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Premier – Commission of Inquiry

Cassy O'Connor MP

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Monday, 6 June 2022

Tags: Commission of Inquiry, Child Safety

Ms O'CONNOR - I want to talk about the commission of inquiry. Are you able to tell the committee how many State Service staff in total and from which agencies have been stood down under the ED5 process as a result of the investigation that you initiated into historical abuse in the Department of Education, evidence of historical abuse at Ashley Youth Detention Centre and as a result of evidence presented to the commission of inquiry to date?

Mr ROCKLIFF - I can get that information for you, Ms O'Connor. I reiterate there is no more important task for any government than to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our children. Our Government has taken a zero-tolerance approach to allegations of child sexual abuse in the Tasmanian State Service. Since October 2020 there have been 31 suspensions of state servants as a result of allegations of child sexual abuse, 21 related to historical allegations and 10 related to contemporary allegations. I am advised that 20 of the 31 cases are located in the north, with 11 in the south. Of the 31 cases, all have been referred or are known to Tasmania Police. I am advised that 30 of the 31 cases were reported to Tasmania Police by the relevant agency, with a further case being a matter whereby Tasmania Police charged an employee and the agency subsequently advised of the charge.

Further, I am advised that in 30 of the 31 cases notifications have been made to the regulatory body. A further case was a matter involving an employee whose employment was not subject to any regulatory body. Of the 31 employees, six investigation determinations have found no breach in relation to child sexual abuse, and 6 have returned to duty as the findings of the relevant investigations found it was appropriate for this to happen. I think that was part of your question. Do you want a breakdown of agencies?

Ms O'CONNOR - Can I put that on notice?

Mr ROCKLIFF - Yes, thank you.

Ms O'CONNOR - Premier, what departmental processes have changed to prevent predators from working with children and young people?

Mr ROCKLIFF - The State Service review is across all agencies. With the Department of Education report recommendations are being implemented across the department but also across the whole of government.

Ms GALE - We have the normal checks and balances that have been undertaken for quite some time. We have Working with Vulnerable People checks for the employment of people according to the act. The Department of Education is putting in place additional actions as a result of the report into Department of Education practices in relation to this but that would be a matter for the Department of Education to detail those.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, Ms Gale. What I took from your answer is that if you set aside how the Department of Education has responded to the inquiry into historical abuse, the processes in government remain largely unchanged. You talked about the checks and balances that have been in place for some time, you talked about Working with Vulnerable People registration which is a system that has been in place for more than a decade and obviously has its deficiencies. Is it the case that nothing substantive has changed in terms of government itself becoming a child-safe organisation as a result of information that has been provided to government through these processes I outlined before?

Mr ROCKLIFF - I can outline a number of measures that have been taken by the Department of Health as an example. I have mentioned the Department of Education and the recommendations they are implementing, but several measures are specifically aimed at ensuring the safety of children within our care, and I am referring to the Department of Health. These include ensuring all staff are aware of their mandatory reporting obligations and the available avenues to report if they suspect a child is being abused.

Ms O'CONNOR - Is that on employment with the State Service in the Department of Health, or is that a message that is reinforced with Health department employees on a regular basis?

Mr ROCKLIFF - We are implementing changes which I am about to talk about. We have reviewed internal processes in terms of Health, my responsibility, we are dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse and implementing a framework within Human Resources to ensure that all necessary steps and key notifications are made within appropriate time frames with the appropriate support services provided to all parties. We are looking to make it easier to report suspected abuse by streamlining and centralising the reporting process.

The department is also progressing an extension of the requirement to hold registration to work with vulnerable people to all staff, contractors and volunteers within the agency. In addition, discussions have been held with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency regarding improving information-sharing and communication to ensure that both organisations can make appropriate steps to protect the community where there are allegations of misconduct against a health practitioner. The Child-Safe Organisations Report is part of the Tasmanian Government response to the national principles for child-safe organisations and associated child-safe standards. The Government recognises we need to do better and, of course, we must learn from the past. The national principles reflect 10 child-safe standards recommended by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The national principles give effect to those recommendations relating to the standards and the national principles have a broader scope that goes beyond sexual abuse to cover other forms of potential harm to children and young people.

