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Victim/Survivor - Call for Apology

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 23 March 2022

Tags: Parliament

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Speaker, I can indicate that a vote will be required and that this debate will continue for the full hour and it will not be gagged and the ministers will be given ample opportunity to do the right thing.

Mr Speaker, I move -

That the House:

(1) Notes that the Hon. Michael Ferguson MP and the Hon. Elise Archer MP were groaning in question time on 10 March 2022 while the Leader of the Opposition, Hon Rebecca White MP, read the words of a victim/survivor to the House, while the Hon. Roger Jaensch, MP said, 'oh come on'.

(2) Acknowledges the deep distress this caused to the victim/survivor, who has suffered enough at the hands of the Tasmanian Government and its agencies.

(3) Understands that any victim/survivor of child sexual abuse may have been distressed by the response of senior Government ministers.

(4) Notes that both Mr Jaensch and the Premier, Hon. Peter Gutwein MP, had the decency to apologise for this behaviour.

(5) Calls on the Mr Ferguson and Ms Archer to sincerely and unreservedly apologise for any hurt and offence caused by their response on 10 March last.

Mr Speaker, the House has debated this matter at length. Obviously, the Opposition and the Greens have worked very hard to get these two ministers to do and say the right thing. Obviously, twice now the numbers have been used by Government to shut down debate on this matter and remove any opportunity for those ministers in those debates to do and say the right thing.

We now have an hour of Greens' private members time and I will not speak for as long as I might otherwise because, like every member of this place on the Opposition and the Greens' benches, we want to see justice for Tiffany Skeggs. We want to see a response that lets victims/survivors know this Government hears them, it sees them and if this Government or its representatives have done something wrong, they will acknowledge that and they will apologise.

Two votes against an apology today so far. It is not going to happen this time that the ministers can cry shortage of time. We will make sure.

We are going to give these two ministers plenty of time to seek Ms Tiffany Skeggs' forgiveness for their trespasses against her and we will not let this go.

As I said earlier, I have been given permission by Ms Skeggs to share some details of her life; how she was betrayed by the state, and how she continues to be let down by the state; how she has not received justice and from ministers, Mr Ferguson and Ms Archer, she has not received respect. It is disrespectful to hurt someone like that and not say sorry. It re-traumatises someone who from the age of 11 was singled out by James Griffin, who was groomed. I am very mindful that there are young people watching this debate now in the public gallery and I am sorry that these young people will hear a story that no young person should have to hear.

The Tiffany Skeggs' story should at least, in part, be placed on the Hansard record so that it is very clear how much she suffered, how little justice she has received and how she continues to hurt to this day.

Tiffany Skeggs, because of her courage, has become the highest profile of James Griffin's victims. This is a young woman who at the age of 11, as she told the 7.30 Report, thought she had found her place and a place of safety, playing netball in northern Tasmania. As she told Rhiannon Shine, the ABC reporter who did an outstanding job on this really difficult story, she said netball should have been my safe place. I would never have perceived that would be where I met my greatest threat. She was 11. She said, it was a predator in his playground. And if I was to go back now, I would be like, 'Tiff, run from this. You need to report this in some kind of way but you need to run to keep yourself safe first'. But, as a child she said, you do not have that ability.

James Griffin was 58. Tiffany Skeggs was 11. Griffin was a volunteer medic at the Northern Tasmanian Netball Association and a nurse in the paediatric ward of the Launceston General Hospital. The 7.30 Report states the abuse started with kissing and inappropriate touching. Between the ages of 12 and 14, Griffin would pick Tiffany up on a Saturday morning to take her to netball. On the way there he would park his car and molest her. Griffin also sexually abused Tiffany in the first aid room at the netball precinct. She said the first rape happened at his house when she was 15 years old. She told Rhiannon Shine:

It's hard to describe just how much I and so many others have been failed by our system and the amount of red flags that were both there for people to see and raise.

In 2013, concerns were raised with Tasmania Police about Griffin inappropriately touching and grooming Tiffany. The matter was referred to the state's Child Protection Service. Both James Griffin and Tiffany denied anything inappropriate was happening and the case was closed. But the abuse continued.

Last year, as members in this place know, an internal review by Tasmania Police found deficiencies in the way it had shared information across agencies. The agency says it has since made improvements, including information sharing between police and Child and Family Services.

Then the 7.30 Report story details the moment when Tiffany realised she was not alone. It says after years spent thinking she was Griffin's only victim, one day in 2019, Tiffany saw Griffin surrounded by children at the netball courts. She told the journalist, 'And something in me just clicked. I didn't have a choice anymore. It wasn't about me wanting to come forward to tell my story, it was I have to come forward'.

So, Tiffany made a report to Tasmania Police. Griffin continued to work as a paediatric nurse at the Launceston General Hospital for three months, until being stood down at the end of July. And remember, for much of that time he kept his Working with Vulnerable People registration card.

Weeks later, after standing down in July, he was charged with multiple child sex offences. A month later he was arrested and charged with more sexual crimes, and admitted to criminal offences against Tiffany. But after being granted bail, James Griffin took his own life.

