The hypocisy of a sick Queensland Premier exposed.
The DEPUTY PRESIDENTThe President has received a letter from Senator Harris proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion, namely:
Dear Mr President, Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:
The Heiner Affair and the Lindeberg grievance, which leave unresolved issues relating to child abuse in Queensland and raise the necessity of bringing to the Australian public the seriousness of this issue, to ensure that Senate process, and the rule of law are respected and the issue of child abuse is discussed.
Yours sincerely, Senator Len Harris One Nation Senator for Queensland
I call upon those senators who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places. More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places
The DEPUTY PRESIDENTI understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in todays debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.
Senator HARRIS (Queensland) (3.49 p.m.)In moving this matter of public importance, I also signal that today I have given a notice of motion to establish a Senate select committee inquiry into the Lindeberg grievance, because both are interlinked. I am well aware that the words the Heiner affair or shreddergate send the Labor Party into apoplexy and damage control and the coalition into a mysterious land of inaction, but we press on. Perhaps the coalition is starting to see the bigger picture that Heiner represents. Various events have converged in Heiner which we cannot ignore.
One event was our historic May 2003 vote on the unsuitability of Dr Hollingworth continuing as this nations Governor-General because of his handling of child sex abuse issues. It caused certain standards about handling child abuse allegations to be laid down by certain senators; therefore, I say that what we demand of others in handling child abuse allegations we must now demand of ourselves. When we hold inquiries, evidence provided should be truthful, complete and not tampered with, especially when provided by other government or law enforcement authorities. The Senate should not be deliberately or unintentionally misled. It cannot accept into evidence, or have on the parliamentary record, twisted interpretations of the criminal law for political or improper purposes.
My notice of motion, which should be supported by all senators, stems from a major submission by Mr Kevin Lindebergs counsel, Mr Robert F. Greenwood QC, in which he set out serious charges that this chamber had been misled by the Queensland government and the CJC when Heiner was examined by the Senate some years ago. He brought forward new evidence. I also refer to Mr Lindebergs open letter of 30 May 2003. It underpins and builds on the Greenwood QC submission. In my opinion, the terms of reference set out in my notice of motion have the capacity to handle what is alleged in his open letter.
On 27 October, 2003, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs took fresh evidence on the Heiner affair in Brisbane and as part of its national inquiry into crime in the communitya more disturbing bracket of evidence you would never read. The Labor members on the committee agreed that the shredding of the child abuse evidence should never have occurred. But it did and it is still claimed to be lawful by the Beattie government.
But there are highly respected legal opinions that the shredding was a serious offence and the Heiner coverup is continuing in Queensland as we speak. The Brisbane evidence, given on oath, further underpins the charge that the Senate may have become a possible partner in this issue. It even goes to criminal paedophilia, involving the pack rape of a 14-year-old Indigenous girl. This girl was an inmate and was raped by other inmates during a supervised bush outing and no one was charged with that assault.
I ask the question: did anyone involved in the incident, who was never charged, go on after release and commit other crimes when they should have been locked up for the pack rape? It appears that that is precisely what has happened. It was revealed in the University of Queenslands justice projectand that is on the universitys own web siteon 12 October, 2003 that one of those involved in the original incident was involved in a pointblank shotgun killing of a former inmate on 1 September 1990. That has only just come to light. One of the entities involved in the pack rape, rather than being charged and incarcerated, was involved in the murder of another person.
The high-minded words said in May 2003 about the abhorrence of child abuse, which were used against the then Governor-General, Dr Peter Hollingworth, now rebound on the Senate. During that particular time, Senator Bolkus said: If we as a national parliament do not take the right and proper moral stand on issues relating to paedophilia, which affects our children, then we too could be condemnedand I think quite fairly soby the public of Australia for turning a blind eye to paedophilia, its victims and those who tolerate it.
Other senators also made similar comments about the issue.
