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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 7419


Mr KEENAN (Stirling) (09:24): I rise to speak on the Australian Human Rights Commission Amendment (National Children’s Commissioner) Bill. This bill proposes to amend the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 to establish the statutory office of children's commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission. The establishment of this position will cost $3½ million over four years from 2012-13. Some stakeholders have raised concerns that they do not believe this to be an adequate amount—and I will touch on that later in my comments.

The commission currently has a president and six commissioners with separate responsibility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice, age discrimination, disability discrimination, human rights, race discrimination and sex discrimination. The role of the children's commissioner will be to promote public discussion and awareness of issues affecting children and to conduct research and education programs to consult directly with children and representative organisations. The children's commissioner will also examine Commonwealth legislation, policies and programs that relate to children's wellbeing and development.

The functions of the new position are set out in the bill's proposed section 46MB and the office of the commissioner will perform the following functions: it will submit a report to the minister that complies with subsection (3) as soon as practicable after 30 June each year; it will promote discussion and awareness of matters relating to the human rights of children in Australia; it will undertake research, educational or other programs for the purpose of promoting respect for the human rights of children in Australia; it will promote the enjoyment and exercise of human rights by children in Australia; it will examine existing and proposed Commonwealth enactments for the purpose of ascertaining whether they recognise and protect the human rights of children; and it will report to the minister the results of any such examination.

The bill's explanatory memorandum provides some additional details on the objectives of establishing the commissioner's position. These include to improve the advocacy at the national level for the rights of children under the age of 18 years; to improve the monitoring of Commonwealth laws and proposed laws that affect the rights and wellbeing of children and young people; to promote the cooperation between the Commonwealth, states and territories to promote the rights, wellbeing and development of children and young people; to encourage the active involvement of children and young people in decisions that affect them, particularly administrative decisions and development of government policies, programs and legislation; to support government agencies to develop mechanisms which enhance the involvement of children and young people; and to assist Australia in meeting its international obligations with respect to children, particularly those enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is important to ensure that the functions of the new commissioner do not duplicate those of state and territory child welfare authorities but that the commissioner provides guidance and advice in relation to some of their activities.

The coalition believes that it is important that the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs carefully examine whether the new child commissioner's role duplicates the policy and advocacy functions of state and territory authorities. The coalition will examine any substantive recommendations that the final report may offer. The Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs has already inquired into the bill and reported back on 18 June. In its submission to the inquiry, the Law Council stated that while it was broadly supportive of the measure, it was:

… disappointed about the inadequately short consultation period for contributions to this inquiry. While the Law Council acknowledges there is a need, on occasion, for short time frames for consultation on urgent matters, the Law Council does not consider that this is an example of a matter where the short time frame for consultation is justified due to any urgency associated with the proposed legislation. … it is important that the legislation establishing the position is subject to proper public scrutiny and the Law Council considers that the practical arrangements to appoint the Commissioner should await proper public scrutiny of the legislation.

The coalition also holds concerns about the rushed and chaotic manner in which this Labor government chooses to operate and the lack of scrutiny its legislation receives when it attempts to rush things through the parliament, including refusing to wait for the House committee to report on this bill. It strikes me as passing strange that this bill is considered to be so urgent that it should not be subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny. I would implore the government to look at the Law Council's submission to the Senate committee and contemplate why this needs to be rushed through in a way that does not subject it to the normal scrutiny we would expect for legislation of this type.

The Law Council was also concerned about funding for the position. In their submission they went on to say that, in the 2012-13 federal budget, $3½ million was allocated to the establishment of the commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission. When questioned about this funding allocation in a Senate estimates hearing in May 2012, the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Catherine Branson QC, noted:

… the funding of itself is not adequate if we choose to give those staff, which we regard as essentially the minimum with which a commissioner can effectively work, adequate resources for what we would expect to be a rise in complaints made under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It will also not have the capacity to support the additional demands on support services of the commission, such as the legal office if demands are referred to the legal office. It will not enable us to provide further lawyers and there will be further demands on our finance and human resources people. It is not adequate to provide additional funding there either.

While the coalition does not necessarily endorse this position, it is important that these concerns are noted as it has become apparent that there was not adequate consultation with relevant stakeholders before this bill was rushed through the parliament. The Australian Human Rights Commission also said in their submission:

The Commission has concerns regarding the resource allocation for the position, the title of the position, explicit recognition of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, explicit reference to the state and territory children and young people's commissioners and guardians, and reference to relevant international human rights instruments in section 46MB(6)(b) of the Bill.

For our part, the coalition recognise the importance of promoting public discussion and awareness of issues affecting children. We also acknowledge that legislation, policies and programs affecting the rights, wellbeing and development of children should be properly examined. However, we are not persuaded that this bill will necessarily advance these objectives any further than is currently being achieved. Coalition members are of the view that the Australian Human Rights Commission, in cooperation with the relevant state and territory commissioners and guardians, already adequately performs the functions envisaged for the new commissioner. We believe that the establishment of a new commissioner at the federal level is going to unnecessarily duplicate the policy and advocacy functions of the respective state and territory authorities as well as the advisory functions provided for in the Australian Human Rights Commission Act. Additionally, given the new commissioner will only function as an advocate and does not have a caseload, we are not persuaded that its establishment would support the work currently performed by state and territory commissioners.

We do not agree that there is any urgency surrounding the establishment of the National Children's Commissioner. There is no evidence to suggest that there has been an increase in the workload of the Australian Human Rights Commission or the respective state and territory commissioners to justify the establishment of a new commissioner at the federal level. We are not persuaded that there are any compelling reasons to further expand the number of human rights commissioners or sufficient justification to create a stand-alone advocacy function for children's rights in Australia at the Commonwealth level.

We are very disappointed that the government has not had the courtesy to await the final report of the House standing committee on this bill before debating this matter in the House.

Mr Tony Smith: Typical.

Mr KEENAN: As the shadow parliamentary secretary at the table says, this is just typical of the chaos with which the Labor Party runs its legislative agenda. This adds to the long list of legislation that has been rushed through the House without proper scrutiny. The coalition reserves the right to move amendments pending the recommendation of the House committee which, quite frankly, is what any sensible political party within this chamber would do. With these reservations, the coalition will not oppose the bill within this place, but we reserve the right, as we sensibly should, to have a look at the House committee's report, the purpose of which is to scrutinise legislation.

Debate adjourned.