NATIONAL APOLOGY TO VICTIMS AND SURVIVORS OF INSTITUTIONAL CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (17:53):  On Monday we saw a national apology extended to the survivors and victims of institutional child abuse. Along with my colleagues, I want to take the opportunity to endorse and support the words of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, which were significant, sincere and critically important in providing a national apology to those children. So many of those children are now adults, but too many did not make it to adulthood. In adding my voice, I want to indicate that I know I do that as someone who sits here representing my electorate; I echo of the voices of so many people across my electorate who want that sorry said on their behalf as well. I do it in that spirit.

This was an almost incomprehensible evil that was perpetrated. We confronted that in this apology, and we have made a determination to do everything possible to not see that occur again. Like other colleagues, I've met with local constituents—I'm not going to name them—who came and sat in my office and bared to me the truly traumatic experiences of their childhood and the devastating, ongoing effects that had on their life. It was difficult to hear. It broke my heart, and I could only begin to imagine what bravery, what courage, what resilience it took for them to share that story in that small office where they met with me. For so many of those people to have shared that story, that experience, that pain through this process is an unfathomable recognition of their determination to protect children in the future from what had happened to them. I think we all pay the deepest respect to that witnessing that they did about their own traumatic, personal experiences, taking in good faith the determination of the royal commission to make sure they were heard, they were believed and that actions were taken to stop these sorts of events happening again. This is for people who, as children, were not seen, were not heard and were not believed.

I think all of us here cannot imagine the loneliness, the fear and the desperation of children who are dealing with a monster that's supposed to be responsible for providing care and sustenance and protection to them day after day. Imagine those children who tried to speak up, who tried to tell what their experience was, who tried to seek protection and were so often not only not believed but punished further for doing that. I think it's incomprehensible that those people went through that as children and turned around and told their stories. I want to acknowledge, in saying that, the role of advocates. Some of my colleagues have spoken about organisations like CLAN, advocates across the country who, for decades, have been the ears and the heart listening to those stories, before there was a formal way for that to be dealt with. I want to acknowledge the work of the commission, all of those people in the commission, who, day after day, did that really hard work, out of respect for those people and the stories that had to be told.

Of course, the royal commission was set up by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who was here this week for the apology. It has been progressed by all prime ministers since then. I think what was important in the apology provided by the current Prime Minister and the comments added by the Leader of the Opposition was that all of us, into the future now, carry a great responsibility to ensure that all the actions that were required out of that royal commission process are put in place and that we are determined to shine a constant, unwavering light into the organisations and institutions in this country that have a responsibility for looking after children, and that this is never repeated again. I think we would be failing the bravery of those who've told their stories if we are not vigorous at all times in making sure that we are doing that.

I want to recognise former leaders of not only this parliament but community organisations, police services and so forth who have been speaking out and trying to take action. In doing that, I want to very briefly acknowledge Joanne McCarthy of the Newcastle Herald—I come from Wollongong, and Newcastle and Wollongong share many things in common, including our local paper—and the work that Joanne did in exposing those stories.

I recognise Deputy Speaker Claydon, now coming to the chair, who was part of the reference group in the formation of the apology and Newcastle's strong links to this work. Joanne epitomises journalists who hear and listen to people and are determined to have a story told in the national interest, and I pay respect to her work as well.

In the time that's available to me, I just want to indicate that a constituent from my electorate attended the apology here in Canberra on Monday and reported back to me their reflections on the emotion and, indeed, in some cases, the distress of those that were in attendance. Our attendee from Wollongong had suffered whilst employed in the Defence Force. They advised there were a number of attendees who had suffered whilst in our armed forces. My constituent let me know that they were a little upset that they felt that the defence forces were not specifically mentioned on Monday. I want to acknowledge them and let them know that the Prime Minister yesterday, during question time, said:

There were many people yesterday who I know felt they weren’t recognised, and I particularly also want to recognise, if I can have indulgence on this one point, to recognise those in our defence forces who also suffered sexual abuse. I want to acknowledge them here today…

That was very important to my constituent, and I personally also want to ensure that they know that the apology is for them too. My constituent had previously never met anyone else from the organisation where their abuse had occurred, and Monday was the first time they were able to meet people who had a similar experience to theirs and they found that interaction to be healing.

While acknowledging that Defence now has a number of processes in place for its employees through the White Card, they would love to see more opportunities for people, particularly from Defence, to create a permanent community, a place to be able to share their stories, relieve their isolation and provide support for each other.

My constituent felt that the apology on Monday was a step forward in breaking down the silos that existed within the life experience of so many people. They felt that yesterday also alleviated the isolation they had felt and, to some extent, some judgement they had felt about the way their lives had gone. For my constituent, in amongst all of those people, they felt completely understood and not judged. There was a sense of belonging. They felt loved and understood and, without any words needing to be spoken, they felt like all the barriers had been removed and that they belonged. I really appreciate the opportunity for my constituent to be there and I'm very proud to be able to put their reflections on the record in this place.

Watch Sharon’s speech here.