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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 7434

Ms GRIERSON (Newcastle) (10:24): I too rise to speak in support of the Australian Human Rights Commission Amendment (National Children's Commissioner) Bill 2012. Obviously, this bill will establish for the first time the National Children's Commissioner, the first ever dedicated advocate for children and young people Australia-wide—something that our federal Labor government has been absolutely committed to.

Of course, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is the foundation for this legislation. That convention outlines four key principles in advocating for the protection and the rights of children. They are: nondiscrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child.

Having spent 30 years of my professional life in schools as a teacher and as a school principal, for me this is a day of great significance and one of personal pride. I warmly welcome the young people who we can see in our galleries today because we are here today trying to represent their best interests. I remember very well teaching a unit of work on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and how wonderful it was for children and young people to know that they were part of global legislation and a framework to protect their rights. Of course, I also saw—too many times—the abuse of children's rights. I remember my very first year as a teacher, having a class of behaviourally disturbed children and knowing that one of those children was being beaten regularly by his parents. It is a very distressing situation for a young person, as I was then. I think what was also distressing was the conflict for that child, because that child loved his parents so much even though he was a victim of their abuse. So it is a very difficult situation to make sure that we get the rights of a child not just asserted for but also managed sensitively, managed strongly and managed well.

I have also had many experiences of dealing with disclosures of sexual abuse from children. That is the saddest thing of all: to have a child go to a teacher or to a counsellor in a school and disclose that they are a victim of abuse, because usually it is from a family member. I guess that I understand what mentors of children, teachers of children and people who support children through their lives come across every day. I heard the member for Canberra talking about a child at risk and, unfortunately, in education so many times we identify children who are clearly at risk and who are clearly victims of some sort of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Unfortunately, restrictions in the law sometimes lead to very frustrating situations where we cannot address those problems as well as we might like to if there is no disclosure—and children will often protect the people who do the abuse, thinking that that is the right thing to do. So today is a significant day, and this is an important piece of legislation.

This bill seeks to amend the Australian Human Rights Commission Act to establish the position of National Children's Commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission. The intention of the Labor government in establishing the commissioner is: to improve national advocacy for the rights, wellbeing and development of youth under the age of 18; to improve monitoring of Commonwealth laws affecting the rights, wellbeing and development of children and young people; to encourage the active participation of young people in decisions that affect them, particularly in the development of government policies and programs—so it is always wonderful to have young people in this place; to support government agencies in enhancing and increasing the involvement of youth; and to assist Australia in meeting its international obligations by promoting and advancing the rights of the child as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. To say that the phrase 'the children are our future' is a cliche denies its reality. The wellbeing of children and young people must be at the forefront of our minds as legislators, because obviously one day they will inevitably replace us. As the Attorney-General has stated, Australia's future depends on them reaching their full potential. The commissioner will stimulate national conversation about the key issues affecting young Australians, striving to fulfil and promote their best interests. I looked back at my first speech in this House and noted then that I was very mindful of the responsibility of representing young people in this place. I mentioned the very high expectations young people so rightly hold for government, and I hope this bill goes some distance in representing the best interests into the future. At the commissioner's discretion, they will be able to focus on particular vulnerable or at-risk groups of children and young people such as children with a disability, Indigenous children, homeless children or those who are witness or subject to violence and abuse.

Our bill also contains provisions enabling the commissioner to consult with bodies that have a focus on children, organisations that represent children and state and territory children's commissioners and guardians. They will research and promote programs that go to the core in both addressing and understanding the issues and challenges faced by young people in modern Australia, and I suppose we would all know that those challenges are much more complex. The internet itself is a liberator but, unfortunately, it also liberates the wrong people to prey on young children. Whilst not dealing with individual cases in the context of protection or family law, the commissioner will be able to seek leave to intervene in court proceedings which raise significant children's rights issues. That is a powerful tool. I know it will be used very sensibly but it is comforting that that is part of this legislation.

The 2008 report by the Australian Law Reform Commission indicated that, over the previous decade, children had slipped off the national agenda, citing a rise in child protection notifications and a lower rate of conviction. At the time, Minister Macklin noted that convictions often did not occur due to a lack of evidence, because for people such as children giving evidence can be a frightening thing to do—and I mentioned just how conflicted young people are in that situation. That is why our government has been determined to create a National Children's Commissioner, somebody who will champion and advocate for those who too often have little or no voice at all.

The facts are that children in regional and remote Australia are at greater risk. When compared with those in larger cities, social exclusion and poor outcomes can snowball and lead to a cycle of disadvantage in many walks of life. Funding has been specifically provided for the commissioner and staff to travel to remote places around the nation in order to consult directly with young people and to deliver educational and public awareness programs about the rights of children and the role of the commissioner.