Tiffany told me, when we were talking quite recently, that one of the hardest things she had to do was obtain the transcript of the bail hearing. She tried to get it through right to information and was denied access to James Griffin's bail hearing, and ended up having to write to the magistrate to obtain a copy of it. She sat through it and she listened to that court let James Griffin go. She listened to that court release James Griffin into the public after what he had done to her - and as we now know, after what he had done to other children.

The Premier can say we are making politics out of this. We are not. We are just not. We want some justice for Tiffany. We want to make sure other victims/survivors do not see the poor behaviour that is being modelled by these two ministers, and have further trust in the institutions of the state eroded, because that is what happens when people see ministers of the Crown who are not prepared to do and say the right thing. It erodes already fragile trust.

Remember, people like Tiffany Skeggs find it very, very hard to trust people, because they were so savagely and thoroughly betrayed. Betrayed by adults, and ultimately by the State of Tasmania. That is what makes an imperative of this apology from these two ministers. We are not prepared to put up with this conduct, because we know the damage that it does to people like Tiffany, and other victims/survivors.

It is a cheap shot to say this is about politics. It is a very, very, cheap shot. In fact I do not normally cut the Opposition a break, as members know, but I think that the way this matter has been handled by Labor has been full of integrity. Labor has not got up here, like the Premier, and tried to point the finger around, sling mud - and that is what we got from the Premier. Pointing his finger at Ms White, deflecting to other internal Labor Party machinations. How cares about that stuff, honestly?

What the Greens care about in this place, on this day, and during this debate, is the wellbeing of Tiffany Skeggs and other victims/survivors. We care about the behaviour that has been modelled by this place in the wider community. We know that often people do not make a party-political distinction; we are all smeared, because we are all just politicians at the end of the day in some people's minds.

Mr Ferguson and Ms Archer bring shame on us all by their conduct - their childish, petulant, arrogant, disrespectful conduct. I have thought about it for two weeks, and at great length, and the longer this drags out, the more confused I am. Why would they not just say sorry? Is it because they are not? That is the worst of all possible answers: is it because they are not sorry for their behaviour? They sure should be, because I do not think they have allowed themselves to comprehend how much damage they have done.

In terms of the apology, we have a statement from the Premier on 15 March. He says:

In relation to further commentary in recent days, I wish to provide clarification that last Thursday in parliament I sincerely apologised without explanation or excuse as Premier, on behalf of the government, for events which occurred in parliament that day in response to a question from Ms White.

The following day, Minister Jaensch also apologised without explanation or excuse for his comments, and I have now followed up personally with an apology on behalf of the government to the victim-survivor.

He says:

I, as well as the government, fully understand that this is a very distressing time for all victim-survivors.

So, the time line is pretty clear. On the day that it happened, the Premier came in on the adjournment because he knew - he had the self-reflection to understand - how damaging those interjections were. He knew it had caused harm to Ms Skeggs. From a political point of view, he clearly knew it had also caused harm to his Government.

Mr Jaensch came in the following day and apologised - not in this place, but in a public statement - without explanation or excuse. That apology from minister Jaensch is clear, it is sincere, and it has been accepted by Ms Skeggs. Minister Jaensch has done the right thing.

The Premier did the right thing in apologising at the time. Where he has gone wrong is not pulling these two disrespectful ministers into line.

I know the Labor Party is not the only party in this place that has factions. I know what we are seeing here - in terms of those who have had the decency to apologise, and those who will not - runs down a factional line in the Liberal Party. I cannot help but form the view that Mr Ferguson and Ms Archer straight-up refused to apologise. I just cannot see it happening any other way - and if it is true, that says an awful lot about them.

If you have a look, for example, at my handy ever-ready copy of the ministerial Code of Conduct, it says in the opening preamble:

Ministers are expected to behave according to the highest ethical standards in the performance of their duties, as they hold a position of trust, and have a great deal of discretionary power which can have a significant impact on citizens of Tasmania. Therefore, ministers must commit themselves to the highest ethical standards to maintain and strengthen the democratic traditions of our state and its institutions.

F, for fail, for both ministers: Ferguson and Archer. They have not upheld the highest standard of ethical conduct in here. They behaved like children that morning. Bad children, Mr Speaker, and when they were caught out they ran for cover, because that is effectively what has happened here. They are hiding behind the Premier's apology on behalf of the Government.

It is actually so gutless it is staggering. It is so gutless and petty not to just say sorry - especially when this is not Ms White coming in here and demanding an apology out of nowhere, or me on behalf of the Greens. This is a request for an apology that has come from Tiffany. That puts this in a whole different frame; a victim/survivor, who for many years was abused by James Griffin, a traumatised person of great courage, dignity, warmth and heart, has asked for an apology from these two ministers, and still they are digging in. That is terrible behaviour.

I do not understand the politics of this. What is to be gained in refusing to apologise? It just makes them look like the worst of people, it is damaging the Government, more importantly of course, it is damaging Ms Skeggs and other victims/survivors, but politically this is the stupid path. Politically, for the Government, this is the path of most pain. That is why it is so baffling and very difficult to understand why these two ministers have taken that stance.

