequently, Morrison's media spin is unraveling but the Vatican is still stonewalling justice. I'll repeat what Pam has said so well with slight modification: "Church [does] indeed control the flow of information about child abuse victims, in a very calculated way, for some considerable time."

S Balfour | 23 August 2014  

the human rights commission is not political as HH asserts, it is the commission to protect the human rights of everyone in the country.

Marilyn | 24 August 2014  

I can't get my head around the Immigration Department'e employment of so many spin doctors. I try to imagine what they all do every day - and cannot for the life of me find an answer. Can anyone else?

Frank Golding | 25 August 2014  

Yes, Frank Golding, four-score and more of the 95 are fine-polishing the dishonest Spin. A few of the 95 remaining clerks are producing a top-secret honest (more or less) disinterested transparent report of all aspects of what has happened in the past and what is really happening now re detainees, in case the worst happens later ! Regards to all !

KEVIN G. SMITH | 25 August 2014  

Regardless of media departments, I think people are just relieved that there isn't, at a minimum, one boat arriving every week, and are happy to stay ignorant about what is happening in detention centres, especially given that most of these people came here under the previous government.

Helena | 27 August 2014  

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