Today the Defence Minister Stephen Smith stepped up to the Despatch Box to apologise for decades of cases of reported abuse, mostly of a sexual nature, within the Australian Defence Force. The issue is as much about the fact that the abuse was institutionalised as it was about the response which has been found to have often been poor, even non-existent.
This morning too, in the wake of Stephen Smiths apology on behalf of the Department of Defence, the Chief of the Defence Force, David Hurley, made a similar televised apology.
In terms of significant political issues which have arisen, discussed or been implemented during this, the 43rd parliament, the response was sensibly bipartisan.
There was no questioning of the validity, the reasons and consequences of making the apology as their had been with the indigenous apology. The Opposition Defence spokesperson in the House of Representatives just rose and responded with an equally compassionate and heartfelt statement of regret for events that had transpired. That was followed by a pledge to stamp out institutionalised abuse and statement that all that can be done to cut down abuse will be done.
The apology itself was decades in the making. The delivery of the apology however, in the scheme of things, was swift. In fact the apology was made too fast. On the same morning the apology was announced, Mr Smith walked into the parliament to say sorry to those in the ADF that have been the victim of abuse over recent decades.
So often, issues around the timing of events and policies have plagued the Gillard Government. Again today, timing failed the Labor Party on this issue.
There is no debating that an apology should not have been made. It is the least the government could do after a long period of institutionalised abuse that was either ignored or wrongfully accepted as part of the organisation’s culture. But that apology should certainly have not been made today, even though reports surfaced late last week that such a statement to parliament was firmly on the political agenda.
Victims and their families should have had days or weeks’ notice that an apology was being made, not just hours and an apology even later today should never have been contemplated. Those who have suffered should have been afforded the time to organise travelling to Canberra for the apology, just as those who have been apologised to in the past for other wrongs were.
If those who had endured abuse did not want to attend, they should have at least been given advanced notice that the apology was to be given, so that they could make arrangements to watch Stephen Smith’s speech at home or elsewhere or listen to it on the radio or internet.
Instead, numerous victims will arrive home today to find that their suffering was acknowledged without many of them knowing or having little time for necessary arrangements to be made in order to view Stephen Smith’s apology. Countless current and former members of the defence force will hear the words of Stephen Smith second-hand through sound bites or perhaps in full, though still in replay, on the news and on websites.
It is surprising too that the speech by Mr Smith came before all the inquiries into abuse in the Australian Defence Force had finished. We have already had three separate investigations into different yet related matters.
Today, the Minister for Defence announced that there would be an independent taskforce to investigate the 750 “plausible” claims of abuse which were made to the DLA Piper review. The review by the global law-firm was one of the three investigations set up in response to the Skype sex abuse scandal. The minister announced that the taskforce would investigate individual claims, including attempting to identify alleged perpetrators.
Compensation of up to $50,000 for each valid claim has been offered if claimants waive the right to pursue their claims through all other legal and judicial processes. If alleged victims decide not to seek compensation, the special group led by former WA Supreme Court judge Len R0berts-Smith would decide whether or not to refer individual claims to the authorities.
So the battle is not over for victims. The process continues, but is nearing an end for some. The emotional wounds however will remain forever more.
You cannot help think that an apology, at the very least should have been delayed for weeks, maybe months.
The one certainty is that apology was needed. It was however delivered too soon.