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Wednesday, 13 March 2002
Page: 656

Senator ALLISON (2:21 PM) —My question is to the minister representing the minister for schools. Can the minister explain why there is still no national approach to protecting children from physical and sexual abuse in schools?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Is there a minister for schools? Senator Alston, are you going to take questions on education?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —In the absence of any other volunteers, I suppose I will, Madam Deputy President.

Senator ALSTON —I remember the days in the East End of London, teaching on a supply basis, so my qualifications are impeccable. I know that you did a bit of teaching on the side, Senator Ray, in between taxi rides.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Address the chair, please, Senator Alston, and we will have fewer interjections. Senator Ray, there is no need to reminisce with Senator Alston.

Senator ALSTON —I have to say, after that very big introduction, the answer is probably not of the same magnitude. I understand that the Democrats have foreshadowed an amendment to legislation that is coming up shortly to put in place arrangements for government and non-government schools to have certain mandatory arrangements in place. Certainly the government is strongly supportive of the principle of schools as safe learning environments—a principle which was set out in the National Goals for Schooling in the 21st Century and which all government and non-government authorities are committed to.

However, we are conscious of previous strong criticisms from state governments and the non-government sector, and amendments to Commonwealth legislation with far-ranging implications for those authorities which at least have constitutional responsibility for schools are matters that I think we would want to tread lightly on in the first instance. It is the intention of the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Nelson, to write to state ministers and representatives of the National Catholic Education Commission and the National Council of Independent Schools to further explore the matter. I think at this stage we are more interested in whether the states themselves can come up with a solution rather than rushing in to impose a nationally mandated approach.

Senator ALLISON —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer. Is the minister aware that each state has different laws with regard to mandatory reporting of abuse by teachers and principals? In fact, Western Australia has no such requirement and Queensland is not much better. Is he aware that many schools in the private sector have no established protocols or processes in place for dealing with child abuse? Is it not the case that MCEETYA's process to expose paedophiles in schools has achieved nothing since it was raised over five years ago? Is it not time, Minister, that the federal government had a proactive strategy on this issue?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —We do have a strategy on the issue, and that is to try to ensure that the states do harmonise to the greatest extent possible to explore areas where there might be particular shortcomings. If Western Australia does not have any approach at all, clearly that is a glaring deficiency which pressure from the federal minister might assist in resolving. But, at this stage, I think it is premature to argue that the states are not interested in the subject, that somehow they are—

Senator Stott Despoja —The federal government is not interested.

Senator ALSTON —The mere fact that you have differences between approaches does not tell me that there is, ipso facto, a need for Commonwealth intervention. There may well be local factors that justify that. There may be different institutional structures that allow for that. By writing to those state authorities, I think Dr Nelson will be in a much better position to judge whether there is a need for further Commonwealth action.