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Thursday, 1 March 2012
Page: 1329

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (09:31): The Australian Greens consider that the welfare and the best interests of children should be front and centre in government decision making .We know that failure to address issues of disadvantage in the early years has lasting consequences for adulthood and people's entire lifespan. Senator Hanson-Young's Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010 recognises the need for Australia to catch up with other nations around the world and implement a properly resourced commis­sioner for children and young people within the structure of the Australian Human Rights Commission to oversee the rights of young Australians with the powers to ensure recognition of their needs and views.

It is logical that the commissioner be located alongside the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, age, disability, race and sex commissioners. The childrens commissioner will be able to utilise the pre-existing structures but will also be effectively independent from government. The commis­sioner would tackle problems such as child abuse, neglect, poor education, poverty, youth homelessness and social disadvan­tage—all issues we all agree need to be addressed. A commissioner would also provide a voice for young people, means of communication with government and a simple avenue for complaints of ill treatment.

Most importantly, this bill would assist Australia in meeting its international obligations—in particular, its obligations under the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child. Australia has for more than 20 years been party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This document, which Australia signed and ratified, was agreed to by world leaders in 1989 in an attempt to ensure every child and young person has the best opportunities in life regardless of their ethnicity or gender. Despite Australia's agreement to abide by the convention, the UN have made repeated calls—in 2002 and 2003—for us to establish a national children's commissioner. But, to date, no action has been taken.

While all of us here can agree that the welfare of children should be paramount when making decisions affecting their wellbeing, the fact that Australia still has no independent statutory body dedicated to children's rights and development is very concerning, particularly given that this is not a new proposal. The idea of a common­wealth commissioner has been on the agenda at a community and parliamentary level for years because there is a pressing need for an independent commission to ensure that children and young people are not neglected during government decision making. Whether it is children in child care, state care, the education system, the juvenile justice system or homeless shelters in big cities, small towns or outback and remote communities, all young people deserve to have someone who is there to look after their best interests.

While the government's national framework for protecting Australia's children will play an important role in a national conversation about how best to advance the rights and interests of children, it can be no substitute for an independent commissioner appropriately resourced to have regard for these issues at a national level. While this framework will play an important role in a national conversation about how best to address the rights and interests of children, the Greens, along with many key stakeholders—including UNICEF, Save the Children, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition—argue that it can be no substitute for an independent commissioner appropriately resourced to have regard for these issues at a national level.

A commonwealth commissioner would perform the following functions: stand up for children and young people at a national level by monitoring the development and application of laws affecting children and young people; coordinate relevant policies, programs and funding; and proactively engage children and young people in decisions which affect them. It would also assist Australia in meeting our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including: article 2 on nondiscrimination in the applicability of children's rights; article 4 on the primacy of the consideration of a child's best interests; article 6(1) on a child's right to survival and development; and article 12 on a child's right to participation in decision making. I am sure every person in this chamber would agree to all of those things.

Last year UNICEF launched the 2011 child's rights non-governmental organisation report on Australia's progress on implemen­ting the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This report found, among other things, that a national children's commissioner is essential because improving outcomes for children involves actions across many areas of public policy. In particular, the report found that three groups of children in Australia have been routinely disadvantaged by the failure of government to involve them in decision making. These groups will come as no surprise to people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have mortality rates three times their non-Aboriginal peers. The number of children in out-of-home care has increased by 51.5 per cent since 2005, yet we collect no data to tell us why these children are being placed in care to begin with. And there are more than 700 children who continue to be held in some form of immigration detention, despite it being a breach of the UN's children's convention. The examples articulated in the report further highlight the unacceptable outcomes for children in Australia.

The amendments circulated today by Senator Hanson-Young enhance her children's commissioner bill in a number of ways. The amendments were developed in consultation with a broad coalition of children's and young people's non-govern­ment organisations. They take into account the findings of the 2010 inquiry into this bill. We know there are children in Australia who suffer from disadvantage. We know, for example, as articulated in the report by UNICEF, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are the most disadvantaged in this country. Just last week the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs heard yet again, when it was in the Northern Territory holding hearings into the stronger futures legislation, the details of the disadvantage that Aboriginal children face. For example, 48 per cent of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory need some form of special assistance in the classroom and 60 per cent in prescribed communities need some form of assistance in the classroom. Those are just two examples of the massive disadvantage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children face.

Let us look at homelessness. Tonight approximately 105,000 people will be homeless across the country, of whom 12 per cent, or 12,133 people, will be children under the age of 12. Among the homeless will be 7,483 families with children. Another 21 per cent, or 21,940 people, will be children and young people aged between 12 and 18. Most of them are homeless as well as estranged from their families. One in every 39 Australian children under five accessed homeless assistance service last year. Nearly 30 per cent of the children accessing homeless assistance services are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children. Every day two out of every three children who request immediate accommodation are turned away from homeless services. Aboriginal peoples generally are significantly more likely to experience homelessness than non-Aboriginal Australians. Aboriginal Aust­ralians are also significantly more likely to live in overcrowded housing. We have discussed this issue in this chamber on numerous occasions. Overcrowding is identified as a major factor affecting Aboriginal people's physical and mental health as are the social and schooling disadvantages faced by Aboriginal children, which are of course intimately linked to overcrowding. Their inability to access education can also be directly related to overcrowding.

