Politics Opinion

Rockliff Government vies for corruption crown

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Tasmanian Premier Jeremy Rockliff (Screenshot via YouTube)

From poker machine scandals to child abuse cover-ups, the last of Australia's blue states has become tarnished by corruption. Rosemary Sorensen reports.

THE FITZGERALD INQUIRY from way back in 1989 renders strong support for Queensland as Monarch of the Dodge, but does a gaoled police commissioner outrank a gaoled MP regarding scandalous misconduct? If not, then New South Wales has a claim to the throne, reinforced by the recent (extra points) salacious and excruciatingly farcical exposure of former Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

You’ll have your favourite memories of how those with power have trashed their responsibilities, but when it comes to combining that with the most damage done, we have a new contender for that corruption crown.

The Apple Isle.

Tasmania.

We should have seen this coming, given the teeth-grindingly awful way successive Tasmanian governments have sold out whole communities to the demands of Greg Farrell’s pokies-enriched Federal Group. Refresh your memory with James Boyce’s excellent book, Losing Streak, if you’re feeling up to a scandal of greed-acious proportions, or just to get you in the mood for the latest Tassie grotesquerie.

Before we get to that, however, a nod to Jeremy Rockliff’s Liberal Government for promising, back in 2022, to bring in a mandatory limit of $5,000 per year on poker machine spending. It hasn’t yet been implemented and, given the events of the past week, may yet trip at the final hurdle. But the move (actually more a gesture than a move) to do something about the life-destroying effects of problem gambling is a tufty feather in Rockliff’s cap.

That cap, last week, was in hand when the Tassie Premier met with the two Independents who defected from the Liberals, mostly but not entirely because of the cabinet decisions “behind closed doors” about the proposed AFL stadium to be built in Hobart.

Member for Lyons John Tucker also used his new-found power as an Independent in a minority government to demand legislation to install CCTV in abattoirs. There’s a Tassie mini-shocker connected to this, with an abattoir formerly part-owned by current Tasmanian of the Year, Stephanie Trethewey, revealed to have “issues” around animal welfare. The ducking and weaving in response to the revelation is one of those good-grief stories done so well by the few remaining excellent journalists at our ABC (and well worth a read here).

But it was a gigantic “issue”, the kind you only expect to hear about fictionally on one of those harrowing British TV series like Unforgotten, that appears to have hardened the second Independent’s resolve to stand up to Rockliff.

Lara Alexander, member for Bass, more or less made it a condition of her crucial support for the rocky Rockliff Government that it withdraw legislation which, on the surface, aims at preventing assaults on workers in everything from emergency services to hospitality.

According to Alexander, the draft legislation includes ‘sections dealing with protecting sex offenders’. This makes it look suspiciously like the Government is more interested in “protecting public servants from the consequences of the [Commission of Inquiry] than it is in protecting Tasmanian children”.

Whoa! What’s going on here?

It is, as Nick Feik wrote following the publication of his recent essay in The Monthly, a “wild” story.

The full title of the Commission of Inquiry mentioned by Alexander is Commission of Inquiry into the Tasmanian Government’s Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Institutional Settings, which includes the Ashley Youth Detention Centre in Deloraine and the Launceston General Hospital.

Feik wrote:

‘This small region may have been the epicentre of a statewide abuse crisis, but the responsibility, for both crimes and cover-ups, stretched all the way to the highest levels of Tasmanian government.’

One part of the story was made public in 2020 by Camille Bianchi in a podcast called The Nurse. Police didn’t bother to investigate complaints about a serial paedophile. There was no response from the hospital even when a social worker identified a nurse working in the children’s ward as the man who had abused her 20 years before. Child Protection Services made a few calls but didn’t do follow-up reports.

As recently as 2016, the same man was given a Registration to Work with Vulnerable People and when more complaints were made about his lewd behaviour, he was seconded out of the hospital to work for a few weeks — at Ashley.

It wasn’t until July 2018, when one of the women he’d abused as a child went to the police with photographic evidence, that he was stood down from the hospital and then eventually charged. The awful story comes to a sort of conclusion when this man suicides, but it’s just a slice of the rancid pie that is the coverup of child sexual abuse in Tasmania.

The report of the Commission of Inquiry includes shocking accounts of the treatment and abuse of young people aged between ten and 20 at Ashley, which, despite the recommendation of the Inquiry last August that it be shut immediately, remains open. Vicious assaults, rape, physical and emotional brutality — and the Government’s response over decades ‘amounted to a sophisticated protection scheme for the abusers’.

Feik pursues this “protection scheme” through the Commission of Inquiry report, to show that, in Tasmania, the “Integrity Commission” and the ombudsman’s office are totally ineffectual.

Feik’s account introduces one of the whistleblowers, a clinical practice consultant who arrived at the institution in 2019 and subsequently tried to report on the horrors evident in Ashley.

That woman, identified only by her first name in Feik’s essay, can be heard directly on X/Twitter, where she excoriates Jeremy Rockliff’s government following the November announcement that there was to be yet another “review”, this one into the report of the Commission of Inquiry.

The despair and anger expressed in the post written by Alysha Rose (@Lyshrose) is barely contained – but contained it is – most impressively. She details why the announcement of a review is so devastating:

‘If this government cared even a little about child sexual abuse in Tasmanian Gov Institutions — extra scrutiny about this Commission wouldn’t be required. The Commission WAS the scrutiny. Or so we were told.’

Alysha also adds a hopeful comment at the end:

‘I have faith that the politicians with integrity in #tasmania, will do everything they can to ensure accountability occurs & will also understand entirely why no witness should be expected to listen to another word from this government until then.’

A couple of days ago, Nick Feik sent out a tweet of his own, to reach out to people about what he’s now calling a funny Tasmanian story — meaning, of course, not funny at all.

What’s remarkable about Feik’s story is where it leads — which is to the ‘little-known and poorly understood fact’ that in Tasmania every government agency, including the Integrity Commission, must get its legal advice from the Office of the Solicitor-General (OSG). So, in a nutshell, the OSG, a tiny office within government, was advising across all departments on how to deal with the voluminous mess of Tasmania’s child abuse tragedy.

According to that report, now under review by the Rockliff Government, “it appears from the evidence that [the OSG] only considers legal and financial considerations and not other matters like the state’s reputation or values, morality, the public interest”.

There is no way to leaven the awfulness of the Tasmanian response to abused kids, which is surely made worse knowing what damn near every state in the country has witnessed over the past decade. The fluttering ribbons on the fence outside a Ballarat church are there to implore us not to forget the coverups of institutional abuse of children and what it has meant for so many people.

Hats (crowns and caps) off to whistleblowers.  

Rosemary Sorensen was a newspaper books and arts journalist based in Melbourne, then Brisbane, before moving to regional Victoria where she founded Bendigo Writers Festival, which she directed for 13 years.

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