Federal Government Responds to the Royal Commission’s Recommendations and Offers National Apology
National Children’s Week (19-28 October 2018) is a pertinent and symbolic opportunity for the Federal Government to deliver a national apology to the survivors, victims and families of institutional child sexual abuse. Children’s Week celebrates the right of children to enjoy childhood and the focus of the Royal Commission has been on the historical suffering of children around Australia at the hands of various types of institutions, including schools. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the news at a press conference on 13 June, in addition to revealing the Federal Government’s response to the Royal Commission’s Final Report. A copy of the Government’s response is available here.
As described in our previous article Royal Commission recommendations: Where to from here? after five years, the handling of 42,041 calls, sorting through 25,964 letters and emails, holding 8,013 private sessions, referring 2,575 cases to authorities, and 57 public hearings, the Royal Commission published its Final Report on 15 December 2017. The Final Report comprises 17 volumes and is over 7,700 pages. Like all Australian Royal Commissions, the recommendations in the Final Report required attention and response from governments to have any impact.
The purpose of the Final Report is to provide recommendations to prevent future systemic failures by institutions in relation to allegations and incidents of child sexual abuse and the unlawful or improper treatment of children. The Royal Commission’s recommendations deal with valuing children and their rights, producing child safe institutions, and creating child safe guidelines.
The Final Report as a “Gift”
Professor Daryl Higgins, Director of the Institute of Child Protection Studies at the Australian Catholic University aptly stated that: “Rather than be defensive, the work of the Royal Commission should be considered a gift. The work shines an uncomfortable light on the dark past, and even on the murky present, which can help to provide the motivation to address the contemporary leadership challenge: how to ensure we have acknowledged and learned lessons from the past, and implemented strategies to bring about the necessary safeguarding revolution within organisations. This is not something that can simply be imposed upon organisations—organisations must also be willing to make change from within”.
In its response to the Royal Commission, the Federal Government has presented its response to the “gift” and shown to Australia and the world, that the Federal Government will prioritise initiating change in response to the Royal Commission’s recommendations.
In the opening remarks in its response, the Government acknowledges that ”cultural change in our institutions and society more broadly, is fundamental to ensuring the safety of our children. Changing our institutional cultures and providing the legal and practical safeguards to support that change will take some time.” We have written numerous articles about the importance of culture in a school and it is heartening to see the Government’s focus on this topic in its response. In relation to the 409 recommendations in the Final Report:
- 84 of those deal with redress, which the Federal Government is responding to through the creation of the National Redress Scheme (commences 1 July)
- of the remaining 325 recommendations, 122 have been directed wholly or partially to the Federal Government. Of those 122, the Government accepts, or accepts in principle, 104 of them
- the remaining 18 recommendations directed at the Federal Government are listed as being “for further consideration” or are “noted”.
- of the recommendations that fall within the leadership and responsibility of state and territory governments or religious or other non-government institutions, the Federal Government will work closely with those entities to promote children’s safety and well-being
- none of the recommendations have been rejected.
Some interesting outcomes of the Government’s response include:
- the creation of the National Office for Child Safety, within the Department of Social Services, by 1 July 2018. The new Office has been given various roles and responsibilities by the Federal Government, which directly respond to enacting the Royal Commission recommendations
- the development of a Commonwealth Child Safe Framework to protect children and young people in Commonwealth care
- all Federal Government agencies will adopt the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations (which will include the Royal Commission’s 10 Child Safe Standards) and the National Office for Child Safety will work with state/territory governments and other institutions to promote and educate organisations working with children about the National Principles and their implementation
- more funding for the Office of the eSafety Commissioner to improve teacher training at universities regarding online safety and security
- the National Archives is drafting record retention advice for child sexual abuse records that will apply to government entities but can also be used by non-government organisations
- recommendations directed at particular religious institutions such as the Catholic and Anglican Churches are seen as being matters for those institutions to address themselves but the Federal Government does expect all institutions to “act consistently and effectively to protection children from sexual abuse” and encourages ”all institutions to act consistently with the National Principles for Child Safe Institutions”
- support by the Federal Government for a national, consistent approach to WWCC schemes in order to achieve greater protection of children.
While the Federal Government acknowledges that state/territory governments may differ in how they implement the Royal Commission’s 10 Child Safe Standards, it encourages consistency where possible and the Government states that ”the Australia, state and territory governments will continue to work together to provide leadership on the Child Safe Standards.” The reality is that for all recommendations directed at state/territory governments, the Federal Government is unable to act in terms of directing legal reform.
The Significance of a National Apology
The most recent National Apology was given by the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on 13 February 2008. Mr Rudd made a formal apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, particularly to the Stolen Generations whose lives had been blighted by past government policies of forced child removal and Indigenous assimilation. That Apology was prompted by the Bringing Them Home report – the findings of an inquiry instigated by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1995. The Stolen Generation National Apology is regarded as a defining moment in Australian history and it is likely that the National Apology to be delivered on 22 October will also be a similar defining moment.
With a Federal Government election expected in early 2019, it is also timely.