I've got some other information here. Work is now well advanced on a revised approach to developing a comprehensive child and youth-safe organisations framework for Tasmania, to be overseen by an independent oversight and regulation body.

Ms O'CONNOR - Do you have a time frame for that Premier, because the commission of inquiry was told it would take three more years and this is a recommendation to the royal commission that was made four years ago?

Mr ROCKLIFF - When it comes to the development of the child-safe organisations framework, including comprehensive legislated child-safe standards and the establishment of a reportable conduct scheme, we're expecting to introduce a bill by November this year; establishment of a new statutory authority by 1 July next year; and completion by 1 July 2024. That is the current time line.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, Chair. Premier, earlier you were talking about the delivery of the Child Safe Standards Framework. In evidence before the Commission of Inquiry, the Secretary of Communities Tasmania, Ms Webster, responded to a question and said that the 'Child Safe Standards Framework would take three years to deliver.' Are you saying that work has been brought forward and why will it take, according to your previous answer, two years to have a completed Child Safe Standards Framework and reportable conduct scheme in place, given that the Royal Commission made this recommendation four years ago and Victoria has had this scheme in place since 2017?

Mr ROCKLIFF - Ms O'Connor, I can only reiterate the indicative time line that I've just outlined: introducing the bill by the end of this year - November - and the new statutory authority by 1 July 2023 - in just over 12 months - and completion by 1 July 2024.

Ms O'CONNOR - Right, okay.

Mr ROCKLIFF - If I can just reiterate that.

Ms O'CONNOR - Can I ask whether, as a result of evidence given to the Commission of Inquiry, the Royal Commission Response Unit in the Department of Justice has been asked to expedite, to accelerate its work to implement the recommendations of the royal commission?

Mr ROCKLIFF - That may well be a question directly for the Attorney-General, M O'Connor. What I can say though in response to the commission of inquiry to date, is that the president of the commission clearly said in her opening statement that 'Government should not wait before delivering on much-needed reforms in this area,' or words to that effect. I outlined exactly that, in a ministerial statement just a few weeks ago, in terms of what we are enacting. I will cover some of those today and there may well be other measures over the course of the next 12 months that we might implement as well when gaps come to light. We will be looking forward to the recommendations of the commission of inquiry in about 12 months.

Ms O'CONNOR - Premier, evidence provided to the commission paints a picture of a deeply unhealthy relationship between Government here and the media. A journalist who gave evidence noted that, 'the former premier, Peter Gutwein, would often accuse journalists of talking down Tasmania when they asked basic questions' - something we are all familiar with in his responses in parliament. She went on to say:

Every time you make a request for information here, and again I'm talking about from the most basic requests to ones that I would acknowledge are more potentially hairy for a government, it's 'why do you need the information, what are you going to do with it, what are you writing, what's your angle,' argue, argue, argue - 'it's 5 o'clock, it's too late, sorry, everyone's gone home.'

She noted that the attitude in the ACT was markedly more helpful. Premier, will you commit to establishing a more positive and reasonable culture of being open with information in your Government? Do you accept that it's not good enough, or it hasn't been to date?

Mr ROCKLIFF - I can't speak for previous premiers, but of course the short answer to the first part of your question is 'yes.' I'm very keen to increase transparency and a commitment to transparency agenda and leading an open and accountable Government. I have demonstrated that with my various ministerial responsibilities over the course of the last eight years, in terms of data being presented. Through education it's very clear that an increasing amount of data was released from me, as Minister for Education, so all that was out there, 'warts and all', effectively. As Minister for Health, more transparency in terms of our Health Dashboard. I know there is a lot of public interest when that is released. It used to be released quarterly and is now released monthly, so the answer to your question is yes.

Ms O'CONNOR - Can I just ask quickly how you are giving effect to that? Is there a message going out to agencies, where a lot of this problem has been identified as beginning, that there is no need now to be so difficult about right to information requests or other requests for information? Has the message gone out to departments that things are going to change?

