The current investigation into sexual abuse in Tasmania has opened wounds, with one expert saying the prison island’s “unexamined dark past” has much to justify – compounded by lingering shame and a compulsion to 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 heard from a mother who said her concerns about a nurse at Launceston General Hospital were not taken seriously, and how the workplace culture at the Ashley Youth Detention Center could encourage an old-fashioned, unfavorable attitude towards children.
The commission will also examine the Department of Education’s practice of moving pedophile teachers from school to school, and child abuse in the state’s out-of-home care system.
It will continue to hear stories from child sexual abuse victim survivors.
On Thursday, the committee heard from two academics – political scientist Professor Richard Eccleston and historian and author Professor Cassandra Pybus – who spoke about the characteristics of Tasmania and its culture that may have allowed child abuse to normalize.
A ‘culture of silence’
dr. Pybus said the days of prisoners in Tasmania were “cruel”.
“What characterizes Tasmania in many ways is its powerful carceral past; it was fully and wholly established as a prison society and, thanks to the third governor, it was administered in extraordinary ways,” she said.
“Everyone was scrutinized to some degree, and convicts and emancipated convicts, who made up the vast majority of the population, were scrutinized all the time, as were all Aboriginal people…while there were a number of convict settlements were in Australia, none were as big or lasted as long as in Tasmania.”
dr. Pybus said children were being criminalized, something that continued well into the 20th century.
Point Puer was a “criminal boys” institution on the Tasman Peninsula that operated from 1834 to 1848.
dr. Pybus said a relic of the state’s convict past was the fear of speaking out.
“It’s basically ingrained in Tasmania’s social fabric, a kind of hierarchical reverence and a culture of silence that is self-protective,” she said.
‘Extraordinary suppression of reality’
dr. Pybus said many Tasmanians refused to engage in self-reflection on the state’s past – something she said was the result of shame.
“Shame is a very powerful, powerful social mechanism of oppression and I think shame works much more powerfully in Tasmania than anywhere else in Australia.”
She said Tasmania shares similarities with Ireland and “the way a brutal and traumatic past and extraordinarily brutal treatment of women and children across generations has also had this kind of extraordinary suppression of reality”.
But Dr Pybus said Ireland’s experience showed how profoundly things can change for a society.
dr. Pybus said Tasmania was also changing.
“The demographics are changing dramatically and with it comes a collapse of traditional cultural relationships that have kept a kind of silence.”
A stable population
The Commission heard speculation as to why serious misconduct by public service officials in Tasmania may not be reported or acted upon.
Traditionally, Tasmania’s population has been fairly stable.
Political scientist Professor Richard Eccleston told the committee that there has been relatively low population growth to a “relatively significant” wave of migration over the past five or six years.
dr. Eccleston said a national labor force survey found that about 30 percent of Tasmanians found work through word of mouth or personal networks – double the national average of about 15 percent.
“A working hypothesis is that if you have a small and connected professional community, perhaps fewer alternative sources of employment and these strong community ties, 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 accusations in these kinds of communities.
He said a 2020 public service assessment of Tasmania by Dr. Ian Watt felt it was older and less diverse than other states.
The length of employment is also about 20 to 30 percent higher than the national average.
“Dr Watt concluded that, compared to other jurisdictions, the number of public service workers being fired for misconduct in Tasmania is proportionally lower and that this is partly due to the complexity of the process,” said Dr. . Eccleston.
‘Enmity’ against free press
The committee also heard from two journalists – ABC freelance journalist Camille Bianchi and Emily Baker – who reported on child sexual abuse in Tasmania.
Ms Baker said she found there was “general hostility” towards the Tasmanian government services media.
“Every time you ask 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 committee that government media advisers and others who work for government agencies had suggested in their reporting that they were doing or seeking harm.
“The media has a very serious role, we can do harm, I’m so aware of that, it’s a balancing act every day,” said Ms Baker.
“But I would refuse to be another institution that says ‘sorry, I’m not reporting on that because I could hurt an employee’s feelings’.”
‘I am very positive about where we are going’
dr. Eccleston said there had been a “major shift” over the past 10 years, with more graduates and young professionals choosing to remain in Tasmania and younger professionals moving to the state.
dr. Pybus said Tasmania was a different place in the 21st century compared to Tasmania in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“I’m very positive about where we’re going in Tasmania. I’m excited about it, but at the same time I’m very aware of an unexplored dark past on several levels,” she said.
The Commission of Inquiry into the Tasmanian government’s responses to child sexual abuse in institutional settings will hold public hearings for six weeks in the coming months.