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Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010
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Pratt, Sen Louise
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- Start of Business
- Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010
- Environment Protection (Beverage Container Deposit and Recovery Scheme) Bill 2010
- Tax Laws Amendment (2011 Measures No. 9) Bill 2011
- National Health Amendment (Fifth Community Pharmacy Agreement Initiatives) Bill 2012
- Third Reading
- Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2011
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE
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(Polley, Sen Helen, Conroy, Sen Stephen)
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Solar Hot Water Industry
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- Gillard Government
- QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE: ADDITIONAL ANSWERS
- QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE: TAKE NOTE OF ANSWERS
- Arbib, Sen Mark
- Evans, Sen Christopher
- Abetz, Sen Eric
- Xenophon, Sen Nick
- Brown, Sen Bob
- Brown, Sen Carol
- Brandis, Sen George
- Hanson-Young, Sen Sarah
- Lundy, Sen Kate
- Fifield, Sen Mitch
- Cormann, Sen Mathias
- Bernardi, Sen Cory
- Williams, Sen John
- Fierravanti-Wells, Sen Concetta
- Cash, Sen Michaelia
- Polley, Sen Helen
- The PRESIDENT
- Arbib, Sen Mark
- Australian Meat and Live-Stock Industry Act 1997: Livestock Mortalities During Exports by Sea
- Australia Post
- Australian Customs and Border Protection Service
- Commonwealth Grants Commission
- Australian Landcare Council
- AUDITOR-GENERAL'S REPORTS
Thursday, 1 March 2012
Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (10:16): This morning I rise to speak on the Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010. Legislative debates such as this are, as other speakers have highlighted, valuable. I, like the government, welcome discussion about measures that advance and promote the welfare and rights of children in this nation. The rights of children in this nation should be paramount. We want children to grow up nourished and supported in the sorts of loving and caring environments we know too many children this nation go without. We also know that over recent years the reported levels of child neglect and abuse in Australia have, sadly, increased at an alarming rate. This is an issue of national concern, and statutory child protection systems are struggling under the load.
Protecting children is the responsibility of everyone in this nation. Communities, governments and business all have a role to play. I do not believe that the bill before us today presents a panacean solution to the problems associated with the protection of children. I listened to Senator Siewert's very compelling evidence about the plight of so many children in this nation. That evidence is a good reason to support the establishment of a national children's commissioner once we get the policy settings right, but its establishment would by no means be a panacea for the plight of the children concerned, and I know that Senator Siewert would acknowledge that.
What we need in this nation is a shared agenda for change—national leadership and a common agenda and specific goals—so I am particularly pleased that all Australian governments have endorsed the first National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children. This framework goes through to 2020. It commits to action and is a long-term national approach to protecting Australia's children. Children in this nation confront many profound issues, but I think that those issues alone are not an adequate argument for the establishment of a national children's commissioner in the form specified in this bill. I agree with the finding of Senator Crossin and the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs that there are, sadly, too many questions remaining about this bill; but I do think that the bill makes a valuable contribution to the debate about the need for a national children's commissioner.
Addressing the kinds of issues raised by Senator Siewert require cooperation between state and territory governments and a great deal of reform and policy commitment by a wide variety of agencies, but I am pleased to say that these issues are all on the agenda within the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children. We can only do the right thing by the children concerned if we have workable and viable institutions that are all on the same page—institutions that make sense. While this bill has many commendable attributes, it does not in my view adequately address a number of concerns. Some of these concerns were shared by those who made submissions to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs inquiry into the bill. There were many proponents of the bill who, in addition to supporting the bill, put forward suggestions and amendments. Many of them were contradictory; many of them were also worthwhile; but there were many layers to these contributions that needed to be sorted through.
There is indeed a great deal of support for the establishment of a national children's commissioner. I certainly support it, and Western Australia has a children's commissioner, but I do not believe that this bill is yet the right vehicle for the establishment of the position. The bill has merit, but I do not believe that it should proceed at this stage. We need to take the time to work through the very important issues involved with the establishment of a national children's commissioner. The Senate inquiry drew out many of the issues about the establishment of the position. These ranged from support, in particular support to assist Australia in meeting its international obligations, to very specific proposals to amend the functions and powers of this proposed bill.