Mr ROCKLIFF - I have made it very clear in my opening statement as Premier around accountability and integrity and I would expect the culture that I am creating in the Premier's office extends right throughout the public service.

Ms O'CONNOR - Premier, I don't know if you have read any of the transcripts from the commission of inquiry, but it struck me when I was reading the testimony of journalists from 5 May, just how poorly the Government that you have now part of has treated journalists reporting on the Griffin cases or abuse at Ashley. The inquiry heard journalists have been told by public servants and, in at least one case, the Commissioner for Children, that the reporting was going to harm children. We would argue this reporting was central to community understanding of the extent of the abuse and the establishment of the commission of inquiry.

Premier, is it not the case that the very agencies making these claims have routinely failed to protect children, as evidenced by the matters being reported on; and, we wouldn't have the commission of inquiry or the closure of Ashley without the work of journalists? Don't you think your Government owes journalists, and particular the journalists like Camille Bianchi, an apology?

Mr ROCKLIFF - Of course our journalists play a very important role in our community in terms of shining the light on matters where Governments have failed and where Governments need to be more accountable. I have always respected the role of our journalists and reporters, in that sense. As a member of parliament for 20 years and certainly as a minister for eight years and now as Premier, my view hasn't changed in terms of the important role that journalists have. I respect the role. I may not always agree with the opinions of various commentators and the like, but I certainly respect the investigative nature of journalism in keeping Governments to account and effecting change.

Ms O'CONNOR - That is very good to hear. Premier, Camille Bianchi's podcast The Nurse exposed the extent of Griffin's abuse at the LGH. She gives testimony to the commission of inquiry that she lodged her right to information request with the Department of Health in early April 2020. The department effectively blocked the request and then after a long delay, didn't provide the information. Then there was an Ombudsman's decision which should have put the Department of Health on notice, but the information was still not provided. The Right to Information material was provided 22 months after Camille Bianchi first asked for it, after a program went to air on Seven News; within about half an hour of that program going to air that mentioned the RTI. Do you agree that is just not good enough, and when you talk about improving the right to information process, what does that mean in the context of this sort of conduct on the part of the Department of Health?

Mr ROCKLIFF - More broadly, in late March 2021, the then premier, Mr Gutwein, discussed with the Ombudsman improvements that we are making to address the Ombudsman's concerns, including: provision of more in depth RTI training to delegates; a new online portal to make the routine disclosure of Government information easier to find; and development of enhanced processes and systems for RTI requests. Additionally, the Government has provided increased funding to the Tasmanian Ombudsman to support the functions of its office. As you would appreciate, in terms of Health, we have Health Estimates coming up, Ms O'Connor, which I am sure you can drill down on the RTI processes. Of course they are at arms-length from me, as minister, and from all ministers, in fact. If you are asking me is 22 months too long - yes.

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you. A final question on this line of questioning. Premier, are you foreshadowing changes to the Right to Information Act so that the capacity for agencies to actively disclose information is reinforced and strengthened, and do you understand why journalists are giving that sort of testimony to the commission of inquiry? It is not that long ago that this blocking, if you like, from the Department of Health happened. Do you understand the frustration and concern about the way the Government that you are a part of has dealt with Right to Information requests - and it is not just in the Health Department?

Mr ROCKLIFF - We are open to improvement in all these areas of transparency, Ms O'Connor. I accept what you say about the Health Right to Information, of course, which we can explore further in terms of our RTI agenda. What we have done in terms of our transparency agenda includes committing $500 000 over two years to support the significant uplift of Right to Information capability and practice in the Tasmanian State Service. The funding will facilitate the provision of centralised training, building skilled RTI practitioners and will reduce key person dependencies in agencies. We will promote supported and consistent practice across the RTI space, which will deliver enhanced processes and systems for RTI.

