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Tuesday, 13 May 2003
Page: 13985

Ms ROXON (3:46 PM) —We could not have had a more telling question time to lead into this debate today when the Prime Minister answered a number of questions in respect not just of the matter regarding the Governor-General, Dr Hollingworth, but of his views about child sexual abuse. He made some statements about the importance of investing in children. In dismissing calls that are being made by the community for a royal commission, a judicial inquiry or some sort of broader discussion on the issue of child sexual abuse, the Prime Minister said that he actually believed a better response was to spend the money by investing in programs that could assist children and their families in dealing with these sorts of issues. In fact, the member for Lilley was asking a question on this very point when he was thrown out of the House. It seems to us on this side of the House that that tends to happen as soon as issues are raised on which the Prime Minister has actually not kept up with his rhetoric or his stated view that we should invest in these programs.

We point out to the Prime Minister, as the member for Lilley was trying to, that the Stronger Families and Communities program has had money taken out of it in the last year. I think members on this side of the House, and I suspect even members on the other side of the House, are aware that most of the money in the Stronger Families and Communities program is actually used for pilot programs. Many of them are incredibly worthy pilot programs; in fact, many of us have advocated the continuance of these programs. The government has more pilots in the Department of Family and Community Services than it has in the Air Force, but it does not run any recurrent programs. As soon as they are shown to be good the expenditure is cut, and there is no ongoing strategy to deal with issues of family and domestic violence, parenting support and early intervention. These are the sorts of things the Prime Minister is prepared to talk about but never delivers on.

If people cast their minds back to when this government was last re-elected, there was an interesting article in the Sunday Telegraph which had the Prime Minister, breathtakingly, stating that child welfare reform was to be one of the hallmarks of the coalition's third term in office. But since this government has been elected we have seen absolutely nothing to show that child welfare is of interest to it. In fact, we have had the Prime Minister standing up in this House saying something I am sure people will remember. In answering questions about the importance of preventing and dealing with this terrible issue of child abuse, the Prime Minister said:

I want to make it very clear that, if there is an inadequacy of money for child abuse policy in this country, that is 100 per cent the responsibility and the failure of successive state governments ...

He has been rushing with indecent haste to blame everybody else for problems in this area. He refuses to accept that this is a national disgrace and that it is an issue of national concern for us that there are large numbers of children who are being abused in our community. He is not comfortable with even saying that child sexual abuse is wrong and should never be condoned, and it should not be condoned by our silence. That is what we are starting to see happening in this House.

We should use this current opportunity, and I know the minister opposite, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, will use it. The circumstances that have brought child abuse to the public's attention may not be circumstances that people feel comfortable with, but we should make sure that, this issue having been raised and having been on the front pages of the papers for the last several weeks and previously a year ago, we do something that will really make a difference for children in the future.

This government cannot be proud of its record. It does matter that when it was elected it cut the National Child Abuse Prevention Strategy in 1996. It was a national strategy that had been agreed between the states, the community groups and the Commonwealth, and the national government was going to take leadership on this issue. The Prime Minister can say, `I'm not really aware of that program.' He is not aware of it because he does not believe that he has any role to play. As the leader of this country he truly does not understand why he has a role to play in this area of trying to prevent child abuse. To be quite honest, that is very sad for this country. We need to take this issue seriously and do something about it.

Another question the Prime Minister did not have the opportunity to respond to because he shortened question time today is that, if he is actually so committed to putting money into preventive programs, why has he slashed money from the Stronger Families and Communities program? Members on this side of the House will be very interested to know that he has also underspent the small amount of money allocated for child abuse prevention. Last year the government underspent an eighth of the money; this very small program was not even all spent. Half a million dollars was not spent on the government's single small child abuse prevention program. And since being elected the Prime Minister and his government have not conducted or funded a single national campaign against domestic or family violence or against sexual assault in this country.

It makes it very difficult for us to believe what the Prime Minister is saying: that he is concerned about these issues. It is a very serious pattern, because the other thing that has happened is that the government has decided since 1996 that it does not want to collect statistics on things that might be uncomfortable for it. So it has ensured that the Office of the Status of Women does not collect any national statistics on violence against women, despite previous governments having done so.

We know that this is a difficult area. We know that the answers are not easy. We think that the problem is a complex one but at every turn it seems to us that the Prime Minister is not prepared to tackle this issue head on. He does not want a royal commission; he does not want a judicial inquiry; he does not accept the findings of the Aspinall report. He thinks that money should be spent on programs instead, but then he cuts funding from those programs. Well, we are not going to let the Prime Minister get away with that. The minister and other speakers on the other side might stand up and say, `We've got lots of nice programs running,' but I defy them to find an ongoing national strategic commitment to the prevention of child abuse in this country. That is what we need. It does not have to be in the form that we asked for. We have put forward lots of options that we think could move this debate forward. We cannot be in the position of having over 30,000 victims of child abuse in this country each year. No-one in this House wants to see that.

Mr Anthony —It is the states.

Ms ROXON —The minister opposite says, `It is the states.' What are they doing? Let us deal with this issue because no doubt the minister will stand up and repeat what the Prime Minister has said. They will try to wash their hands of it by saying that it is 100 per cent the responsibility of the states. You do not even know what the difference is here. The states have a responsibility once child abuse has occurred. Do you know what, Minister? We think it would be better if we prevented it from occurring and we believe that the national government has a role to play in the prevention.