The Heiner affair has effectively boiled down to two key issues. Both deal with the conduct of elected and appointed public officials and their duty to act with complete probity and obey the law. Heiner asked whether there is one law for politicians and bureaucrats and another law for ordinary people. It is also about whether the Senate can effectively operate if state governments and law enforcement authorities can appear before it and mislead it with impunity. This may be a watershed moment for the Senate in the evolution of the Senate committee system. We cannot remain indifferent to being so grossly misled on matters touching criminal law and the abuse of children in state-run institutions. If proven, this would be contempt of the highest order.
I remind the Senate that it agreed to send a reference on 4 March 2003 to the Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee to inquire into children in institutional care which, amongst other things, is said to look at any unsafe, improper and unlawful care or treatment of children in such institutions or places.
How can we invite our fellow abused Australians to come to the Senate when we have these issues relating to the Heiner allegations sitting in front of us and we are doing nothing to check their veracity?
Mr Lindeberg has alleged that the Goss Labor government tampered with a major exhibit which it sent to the Senate in July 1995. It was deliberately cropped to misrepresent the full extent of who knew what in order to inflict minimum damage on one of the Senate committee witnesses and Mr Lindeberg. This allegation alone should be sufficient to revisit the Heiner issue. In new evidence, it is alleged that the Goss government also withheld other known family department files from the Senate which revealed the crime of paedophilia concerning the pack rape of the 14-year-old Aboriginal female inmate which we now know was produced in evidence at the Heiner inquiry.
Remember: Heiner was shut down by the Goss government and then it shredded all of its evidence so that it could not be used in a judicial proceeding and could not be used in evidence against the careers of staff at the centre, some of whom were union members.
If the Queensland government saw fit to send us the infamous tampered document 13, which revealed kids being handcuffed to fences through the night, why did it not provide the recently obtained file about the pack rape? Both incidents went to Heiner; both were therefore relevant to the Senate.
When our committee system moves into the area of whistleblowing, we are potentially dealing with breaches of criminal law. Therefore, we must be sure that such matters are handled appropriately and that our privileges are not abused. Importantly, the Senate cannot be deceived into describing prima facie criminal conduct in simple political terms; otherwise, those who should be brought to account may use our soft political description as proof of innocence or clearance by a Senate finding. It is for that reason that the terms of reference for the Lindeberg grievance provide for advice from senior counsel to be obtained in matters which may reach criminal law.
The Senate was told by the Queensland government and the CJC that section 129 of the Criminal Code allowed known evidence to be lawfully destroyed up to the moment of a writ being filed and/or served. Former respected Queensland supreme and appeal court judge Justice James Thomas QC has recently advised that not only was such an interpretation manifestly wrong at law but it was never open to be made. So he was saying that not only was the advice incorrect but that, in his opinion, the advice that was given should not have been. He also advised that those involved in the shredding were still open to criminal charges.
I have now included the new material on the University of Queenslands justice project in the terms of reference.
Currently, the Queensland DPP has charged a Baptist minister under section 129 of the Criminal Code, and that is the core provision in Heiner. This Baptist minister has been charged over the destroying of a girls diary which showed the pastor knew the girl had recounted being sexually abused by a parishioner some five to six years before a judicial proceeding commenced.
The Queensland government and the CJC told the Senate differently in the materially similar circumstances of Heiner. Which is correct? This is what we need to know. We are looking at the criminal law being knowingly misrepresented for a political purpose in order to get a favourable or negative report from the Senate. If we keep our description of the shredding as an exercise in poor judgment on the parliamentary record, we will become the laughing stock of the world.
In addressing Heiner, the Senate may be placing itself on an unprecedented collision course with the Queensland government and CMC, because, if contempt is found, which would go to the obstruction of justice, then those who were involved must be held to account according to law, and the reason is that the Senate stands to protect the rights of all Australians.
I also refer to a document that was circulated as an open letter to the Commonwealth Parliament of Australia, again by Mr Heiner. In that letter, which was delivered not only to every senator in this chamber but also to every person in the House of Representatives, the substantive issues relating to all of the Heiner issues were set out in the four pages. I will read into the record the last three paragraphs:
Against the backdrop of the public declaration denouncing the horror of child sexual abuse earlier cited in both Houses of the Commonwealth Parliament, I am imploring honourable Members to remember famous parliamentarian Edmund Burkes saying; It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph.
