This is a reprint of an opinion piece initially published in the Newcastle Herald.
MANY victims and survivors of abuse began this year with a sense of hope.
Finally there was a comprehensive Royal Commission into abuse in institutions which would give them an opportunity, in a safe and secure forum, to openly tell their stories, to be supported. With this has come a real chance to hold powerful institutions to account for the abuse, the rape and violence they allowed to happen and in some cases actively facilitated.
What many of them did not realise was that the next attack on their rights would be coming from a different institution – the NSW government.
The perversely named Victims Rights and Support Bill 2013 passed through the NSW Parliament in the early hours of the 30th May. It represents anunprecedented attack on the rights of victims of crime by a government who in both its words and actions proved that they simply did not care.
The government’s justification for slashing victims compensation was purely financial – the scheme had been chronically underfunded for more than a decade and was in deficit. Given the sole reason advanced for cutting victim’s rights was financial it was remarkable that Greg Pearce, the NSW Finance Minister, did not even speak during the debate. Even more confronting is the fact that he was drinking alcohol while the bill was being debated, became in his words “exhausted”, and was sent home with a pair to cover him.
Victims of crime and their families feel rightly offended by this behaviour.
They have experienced some of the worst that humanity has to offer and not only did the government rush these cuts through Parliament, one of its senior ministers put his preference for having a few drinks ahead of considering their rights.
For many of these victims of abuse even modest compensation can mean feeling that finally their situation is being recognised, that society acknowledges what has happened to them.
As I said in the debate on the bill: “One can judge a society, and particularly a government, by how it treats the most marginal, vulnerable and needy in a community. If that measure is applied to the government in terms of this bill, then the government is morally bankrupt. The government’s heart is a stone and its mind is a calculator.”
The O’Farrell government has found the victims compensation scheme in deficit to the tune of approximately $38 million per annum and, rather than look for new revenue sources, has dealt with the entire deficit through cuts to payments to victims of crime.
As I argued in the debate: “In one bill [in 2011] this government gave a $300 million tax concession to clubs for poker machines … Just that one decision would not only fund the entire deficit in the Victims Compensation Scheme but could improve the entitlements and rights available in the scheme.”
Government is about choices. This government has made a choice — namely, to give tax concessions to the clubs for poker machines and utterly gut compensation payments to victims of crime.
In the negotiations on this bill a minor amendment was secured, one that would exempt victims of childhood sexual abuse from a 10-year limit within which any compensation claims had to be made. It was this relatively minor amendment to a brutal piece of legislation that secured the support of Fred Nile and his Christian Democratic Party, meaning the government had the numbers to pass this legislation.
Apparently this minor amendment was enough to satisfy the CDP, with Paul Green saying: “This is a good bill by the government that will institute vital reform for victims of crime and sexual assault”. In saying this, the CDP representative forgot to add that the maximum entitlement to victims of child sexual abuse was being slashed from $50,000 to $20,000.
This was not a good bill by any measure and for elected representatives to say otherwise can only be met by disbelief from victims of crime and their advocates.
This cannot be the final answer. Just as administering the criminal justice system is core business of the state, so too is caring for those people who, through no fault of their own, become victims of crime. The impact of violent crime on the lives of people around this state is used by this government as justification for even tougher criminal laws.
If only this impact could be used as the reason to ensure that victims services are adequately funded and appropriately resourced. The Greens, along with many victims and survivors of abuse, will be making a submission to the Commonwealth Royal Commission regarding the need for basic minimum standards for State-based victims compensation schemes, so that they can provide essential support to those who cannot recover compensation from any other source.
Victims and survivors of crime deserve nothing less.
David Shoebridge is a Greens member of the NSW Legislative Council