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Controlling information about child abuse

  • 25 August 2014

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