By your own standards, enunciated during the May 2003 debates cited above, Heiner is now your litmus test about handling effectively and seriously allegations of child sexual abuse, thereby carrying out of your public duty.
This open letter respectfully seeks relief from the Commonwealth Parliament in all matters associated with Heiner through approved Federal means as a matter of urgency and in the public interest.
Senator MURRAY (Western Australia) (4.05
p.m.)This is a serious matter that is being exposed here again todayand I say again because I am acquainted with some of the analysis and documentation by journalists and other people in Queensland. It is serious, not just because of the nature of the allegations and the events concerned, which touch on the very worst aspect of the alleged sexual assault of children, but it is very serious because of what it says about the attempt to conceal evidence, to destroy evidence and to cover up a circumstance.
One can only speculate on the reasons for doing so, and speculation it will have to remain without a proper inquiry. The process of destroying evidence and of not following up an issue like this may simply arise from embarrassment because of the authorities, institutions or people involved. It does not necessarily imply a criminal intent, a notorious or perverted attempt.
It may simply imply embarrassment. But it is just not good enough. As parliamentarians, we have to insist, regardless of our personal political attachments, on the accountability of government, of the bureaucracy and of the judiciary in matters which concern access to justice and the proper process of justice with respect to Australian citizens and residents.
The issue at hand, of course, becomes even more to the point when you realise that the persons involved are persons of particular disadvantage by their upbringing, their background and their age.
I note for the record, as you would have noted Mr Acting Deputy President Watson, that the request of Senator Harris for this matter of public importance to be considered was supported by three political parties: One Nation, the Democrats and the Greens. That is not because I would expect the major parties not to agree that matters like these ought to be addressed, but it is indicative of a concern across the non-major parties which might not be as forceful or as well reflected in the major parties, and that is a real concern about far too much secrecy, suppression and concealment within governments and bureaucracies in general.
That is why the fight is constantly on to lift the threshold of accountability, to improve whistleblower law and protection and to ensure that as much openness and transparency occur as possible.
The issue then I have to deal with is: what is a core concern here? The affairs known as the Heiner affair and the Lindeberg grievances are particular, but they do represent of their kind something which is general and widespread. The world over, the crime of the sexual assault of children has been the subject of coverups.
Cover-ups of those sort have required either the active and deliberate collusion of institutions churches, charities, bureaucrats, law enforcement officers, law protection officers and health authoritiesor, and it is probably a more common variant, the inaction on or passive neglect of these issues because they are just too hard or too embarrassing.
I do not rise to speak in this debate as a novice in this area. I have read and followed the stolen generation report at length. I have read and followed the Senate process of the inquiry into the child migrants, and I am currently involved in the inquiry into institutionalised children. The Senate itself has established the nature and the history of such cover-ups. One of the things that politicians, bureaucrats and the media do not understand is the sheer scale of the number of people affected by these events and the consequence of them. The social and economic consequence of harming a child results in 60 years of harm to an adult, and the social and economic consequences are quite often major. It is in the exposure of individual cases such as these that you can attend to the larger issue.
I commend to people who have an interest in these areas my own paper with Dr Marilyn Rock in the Australian Journal of Social Issues, volume 30, No. 2 ofMay 2003. I wrote an article entitled Child migration schemes to Australia: a dark and hidden chapter of Australias history revealed. What is pursued in that article is the theme I have already outlined: that if you hurt children you end up with problems with adults and that has a huge social and economic cost. If you hurt large numbers of children then you end up with large numbers of adults and their families being affected.
The inquiry we are going through now is electrifying in terms of its evidence. To give you an indication of the numbers of people who were institutionalised, the Mary McKillop organisation told us that 115,000 children went through their homes alone in the last century and a half since the organisation was founded in the 1850s. Numbers of those children, of course, did suffer abuse and neglect and regrettably some would have suffered criminal sexual assault.
