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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 7445

Ms PLIBERSEK (SydneyMinister for Health) (11:12): I will be summing up on behalf of the government. I thank honourable members for their contributions to the debate on the Australian Human Rights Commission Amendment (National Children’s Commissioner) Bill 2012, and I particularly thank the members for Pearce and La Trobe whose contributions I have been listening to very intently.

This bill will establish the National Children's Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights Commission. The member for Pearce was suggesting that we have a choice as governments between action and advocacy, and that a role like this, which is focused on advocacy, is necessarily in contradiction to, or intended instead of, action in the area of children's rights, which, of course, is not correct. This government has acted more than any other government in Australia's history to protect the rights and interests of our most vulnerable Australians—children—and that includes in areas like our Healthy Kids Check, and preschools where we are moving to universal preschool education for at least one year for Australian children. It also includes the types of investments that we have seen in policing and also in counselling in the Northern Territory and in other parts of Australia in communities where child abuse is at completely unacceptable levels.

Homelessness was mentioned as well, and we have built 21,000 public housing dwellings around Australia out of the global financial crisis stimulus package. There is the National Rental Affordability Scheme for 50,000 properties, with 10,000 built already and 10,000 to be built next year: 50,000 in total. There are dozens of new homelessness facilities right around Australia, including ones for families, and there has been significant investment in services that prevent homelessness because it is better to have families staying at home rather than losing their homes.

The schoolkids bonus is the classic example in the most recent budget; a measure that supports families with children and makes life a little bit easier for those families—a measure opposed, extraordinarily, by those opposite. A Children's Commissioner is not in opposition to action in these areas but a complement to it. It is important for the voiceless to have a voice and that is what the Children's Commissioner provides for our children.

A National Children's Commissioner will be a strong and forceful voice for these children and young people and play a proactive and positive role in their wellbeing and development. Our children are our future and if we do not value them we can never hope to protect them. A National Children's Commissioner will put their needs front and centre, and that is why the government is so pleased that we will establish for the first time a dedicated advocate focused on the human rights of children and young people at a national level.

This bill's basic principle is that every child is a valued member of our society. A National Children's Commissioner will raise public awareness of nationally significant issues affecting children and young people through discussion, research and educational programs. The commissioner will examine relevant existing and proposed Commonwealth legislation to determine if it adequately recognises and protects children's rights in Australia and report their findings to the government. The commissioner will consult directly with children and their representative organisations to ensure that they can influence the development of policies and programs that affect them at Commonwealth level.

Importantly, the National Children's Commissioner will have a clear focus on vulnerable or at risk groups of children, such as children with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, homeless children, or those who are witnessing or subject to violence. The commissioner will also report to government each year on matters relating to the human rights of children. The position will contribute to meeting Australia's obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and reinforce our commitment to our international obligations and relationship with the United Nations.

The commissioner will not duplicate the roles of state and territory children's commissioners but will seek to work closely and collaboratively with them to identify national or cross-jurisdictional matters that would benefit from national leadership. Members of the Australian Children's Commissioners and Guardians Group have already indicated their willingness to work collaboratively with the new commissioner and have reiterated their support for the position. The commissioner will not have a guardianship role nor will it have a complaint-handling role or a role in dealing with individual children, including individual children's cases in the context of child protection or family law. However, the commissioner will have a limited role to seek leave to intervene in court proceedings which raise significant children's rights issues—but that will not extend to representing individual children.

I would like to now address some of the issues that have been raised in the debate. The member for Stirling raised the speed with which this has come forward. This has not been a speedy process for the Labor Party. We have been advocating for such a position since 2003. We have conducted consultation with state and territory commissioners and non-government organisations from a range of fields, including a child protection and service delivery, over the last two years. This Labor government wants to see a National Children's Commissioner up and running as soon as possible for the benefit of Australia's children, to give them an independent voice on the national stage.

Funding was allocated in the 2012-13 budget and is available from 1 July 2012. I do not really see why for legislation such as this the opposition seems determined to tie up and delay such important reforms. Some members opposite also raised duplication with state and territory children's commissioners, but there is no duplication of function here. This will be a uniquely national cross-jurisdictional advocacy role.

The member for Fremantle has been a very strong advocate for this position and for children's rights across the board for a very long time. The Attorney-General particularly wanted to thank her for her support and assistance in developing this policy and the role of the commissioner. The member for Canberra highlighted some important functions the commissioner will undertake and the benefits that will flow from the commissioner's advocacy.

The Attorney-General particularly wanted to thank all honourable members for putting their considered views on this important piece of legislation. The Attorney-General thanks the House committee for its report, which recognises the urgency in establishing the position and the need to avoid unnecessary delay. The Attorney-General acknowledges the committee recommended funding be reviewed. The government is confident that funding will be sufficient to meet all its functions, but of course the government will closely monitor it through implementation.

The government looks forward to the passage of this bill to ensure a National Children's Commissioner can be established as soon as possible for the benefit of Australia's children and young people. The creation of the National Children's Commissioner is an important initiative in the government's work to protect our children and young people and promote and protect their human rights. I commend the bill to the House.

Bill read a second time.