In April 2023, the Australian Child Maltreatment Study team released data showing that 28.5 percent of Australian adults report having been sexually abused before the age of eighteen, including one in three girls and one in five boys. In response to the findings, Dr. Leanne Beagley, CEO of the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse, a non-profit charged with disseminating best practices to prevent child sexual abuse (CSA) in Australia, highlighted the intensity and long-term impacts of such abuse: “Children, especially girls, are experiencing child sexual abuse in seriously high numbers in our country, while many adults are living with the long-term and distressing impacts of sexual abuse in their childhoods.” Australia has devoted increasing attention to CSA since 2017, when the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse published a final report that found extensive evidence of CSA “in almost every type of institution where children reside or attend for educational, recreational, sporting, religious or cultural activities,” affecting “tens of thousands” of individuals over many years.
While Australia’s states and territories bear responsibility for investigating, prosecuting, and enforcing criminal penalties for CSA offenses, the 1995 Commonwealth Criminal Code and the 1901 Customs Act offer legal protections nationally. In response to the 2017 findings of the Royal Commission, the Australian government renewed its focus on CSA through the National Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Child Sexual Abuse 2021–2030, which outlines CSA as “any act that exposes a child or young person to, or involves a child or young person in, sexual activities that: they do not understand, they do not or cannot consent to, are not accepted by the community, or are unlawful.” These efforts are further supported by the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022–2032, which helps situate Australia’s response to CSA within the larger universe of actions it is undertaking to combat all forms of violence and discrimination against women and children. National efforts to prevent and respond to CSA are being spearheaded by the newly created National Office for Child Safety, while other government bodies, from the Australian Federal Police to the eSafety Commissioner to the Department of Social Services, play a variety of roles in Australia’s multi-sectoral efforts to prevent and respond to CSA nationwide.
The hallmark of the federal government’s policy initiative to respond to CSA, The National Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Child Sexual Abuse 2021–2030 (National Strategy), is split into two portions: (1) the First National Action Plan; and (2) the First Commonwealth Action Plan. The First National Action Plan includes large-scale projects to be implemented by the Australian federal and subnational governments to raise public awareness, reduce offenses, and drive a national response to children with harmful sexual behaviors. The First Commonwealth Action Plan is primarily the responsibility of the federal government and focuses on denying entry into the country for possible offenders, addressing online CSA, and increasing resources for combatting CSA alongside partner states in the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asia. To tackle CSA within Australia, the National Office for Child Safety in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, established in July 2018, is primarily responsible for overseeing the National Strategy, to which the federal government has committed AUD 307.5 million for implementation.
During the first phase of the National Strategy (2021–2025), the federal government is set to provide AUD 146.0 million, with the largest shares committed to the Attorney-General’s Department, the Australian Federal Police, the Department of Home Affairs, and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. (See Figure 1.) In total, AUD 139.1 million is committed to activities to “prevent, detect, and disrupt” CSA, such as increasing law enforcement resources, bolstering resources for prosecuting offenders, enhancing support to CSA victims, building support systems (including “trauma-informed and culturally appropriate approaches for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”), and enhancing government partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region, among other activities. A further AUD 4.6 million will be used to fund the National Office for Child Safety, responsible for overseeing the National Strategy, and another AUD 2.3 million will fund efforts to expand the evidence base around CSA, including how to reduce and better detect instances of it.
Spending Allocations for National Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Child Sexual Abuse
Data Source: Budget 2021–22, p. 174
As part of funding commitments to the Australian Federal Police, the government also established the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) in 2018. Specifically, the organization aims to act as a hub of expertise for the skills needed to “detect, disrupt, prevent, and investigate child exploitation,” including by expanding the government’s investigative, forensic, and victim identification resources by 50 percent. ACCCE’s focus is on online child sexual exploitation, defined as “the use of technology or the internet to facilitate the sexual abuse of a child, including the production and sharing of child sexual abuse material online.” The federal budget for 2018–2019 committed AUD 68.6 million over a period of four years for the ACCCE’s establishment, through FY 2022–23. (See Figure 2.)
ACCCE Funding through Australian Federal Police
Data Source: Budget 2018–19, p. 127
As another measure in response to the Royal Commission, the government committed to establishing the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse, promising AUD 22.5 million to fund it from FY 2021 to FY 2025. The center is an independent, non-profit organization focused on increasing understanding of CSA and disseminating best practices for combating CSA, protecting children, and healing survivors, and is meant to work closely with the National Office for Child Safety. The organization also administers competitive grants for evidence-based research projects and anticipates awarding AUD 3.4 million between 2022 and 2027, according to email correspondence with FP Analytics.
Driven by the 2017 findings of the Royal Commission, Australia has engaged in a series of targeted and comprehensive measures at the national level to address CSA, reflecting that the Australian federal government recognizes the scope and severity of the challenge. Moreover, Australia has highlighted survivors’ perspectives as essential to effectively addressing CSA in a sustained manner. As Dr. Leanne Beagley noted, “We don’t sit and listen to victims and survivors enough. . . . If there’s one thing that governments can do, they can set up systems where there is a place to listen and take that feedback and use it to change the system. . . . You cannot make decisions and develop policy unless you sit with victim survivors and understand their experiences. It’s a wasted effort otherwise.” Australia appears to be taking action to this effect.
“We don’t sit and listen to victims and survivors enough. . . . If there’s one thing that governments can do, they can set up systems where there is a place to listen and take that feedback and use it to change the system.
Dr. Leanne Beagley, CEO of the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse
The clearly organized and detailed nature of the national budget documentation relevant to CSA underscores the country’s commitment to addressing the issue. For example, the 2021–22 budget devotes two pages to describing the government’s various spending allocations to CSA, including how topline budgets will be split among more than a dozen departments over a five-year period as well as descriptive text that outlines major goals that this funding is supposed to accomplish through said departments, from preventing exploitation online, to supporting victims more closely, to expanding resources for prosecution. Moreover, national-level documentation like the National Strategy signals a wide-reaching, multisectoral approach to preventing and responding to CSA, with plans for continued funding in the immediate and long term. While these documents clarify how AUD 146.0 million of the AUD 307.5 million the government promised will be spent, the remainder, presumably meant for the second five-year period of the program, is left unspecified. Future prioritization of spending will likely be based on shifting needs and priorities that will be revealed during the plan’s first five-year period. Implementation of the national strategy to prevent and respond to CSA varies at the provincial and state levels and warrants in-depth comparative analysis that is beyond the scope of this project but an area ripe for future research.