Ms O'CONNOR - Do you agree that active disclosure should be really the default position of Government agencies, rather than attempting to conceal information, which has been the evidence and the culture at least for the past eight years? That agencies should furnish the information actively, rather than trying to block RTI requests like Camille Bianchi experienced?

Mr ROCKLIFF - Ms O'Connor, I have said I would lead a Government that is accountable. There has been, as I understand it, a significant increase in the number of routine disclosures of information to date. Since 2014 - you mentioned eight years - we have committed to improve openness and accountability of Government decision making through what has become known as the Government's Transparency Agenda. We have delivered reforms under this agenda, including publishing Right to Information responses, online within 48 hours of release to applicants, for example. I can go into other matters outside of the RTI but, of course, delegating ministerial responsibilities under the Right to Information Act 2009 to department officers would be relevant to your RTI question.


Ms O'CONNOR - I want to finish a line of questioning on the commission of inquiry, Premier. Evidence that came before the commission on 6 May, where the head of the State Service, Ms Gale, was interviewed by the commission as well as the head of Communities Tasmania, Gina Webster, revealed that there is no oversight of the Royal Commission recommendation implementations at the head of state service level. Are you able to tell the committee whether there has been any change since that evidence was presented to the inquiry?

And has the implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse been elevated to the Cabinet level, where there are Cabinet briefings of progress on that implementation process?

Mr ROCKLIFF - I am advised that Justice is leading the work with respect to the national commission of inquiry. What I have requested Ms Gale to do is to implement and lead the work when it comes to the measures that I outlined in parliament through a ministerial statement recently.

Ms O'CONNOR - Okay. I am not sure if you have read the transcript but it was a bit jarring to see that the head of the State Service does not apparently have any oversight or responsibility for the recommendations of the Royal Commission. It does not sound like that has changed.

Premier, during evidence to the commission it has become clear that a number of statutes are likely to need amendment to provide better protection for children and young people. This includes the Commissioner for Children and Young People Act to clarify the powers to advocate on an individual level; the Public Interest Disclosure Act in order to protect the suppliers who come forward about abuse, whether or not that conflicts with the State Service Act; potentially the Ombudsman Act to strengthen the Ombudsman's power; the Criminal Code Act; the Integrity Commission Act; the Right to Information Act; the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act; the State Service Act; Working with Vulnerable People registration. Has any work begun on the legislative reforms that have already been highlighted as necessary by evidence that has come to the commission?

Mr ROCKLIFF - As I have said previously, there are a number of areas in which successive governments have failed our children and young people. There are quite possibly gaps still. We will, of course, accept the recommendations of the commission of inquiry but we are not waiting for those recommendations, as I have outlined, Ms O'Connor. We are considering legislative solutions and other initiatives that will make it easier to share information about risks to children, including looking at whether issues of custom, practice and culture are creating unnecessary barriers. DPAC are leading that work.

Ms O'CONNOR - Can you just confirm, and this is my final question on this line of questioning. Can you confirm that legislative changes to strengthen the statutory protections of children and young people is already underway and that DPAC, your advisers, are listening to the evidence that has come before the commission of inquiry which reveal the necessity for statutory change and that work is being done already and you are not waiting for the recommendations from the inquiry, which are about a year away?

Mr ROCKLIFF - I have said in my ministerial statement that legislation will be drafted this year to create a new crime of failing to protect children or a young person for people in authority within an organisation who fail to safeguard a child from substantial risk of sexual abuse by an adult associated with the organisation. Of course the Attorney-General has taken the lead on this work and I understand progress is already being made. There will be consultation on this legislation and I hope it will be passed by the end of the year. We also plan to amend the Criminal Code to introduce a presumption that children under the age of 17 cannot consent to sexual intercourse when a person is in a position of authority over them. These legislative changes will bring our criminal justice system into alignment with community expectations -

Ms O'CONNOR - Is that happening this year?

Mr ROCKLIFF - If possible. We will be exploring options to expand the scope of regulated activities under the registration to work with vulnerable people legislation to ensure the screening scheme for people who work or volunteer with vulnerable people, including children, is the best it can be.