In 2009, our Labor government established the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children through the Council of Australian Governments, COAG. This was in recognition of the unacceptable levels of child abuse and neglect occurring in our community. The framework indicated that in 2007-08 there were 55,120 reported cases of child abuse and neglect that had been substantiated by child protection services, a very unacceptable figure. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare indicates that in 2010-11 there were over 31,000 children in substantiated abuse or neglect cases, or one in every 165 children under the age of 18. We can imagine that these figures are only a very small glimpse of the real tragedy facing some children in our communities, and it is unacceptable in a first-world country such as ours.

The institute tell us in its report, Headline indicators for children's health, development and wellbeing, 2011, that although Australian children generally fare comparatively well on a global level, when examining health, status and risk, there is considerable variation when it comes to some key groups. The report indicates that Indigenous children are severely overrepresented across the child protection system when compared with non-Indigenous Australians. In 2010, this group were eight times as likely to be the subject of substantiated abuse or neglect, nine times as likely to be on a care and protection order and 10 times as likely to be in out-of-home care. The report continues, indicating that Indigenous children have a greater chance of being disadvantaged in the areas of health, development and wellbeing. We have made great strides as a government in improving Indigenous outcomes. Year 12 retention rates have risen to 47 per cent, from 30 per cent in the 1990s for Indigenous youth. In Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory, mortality rates have fallen by 36 per cent, but there is clearly more to be done.

When examining another disadvantaged at-risk group—children in remote areas—we again hear a shameful story. Compared with their metropolitan counterparts, children in remote areas are two to three times more likely to die as infants or due to injury and 30 per cent more likely to be born with low birth weight or to be overweight or obese. Furthermore, they are more likely to be developmentally vulnerable at school entry, being around 40-50 per cent less likely to meet national minimum standards for reading and numeracy. In lower socioeconomic parts of our nation, we again see significant pockets of disadvantage and, similarly, those statistics put children at risk. They are astonishing figures for a country such as Australia, but they are the cold, hard facts that indicate that we must continue to introduce new measures to look after the rights of children.

Our government will continue to assist and advocate for those people particularly. There is not any single solution to the problems of social disadvantage. That is why we keep introducing policies and programs—and I see the minister here in the chamber—such as the new schoolkids bonus to help make ends meet, and Paid Parental Leave, and we have, of course, lifted the tax-free threshold to $18,200 to help low-income families. We know that financial pressure is often one of the triggers for relationship breakdowns and certainly for domestic disputes and violence.

Recent changes to the Family Law Act introduced by our government took effect this month. These changes better protect children and young people exposed to family violence, ensuring appropriate action be taken to put the child first in family law disputes. It is also why we are introducing the National Children's Commissioner, to work wholly and solely in the best interests of our young people. The Hunter Valley Research Foundation in my own area tells us that early school leavers, year 10 or below, have an unemployment rate twice that of trade qualified people and around three times the rate of somebody with a university qualification. Hunter region data from the foundation indicates that early school leavers without post-school education or training are generally the lowest paid. This is a nationwide phenomenon and one that is typically higher in areas of greater socio-economic disadvantage. Globally, Australia is above the average when it comes to OECD figures on all key indicators. However, there remains scope for dramatic improvement.

Dr Sharon Bessell, a senior director of the Children's Policy Centre at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, and Brian Babington, CEO of Families Australia, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, on 1 May, 2012 that 'four principles would be vital in guiding the National Children's Commissioner to ensure that an impact is actually made'. Firstly, they said that the position should complement existing state and territory commissioners, and we do understand the importance of value-adding. The new Children's Commissioner will join six other national commissioners in the Australian Human Rights Commission. Secondly, they said that the role of National Children's Commissioner should be above politics and remain impartial, with the rights of the child at the forefront of their decision-making process.

Thirdly, they note that the commissioner must adopt a consultative approach and engage with the children he or she represents. One of the key objectives in creating this role is involving young people in decisions that will ultimately affect them.

Finally, they write that, through the creation of this role, national leadership must be taken 'to promote an inspiring vision for the wellbeing, status and role of children and young people.' I hope that this role will deliver on that particular principle.

There remains much to be done to improve health, education and general wellbeing outcomes for particular groups of young children and all young people in Australia. Obviously, no single solution will fix everything. This bill introducing the National Children's Commissioner is a very strong signal that we are prepared to provide strong advocacy, strong representation for children, providing them with a beacon of hope and opportunity for better outcomes and ultimately a better quality of life. I commend the bill to the House.