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Thursday, 18 August 2005
Page: 148

Senator BARTLETT (7:39 PM) —I want to speak to the Community Affairs References Committee report Protecting vulnerable children: a national challenge. The Democrats representative on this committee is my colleague Senator Andrew Murray from Western Australia. Occasionally, we get confused with each other because of our common first name and our common philosophical predisposition to many issues. In this case, Senator Murray has to be congratulated on playing such a driving role not just in this report but in other Senate committee reports into the way children, particularly children in institutions, have been mistreated in the past. It does not just look backwards; it looks at the present and the future.

I want to draw attention to the report and the need for a prompt government response to it. The report was brought down in March of this year. That is already closing on six months ago. That probably does not seem very long ago in government time but it is quite a long time when you are dealing with important and crucial issues that are affecting children and others across the country as we speak.

I would particularly like to emphasise that there is a need for action here at state level as well. That is detailed in the recommendations of the report. State governments have failed children in many ways in the past and continue to do so. But it is broader than that: it is society as a whole. Firstly, there is a lack of seriousness about many issues dealing with the abuse and neglect of children and a lack of appropriate laws, appropriate processes and appropriate resourcing.

However, it really comes down to a lack of attention to understanding. Some of the recommendations in this report calling for courses of study that focus on child protection and related issues and increasing awareness about child protection issues really need urgent consideration. There is still a lack of knowledge, even after a reasonable degree of attention in recent years to the problems and failings of the past. There is still a lack of knowledge and expertise in some of the areas to do with this.

This is a unanimous report. That gives it greater weight. I would like to particularly point to recommendation 9, which talks about the national plan for foster care, young people and their carers, and the need for that to be extended to include training, uniform data collection and support—and ways of improving carer support in particular. That includes national standards for reimbursement of costs to cover the real costs of caring and an examination of ways of improving foster carer retention.

One issue that was raised by Senator Murray—or it might have been another senator—in Senate question time was the need to make absolutely sure that, whatever the other pros and cons of the proposed changes in the welfare area that the government has planned—and I must say I have serious concerns about them—carers in particular do not get caught up in those changes. There is a real risk there. Data released by ACOSS in recent times shows that we must ensure that carers, particularly those caring for children, disabled children or children with particular special needs, do not get caught up inadvertently—or deliberately, for that matter—in the welfare changes that are coming forward. These are people who are already struggling enormously and it is widely accepted—as it is in this report—that they could do with both more financial support and wider social support.

The last thing we want is to put at risk some of their already inadequate income support or to put another extra burden, expectation and responsibility on them of another obligation they are meant to meet. There is no doubt—and I have said this before—that if there is one group in the community that I believe we really should be making sure do get extra assistance, it is carers. That includes those who are caring for children, parents, spouses and others in the home and those who are caring for others in the community.

It also includes foster carers, who, frankly, save the taxpayer a fortune. If people just gave up on that task and said: ‘I’ve had enough; I can’t do it anymore. It is up to the community,’ then we would really know how expensive it is. I acknowledge that providing more financial support to carers does cost more money and there are limits in that area; nonetheless, the cost would be tenfold—and that is probably a conservative estimate—if all of those carers just stepped away and left it to the broader community and the taxpayer to manage that issue.

There is also a recommendation here—and I again remind the government and the Senate that it was a unanimous recommendation—that the Commonwealth establish a national commissioner for children and young people to drive a national reform agenda for child protection. This is very important. One of the reasons why I think we have failed as a community and at the state level—and this is not blaming any particular government, party, ministry or whatever—is that this has not had that national drive behind it. We are seeing Mr Howard, somewhat controversially, taking greater control nationally of some key areas. Philosophically, I do not necessarily disagree with that—depending on what is actually being done with that control—but what we need is leadership as well. It is not just a matter of grabbing legislative power and legislative control; it is a matter of providing that national drive behind something. It does not mean coming in with a predetermined view and saying, ‘Here’s what we’re doing; everybody has got to wear it.’ In fact, it means the opposite of that almost. It is just setting up the mechanisms and the priority at a national level to really pull things along to ensure the solutions, the expertise and the experiences that are there at the community level are tapped into in a cohesive and coordinated way.

One of the reasons reports like this are so valuable and informative is not that the senators who have been involved with them are particularly brilliant, although I am sure they are all highly capable; it is that the mechanism draws on the expertise, knowledge and experiences of professionals in the field and often, more importantly, the expertise of individuals who have experienced things first-hand and who know, to their own cost, what can go wrong. They often have a much better idea than anyone else about what needs to be done to fix things. We need to do better in terms of tapping into those experiences.

My own state of Queensland was the first state in Australia to establish a commissioner for children and young people, and it is one of the most empowered children’s commissions in the world. It has a wide range of powers and functions to promote and protect the rights of young Queenslanders under the age of 18, and I think there have been some clear benefits from that. I should take the opportunity, though, to note that there is an anomaly in this area in Queensland. Following recent legislation in Victoria, Queensland is now the only state in Australia that places 17-year-old children in adult prisons. So 17-year-old juveniles who cannot legally drink alcohol, sign contracts, get married without their parents’ permission or vote, should they be found guilty of a crime and subsequently sentenced to incarceration, for the purposes of the Queensland criminal justice system are treated as adults and sent to adult prisons. That is completely at odds with the child protection system, and this report points to the sort of damage that can be done to children in institutional or out-of-home care. I am not sure that you would call being in prison a form of institutional care, but these developments show that, while many people might not think of 17-year-olds as children, there are clearly recognitions of that within our system. As I say, in terms of their criminal justice system, all states except Queensland recognise that 17-year-olds are juveniles and should not be put in adult prisons.

There is a review under way of this in Queensland but it has yet to produce results. It should be emphasised that this is actually contrary to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines ‘children’ as those aged under 18 and says that children should not be imprisoned with adults. The Queensland government has yet to act on that, despite it being a commitment from quite some time ago. It can be done quite quickly. It does not even need a legislative change, as I understand it; it only needs a regulatory change. With our current compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child being examined—it is under its regular review at the moment—this is the perfect opportunity for Queensland to address that anomaly and to ensure that we join with the rest of the country in not locking up children with adults. That is just one example of the sorts of things that can be done. I urge the government to address this report. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.