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Wednesday, 29 June 1994
Page: 2311

Senator SPINDLER (3.39 p.m.) —Today's debate on the treatment that Australian children receive had its beginnings in a notice of motion of which I gave notice on 22 June. That notice of motion referred the Senate to a UNICEF report which found that the rate of youth suicide in Australia is now the sixth highest in the industrialised world; and further, that nine per cent of children in Australia are living below the poverty line compared with 1.6 per cent in Sweden. That notice of motion also included the following sentence:

Australia is still one of the few industrialised countries that has not prohibited the physical punishment of children.

The government agreed to support that motion, with an amendment, but the opposition decided that it could not support it because of the statement of fact that Australia is one of the few industrialised countries that has not prohibited the physical punishment of children.

  I understand that Senator Abetz took umbrage at that. I regret that he is unable to be here today because I would like to direct some remarks to him. Apparently, Senator Abetz said publicly that, if administered with love, corporal punishment is okay. I did not know that coalition policy was affected by the statements of one particular senator to that extent. I wonder whether the infliction of physical pain as a means of educating children is now coalition policy. Perhaps Senator Troeth could enlighten us on that.

  On that topic it is worth while mentioning that Australia is neglecting to do something about outlawing such treatment of children when article 19.1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires governments to take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect children from all forms of physical and mental violence and maltreatment. It is quite clear that the deliberate infliction of pain is contrary to this convention and should be banned by legislation.

  I am afraid that we are very much behind in this regard. For example, the physical punishment of children in schools was banned in Austria and Finland some 100 years ago. Clearly, we are now in breach of our international obligations. Countries, such as Australia, which have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are, I submit, obliged to protect children from all forms of physical and mental violence. In an article in the Age on 1 June, Moira Rayner said:

One of the most reliable predictors of future violence is past aggression.

I believe that the deliberate infliction of pain on young people will not make them more sensitive people, just as torture is not likely to lead to greater empathy with others.

  I refer the Senate to a paper entitled `Corporal punishment in Australia' by Robert Ludbrook of the National Children and Youth Law Centre, who said:

As Justice Brennan in two recent High Court decisions has reminded us, it is a "fundamental principle, plain and incontestable" that every person's body is inviolate. He goes on to say `Unless driven by legal imperatives, I would deny to any instrument of the State the power to authorise the invasion of the physical integrity of any person except to save that person's life or to save her from serious bodily harm.'

Corporal punishment only encourages young people to believe that when someone acts in a way that they do not approve of, recourse to violence is the appropriate response. Children may consider hitting an acceptable way to express anger. As they grow to adulthood they may think it is permissible to hit another adult, such as the driver who cuts them off in traffic, an irritating colleague or a spouse who disagrees with them. And here I should note the incidence of domestic violence in Australia where, once again, we do not have a very enlightening record.

  Other research suggests that, when a parent relies on spanking, the child is left to respond in negative ways. Indeed, children who are spanked often, become overly aggressive towards others. Physical punishment also blocks the opportunity for learning. An American clinical psychologist, Dr Derek Hopson, has found that when a child is hit, the child is responding `mostly to fear and trying to avoid pain rather than trying to learn whatever message or information the parent is trying to transmit.' This just breeds resentment.

  I will leave that topic because the report from UNICEF concentrates on the other disadvantages that Australian children suffer. Australia is the third worst country in the industrialised world for youth poverty. In Australia, nine per cent of children are living below the poverty line. The comparative figure for Sweden is 1.6 per cent. The report states the perhaps obvious fact that the welfare of children in the developed world can no longer be taken for granted. The report says:

Today there are many millions of children in economically advanced nations whose quality of life would have to be judged poorer than that of many children in the developing world.

We must be vigilant because of the possibility that a bad situation in this country could easily become worse. With the most recent budget the Australian Democrats attempted to do something about youth poverty. Amongst others, our budget proposals included: a doubling of the home child care allowance; a doubling of the tax rebate for low income earners; implementation of the green paper proposals to split the unemployment benefit of married couples into two single entitlements; and the introduction of a parenting allowance where one spouse is caring for a child under 16.

  I now turn to the subject of youth suicide. Youth poverty and alienation have an even darker side; the rate of youth suicide in this country is the sixth highest in the industrialised world. Suicide by teenagers between 15 and 19 has almost doubled in the period from 1970 to 1991. I seek leave to conclude my remarks after Senator Troeth has spoken.

  Leave granted.