Hello and thank you for the invitation to provide an address the 5th National Child Protection Forum.
Can I start by acknowledging the importance of this Forum and the role victim-survivors, their advocates, Culturally and Linguistically Diverse and LGBTQIA+ communities, child protection experts, clinical professionals and academics hold in this field – and for their tireless efforts in trying to eradicate the plague that is child abuse?
As we come to the end of 2022, I’m reminded of what I’ve learnt in my new portfolio responsibilities as the Shadow Minister for Child Protection and the Prevention of Family Violence.
The fight against the abuse of children is incredibly complex.
There are efforts on policing and legal fronts, online regulations, institutional systems, and within the community. These are all vital.
In my time as the Minister for Home Affairs in the previous government, a significant portion of the area I focused on was in relation to the incredible work the Australian Federal Police, Australian Border Force, and the Department of Home Affairs did – and I’ll go into that federal sphere a little later.
What I have been hearing since the election – in my capacity as the Shadow Minister for Child Protection – has been even more broad, including where the states and territories have oversight, particularly of things like foster care systems and a lot of housing and shelter programs.
I know that after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, we learned that child abuse is a systemic issue, and that we have to combat it on all fronts.
As I’ve met with community groups and stakeholders, I’ve seen how difficult it can be to get people talking about these things and the confrontational nature of the issue. In itself, this is a problem.
Despite this, the Royal Commission’s five-year inquiry heard from thousands of victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse and received more than 42,000 phone calls and almost 26,000 letters and emails.
Thousands of Australians have been affected – but we know that institutional child sexual abuse is only part of the problem.
We know we must continuously take action to combat a systemic and broad issue – and it was always going to take more than any single government’s action.
When the Coalition was in government, we stood up the National Office for Child Safety in 2018 to provide leadership on child safety policies and to improve collaboration across state and territory governments on a range of national reforms as recommended by the Royal Commission.
We also launched the National Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Child Sexual Abuse 2021-2030 – something I am sure you will all be familiar with as a guiding national framework.
The National Strategy is the first of its kind in Australia. A 10 year whole-of-nation approach that provides a framework for improving our understanding of, responses to, and preventing child sexual abuse.
Measures will prevent, detect and respond to child sexual abuse within Australia, online, and by Australians overseas to help make sure no-one suffers in the same way again.
Actions in the strategy are focussed on five key themes:
- awareness raising, education and building child safe cultures,
- supporting and empowering victims and survivors,
- enhancing national approaches to children with harmful sexual behaviours,
- offender prevention and intervention,
- and improving the evidence base.
The Coalition provided more than $300 million for a nationally consistent and coordinated approach to preventing and responding to all forms of child sexual abuse to deliver measures like a national awareness raising campaign, a helpline, extra research, legal support services, boosting law enforcement capability and further frontline support services.
Under the National Strategy, the First National Action Plan recognises that child sexual abuse is preventable, and lays out clear actions for governments, at every level, to take.
It also identifies organisations that interact with young people and spells out what they should do, as well as what we can all do as members of the community.
It’s important that all levels of government work together to deliver reforms to improve prevention and responses to child sexual abuse.
Online sexual exploitation of children is one of the fastest growing major crimes in the world and big tech and other online platforms must be held accountable.
The Coalition created the world’s first e-Safety Commissioner, supported by our Online Safety Act 2021 which introduced:
- a new adult cyber-abuse take down scheme and a stronger cyberbullying scheme;
- a set of Basic Online Safety Expectations to hold industry to account;
- reduced take-down periods from 48 hours to 24 hours, and;
- a continuation of the Online Content Scheme, while giving the e-Safety Commissioner power to respond more quickly to content such as child sexual abuse material
The Coalition also gave the e-Safety Commissioner the power to order tech companies to report on how they are responding to these harms and companies will face hefty fines of up to $555,000 if they don’t report back.
The e-Safety Commissioner has previously issued legal notices to big tech, including Apple, Meta, Microsoft and others under the Basic Online Safety Expectations – a key part of the Online Safety Act. These legal notices require big tech to report on the measures they are taking to tackle the proliferation of child sexual exploitation material on their platforms and services.
As announced on 18 March 2022, the Coalition was proud to commit an additional $31.6 million over 5 years for online safety in the March Budget, including $27.1 million for e-Safety – $10 million of that to support a community grants program to support online safety education and projects focussed on women and children.