The government itself is currently deliberating on the role of a national children's commissioner under the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children. I am awaiting the outcome of those deliberations. It is a long-standing commitment of the Australian Labor Party to appoint a national children's commissioner, so I am pleased that the government is giving it close consideration and looking at the kinds of models that would be appropriate. Indeed, an exploration of the potential for a national children's commissioner was part of the 2009 Framework for Protecting Australia's Children, and, in 2011, the Attorney-General and the minister for foreign affairs announced that Australia's response to the United Nations Human Rights Council's universal periodic review of Australia included our consideration of the appointment of a national children's commissioner. So, in my mind, the things we need to concentrate on are, yes, really sorting through what a national children's commissioner could and should look like, but at the same time as working that through, acknowledging the substantial issues that are within the national framework. The national framework represents an unprecedented level of cooperation between states and territories when it comes to the welfare of children. It is about placing children's interests firmly at the centre of everything we do. It is not an institution out at the side. Reducing child abuse and neglect is not an easy task and it will take time.
The government has asked relevant departments to provide advice on possible models in order to develop a proposal that is acceptable to stakeholders. I would agree in particular that a children's commissioner at a Commonwealth level must not duplicate states' and territories' work. The establishment of a federal children's commissioner should not involve interfering in state responsibilities particularly the work of states and territories children's commissioners and guardians. However, I believe that through the national framework these institutions will have the chance to collaborate and work together, but they do need to have distinct roles. So I think the Senate committee has made a valuable contribution through consultation with stakeholders in drawing out many of their views. It is important that we are able to work through these issues as a government in order to get the policy settings right.
We know, for example, that children's commissioners and guardians are playing a very important role at state levels. My own home state of WA has a Children's Commissioner and it is notable that, while WA would welcome a Commonwealth commissioner in particular, the role that such a commissioner would play in things like immigration detention or children under the guardianship of the Commonwealth Minister for Immigration needs to be considered carefully. Western Australia does not view that such a commissioner should be there to give oversight to the children in Western Australia. Clearly, there will be issues here that need to be resolved. We cannot just go storming into each other's territory without creating goodwill and workable solutions. Ultimately, any national children's commissioner is going to have to work with the state children's commissioners so they have to have a workable relationship in terms of their powers and responsibilities. We really need to be able to carefully define where that overlap will exist and what kind of oversight a national children's commissioner would have for children at a state and territory level.
It is notable, for example, that the 2007 bill introduced a Children's Commissioner for the Northern Territory. If the Northern Territory has a Children's Commissioner—and I know that the Commonwealth has a special relationship with the Northern Territory because they do not have self-government—perhaps there might be a more extended role with its own roles and responsibilities as well.
Going back to the state of WA, they are of the view that many of the functions outlined in clause 9 are more appropriately carried out by state children's commissioners or similar bodies in respect of state responsibilities. I know that the Commonwealth view is that we do not want to overlap state responsibilities too much. My own personal view is that, clearly, we would need to have some oversight otherwise there might not be much point. But we have not actually worked through what those issues would actually look like. That kind of detailed work needs to go through the system to make sure that we have workable institutions.
The state of Western Australia also noted that the bill does not have a provision with regard to consultation, and I am unclear whether those issues have been picked up in amendments. It has also noted that the commission's functions needed to be limited to matters within Commonwealth jurisdiction unless otherwise invited or agreed by the states and territories. So again, we have a signal saying: how are states and territories going to work between themselves to work out who is going to look into the different issues? I think that within the context of the national framework, which is something that has been signed off by all states and territories, we will actually have the foundation for a good working relationship to sort through these issues, but we must allow those arrangements to work. We cannot just bowl in with an important institutional reform like this without working through the substantial issues.
The state of Western Australia certainly acknowledged that a national commissioner could play an important role advocating for and supporting children in this nation. But they also argued that given the existing mechanisms in place at the state, federal, and territory levels, children's commissioners should not have a role in relation to individual children or in the day-to-day care of children. Work needs to be done to ensure that the children's commissioner role is established in a way that provides the broadest possible authority to represent and advocate for the issues affecting children. A children's commissioner should not duplicate the advisory, monitoring, reporting and advocacy role performed by existing Commonwealth Human Rights Commissioners. Consideration of the role and model of the children's commissioner will continue and therefore, in my view, this bill in its current form cannot be supported.