What we are referring to in this discussion is that issue and the fact that in contrast to governments and countries, including Ireland, the United States, France and England, Australian governments have been extremely backward, recalcitrantcall it whatever name you likein addressing the issue of the criminal sexual assault of children, the criminal physical assault of children and the more general abuse and neglect that occurs with children. The current Senate inquiry is addressing these important issues and trying to flesh out the problems that we expose and, of course, arrive at a situation where governments recognise that, regardless of the embarrassment and regardless of the history of any government or cabinet in these matters, it is better to come clean, to get the issue out in the open, to be accountable, to front up, to fess up and then to do something about the problem.
If the benefit of Senator Harriss motion is that at least the Queensland government says, All right, it was not us; it was someone elsemaybe because they were embarrassed or because someone somewhere made a bad decision. Nevertheless, well have a proper look at it and expose it through the institutions of accountability that Queensland has, then some good will come of it. I hope that those on both sides of the chamber as well as those on the crossbenches who have some influence in Queensland will be able to get that result from this motion.
Senator BRANDIS (Queensland) (4.14 p.m.)
Before I commence my remarks, I want to congratulate Senator Harris on a very thoughtful, considered and persuasive speech. When the sad events leading to the resignation of the former Governor-General Dr Hollingworth were played out before the Australian people in the first half of this year, there would not have been a politician in this country who was more swift to condemn Dr Hollingworth and more swift to try and earn some cheap, political points out of his circumstances than the Premier of Queensland, Mr Beattie. No-one was more eloquent than Mr Beattie in the condemnation of the cover-up of child abuse.
One of the things Mr Beattie said at the time was that there must be a national royal commission into the issue of child abuse. He demanded that that happen and he earned the publicity yield, which no doubt he sought, when he made that demand. Surprising therefore was it that when, only a couple of months later, the respected Independent member for Gladstone in Queensland Parliament, Mrs Cunningham, moved to establish a royal commission into child abuse on 20 August 2003 Mr Beattie spoke strenuously against her proposal and used his overwhelming numbers in the Queensland parliament to thwart her proposal.
The fact is, and Senator Harriss remarks about the Lindeberg grievance brings this to light yet again, that the failure of the Queensland government over many years properly to deal with serious allegations about the abuse of children in care or children in protection has become a matter of growing concern to the people of my state. It started with the so-called Lindeberg grievance, about which Senator Harris has spoken, but that issue has recurred in many alarmingly repetitive forms in all the years since.
Let me say something about the Lindeberg grievance. When the Goss government was elected in 1989, there was in being at the time an inquiry into allegations of child abuse at the John Oxley Youth Centre. One of the first things that the Goss government did, after coming to power on 2 December 1989, was to shut it down. I have with me a copy of the cabinet minute of 5 March 1990 and the supporting cabinet submission in the name of the then Minister for Family Services and Aboriginal and Islander Affairs, Anne Warner, recording the decision: That following advice from the State Archivist and the Crown Solicitor the material gathered by Mr. N. J. Heiner during his investigation into certain matters at the John Oxley Youth Centre be handed to the State Archivist for destruction under the terms of section 55 of the Libraries and Archives Act 1988.
As the Queensland law then stood, records of that character could only be lawfully destroyed after the State Archivist had so certified. But what is curious about that decision is that it was sought to be justified on this ground, and I quote from the cabinet submission: Cabinet would be aware that Mr N. J. Heiner was appointed by the former Director-General, Department of Family Services, to investigate and report on certain management matters relating to the John Oxley Youth Centre. After obtaining advice from the Crown Solicitor, the Acting Director-General decided to terminate the investigation conducted by Mr Heiner, as the basis for his appointment did not provide any statutory immunity from legal action for him or for informants to the investigation.
It went on to say: Destruction of the material gathered by Mr Heiner in the course of his investigation would reduce risk of legal action and provide protection for all involved in the investigation.
