Almost 20 years have passed and six premiers have held office in Tasmania since the Greens first called for a commission of inquiry into child sexual abuse in the state.
- A commission of inquiry will this year examine Tasmanian government institutions’ responses to allegations of child sexual abuse
- The Tasmanian Greens tried in 2003 and 2004 to establish a similar Commission of Inquiry
- Advocates say the inquiry is an important chance to overcome the secrecy that has existed around institutional abuse for too long
In November, Premier Peter Gutwein, under increasing pressure as allegations relating to three departments came to light, announced a commission of inquiry to investigate Tasmanian government agencies’ responses to allegations of child sexual abuse.
“Things have gotten to the point where the Government can no longer duck and weave,” said Angela Sdrinis, a lawyer who specialises in child sexual abuse.
“We’ve known for a long time, certainly through my work, that there have been some very serious systemic issues in terms of how the Tasmanian Government has dealt with issues of child sexual abuse.”
The national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse did not look specifically at Tasmanian government institutions.
A 2004 Tasmanian ombudsman’s inquiry heard from people with stories of abuse dating back to the 1950s.
The allegations that have recently come to light have led to multiple state service employees being stood down, pending investigations.
The royal commission
While the pressure in Tasmania came to a head last year, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which delivered its final report in 2017, was a major turning point in Australia.
Social welfare historian, Australian Catholic University Emeritus Professor Shurlee Swain, said it did away with focusing on “bad apples”, a tactic that had been used to shut down previous investigations.
“It’s the only way to bring about change because if you think it’s just the individual bad apple, you’re never going to know who the bad apple is until the behaviour starts to manifest,” Professor Swain said.
“If you look at what is it in this situation, in the institutional situation that creates the environment in which the bad apple, if indeed it is a bad apple, can thrive, then you can identify features that enabled the behaviour to be hidden in the past.”
The royal commission also recommended a raft of legislative changes, which have been adopted by the Tasmanian Government, including removing the time limit for survivors to take civil legal action.
Survivors with civil claims have turned to interstate lawyers with expertise in child sexual abuse matters.
“Pressure from outside lawyers probably has made at least some difference in terms of saying we need to hold the government to account and there appears to be a culture sometimes in Tasmania of not holding the government to account,” Odin Lawyers director Sebastian Buscemi said.
Secrecy more of a problem in Tasmania: lawyer
Ms Sdrinis, whose Melbourne firm opened an office in Hobart in 2018, said that while she had encountered secrecy and cover-ups in other jurisdictions, it seemed to be more of a problem in Tasmania.
“The evidence is that the Tasmanian Government denies right to information requests at a much greater level than other Australian jurisdictions,” she said.
“The fallback position always seems to be deny, deny, deny, and then if pressed provide some information.”
Responding to criticism late last year about the Government’s record on Right to Information requests, Mr Gutwein said the Government “will take whatever steps we need to ensure we can provide a full, frank, open and transparent government that is accountable to the Tasmanian people”.
People Protecting Children president Allison Ritchie said the commission of inquiry was a chance to overcome the secrecy that has existed around institutional abuse for too long.
“There’s a feeling in the community that governments and other authorities just don’t want to get to the bottom of these things,” she said.
“We need to see that that’s not the case, that it’s a no holds barred inquiry that it will go where it needs to to get to the bottom of what’s gone on in this state.”
‘No-one really understands why that was happening’
The commission of inquiry will be the first formal investigation of Tasmanian government institutions’ responses to child sexual abuse allegations.
Education Department documents associated with a civil court case show two teachers who were the subject of numerous complaints, and who were later convicted of child sexual abuse, were moved from school to school.
“No-one’s gotten to the bottom of it, no one really understands why that was happening, who was behind it and how high up it went,” Mr Buscemi said.
‘We have missed 20 years’
Peg Putt was Tasmanian Greens leader and Nick McKim, now a Senator, the justice spokesman when the Greens tried in 2003 and again in 2004 to establish a commission of inquiry into child sexual abuse.
The then Bacon Labor government, which had established a more limited ombudsman’s inquiry into abuse in state care, opposed the inquiry.
One Liberal — Peter Gutwein — crossed the floor to vote with the Greens in 2003. The Liberals supported the Greens’ 2004 attempt.
“There’s been some sort of development in society where we now begin to recognise that if we don’t uncover this and track it right down to the last little bit, then we’re not going to deal with it, it’s not going to go away, and we have shirked our responsibility to people in society who need our help the most.”
When he announced the commission of inquiry, Mr Gutwein said the current Government was taking decisive action in response to allegations of child sexual abuse.
“I have great faith that our current processes and practices ensure higher safeguards and swifter action than was historically the case,” he said.
“Over a number of years significant systems have been implemented to protect our children and young people.”
Mr Gutwein has released the draft terms of reference for the inquiry and the commission is expected to begin its work early this year.
Thank you for dropping in to My Local Pages and seeing this news release involving TAS and Australian news titled “Eighteen years and six premiers later, calls for an inquiry into child sex abuse in Tasmania have been answered”. This news update is posted by MyLocalPages as part of our national news services.
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