I went through the Hansard uncorrecteds a short time ago, and when the Minister for Justice was given another opportunity to apologise, all we got was more stonewalling. She said:

Mr Speaker, I really have nothing to add to my previous answer. I covered it in great detail.

Narrators note: no, she did not.

… my hard work over the many years since I have been Attorney-General since early 2018 and Minister for Justice since the end of 2017, and my record stands as my commitment.

I am thoroughly tired of the tendencies of government ministers to make this about them. It happens a bit. Obviously, we see from Ms Archer's reform agenda that she takes her job and these matters very seriously, but the rubber hits the road when it is personal, when someone who has been harmed by the conduct of Ms Archer has asked for an apology. You can be the greatest law reformer in the world, but if you do not have the human decency to apologise to someone who has been damaged by something you have done, it sheds a very unflattering light on Ms Archer's behaviour. She then goes on to say:

I know that victims/survivors and their families know that they have my wholehearted support.

Mmm, no, not the case. Ms Skeggs does not think she has Ms Archer's wholehearted support. Ms Skeggs thinks Ms Archer is a coward. Ms Skeggs would like to see Ms Archer not be a minister anymore because of her behaviour.

We had a very peculiar contribution from Mr Ferguson in the matter of public importance debate, where he got up and said some very obtuse things. He said:

There has been a lot of commentary already. There has been an exhaustive discussion in question time and the Premier has given a very thorough account of the Government's very considered position on this important matter.

From the outset, no-one on this side of the House will be saying the subject is not important. A case is not being made, by Ms White, the Leader of the Opposition, as to why her particular motion ought to be debated today, when the Premier has been very clear.

This was on the seeking of leave for suspension, not the MPI. Actually, Ms White did make the case, I made the case, we made the case, on behalf of Tiffany Skeggs.

Then Mr Ferguson tried this deflection, pretending at one level it was not him groaning. Yes, it was. He says, 'Like others, I have listened to the tape numerous times', and someone interjects, 'Yeah, listened to yourself groaning'. Mr Ferguson, who often retreats to get protection from the Speaker when he is under a bit of pressure, then says, 'Mr Speaker, I would like the opportunity to respond' - bottom lip hanging out, no doubt. Mr Speaker agreed that he deserved that and Mr Ferguson said:

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is very clear that there was an audible response from members of our side of the House. I will make this point as delicately as I can. The assertions that have been made by a number of members of the other side of the House today, I believe, are without foundation. The Government is not exploring that. Nobody should just take on trust what Ms White and Ms O'Connor are alleging.

He does not deny it was him, he just pretends by linking his listening to the audio to the matters that are being debated. He knows it was him. It is not just Ms White and me who think it was him. A number of people have listened to that audio a number of times and there are also some of us who were in here and heard and saw it. He cannot even take responsibility for doing it. He pretends it was not him. He then falsely goes on to say, 'It is very clear that the Government has accepted that there has been a response'. What kind of garbage sentence is that? It does not even make sense. He continues:

For that, the Leader of our Government has apologised on behalf of that side of the House, our side; we own it.

No, the Premier owned it and he was not one of the offenders. Mr Ferguson has never owned it. He has tried to pretend he was not there, so no, they do not own it. It is a completely dishonest statement.

Then he goes on to say, 'I agree that when people need to make an apology, one should be forthcoming'. He agrees, but only for other people, not for him apparently. 'I agree that people have felt hurt and let down.' Great, what are you going to do about it, Mr Ferguson? 'I agree with that and I respect that deeply'. Well, he does not respect it deeply enough to do the right thing.

I want the Hansard record to note that neither Mr Ferguson nor Ms Archer are in here today. That tells me that they are probably not going to make an appearance. That tells the House that they are not going to come in here and apologise to Ms Skeggs. That tells Ms Skeggs that despite 13 days having passed since they did that, they have not allowed themselves the opportunity for some deep self-reflection. It has certainly changed the way I think about those two, not that they would care what I think about them in the slightest, but I have to say I expected better, certainly from Ms Archer. Anyway, you live and learn and that is the way life rolls. People often reveal their true selves in times of stress.

I commend this motion to the House. I want Tiffany Skeggs to know there are people in this place who are standing with her and we will do whatever it is okay with her to do to help get this apology and have a measure of justice. Saying sorry can be so powerful to people who have been wronged. Even if, politically, Mr Ferguson and Ms Archer do not think it is in their interests to say sorry - actually, I believe it is in their interest to do so - why would they not recognise the difference that this could make to Tiffany? Do they so lack empathy for this young woman? Are they more interested in saving their own skin? It feels like it. On all their behaviours, Mr Speaker, I think that is what is happening. It is disrespectful. It lacks empathy. It is compounding harm and we are not going away.

My advice to them, for what it is worth, is just apologise. There is an old saying that if you have to eat a poo sandwich, eat it quickly and pretend you are enjoying it. These two ministers should just get this apology done. Do it for Tiffany. Do it for your own self-respect. Do it because at some level you care about what your colleagues in this place think of you. Maybe just do it because it is the right, grown-up thing to do.

I commend the motion to the House.