The government has committed to significant reforms to protect children and I am confident of the outcome. My home state of WA devotes considerable resources to ensuring children are able to reach their full potential. It is important that we invest in the nation's children so that they can indeed blossom and grow into wonderful human beings and that they are able to access their rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child across all areas of government including family law, education and early childhood, youth health policies and programs and child protection and welfare. This government, I am pleased to say, is working to improve the wellbeing, rights and safety of Australia's children. It is about a well-integrated national approach to protect Australia's children. It is about a shared agenda for change with national leadership and common goals for the nation's children, because this government knows that recognising the safety and wellbeing of children is the responsibility of all levels of government. It is certainly the responsibility of the Australian government, but it is something that we have sought to put into place and support through the national framework, working closely with the states and territories.
We know that these challenges are being faced across the nation. State and territory governments currently spend in excess of $2 billion annually on child protection alone. That is a massive amount of money and it is increasing at an annual rate of about 12 per cent. State and territory governments are also currently implementing reforms to their statutory child protection systems, all things that are focused on early intervention. But for these reforms to be truly effective they need to be coordinated with the Australian government. Programs, policies and payments are all important things that are part of the early intervention response, all the kinds of changes that will support this nation's children.
This bill sadly is not a panacea to the kinds of issues that our children in this nation face. What we do need is a national framework that delivers a more integrated response but does not change the responsibilities of governments. States and territories retain statutory responsibility for child protection as the Australian government retains responsibility, for example, for providing income support payments. The national framework recognises the significant existing efforts and reforms which are being undertaken by governments across Australia in protecting children and supporting the families of those children.
Part of that national framework action includes a ministerial forum on protecting Australia's children. It will be convened to bring together ministers with responsibilities under the national framework and the forum hosted by the Community and Disability Services Ministers Conference will invite contributions from non-government representatives, including state and territory children's commissioners as well as children and young people. So we have a plan for bringing together children's commissioners in this country and all the kinds of agencies that are responsible for the oversight and protection that I know Senator Hanson-Young is trying to put forward in this bill. We really need to think about how what Senator Hanson-Young puts forward in her bill joins up with all the other rights and responsibilities that are undertaken by other agencies.
We know that in the last decade all state and territory care and protection systems have undergone significant reviews. In most, but not all cases, reviews have been triggered by revelations of abuse and/or death of children in state care. There are a number of reforms, though, that are common to all systems. These are things like the safety and wellbeing of children as a shared community responsibility; collaborative interagency partnerships and, in some instances, priority services to children and young people in the care and protection system; expanded roles for non-government providers of family support and out-of-home care services; strengthened requirements for the recruitment and training of foster and kinship carers; charters of rights for children and young people in care; empowerment of children and families to participate in decision making; creation of children's commissioners and/or children's guardian positions to advocate for children within systems to monitor the performance of child protection and, in some cases, to monitor the performance of out-of-home care systems. They have included significantly increased investments in services available to vulnerable families and children at risk and specific services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander children and clients.
When you look at that you can see that there is a strategic framework. There are always things that are unaddressed when you look at the legacy of the very significant issues confronting Australia's children raised in this debate, but there is a holistic approach to tackling the issues confronting children in this nation and it is important work that needs to continue.
The Care and Protection of Children Act 2007 provides the legal framework for care and protection for children in the Northern Territory, for example. That act established a Northern Territory Children's Commissioner. I think that the work of the Northern Territory Children's Commissioner is particularly important. I, for one, want the Northern Territory to be able to develop and strength its institutions so that the issues that we debate in this place about things like the Northern Territory intervention can have more weight by virtue of stronger institutional responses at a territory level. I, for one, in the long term want the Northern Territory to obtain statehood so that we do not have the high level of intervention that the Australian government has in things like child welfare. We have a bit of a de facto debate about child welfare in this nation because of that. I have been through many of my reasons for not supporting this bill, but I do look forward to working with my colleagues to continue to advance the welfare of children in this country.