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Teachers Registration Amendment Bill 2019

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Tags: Working with Vulnerable People, Teachers, Child Safety, Legislation

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Deputy Speaker, the Greens will be supporting the Tasmanian Teachers Registration Amendment Bill 2019. It is not particularly complex or weighty legislation, but it does deal with some current constraints on the Teachers Registration Board in dealing with a teacher who either does not have a Working with Vulnerable People registration, or has had their registration suspended. It also provides for some data sharing arrangements to be put in place, so long as the Teachers Registration Board is happy there are enough safeguards around the sharing of that data.

I also want to hear some reassurance from the minister about the protection of that data, given the extent of the data that will be captured. It will include full name or former name, residential address, date of birth, qualifications, teaching experience at time of application, registration number, registration type, the date the registration took effect and the expiry date, any conditions on the registration, particulars of any suspension, and any other particulars the board considers appropriate. I note that the information may be made available for educational or research purposes, or any other purposes that are prescribed in regulations.

Minister, are regulations being drafted around that data sharing?

Mr Rockliff - There is an opportunity for the parliament to scrutinise the regulations around both those matters.

Ms O'CONNOR - Good.

Ms O'Byrne - There are risks with regulations if they are signed off, for instance the day after we finish in November and we do not come back until March, or we have a huge pandemic time.

Mr Rockliff - In terms of subordinate legislation you mean?

Ms O'Byrne - They still cannot be knocked off until they are only disallowable, are they not?

Mr Rockliff - Disallowable?

Ms O'CONNOR - Perhaps, minister, you can give us some more depth of detail on those data sharing arrangements. Potentially there will be circumstances where that data is shared by the Teachers Registration Board with law enforcement authorities, although I know that the Working with Vulnerable People Act 2013 also contains those provisions that allow for other sharing of data with law enforcement agencies in fact, not only in Tasmania but interstate.

As the minister who fought quite hard for and enacted the Work with Vulnerable People Act 2013, I am pleased to see it continuing to be strengthened and given effect in order to keep children and vulnerable people safe.

Just as a historic footnote for the record - I have not shared this before, but it was a point of great frustration as minister in the Labor-Greens government that for the 2010-11 Budget, 2011-12 Budget, and the 2012-13 Budget, my requests to have working with vulnerable people checks funded and enacted were rejected. It was in the final budget before we were sacked by then premier, Ms Giddings, that we secured the funding and the commitment to have this framework in place. That was after three frustrating and at times humiliating years where I would attend ministerial council meetings and be put in a position where I am having to make excuses for the Tasmanian government failing to enact this framework to protect children particularly. We expanded the framework in the legislation and took it off the ACT model which also incorporated vulnerable people. It was a very frustrating time trying to get this reform through.

There are procedural fairness questions, minister. I recognise that it is a fine balance that needs to be struck between making sure there is procedural fairness for any teacher who has their registration cancelled because they do not have working with vulnerable people registration in place or because it has been suspended, but also to make sure we are not putting children at risk.

I note that the fact sheet information makes the statement that procedural fairness is afforded a teacher by the registrar under the registration for Working with Vulnerable People Act as part of the process of determining whether to suspend or cancel registration for working with vulnerable people.

Minister, perhaps you could just step out that process where the Teachers Registration Board can remove a teacher's registration while in the other act that we are talking about today, the Registration to Work with Vulnerable People Act, provides the giving of notice, the allowing of 10 days for a teacher to make a representation on their own behalf in relation to potential cancellation of their registration to work with vulnerable people. Just step us through how that procedural fairness would work in practice when you have the two acts alongside each other.

I also wanted to raise another couple of issues that are very specific to the registration to work with vulnerable people and it would be helpful to parliament if the minister could provide an update on these two matters.

There is a report in today's Mercury newspaper detailing allegations by a retired educator that a teacher who sexually abused his year 9 student and got her pregnant in the late 1980s remains employed by the Department of Education. In his early 30s at the time, the teacher then resigned from a Hobart high school. According to the allegations, 18 months later this teacher was employed at a Hobart Catholic school. A few years later, according to this person, that teacher was back with the Department of Education and employed at a west coast school. The allegation is that this teacher is now working at a school in the north.

The question has been asked, is this teacher working in a Tasmanian Department of Education school? Have they been given registration to work with vulnerable people? Did that process examine past conduct and allegations made about that teacher's behaviour at least towards one underage female student in the 1990s? It is a very serious allegation that has been made. I was somewhat surprised not to hear anything from the minister in question time about it today; raised proactively any attempt to reassure parents about the potential that someone who at least in the late 1980s sexually abused a child.

