Tasmania’s ‘dark unexamined past’ led to latest child sex abuse toll


Tasmania’s ongoing sex abuse inquiry has opened wounds, with an expert saying the prison island’s ‘dark unexamined past’ has much to answer – 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 Institutional Child Sexual Abuse heard from a mother who said her concerns about a nurse at Tasmanian General Hospital Launceston were not taken seriously, and about how the workplace culture at Ashley Youth Detention Center might encourage outdated and unfavorable attitudes towards children.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.

He 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 features of Tasmania and its culture that may have led to the normalization of child abuse.

Professor Cassandra Pybus.(Provided: Peter Mathews)

A “culture of silence”

Dr Pybus said the sentencing days in Tasmania were “brutal”.

“What sets Tasmania apart for me in many ways is its powerful prison past; it was established completely and totally as a prison society and it has been, thanks to the third governor, run in an extraordinary way,” said she declared.

“Everyone was under surveillance to some degree, and convicts and emancipated convicts, who constituted by far the great majority of the population, were under surveillance all the time, as were all Aboriginal peoples…while there were a number of convict colonies in Australia, none so large or lasted so long as in Tasmania.”

Dr Pybus said children were criminalized which 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 the fear of speaking out.

“It’s fundamentally ingrained in the social fabric of Tasmania, a kind of hierarchical deference and a culture of silence that protects itself,” she said.

Point Puer taken from the Isle of the Dead near Port Arthur in 1880.
Point Puer was created to “separate impressionable boys from the influence of hardened criminals,” the government history notes.(Prettyman Collection: Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office)

“Extraordinary suppression of reality”

Dr Pybus said many Tasmanians were unwilling to engage in reflection on the state’s past – what she said was the result of shame.

“Shame is a very strong and powerful social suppressive mechanism and I think shame operates in Tasmania much more powerfully than anywhere else in Australia.”

She said Tasmania had similarities to Ireland and “how 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 can change for a society.

Dr Pybus said Tasmania was also changing.

“The demographics are changing dramatically and with it comes a breakdown of traditional cultural relationships that have kept a sort of code of silence.”

Old photo of waterfront buildings, text reads "Port Arthur during occupation AD.1860, 216, Beattie, Hobart"
From 1833 to 1877, Port Arthur functioned as a prison for criminals transported from England and those who had transgressed in Australia.

A stable population

The Commission has heard speculation as to why serious misconduct by public service employees in Tasmania may go unreported or go unaddressed.

Traditionally, Tasmania’s population has been fairly stable.

Political scientist Professor Richard Eccleston told the commission there had been relatively little population growth until a “relatively large” wave of migration over the past five or six years.

Dr Eccleston said a national workforce survey found around 30 per cent of Tasmanians found their jobs through word of mouth or personal networks, double the national average of around 15 %.

“A working hypothesis is that if you have a small connected professional community, perhaps fewer alternative sources of employment and those strong community ties, then you would imagine the implications of reporting or disclosing misconduct or criminal activity [of colleagues] would be higher in this community.

Dr Eccleston said the implications or consequences could be greater for those making claims in these types of communities.

He said a 2020 review of Tasmania’s civil service by Dr Ian Watt found it to be older and less diverse than in other states.

Seniority is also about 20 to 30% higher than the national average.

“Dr Watt came to the conclusion that, compared to other jurisdictions, the number of public service employees dismissed for misconduct is proportionately lower in Tasmania and that this is partly due to the complexity of the process” , said Dr. Eccleston.

“Hostility” towards the free press

The commission also heard from two journalists – freelance journalist Camille Bianchi and the ABC’s Emily Baker – who reported on child sexual abuse in Tasmania.

Ms Baker said she had seen there had been “general hostility” towards the media from government departments in Tasmania.

“Every time you request information here…it’s ‘why do you need this information, what do you do with it, what do you write, what’s your angle’, argue, argue, argue,” she said.

Ms Baker and Ms Bianchi both told the commission that government media advisers and others working in government agencies had implied through their reporting that they were doing harm or seeking to do harm.

“The media has a very serious role, we can cause harm, I’m so aware of that, it’s a daily balancing act,” Ms Baker said.

“But I would refuse to be another institution saying, ‘sorry, I’m not reporting on this because I might hurt a worker’s feelings’.”

“I am very positive about where we are going”

Dr Eccleston said there had been a “big change” over the past 10 years, with more graduates and young professionals choosing to stay in Tasmania and young professionals moving to the state.

Dr Pybus said Tasmania in the 21st century was a different place 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 on many levels of a dark, unexamined past,” she said.

The Commission of Inquiry into the Government of Tasmania’s Responses to Institutional Child Sexual Abuse is holding six weeks of public hearings over the next few months.


Comments are closed.