In 2018, the Coalition established the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation – or ACCCE – to allow authorities to crack down on individuals who prey on, exploit, and sexually abuse children.
Since its inception, the AFP-led ACCCE has made a real difference:
- with almost 700 arrests with more than 6,000 charges laid;
- over four years, the Centre has received more than 95,000 reports – with each containing hundreds, even thousands of images and videos depicting acts of child sexual abuse;
- more than 400 victims have been identified and 500 children removed from harm, and;
- with the support of the Centre, the Coalition cancelled or refused the visas of more than 10,400 dangerous criminals, including more than 800 child sex offenders.
Industry, charities and businesses play a huge role in delivering services and awareness campaigns that help do something that governments can’t always do themselves.
It’s important to acknowledge the role these organisations – and institutions like our universities – play in tackling the scourge of child abuse.
The Coalition wanted to ensure children could learn crucial safety skills, including online, which is why we worked with The Daniel Morcombe Foundation and funded their awareness programs from the proceeds of crime.
We delivered $3.4 million in funding for the Foundation’s ‘Bright Futures Program’, which aims to prevent, identify and respond to harmful sexual behaviours (including technology assisted harmful sexual behaviour) and child sexual exploitation in pre-teens.
The program is a national campaign to increase awareness, confidence and the abilities of parents, carers and teachers to identify and respond to child sexual abuse.
We knew increasing awareness of online dangers is a key step to prevention.
And in the 2021-22 Budget – we provided close to $60 million to the Australian Federal Police for new frontline operational activities to keep our children safe.
Additionally, through the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Coalition also provided $2.3 million in funding to a crucial study into how many Australians in the general population have been exposed to each of the five types of child abuse and neglect (physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and exposure to domestic violence).
The findings from the Australian Child Maltreatment Study are expected to be released in 2023.
They will capture the long-term mental and physical health outcomes associated with exposure to child abuse and neglect, and calculate the burden of disease, or real costs, of maltreatment over the course of a lifespan, as well as assess current mental and physical health.
The findings from this first-of-its-kind study are critical to informing future policy and practice to help prevent and reduce child maltreatment in Australia.
These findings will be particularly important – a recent Productivity Commission report found mental health problems cost Australia approximately $139 million every day – and $51 billion annually.
Reducing child abuse and neglect would result in substantial savings in long-term mental health, as well as the obvious individual and community impacts.
Some of the key challenges for government in the prevention and management of child abuse online include working with industry and specific platforms, including those based overseas, to ensure the right policy settings.
In recent submissions to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement – in 2021 and 2022 – the e-Safety Commissioner highlighted potential issues relating to encryption photo-matching technologies – these detect illegal material by proactively scanning, monitoring and filtering user content, but they are not currently applied to systems that use end-to-end encryption.
Because of this, end-to-end encryption can facilitate the production and exchange of child abuse material.
The e-Safety Commissioner noted that if major social media platforms increasingly employ end-to-end encryption on their services (for example Meta’s rollout for default end-to-end encryption for personal messages and calls in 2023), it will make investigations into serious online child sexual abuse and exploitation significantly more difficult by creating digital hiding places.
And platforms may then claim they are absolved of responsibility for safety because they cannot act on what they cannot see.
E-Safety described significant concerns about the use of immersive technologies as a tool for online child sexual abuse, including through the use of augmented reality, virtual reality such as the metaverse, mixed reality and haptics.
Whilst these challenges are not specifically unique to Australia, we know new legislation is progressing in Europe, Canada, Singapore, and the UK.
For example, in May 2022, the European Commission published its proposed Regulation to prevent and combat child sexual abuse – this will require providers to detect known child sexual abuse material, and to work towards the creation of a European Centre to prevent and counter child sexual abuse – similar to the work of the ACCCE.
When it comes to preventing child sexual abuse, leaders from all political sides have recognised the urgency to act.
Protecting Australia’s children is the duty of the whole nation, and only collective action will be the key to success, so it’s important multiple tiers of government are getting buy-in from across the board.
I want to again thank the efforts of those attending this Forum, and those working in this field, for their dedication and contribution – what you do is not easy.
I look forward to further work in this area and the progress we can all achieve together. Thank you.