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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 7437


Mr PERRETT (Moreton) (10:39): I thank the earlier speakers for their contributions to this very important debate on the Australian Human Rights Commission Amendment (National Children's Commissioner) Bill 2012. Obviously, establishing a National Children's Commissioner fulfils a long-term commitment by the Australian Labor Party to appoint a national advocate for children. I am proud to be on this side of the House and supporting the bill.

I also make special mention of the work done by other ministers. I thank Minister Garrett for making a contribution in his role as education minister; Minister Ellis for ensuring that money goes into early childhood education; the health minister and particularly Minister Macklin for developing the child protection framework, which is important when you have states and territories that have different approaches to the reporting of child protection issues. In some states it is mandatory for everybody. In some states teachers have to report and in other states teachers do not have to. Medical practitioners have to report in every state and territory. But the reality is that we are a federation and, whilst that means good policy and good practice can develop, it does not necessarily mean that best practice and best policy spreads throughout the land. I guess that is why we are here as a Commonwealth to ensure that there are best possible standards for children. That is what this legislation before us today does.

I particularly acknowledge a Queenslander, Leneen Forde, who is actually on the board at Griffith University but who in an earlier role led a royal commission that looked at child protection and some of the horrific practices and injustices that had occurred in Queensland. I make mention of Leneen Forde and the great work that she did many years ago.

I am sad to say that my wife, who has been working in child protection for 22 years, has seen some of these investigations and some of those changes. Whilst she always respects confidentiality—except for one case I might mention—she often tells me of the lifelong scars suffered by those who have experienced physical and emotional abuse in the family home and outside. Obviously, DOCS investigates abuse from within the family, then the police step in to investigate those matters outside the home. Sadly, the police do not have as much work as DOCS. The reality is that we tend to be harmed by those who profess to love us, or who should love us, or their children.

I will mention one case that is public and I can only mention this because it is written about in Terri Irwin's book about Steve Irwin. Steve Irwin, as members would remember, sadly passed away, but he was investigated for putting one of his children in a crocodile enclosure. My wife had the job of talking to Mr Irwin on a Friday night. This is all public—obviously, there are confidentiality issues—and it is quite interesting. She would not let me be in the room to hear the conversation, but she did say he even said 'crikey' in the phone call. Obviously, there was a child protection investigation, but nothing like the more serious ones that occur. Obviously, having a six-week old child near crocodiles does not happen too often. That autobiography by Steve Irwin's wife is interesting. I think the Governor-General's secretary phoned Steve to complain about it. It is an interesting representation of the facts surrounding the Governor-General's secretary, and the words which are attributed to my wife are nothing like what was actually said. But, anyway, I drift. I am supposed to be talking about the National Children's Commissioner Bill.

Unfortunately, there are many young children right across Australia from a broad range of backgrounds who are at high risk of abuse, discrimination and subject to poor circumstances. The introduction of a National Children's Commissioner is designed to speak on behalf of those children who do not have a voice and who are suffering alone and in social exclusion. The new commissioner will have discretion when performing any of his or her functions to focus on particular groups of children who are at risk or vulnerable, such as children with disability, those who are homeless or witnessing or subject to violence, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. In recognition of the particular disadvantage many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children face, the National Children's Commissioner proposal includes funding specifically for the commissioner and staff to travel to regional and remote Australia to consult directly with children and young people and to deliver education and public awareness sessions in those locations.

The Gillard Labor government is committed to closing the gap of Indigenous disadvantage and this is another way of gradually achieving this aim. This Labor government is already increasing access to early childhood education for Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities and we are confident that we are on track to halve the infant mortality rates of Indigenous children under five by 2018. Anyone who has young children knows how these dry statistics take on a completely different meaning when you think about your own children. As a father of two—one is only three years old—I cannot imagine what it would be like to have the sorts of statistics, in our own lounge rooms, in our own suburban areas, that are being experienced in some of the more regional and remote Indigenous communities around Australia.

The commissioner will also have discretion to consult with whoever is considered appropriate, with a focus on children, organisations that represent children, state and territory children's commissioners and guardians. So it will be a cooperative, collaborative network. The key objectives of establishing a national children's commissioner are to improve advocacy at a national level for the rights, wellbeing and development of children and young people up to the age of 18 years; and to improve the monitoring of Commonwealth laws affecting the rights, wellbeing and development of children and young people. As I said, Minister Macklin has already gone some way in terms of establishing the child protection framework. The previous Attorney-General, who is in the chamber, has done some great work in terms of changing the Family Law Act to make sure that we put children first. I commend the member for Barton for his great work. I commend the current Attorney-General as well for making sure children come first and foremost when it comes to family law decisions, because that is where so much horrible work occurs.

I also encourage the active involvement of children and young people in decisions that affect them. We see emerging child protection issues—things such as cybersafety, where you cannot go home to a safe place anymore. Schools have always been jungles, in a way—the blackboard jungle is a reality for some people—but at least children used to be able to go home to a safe haven. Now, sometimes, with Facebook, the internet and phones, people can be hassled, bullied and even driven to horrible deeds because of bullying that occurs through the internet.

There are supports for government agencies to develop mechanisms which enhance the active involvement of children and young people. We also assist Australia in meeting its international obligations by promoting and advancing the rights of the child, in particular as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

As a Queenslander I flag an ongoing issue I have. Children in Queensland are treated as adults. The reality is that whilst Australia has signed up to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in Queensland we treat 17-year-olds as adults. It is not exactly the sort of topic that you campaign on but it is something that I flag. I have an ongoing interest in it and hopefully my Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, subject to the approval of the deputy chair and the rest of the committee, will look at this topic of Queensland's treatment of children as adults.

The commission is to act as an overarching authority; it is not to deal specifically with individual children's cases. Obviously, that is for the states and territories. The Commonwealth will, however, have a limited role to seek leave to intervene in court proceedings which raise significant children's rights issues. But this will not extend to representing individual children. This bill sends a clear message to the Australian public that child abuse will not be tolerated and that there is help out there for the people who need it the most. Education and awareness is one of the best preventative measures, and that is why we are introducing a new Children's Commissioner to actively campaign and advocate for the rights of the child. Whilst this is obviously not a silver bullet, it is a small step towards stopping more child abuse. It should be supported by all of the members opposite.

I welcome the bill and hope it will have a positive impact on family relationships and children's health, development and wellbeing. I look forward to seeing the appointment of the first Children's Commissioner. I thank, again, Minister Macklin and all of those who have done great work in child protection—Chancellor Leneen Forde from the Griffith University in particular. I commend the bill to the House.