Government members interjecting

Ms ROXON —We will get to that. We do not believe that having a national agenda for children—and we have supported that; we have welcomed your doing it—is an alternative to putting money and resources into prevention programs. We do not believe that you can consult for however long you intend to—and we will happily encourage people to participate in those consultations—and in the meantime abrogate your responsibility in playing a role in the prevention of child abuse in this country. We expect you to be able to do two things at once. That might be too much, but we expect that you might be able to do that.

Opposition members interjecting

Ms ROXON —There are members on this side of the House who are not being nearly as generous as I am to the minister. We do not stand up in this House and say that the states have no responsibilities, but it is an absolute disgrace—and something that no leader of this country could be proud of—that a leader of this country is not prepared to tackle a major social problem. We know that the Prime Minister has been prepared to do it in other areas. He has been prepared to say that the federal government should take a leadership role in the gun buy-back scheme. He has been prepared to say that he should lead the national drug strategy. He has done it in mental health and plenty of other areas. There is no impediment other than the Prime Minister's lack of will in playing a role in trying to prevent child abuse in this country.

We have put forward a proposal and we will be tabling a bill in this House in the coming weeks to establish a national commissioner for children and young people. We think this is one way of valuing and respecting children and promoting their interests, rights and wellbeing, and a way for us to move forward. It is not, as is often suggested by the government, about rehashing the past—although that is very important for many victims and their parents—but something for us to look forward to.

In the proposal for a national commissioner for children and young people we have called for the establishment of a national code to protect children. We have called for a working with children check and the government has absolutely refused even to talk to us about it. In fact, when it has previously been discussed in this House the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, who is sitting opposite me at the table, gave his reason for thinking a working with children check would not be adopted. He said:

Yes, in theory, it does have some merit—

so it was good that he understood that it did have some merit—

but, interestingly, a lot of those organisations that I speak to that particularly deal with youth and young people are extremely reluctant to go down that path.

That is the path of instituting a national working with children check. The minister goes on:

Why is that? It is because they are desperate to get more volunteers to help.

Unfortunately that might be true but surely we have to put the safety of children first. The priority is that parents want to know whether their children are safe when they are left in the care of others. And ultimately the organisations that deal with children want to know that their volunteers do not have some history of offences against children. In fact the Anglican Church, which has been so much in the papers recently, has certainly been taught some lessons about this issue and is calling for a national working with children check.

Minister, we ask you and your government to reconsider. Here is an opportunity to work with us and with the states to establish a national system which could help protect people from further abuse. Why do you want to run away from something that could really make a difference to children in these circumstances?

Ms ROXON —The minister also interjects that a large amount of abuse occurs in the parental home. Indeed it does, and there are many steps that can be taken to help support parents and families so that this never happens. In fact, I think that these are some of the strongest arguments for the Commonwealth playing a significant role in the prevention of child abuse. Although people argue about the range of issues that can cause child abuse or the reasons for child abuse—and agree that they are complex and numerous—it has been agreed that there are many structural issues like poverty, unemployment, poor educational opportunities and family stress that all have an impact on the likelihood or incidence of child abuse. All these issues are Commonwealth issues. It is even thought by many commentators and welfare groups in this area that child abuse may be increasing because of the extra pressures on families, the increased drug and alcohol addiction rates and the failure to address intergenerational cycles of abuse and neglect.

You would think that, if the Commonwealth understood this, they would not have argued against us establishing an inquiry into poverty for Australian families. They might have had the sense to see that sometimes there is a link between poverty and family breakdown and abuse. But they are not even prepared to put any money into these programs. They do not even want an inquiry to find whether there is something that they should do.

At every turn the government's hypocrisy is shown up. We cannot afford to do this any longer. We cannot afford to brush it aside, keep it behind closed doors or say it is somebody else's issue. We need to be prepared to take a leadership role here. It might be awkward for the government. It might be awkward for the state governments. We need to take some action so this terrible issue is dealt with. The community thinks that leaders in this country are covering up what has happened in the past. Whether they think it is church leaders, politicians or other powerful people, we must make sure that we are never part of that conspiracy. We on this side of the House and, I am sure, the people on the other side of the House do not want to cover up this issue. But you have to start showing that, as the government, you are prepared to tackle some of these issues.

We put the challenge out to you today in this debate. If you are not going to continue to fail our children, you need to do more than take a few small steps towards some long-term planning. You need to introduce a national strategy to prevent child abuse. You need to get serious about working with children checks. You need to get serious about properly funding parenting programs and early intervention programs—and not as pilots but as ongoing programs. The Prime Minister said, `We don't need an inquiry, because we know what some of the issues are.' Start putting the money into them. We can do that. We do not have to wait for another five years of consultation to do that. Minister, you know full well that discussing the early childhood agenda is not enough and is not an alternative to us actually dealing with some serious prevention programs. So we want to know what you will do. After the Prime Minister's answer today, we will be looking in the budget to see whether he is putting money back into those domestic violence programs that he is underspending on and whether he is going to put a national prevention strategy back in place. We will be looking to see if your cherished childhood agenda is getting some money in these areas too, Minister, and we will support you if it does. But we need more action. (Time expired)