UNICEF has said that Aboriginal children are overrepresented in nearly every measure relating to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Aboriginal children account for almost half of all homeless people in Australia under the age of 18. They have much higher rates of youth suicide—just recently we heard of more tragic circumstances of youth suicide. It is a problem that urgently needs to be addressed. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have comparatively little access to education and are overrepresented in their experience of poor access to health services and overall inadequate standards of living. We already know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are far overrepresented in the justice system. The detention rate for Aboriginal juveniles is 397 per 100,000, which is 28 times the rate for non-Aboriginal juveniles of 14 per 100,000.

Aboriginal juveniles are overrepresented in community and detention based supervision. In 2007 Aboriginal juveniles accounted for 59 per cent of the total juvenile detention population. Aboriginal children make up 53 per cent of all juveniles in detention and 39 per cent in community supervision—bear in mind that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up three per cent of Australia's population. Aboriginal juveniles in detention are younger on average than their non-Aboriginal counterparts: 22 per cent of Aboriginal juveniles in detention were aged 14 years or less, compared to 14 per cent of non-Aboriginal juveniles. There is a strong link between the disproportionate rates of juvenile detention and the disproportionate rates of adult imprisonment. Although Aboriginal Australians make up only three per cent of our population, 25 per cent of prisoners in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Prison census data shows that between 2000 and 2010 the number of Aboriginal men and women in custody increased sharply: Aboriginal men by 55 per cent and Aboriginal women by 47 per cent. In the Northern Territory 29.5 per cent of Aboriginal children report having completed year 8 or below, 25.8 per cent of year 5 students achieve at or above the national minimum for reading and Aboriginal children are underrepresented in early childhood education and care services. They comprise 41.4 per cent of the population but represent only 9.8 per cent of children who attend early childhood services.

Children living in poverty also need support from a children's commissioner. The number of people estimated to be living in poverty is over 2.2 million; approximately 12 per cent of children in Australia live in poverty. In 2007-08, it is estimated, there were over half a million low-income households with children aged between zero and 12 years receiving an average equivalent disposable income of $412 a week—that is $278 less per week than middle income households with children of the same age. We know that children with a disability also need support; 12 per cent of people with a disability are children. UNICEF said:

Whilst Australia’s ratification of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, signing of a National Disability Agreement and subsequent National Disability Strategy were commendable, there are concerns over the scarcity of data on children with disabilities. There is also concern over the existing care and support resources available for children with disabilities and their families. Children with a disability miss out on crucial and early intervention services, support to assist with life transitions and support to prevent family or career crisis and breakdown.

We know of the alarming mental health statistics. These are particularly alarming for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, as I mentioned before, with higher rates of suicide and other poor mental health outcomes.

While we have seen boosts for funding for mental health in Australia and I have been on the record congratulating the government for those boosts, we still are below other Western countries. For children and young people who are seeking help, many do not receive timely access to appropriate services. Particular groups are at higher risk of poor mental health outcomes, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children; children from refugee and migrant backgrounds; same-sex attached, gender questioning or gender diverse young people; young carers; children with disability; and children in rural, regional and remote areas. Inability to access suicide intervention and prevention programs continues to be a problem for remote communities and the system employed to monitor suicide youths and youths at risk across central and western Australia continues to be inadequate.

Nationally the number of children in out-of-home care has risen each year from 2000 to 2010. There were 35,895 children in out-of-home care on 30 June 2010. That is an awful lot of children. At June 2010 there were 11,468 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care. The national rate of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care was almost 10 times the rate for other children. Almost one-third of children in out-of-home care were aged between 10 and 14 years, a further 30 per cent were aged five to nine years, 25 per cent were aged less than five years and 15 per cent were aged 15 to 17 years. Most children who were removed from their homes were placed in home-based services, 94 per cent. Of these children in home-based care 49.1 per cent were in foster care, 48.5 per cent were in relative or kinship care and 2.2 per cent were in some other type of home-based care. A small proportion of children, around five per cent, removed from their home were placed in residential care where staff were paid to care for them. The number of children in out-of-home Australia has increased by 51.5 per cent since 2005, with Aboriginal children almost 10 times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care. We have a lot of work to do in this country.

Inadequacies in the care system include inappropriate placements of children; a shortage of care options; poorly supported home-based carers; mental health issues exacerbated by and in fact caused by care; poorer outcomes for young children in care than for the general population in terms of health, education, wellbeing and develop­ment; abuse and neglect of children in care; Aboriginal children placed outside their communities; and inadequate preparation for young people leaving care for independent living. These are not issues that happened decades ago, these are statistics from now. These children need our support. They need a national commissioner. It has been recommended and supported across-the-board. It is what our children deserve. I commend Senator Hanson-Young for bringing on this bill and I urge the Senate to support this vitally important measure that will significantly add to helping and supporting the children of our nation.