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Monday, 27 November 2006
Page: 144

Mrs BRONWYN BISHOP (4:52 PM) —In rising to speak to this report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Services which I chaired, I do so with a great deal of pride in the report and the work that the members of the committee put into it. It was a bipartisan report and it was one that touched the hearts of all of our members in a very significant way.

During the course of taking the evidence, something was disclosed that upset us a good deal: we found that an anti-adoption attitude permeated all the bureaucracies involved in the question of adoption. Our terms of reference were to look at it in the context of overseas adoption, not domestic adoption, but there was obviously a flow between the two. When we made our recommendations, we focused obviously on our terms of reference but we have pointed out at every available opportunity that there needs to be an acceptance that adoption is a legitimate way of forming or adding to a family and that that will be in the interest of a child. But we found that the argument that everything must be done in the interests of the child could very often be distorted so that really and truly the outcome was not in the best interests of the child. We looked at the question of domestic adoptions. Last year there were only 65 domestic adoptions of Australian children and some 402 overseas adoptions, but a really horrendous figure is that there were 93 children in New South Wales alone, known to DOCS, who were killed by their biologically connected families. That is a horrendous statistic. Adoption must be considered a legitimate way of providing good families for Australian children.

But to the report: it is a report that relates to overseas adoptions and the difficulties encountered by parents who wish to form a family and to give a happy family and lasting life to the child that they adopt from a country where there are, in accordance with the Hague convention, standards. The countries from which we adopt may not all have been Hague ratifying countries, but there is evidence that shows these are truly children who need love and care within an Australian family.

We were delighted that, first of all, we brought down the report in the last week of the sittings before last Christmas, before we rose, and that by February the Attorney-General had established an interdepartmental committee to discuss the response to our report. We were delighted that we received the response within a really reasonable time. We think it was timely in that we received the response within about nine months of the government considering it. A press release was put out to say that our report was truly the blueprint for reform in this area.

I think the sorts of things that we recommended and that have been accepted are important to itemise. Firstly, we made 27 recommendations. The government accepted 14 outright, three in part and seven in principle, which left three that were not accepted. Of the ones that were accepted, very important were those relating to the need to renegotiate the federal-state agreement. That is the agreement that acknowledges that state governments have the jurisdiction for conferring of adoption status but that the Commonwealth government has the responsibility for making adopted children citizens. In those two areas there is a need to negotiate how we accomplish the adoption of a child who becomes a citizen. We recommended that the federal government must take a far more hands-on approach—it has been very hands-off—and it must take over the responsibility for the negotiation between Australia and other countries for adoption agreements.

In that context of renegotiation, we wanted certain things to occur. We wanted to be able to see how the expedition of an application could occur. We wanted all children to get a birth certificate. For instance, for a child from China, because the adoption is completed in China, all the child really has when it goes to school is a certificate of abandonment. We did not think that was fair on the family or the child. We noted that the Northern Territory had found a way to get a birth certificate and we did not think it was beyond the wit of man for the other states and territories to do so also.

We also wanted much more consultation between government central agencies and those people who want to be parents. We felt that it would be an important thing for state governments to train non-government organisations to be helpful in the whole process of adoption. We wanted DFAT to develop formal protocols to assist people in their adoption when perhaps the file might be a bit slow in going through the country from which the adoption is to take place. There was plenty of evidence of the assistance that DFAT would give, but we wanted to have more formalised protocols. We also thought it was very important that there be money provided by the Commonwealth for a peak body, a non-government organisation involved in the area of adoption, to be formed by the federal government and funded by it so that there really is an official support group.

We thought it was very, very important that there be a harmonisation of the criteria that the different states and territories use for assessing potential parents for suitability, and this is from the Australian side, leaving aside the requirements of the country from which the child to be adopted comes. Those countries put their own limitations on the sorts of people that they may permit to be adopting parents. Some countries overseas may say that they will not allow their children to be adopted by single parents, for instance, but there is a need for harmonisation at the Australian level.

We made the point very strongly that we did not want harmonisation to be a uniform code because we suspected that that might result in them all being unified at the lowest common denominator. We were very keen to see, where some states and territories are doing it better than others, that in fact the better standard should prevail and not be dumbed down simply for the sake of uniform standards. Hence we used that term.

It was also enormously pleasing that, for the first time, in my knowledge, we received a response to our report from the New South Wales government, which had given evidence before us, and the ACT government, which had given evidence before us. All the states and territories except Queensland gave evidence before us. Queensland gave us a written submission but refused to allow any officials or ministers to appear before the committee, which we found very disappointing. Queensland was the jurisdiction that had closed down all opportunity for people to apply to become adopting parents.

But something else important happened. Not only did we get an excellent response from the federal government and responses from the New South Wales and ACT governments but also I was invited to attend, on Thursday last week, a meeting here in Canberra of the intercountry adoption central authorities. I took part in that meeting, which was chaired by the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department but had delegates from all state and territory governments, to discuss how those people who will be charged with the responsibility of implementing our recommendations will implement them and how we as a committee hoped they would be implemented. For me to be able to take part in that discussion with those members of the bureaucracy was heartening indeed. I do not know that it has ever occurred before and I think it was a tremendous breakthrough. That unseen work of the committee system, which in a sense is the essence of parliamentary workings, has not only had a response in the chamber, as it is being discussed now, but also I as chairman was able to take the expressions of the committee as a whole to that meeting on how those recommendations, accepted by government, would be implemented. That was really of tremendous benefit to adopting parents, who are ultimately going to be the beneficiaries of our suggested reforms.

I also would like to make the point that attitudes and cultures come from the top down. In the course of our inquiry we came across people who had newly come into the field—who were coming in with new thinking and new attitudes. That is very encouraging. There are still people working in the field who say that there is no such thing as an anti-adoption culture, that there is nothing wrong with the way they do business and that everything is just fine. I would make the point to those people that, if they would talk to their colleagues who have new thinking and new attitudes—permeating right down to the first encounter that would-be adopting parents have with a central agency—I think it would be very beneficial for all concerned.

Unless there is recognition that there is a problem with an anti-adoption culture, it will never be fixed. Some of it clearly stems from the attitude that came about after the stolen generation report was tabled, but there are lives being put at risk by having a biology-first policy. It is interesting that New South Wales has just got through its parliament legislation which will allow the permanent placement of children without biological-parent consent. That is a real breakthrough because, if you are truly interested in the welfare of the child, the first thing you are going to be interested in is making sure it stays alive.

As I said, in New South Wales, there were 93 deaths last year, and there were deaths in other states as well. Compare that with the fact that there were only 65 adoptions in the entire country domestically but over 400 from overseas—caring parents who want to form a family, which is a legitimate purpose, and do so in the interests of the child. I think a cultural change needs to take place.

The words that we placed on the back of our adoption report came from a young Ethiopian girl of 14 who, with the permission of her adopted father, gave evidence to our committee. She said if she had stayed in Ethiopia as a young woman her life expectancy would be 38, but that here in Australia she had the opportunity to have a wonderful life. To paraphrase her, I think she said that she could be a rock and roll star, she could be a model or she could be a cook: she could be anything she wanted because opportunity was here for her. She brought great joy to the family who had adopted her. Here was an enormously happy child with the prospect of a long and healthy life in front of her.

We all felt that the report we brought down was the right way for Australia to move. We are delighted with the government’s response. We are pleased with having the opportunity of speaking with the bureaucracy about the way in which it can be implemented because, ultimately, the outcome will be for a beautiful family with individuals having opportunities they otherwise would be denied.

Debate (on motion by Mr McMullan) adjourned.