Victims remembered as railway bill debated

Puffing Billy Railway Bill 2022


April 5, 2022

I rise to speak on the Puffing Billy Railway Bill 2022, which repeals the Emerald Tourist Railway Act 1977 and establishes a new principal act for future governance and operation of this iconic railway.

Puffing Billy is a significant tourist attraction. It is well known for delighting families, in particular children, who sit with their legs dangling over the side of the open carriages as Puffing Billy weaves its way through breathtaking scenery.

This bill seeks to provide the governance framework to sustain the operation of Puffing Billy Railway into the future. Symbolically, it is much more than that.

For while Puffing Billy is a landmark attraction that has given joy to locals and tourists over decades, it was also the stage for historical child abuse offences the subject of an investigation by the Victorian Ombudsman in 2018. 

Before I go on, I wish to acknowledge victim survivors who are watching today. I acknowledge your trauma and that, while repealing the Emerald Tourist Railway Act in some respects is another step in closing that dark chapter, it can also bring back to the fore your pain and suffering.

The offender at the centre of the Ombudsman’s investigation was involved with railways, including Puffing Billy, for decades – until 1991 in fact. This was despite having served a prison sentence for child abuse offending, despite having left another railway Society under a cloud of child sexual abuse allegations, despite ongoing and persistent rumours and reports, despite senior members discussing his ‘untoward behaviour’ in the 1970s, despite being confronted by board members and investigated by police in the 1980s, and despite the Vice President warning his own son to stay away from the that person.

The Ombudsman determined that the governance of Puffing Billy was tightly controlled by senior members of the Puffing Billy Preservation Society, and that the lack of appropriate oversight, failure to respond to reports or remove those under clouds of suspicion, left children exposed to child sexual abuse.

We know that perpetrators are opportunistic – this offender certainly was – assuming the role of roster officer, supervising overnight work parties and fire patrols, and leasing property where offending occurred. He became the archives officer and drafted a policy that could conceal complaints.

The failures don’t stop in 1991, when the offender was forced to resign from Puffing Billy. During the Ombudsman’s investigation, one of the Preservation Society board members made a repulsive suggestion that blame could be directed towards, and I quote, “the predatory child”[i].

The CEO appointed in 2002 – a long-standing board member and former president of the Preservation Society – was criticised for failing to provide full and accurate information to victims, the Royal Commission, government bodies, the media and the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman noted: “…for decades, young victims with valid complaints about sexual abuse were forced to seek justice for themselves, while steps were taken to protect the reputation of the alleged offenders and the railway”.

Young William Elms was banned from volunteering following his complaints, something that continues deeply to affect him.

I recognise that with over 1000 members at some points in time, and nearly 500 volunteers being actively involved in preserving and operating the railway, that there are many hardworking, honest and law-abiding members of the Puffing Billy Preservation Society.  The failures of the board, described as ‘monumental’ by the Ombudsman, were likely never known to them.  I’m sure it’s very painful for these members that their love for the railway, for their society, is tarnished by the scathing details exposed in the Ombudsman’s report.  

Those volunteers have raised funds and given countless hours over many decades to the Puffing Billy Railway.

A couple of those volunteers wrote to me imploring that this bill be delayed – citing a range of concerns about how volunteers will be supported in the future, about how assets will be managed, and a fear that the Society is being dismantled as punishment for the past.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse said that if the problems identified are to be adequately addressed, changes must be made to the culture, structure and governance practices of institutions. [ii]

This should be without resentment and with the best interests and safety of children at the centre.

The government has its own share of responsibility to accept , for the Emerald Tourist Railway was a government agency. While the government could nominate six representatives to the board, it only ever nominated three. This allowed four society members to control the board, a control they held very tightly from 1977 until 2002.

I do not accept suggestions that the Ombudsman’s report was not robust, or that there is some kind of obscure cabinet cover-up occurring, as has been suggested in a couple of the emails to me. 

I do accept some of the concerns raised about preserving the future for volunteers and ensuring a cooperative and safe operation of Puffing Billy. Volunteering is an important part of our society – many aspects of our society are heavily dependent on volunteers. I know the Society is trying to move forward and that there are issues relating to assets and contracts that are ongoing and need to be resolved.

The government made some positive commitments around this during consideration-in-detail in the Legislative Assembly and my office has had discussions with the Minister’s office on some of those concerns. I appreciate these conversations, and I hope the government will be true to the commitment they have given to protect the heritage significance of the railway and the significance of Puffing Billy volunteers.

The Preservation Society has undergone much change since 2018. It is now an independent entity and I hope has robust policies and oversight in place – as should all organisations. I hope that mechanisms such as Working With Children Checks and Child Safe Standards ensure that predators cannot manipulate opportunities that give them access to children, as they have in the past. Measures to ensure the safety of our children should continue to be a high priority of all organisations – be they government agencies, volunteer societies, sporting clubs and other associations. 

Governments should continue to explore measures that make it easier to identify potential offenders – whether that is considering Coach Check, implementing the public Sex Offenders’ Register, ensuring offenders cannot operate under pseudonyms or other ways keep a light on potential predatory behaviour.

Derryn Hinch has been well known for naming and shaming paedophiles. Our party continues to focus our policy work on child safety and the rights of victims over offenders.

For the interest of this chamber, the Ombudsman’s investigation noted a report on the Hinch program back in 1989 about one of the offenders – it largely concerned a job in the Department of Defence which was kept open while the offender was in prison. The report noted the sentencing remarks of the case, that this offender “used his position as a youth leader at Victoria’s historic Puffing Billy steam train to lure young boys into his web”.

The minutes of the society meeting after the Hinch report aired states the committee agreed that one of the executive would have a ‘quiet word’ with the other offender, yet in in keeping with the practice of secrecy nobody seemed to recall what this was about.  We can only join those dots, given the subject of that ‘quiet word’ was later convicted, nearly 25 years later, of 23 counts of sex offences against six children. 

I know that I have focused heavily on the Ombudsman’s report in my contribution today, but we always speak for victims first and recommendation two from the investigation was that the government review the structure and governance of Puffing Billy – as this bill does.

I hope the track ahead for Puffing Billy – for the new board and also for the Preservation Society and its many volunteers – is one that brings only joy to the children and adults who travel on this iconic attraction, or who volunteer or work for it, in the future.

[i] Investigation into child sex offender Robert Whitehead’s involvement with Puffing Billy and other railway bodies (point 274, p43)

[ii] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (p7)

Railway image: Public Transport Victoria (Heritage).

Radio presenter Derryn Hinch, Hinch Report.