When the nation’s premiers and chief ministers fronted the media on Friday, following their COAG meeting with the prime minister, there was one notable issue missing from the post-meeting remarks.
Admittedly, the COAG agenda was jam-packed with important matters requiring effective coordination across the different levels of government.
The states and territories were particularly vocal about their share of the cash allocations from the federal government, either for Indigenous housing or hospitals.
But they were silent on the one matter that is yet to receive their funding commitment – a national scheme to provide compensation and assistance to the survivors of institutional child sexual abuse.
This was recommended by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which was initiated by former PM Julia Gillard and concluded under Malcolm Turnbull’s watch.
The inquiry identified 60,000 children who had been sexually abused. 1000 of those children suffered while in the care of the federal government, and 19,000 in state or territory government-run facilities. The other 40,000 were abused in private institutions.
The details of the proposed national redress scheme have been known since October last year. On Thursday this week the PM Malcolm Turnbull announced he would also deliver a national apology to the survivors, developed in consultation with them.
An apology from the prime minister may or may not make a difference to the survivors, but the aim of the redress scheme is to provide monetary compensation, access to psychological support, and a direct apology from responsible institutions if the survivors request one.
It’s almost impossible to imagine the horror that was inflicted on these children, and the psychological burden they’ve carried since.
And yet now the very governments and institutions that let them down in the first place are squabbling over the cost and political implications of establishing a national scheme that will provide little more than token compensation.
Compensation has already being downgraded
The Turnbull government does not come to the table with clean hands on the matter.
Where the royal commission recommended maximum compensation to the survivors of $200,000, the proposed national scheme will cap the payments at $150,000.
However it’s the states and territories that are really dragging the chain and putting the proposed scheme at risk.
South Australia, for example, has signalled that it won’t sign up to the national scheme because it has its own, and has already paid compensation to survivors in that state. NSW is reluctant to join up if the other states won’t, and Victoria says it wants more detail.
Meanwhile the Catholic Church has estimated that around $4 billion in compensation is owed to the survivors and that it will be liable for around $1 billion of that total. The Church has flagged it won’t join the national redress scheme until the states and territories do, thereby removing the right for survivors who accept compensation from the national scheme to sue the Church for more at the state or territory level.
In preparation for Friday’s COAG meeting, the Attorney-General Christian Porter told parliament on Thursday that the time for excuses on the redress scheme was over.
“Excuses for failing to join the scheme must end … minor details are being manifestly and deliberately used as excuses for needless delay,” Mr Porter said.
Excuses are what created this problem and they should not prevent the churches, the charities, the states and the territories from joining the redress scheme.”
In response, Opposition leader Bill Shorten supported the minister’s remarks. “We think it is very well said – no more excuses, no more delays. Certainly the Opposition will work with the Government.”
So it would be fair to say that expectations were high on Friday that the COAG meeting would at least make some progress on the redress scheme. Instead, not one state or territory leader even acknowledged the issue in their post-meeting remarks.
And the PM said little more than that the states and territories would respond to the royal commission report by June.
The 60,000 kids who suffered abuse deserve better.