What is very curious about that is that we have since obtained the legal advice from Mr OShea, the then Crown Solicitor, dated 23 January 1990. What Mr OShea said, and I quote, is this: I believe there is no legal impediment to the continuation of the inquiry that is, the Heiner inquiry. He goes on to say: This advice is predicated on the fact that no legal action has been commenced which requires the production of those files and that you decide to discontinue Mr. Heiners inquiry.
So the basis put forward in the cabinet submission appears to have misrepresented the position.
In any event, the Heiner inquiry having been closed down by the fiat of the then director-general of the family services department, the documents were destroyed having been certified for destruction by the State Archivist on the authority of a decision of the cabinet. There is a large body of legal opinion of which the opinion of the late Mr Bob Greenwood QC was oneand I understand from Senator Harris that an opinion recently expressed by a most respected retired judge of the Queensland Court of Appeal, Jim Thomas QC is anothernevertheless, that almost certainly did constitute a breach, by the entire cabinet, of section 129 of the Queensland Criminal Code. Because what the cabinet knew, and this was part of the cabinet submission, was that a Mr Coyne was about to initiate proceedings against the government in which the material destroyed as a result of the cabinet decision would have been material evidence.
But it gets much worse than that: we now know that the key allegation made before the Heiner inquiry, the evidence of which was destroyed with the documents, was of the pack rape of a 14-year-old girl who was in the care of the John Oxley Youth Centre at the time.
That has more recently come to light. On 3 November 2001, the Courier-Mail reported: A young Aboriginal woman has confirmed claims by several former staff members of a Brisbane youth detention centre that she was gang-raped while being held in the centre as a 14-year-old. The Courier-Mail has been told by former members of staff they had no doubt the matter of the gang rape had been raised with the 1989 Heiner inquiry into the John Oxley Centre.
What is even more sinister about this is that on 28 March 1999, during the course of an interview with the Sunday program on Channel 9, a person who was a member of the cabinet which made that decision, Mr Pat Comben, who I think was the minister for the environment at the time, said this: In broad terms, we that is, the cabinet were all made aware there was material about child abuse. Individual members of cabinet were increasingly concerned about whether or not the right decision had been taken.
I only have a few minutes and there is so much to say about this, but, by just joining the dots, it amounts to this: a submission was taken to cabinet at the beginning of 1990, evidently on a false premise, which had the effect of authorising, probably in breach of section 129 of the Queensland Criminal Code, the destruction of documents which proved the existence of a complaint of child abuse. That complaint, years later, was subsequently verified by the victim of that child abuseand very serious child abuse: gang rape of a 14-year-old girland a member of that cabinet, Mr Comben, in years since, has confirmed on the public record that the cabinet knew about it. It does not get much more serious than that.
Senator MURPHY (Tasmania) (4.24 p.m.)As a person who chaired a committee inquiry back in 1995 which dealt in part with the Heiner documents and the matter relating to Kevin Lindeberg, I just want to say a few words with regard to the matter that has been raised by Senator Harris.
If the inquiry highlighted one thing, it highlighted the difficulty that often occurs when such matters become politically charged. The inquiry was initiated as a result of a motion by the then opposition. Despite the best attempts of Senate committees to try to deal with these issues, it sometimes becomes very difficult.
I think that in respect of the Kevin Lindeberg matter and the Heiner documents some very serious issues were raised. Former Senator Newman chaired the same committee the year before I became chair, and in that inquiry we made a number of recommendations in respect of a preliminary investigation of the Heiner documents affair which were not accepted by the Queensland government at the time. The process, as we all know as senators in this place, is often difficult when you are trying to conduct an inquiry of such a nature and when you often do not have the expertise or the capacity to acquire certain evidence to ensure that you are able to make a valued judgment. As we all know, we are often on very limited time constraints. To some extent, that is a sad reflection on the way this place operates, because it does not allow us to often do justice to the people we are elected to represent.
With regard to the issue of Heiner, I share some of the concerns that have been raised. It would seem to me, as it did at the time, that the shredding of the documents was not something that should have occurred. With regard to later events, particularly in respect of the child abuse issue, it was even more relevant to ensure that those documents were not destroyed.