I also wanted to talk about the Department of Education inquiry into protecting children in the public education system in Tasmania that has come about as a result of survivors and family members of past sexual abuse making the clear point that they had received no justice because the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse did not deal with public education departments around Australia. It did not go to historical abuse in public education settings in Tasmania.

I have spoken with people who have significant experience and legal expertise in advocating for survivors and victims of past sexual abuse, who believe that what occurred in the Tasmanian Department of Education from about the mid-1990s until potentially the mid-2000s is simply unparalleled within Australia. This legal representative makes the point that it is an opportunity for the State of Tasmania to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and make right with people who had their lives ruined in Department of Education settings.

There has been no acknowledgement in the terms of reference for this independent inquiry that the royal commission did not address or investigate allegations of past sexual abuse in Department of Education settings in Tasmania. Tasmanian schools were not examined by the royal commission, save for two teachers at the Hutchins School who were sacked in 1970.

Regrettably, although we worked quite constructively in moving towards the establishment of this independent inquiry, the Greens were not given an opportunity to look at the terms of reference before they were set. Now there are real concerns that the terms of reference will potentially disenfranchise survivors of past sexual abuse and their families.

This should not just be looking at past systems. The issue at hand is not what systems were in place; the issue is that past systems were treated as though they did not exist. The terms of reference talk about addressing current systems in order to keep children safe now and in the future. But unless you are willing to find out what happened, how can you evaluate the effectiveness of the current system? How can you know that the practice is not still happening when these terms of reference will not examine past practices? There is no clear evidence that this inquiry will speak to, or provide a forum for, survivors of past sexual abuse in Department of Education settings.

By limiting the terms of reference and the findings to systems that are in place, it leads to the suspicion that this is specifically about avoiding findings around why, for example, the director-general of the department at the time, with the full knowledge of the minister at the time, would move a paedophile from school to school? The terms of reference seem to be so narrow as they would preclude the making of recommendations or findings as to specific cases or circumstances. This does raise the question, how does the department propose avoiding the mistakes of the past by not looking at the mistakes of the past and speaking to people who have direct testimony of those mistakes, which in fact were egregious abuses of children, which will undoubtedly have led to lifelong trauma impacts?

As I said in here yesterday, I know this Education minister cares. I know he is deeply committed to his portfolio. This is an opportunity to give voice to survivors and their families who were not heard by the royal commission. The minister is in control of this process. Ultimately he has commissioned it. It is our very sincere hope on the part of people, Tasmanians, who were and have been affected by past sexual abuse, that the minister will make clear to the independent reviewer that the terms of reference are to be treated as having enough flexibility to give survivors and their families voice. We cannot be sure that the systems that are in place now are enough to protect children if we are not prepared to understand how the systems that were in place in the past failed to protect children. If the minister could turn his mind to those concerns that would be useful. It is very germane to the issue that we are discussing today through this amendment bill.

Finally, I want to go to the letter written by Sally McGushin, the education advisor for the National Council of Women in Tasmania. I note that this letter has also been sent to the minister and to the shadow education spokesperson. Mrs McGushin is making an inquiry about the registration of school principals as laid down in the Education Act, noting that all principals must have full Tasmanian teacher registration before they can take up the roll of principal in any school. Mrs McGushin makes the point that while she upholds the concept of having properly qualified principals in Tasmanian schools, she questions whether the provision is too restrictive in that it does not allow for any form of provisional registration. It seems to Mrs McGushin, on behalf of the National Council of Women in Tasmania, that while Tasmania seems to hold reciprocal teacher registration arrangements with other Australian states and territories and New Zealand there is no apparent avenue to engage a principal who has come for any other country.

Mrs McGushin is not suggesting, she says, that we open the flood gates to principals from overseas, but I think she thinks it is important that we are open to accepting them. Mrs McGushin finally says -

Perhaps my interpretation of the act is incorrect. I would appreciate it if you could clarify the situation. If I am correct please advise whether the situation will be changed, and if it is not to be changed and this act is now in its fourth year of operation can you please explain why not?

Yours sincerely Sally McGushin

National Council of Women Tasmania

Education Advisor

Contingent on the minister's answers to the questions in his reading response, the Greens' cannot see any need to go into committee. We recognise this is an important refinement of the arrangements that are in place for teachers registration and that the primary motive is to make sure that our children are safe in our school settings. That is something we can have all of parliament agree to.