Cornwall, Dr J.R.


I rise to support the motion presented by the Premier and supported by the Leader of the Opposition in recognition of Dr John Cornwall. His contribution as a minister in difficult portfolios should not go unnoticed, the details of which have been outlined by the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition. However, I think it is fair to say that one of the most difficult areas of public life, which I am sure the Minister for Child Protection recognises, is to deal with the welfare of the community and those who are most vulnerable, in particular in relation to child protection.

Women were a large area of public debate outside the public and environmental health that he advanced, but one of them was to deal with those who were ravaged by and abused in household circumstances and needed respite—immediate, urgent respite. I am sure that if the Hon. Stephanie Key were here she would, having herself pioneered significant work in relation to women's shelters, remember those times and the significance of the development of a network of centres around South Australia and, in particular, metropolitan Adelaide during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The problem was, and I think it should be acknowledged, that ultimately Dr Cornwall did fall foul in respect of his public statements and treatment of Dawn Rowan and the Christies Beach centre. All of that is on the record in relation to what happened, and the sad thing about the history of those who make a contribution to this parliament, particularly in difficult portfolios, is that probably that is one of the matters that he will always be remembered by, not the least of which are those statements, which ultimately resulted in litigation and which culminated in a very substantial cost of over $500,000 to the taxpayers of South Australia as a result of a successful defamation action against Dr Cornwall.

It was very fresh in my mind when I came into this parliament in 2002. In fact, I asked a couple of questions about the liability in respect of that to then attorney-general Atkinson. They have still got a sticker on them because I am still waiting for an answer, actually, but nevertheless they will go in that very thick folder from times of the previous administration.

However, one matter I want to recognise in Dr Cornwall's work was in relation to child protection during the 1980s and what became an explosion of allegations and exposure of child sexual abuse. We were the first state in Australia to do that, and that was partly under his watch. He was concerned to ensure that it be identified, that it be disclosed, that it be reported and that it be acted upon, and he had a very efficient, focused department in relation to this area.

It is fair to say that there was a lot of disquiet about that controversial issue, too, because not only was it new but people did not know how to identify it, they were not quite sure how children should be interviewed, they were concerned about leading questions and they were concerned about whether the police should be doing it or other parties. I think he did quite a lot to try to ensure that, in that very embryonic stage of trying to deal with these matters, the legal profession and others actually came together to try to work it out.

There was one occasion when Dr Cornwall completely smashed me out of the water, and I am happy to confess it because I think he deserves it. There was a time when we had the Community Welfare Act, and the children's court took precedence as a state court over determinations made by federal courts, in particular, the Family Court. A new case was instituted. There was a view, on my part, that Dr Cornwall, as a guardian of children, was being used to subvert the course of the federal jurisdiction and that he should be punished for contempt.

I issued contempt proceedings against him. He did not turn up. The judge said, 'What do you want to do now, Mrs Chapman?' I said, 'I want a warrant issued for his arrest.' I think that, having been newly appointed to the bench, he was not sure that it was a good career move to acquiesce to that. He said, 'I'm going to grant a short adjournment.' I said, 'You can issue the warrant. You can leave it on the bench, and, when he comes back from his overseas trip, it can be issued.' I was completely and wholly unsuccessful on this, so it has not been a useful precedent to use against other ministers, but it did bring his attention to this matter to the table.

Thereafter, we were able to sit down with his legal representatives and negotiate a sensible way forward on how we would deal with the conflicts between parents and their legal guardians, which now of course remains not with the minister but with the chief executive. To that end, I give him credit for the instructions that he clearly gave to try to help resolve these matters because he was in the middle of a monumental period of law reform in South Australia. It was difficult for everyone concerned, including Dr Cornwall.

Whilst he may not be remembered for his greatest achievements, which are slightly stained by the issue in relation to Dawn Rowan, he paid the price. Taxpayers paid the bill, but he paid the price. He ought to be recognised for the many other years during which he made a contribution to law reform and, in particular, public health. Vale.