I think that Kevin Lindeberg, a person who endeavoured to do the right thing, has suffered very serious consequences as a result of that. I think that points very clearly to the state of whistleblowing legislation in this countryat a state level, in particular, where it is totally insufficient to allow public servants or, indeed, embers of the public to blow the whistle on particular matters and receive the sort of protection that they should.
It is a very unfortunate circumstance that, for the purposes of protecting a government, often very important matters do not see the light of day and that the people who endeavour to bring them to the public attention suffer the consequencesand, as was the case for Kevin Lindeberg, very bad consequences. He is one of a number of different people who gave evidence to the committee that I chaired and to the committee that Senator Newman chaired, and it is a matter that I think still requires attention.
I note that in Senator Harriss speech he referred to the Legal and Constitutional References Committee revisiting, in part, the Lindeberg matter. Again, even after all of these years, I think their view about the issue reflects the difficulty and the importance of having processes in place that ensure that people who endeavour to bring to our attention very serious matters of poor, bad or, indeed, illegal public administration should have the right to do so and should be able to do so without fear or favour.
I am not in a position to express a valued opinion on where this matter will go from here. I felt very sorry for Kevin Lindeberg. When you sit in this place you try to represent the interests of people and when you find that often you cannot it is very disappointing. We had some very eminent people appear before the committee, one of whom is now a High Court judge. From time to time he probably reflects on the views he expressed and the opinions that he gave the committee and on the way Senate committees operate.
I hope people do not find the Senate committees too disappointing, because they do the best job they can. But in certain casesand this was one of themwhen we hold inquiries it is important that we make sure that we have the capacity to get an outcome that is representative of the effort that the public put into providing evidence to the committee. We should at least give them a sense of justicethat at least we have listened to their views and endeavoured to do them justice by considering those views appropriately. We should ensure that the matters are at least seen to be dealt with appropriately.
I think that in many respects the committee that I chaired at the time failed because we did not have the resources and we did not have the timeand of course there were a number of other factors. I do not want to make an excuse for it. That outcome seems to be the case all too often for Senate committee inquiries. I believe there was a very serious deficiency in how the Heiner document issue was handled. It is probably unfortunate that so much time has elapsed. I am not sure whether anything can be done in the future but I hope that maybe there will be some justice at the end of the day for Kevin Lindeberg, at least.
Senator MOORE (Queensland) (4.32 p.m.)When Senator Harris moved his motion this afternoon he said that somehow the mention of the Heiner inquiry causes apoplexy on this side of the chamber. That is not true, Senator Harris. It causes us to focus deeply on the real issue of this process: child abuse. We concentrate on what we are able to do now and in the future cooperatively at all levels of governmentto work on the genuine issue of child abuse in our community.
Senator Harris and others will moveand they have every right to do soto continue to review the issues surrounding Heiner in 1989 and 1990. My understanding is that there have been at least eight reviews of this process. That process may well continue to dissect, consider and question what happenedthe process and the documents. However, we believe that the major target of our energy, here and in the community, should be the issue of child abuse. We must draw together the energies, the passion and the commitment of everybody to focus on this issue.
Today in Sydney there is a conference called Many Voices, Many Choicesa strong title for a conference.
That conference involves community members from across the country to look at what we can do together to focus on child abuse. Our shadow minister, Senator Collins, is at that conference; otherwise she would be taking part in this debate. We should be taking up the last part of the motion that Senator Harris put before us to make sure that the issue of child abuse is discussed. That is the key part of the motion and we must work together on that.
We should take on board the work that has already been done. The recent report by the Kids First Foundation found a horrific figurethat 38,700 children were abused and neglected in the 2001-02 financial year. No-one can look at that number and remain calm or unaffectedand those cases are only the ones we have heard about. We all know that in this area, as in others, unfortunately we only hear about the cases that become public.
