Tasmania’s ‘unexamined dark past’ has led to latest reckoning with child sexual abuse
The current inquiry into sexual abuse in Tasmania has opened wounds, with one expert saying the “unexamined dark past” of the prison island has a lot to answer for — made worse by lingering shame and a compulsion for secrecy.
In its first week of public hearings, the Commission of Inquiry into the Tasmanian Government’s Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Institutional Settings has heard from a mother who said her concerns about a nurse at the Launceston General Hospital were not taken seriously, and about how workplace culture at the Ashley Youth Detention Centre could be encouraging old-fashioned, unfavourable attitudes towards children.
The commission will also examine the Education Department’s practice of moving paedophile teachers from school to school, and abuse of children in the state’s out of home care system.
It will continue to hear stories from victim-survivors of child sexual abuse.
On Thursday, the commission heard from two academics — political scientist Professor Richard Eccleston and historian and author Professor Cassandra Pybus — who spoke about the features of Tasmania and its culture that may have lead to abuse of children becoming normalised.
A ‘culture of silence’
Dr Pybus said Tasmania’s convict days were “brutal”.
“What marks Tasmania out for me in many ways is its powerful carceral past; it was established completely and utterly as a prison society and it was, thanks to the third governor, managed in extraordinary ways,” she said.
“Everybody was under scrutiny to a certain extent, and convicts and emancipated convicts, who made up by far the great majority of the population, were under scrutiny all the time as were any Aboriginal people… whilst there were a number of convict settlements in Australia, none were as big or lasted as long as in Tasmania.”
Dr Pybus said children were criminalised, something that continued to happen well into the 20th century.
Point Puer was an institution for “criminal boys” on the Tasman Peninsula which operated from 1834 to 1848.
Dr Pybus said a relic of the state’s convict past was a fear of speaking out.
“It’s basically ingrained in the social fabric of Tasmania, a kind of hierarchical deference and a culture of silence that’s self-protective,” she said.
‘Extraordinary suppression of reality’
Dr Pybus said many Tasmanians refused to engage in any self-reflection on the state’s past — something she said was the result of shame.
“Shame is a very powerful, powerful social mechanism of suppression and I think shame operates in Tasmania much more powerfully almost than it does anywhere else in Australia.”
She said Tasmania had similarities with Ireland and “the way in which a brutal and traumatic past and extraordinarily brutal treatment of women and children over generations has also had this kind of extraordinary suppression of reality”.
But Dr Pybus said Ireland’s experience showed how significantly things could change for a society.
Dr Pybus said Tasmania was changing, too.
“The demographics are changing dramatically and with it is coming a breakdown of the traditional cultural relationships that have kept a sort of code of silence.”
A stable population
The Commission heard speculation as to why serious misconduct by public service employees in Tasmania may go unreported or unacted on.
Traditionally, Tasmania’s population has been fairly stable.
Political scientist Professor Richard Eccleston told the commission there had been relatively low population growth until a “relatively significant” wave of migration over the past five or six years.
Dr Eccleston said a national labour force study found about 30 per cent of Tasmanians found their work through word or mouth or personal networks — double the national average of about 15 per cent.
“A working hypothesis is if you’ve got a small and connected professional community, perhaps fewer alternative sources of employment and these strong community bonds, then you would imagine that the implications of reporting or disclosing misconduct or criminal activity [of colleagues] would be higher in that community.”
Dr Eccleston said the implications or consequences could be greater for those making allegations in these types of communities.
He said a 2020 review of Tasmania’s public service by Dr Ian Watt found it was older and less diverse than in other states.
The length of service is also about 20 to 30 per cent higher than the national average.
“Dr Watt did come to the conclusion that, relative to other jurisdictions, the number of public service employees terminated because of misconduct is proportionately lower in Tasmania and that that is partially due to the complexity of the process,” Dr Eccleston said.
‘Hostility’ towards free press
The commission also heard from two journalists — freelance journalist Camille Bianchi and the ABC’s Emily Baker — who have reported on child sexual abuse in Tasmania.
Ms Baker said she found there had been a “general hostility” towards the media from Tasmanian government departments.
“Every time you make a request for information here… it’s, ‘why do you need that information, what are you doing with it, what are you writing, what’s your angle’, argue, argue, argue,” she said.
Ms Baker and Ms Bianchi both told the commission government media advisors and others working in government agencies had suggested through their reporting they were doing harm or seeking to do harm.
“The media has a really serious role, we can cause harm, I’m so cognisant of that, it is a balancing act every day,” Ms Baker said.
“But I would refuse to be another institution that says, ‘sorry, I’m not reporting on that because I might hurt a worker’s feelings’.”
‘I’m very positive about where we’re going’
Dr Eccleston said there had been a “big shift” in the past 10 years with more graduates and young professionals choosing to stay in Tasmania and younger professionals moving to the state.
Dr Pybus said Tasmania in the 21st century was a different place compared with the Tasmania of the 19th and 20th centuries.
“I’m very positive about where we’re going in Tasmania. I’m thrilled about it but at the same time I’m very aware on multiple levels of an unexamined dark past,” she said.
The Commission of Inquiry into the Tasmanian Government’s Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Institutional Settings is holding six weeks of public hearings over the coming months.