On 26 May this year the then shadow minister for children and youth, Nicola Roxon, tabled in the House of Representatives the A Better Future for Our Kids Bill 2003. Its aim is to make sure that children are protected from child abuse, particularly child sexual abusebut not only sexual abuse; we have to understand that there are so many ways in which people are horrifically cruel to each other. Labor knowsas we all knowthat research into the early years of childhood shows the value of building strong foundations upon which children can learn and develop. And those children then become the parents and the teachers of the future. In Labors discussion paper Growing up investing in the early years we note that the research shows the importance of protecting children from traumatic experiences, such as abuse or poverty, which are emotionally scarring and which fundamentally affect childrens long-term development.
Those challenges are before us all. Australia has particular challenges, as a developed country, to reconcile its achievements and successes in some areas with growing inequalities, particularly those affecting the health of young children. Of particular concern, of course, are the outcomes for Indigenous children along with the high rates of poverty, abuse and early mortality. There are so many figures. We have seen the statistics on so many occasions. We have heard about the Senate inquiry that has been constituted to look at children in institutional care and we have heard from Senator Murray about some of the evidence that has come before that committee. No-one can remain untouched by that process. We hope that bipartisan and cross-government efforts are made to listen to the experiences of those people who have been brave enough to come before the inquiry.
One of the lessons of the longstanding reviews of what happened in 1989-90 is that there must be public awareness. People in the community must have the confidence to come forward and tell their stories. This must be what we should be aiming to achieve out of any issue of public importance. We must be able to work effectively to reinforce the value of our system and give people the confidence that their stories will be listened to, that their experiences will not be dismissed and, most importantly, that some action will be taken to look at what we can do to work through education and health programs. We must stop using the issue of children as a political football.
To regain any kind of credibility in this area, rather than using allegations of who is doing what we should be looking at how we can effectively put the plans and the programs that are there to work. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Mr Anthony, has announced a document called Towards a national agenda for early childhood. That agenda has now been on the table for several months. What we need to dowhat the government needs to dois put that agenda to work and use what we are able to achieve by the Senate inquiry into institutional care, which has now met in two states and will be moving through the other states in the early part of next year and going to Queensland early in the new year. This will give us a chance to listen to the people who have been talking about what has been going on in institutions in Queensland over many years.
We have the opportunity to work with the public to ensure that agendas, which are only documents and only words, are put into practice through real programs in schools and for community and help groups so that they can work with the people who have been so damaged in the past through levels of institutional abuse. In this way we can give them some reality, some support and some hope for the future. Otherwise agendas remain on paper in files, and we will be reviewing those agendas rather than reviewing opportunities and chances that people have to make real changes in their lives.
One of the issues that has come out over many years is that the saga of abuse is generational and that families continue to relive the horrors of abuse. If one person has been damaged by this experience, there is a large statistical possibility that that will continue through their children and so on. What we have are dysfunctional families who continue to cannibalise so that the pain, the danger and the real threat continue long after the experiences that one person suffers.
Through this process, and through the work that Senator Harris has done by putting this on the agenda, we can call on people at every level of government to stop talking about this issue and start doing something about it. We can achieve a truly national agenda for early childhood which pulls people together in this process rather than have people going into corners and continuing a form of abuse by yelling at each other instead of concentrating on the genuine issues at handidentifying the dangers and realities of abuse in our community, working with the people who have suffered through this process and coming up with effective and personalised processes to move forward in this area.
There has been so much discussion about what occurred in 1989 and 1990 in Queensland. I think that will inevitably continue. We have heard today that it will continue. I do not often quote from the Courier-Mail, which is the major paper in Queensland and, as Senator Harris acknowledges, has had a role to play in this process. In a recent editorial, the Courier-Mail talked about the impact of the Heiner process and what is occurring in 2003. The editorial said: The issue now is not what happened then, or even why. It is how to ensure that the reforms proposed by Leneen Forde who chaired a review of child abuse in Queensland which exposed the most tragic stories are carried forward and how the Families Department should be resourced and managed to protect children at risk in our community.
That must be our aim; that must be what we should be able to achieve. Then maybe the issues of the Heiner inquiry can be put to rest in the best possible way, which is addressing the genuine issue of abuse in our community.