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Wednesday, 29 September 2010
Page: 277


Senator HANSON-YOUNG (4:08 PM) —I present the explanatory memoranda relating to the bills and move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows—

Ombudsman Amendment (Education Ombudsman) Bill 2010

This bill was introduced by the Australian Greens in the 42nd Parliament. The following second reading speech reflects the debate at the time of the bill’s original introduction.

Australia’s thriving international education sector has come under local and international media scrutiny over the past year, following a series of violent attacks against Indian students.  This follows calls for better assistance and support for international students that have fallen on the deaf ears of successive governments and opposition parties. 

Since then, an intense spotlight has been placed on our international education sector, with issues such as visa exploitation and discrimination within employment, student safety, questionable information provided by education and immigration agents, and sub-standard educational services and support by some providers, contributing to the perception of rorting within our education sector.

Currently when it comes to complaint resolution, particularly with regard to international students, the fact that there are so many overlapping obligations with state accreditation bodies and the Commonwealth department highlights the difficulties about where to go and who to trust.

The Ombudsman Amendment (Education Ombudsman) Bill 2010 seeks to create the office of the Education Ombudsman to cover the domestic and international education sector in Australia and act as a one-stop national authority for resolving individual student complaints; provide a further avenue for resolving academic disputes, monitoring and enforcing compliance of education institutions, and facilitating communication between state and federal governments and educational organisations. 

In 2001, the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education References Committee recommended that “a national Universities Ombudsman be appointed, funded by the Commonwealth, after consultation with the states and national representative bodies on higher education, including staff and students, and that such an office include the power to investigate ancillary fees and charges and to conciliate complaints. Students enrolled in Australian programs off-shore should have equal rights of access to the Ombudsman.”

In November 2009, following an extensive Senate inquiry into the welfare of international students, a cross-party report was released which specifically identified the need for extending the powers of the Commonwealth Ombudsman to cover the international students sector.

During evidence presented to the inquiry, Senior Industrial Office from the ACTU, Michelle Bissett identified the virtues of having a specific ombudsman for international students. She said “ There are two aspects of where students need to be able to go. We believe that the Fair Work Ombudsman has a critical role to play and has done some good work in identifying high-risk areas and doing audits and education programs in those areas. But in terms of visa holders, having someone independent that they can go to when they have issues about their provider and the training that has been provided to them, or about the work that they are being required to undertake as part of a training program or about what is happening to them in the workplace, we think an independent ombudsman type arrangement would be useful and appropriate for international students.”

Nigel Palmer, from the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations also informed the Committee that “at the very least, having a national commission or a national ombudsman’s office would be useful to give students a clear avenue for redress. Even where students are unable to have their issues resolved by that office, at least there is a vehicle for national reporting on the kinds of problems that are coming up through the system and areas which may need to be addressed by government.”

The idea of an education ombudsman has even been flagged by the Commonwealth Ombudsman.  In his submission to the Inquiry he noted the need for an external, as well as an internal, avenue for complaints to be made if internal mechanisms prove unsatisfactory. The role of the education ombudsman could also be combined with the Immigration Ombudsman and compliance auditing roles to “address a range of systemic failures across the international student sector.”

The Hon. Bruce Baird, in his final report into the Review of the Education Services for Overseas Students Act 2000, recommended that “all providers must utilise a statutory independent complaints body as their external complaints and appeals process, and amend the Ombudsman Act 1976 to extend the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s jurisdiction to include those providers without access to such a body.”

It is clearly evident that there is growing support for an independent complaints body for students to use, and this Bill seeks to implement an Education Ombudsman to deal specifically with these issues facing both international and domestic students.

Legislating for an Education Ombudsman, would provide a further avenue for academic disputes, monitoring and enforcing compliance of education institutions, and facilitating communication between state and federal governments and educational organisations.

I commend this Bill to the Senate.


Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010

Introduction

Advocacy for children and young people should be a national priority.  At present, child protection is a state and territory government responsibility but with increasing community awareness of the importance and broad scope of child protection, it’s time for the establishment of a national system that co-ordinates these varying state-based regulations and programs. 

The Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010 recognises the need for Australia to catch up with nations around the world, and implement a properly-resourced Federal independent statutory body to oversee the rights of young Australians with the powers to ensure recognition of their needs and views.

Last year, nations around the globe celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child; a convention that seeks to ensure that every child and young person has the best opportunity in life regardless of their ethnicity or gender.

Yet, twenty years on, as we enter a new decade the rights of children and young people continue to flounder on the national agenda.  And while it must be said that children in Australia fair better than their brothers and sisters in many parts of the world, significant steps must be taken before true representation of our commitment to the Convention can be realised.

Community support for the establishment of a Commonwealth Commissioner is growing, with the national charity organisation Save the Children reporting that 78% of Australians believe there is a role for a specific national Commissioner for children and young people1.

It is clear that if we want to effectively tackle serious problems such as child abuse, neglect poor education, poverty, youth homelessness and social disadvantage, we need to recognise the value and key role children and young people bring to the community.  In order to achieve this, Australia needs to follow the lead of countries such as New Zealand, Britain, Norway and Sweden in providing children and young people with a voice at a national level, to ensure that we adequately fulfil our international obligations as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Catherine Branson recently observed that, “the wellbeing of children…aims to empower and engage children, their families and communities, in the creation of solutions for them. A human rights framework recognises not simply a need for, but also an entitlement to, a fair life chance for all Australian children2.

The rights of children and young people must be taken seriously by their elected representatives, and it is through this legislation that for the first time, their voices and opinions will not only be heard by those that seek to represent them, but will sit higher on the national agenda. 

According to the 2008 Australia Research Alliance for Children and Young People Report Card, Australia is not performing as well as other OECD countries when it comes to many of the key indicators.  For example, Australia is ranked 20 out of 27 OECD countries for infant mortality; the rate for Indigenous Australians is more than double the non-Indigenous rate, ranking 26 out of 28 OECD countries3 .

The clear disadvantages that our Indigenous Australians, in particular, are faced are of serious concern, and should serve as a wake up call to the community at large, governments, families, businesses, and parents that we need to do more in monitoring and advocating for the wellbeing of all children and young people in Australia.  

Given Australia’s international tag as the ‘lucky country’, it is concerning that in our national pursuit for wealth and success; we have forgotten the importance of empowering our children and young people to engage in the decisions that affect them.

Whether it is children in child care or state care, in the education system, the juvenile justice system, immigration detention or homeless, in big cities, small towns or outback communities, all young people deserve to have someone looking out for their interests.

A  Commissioner for children and young people would ensure the needs, views and rights of people under the age of eighteen are recognised and promoted.  This role would promote investment in early childhood development as a priority, and outline requirements for quality childcare and early childhood services. 

Along with promoting the rights of children and young people, the Commission would monitor and review laws, policies and practices which impact on service provision.  The establishment of a Commonwealth Commissioner for children and young people will also help move the approach beyond a narrow focus only on neglect and abuse to encompass broader concepts of overall safety and wellbeing for children and young people. 

As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Australia has a responsibility in upholding the full range of human rights—civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, which are essentially underpinned by four paramount principles:

  • Non-discrimination in the applicability of children’s rights (Article 2)
  • The primacy of the consideration of the child’s best interests (Article 4)
  • The child’s right to survival and development (Article 6(1))
  • The child’s right to participation in decision-making (Article 12)

These principles should inform our approach to protecting the best interests of our children and young people.

Establishing an independent Commonwealth Commissioner for children and young people would ensure Australia’s international and domestic obligations are met and upheld.  These fundamental human rights principles provide a clear framework of minimum standards to ensure the wellbeing of our children and young people. 

While the Greens welcomed the first ever National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020, endorsed by the COAG in April, and note that the Government is exploring the potential role of a National Children’s Commissioner, we believe that the broad community support and backing from organisations such as Save the Children, UNICEF, Australian Human Rights Commission, and the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Young People, should serve as an indicator on the importance of such a role.

Given Australia is lagging behind global developments that aim to protect children, with other western countries such as Britain having had an independent Commissioner for Children for four years, establishing a Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People would help bring the different mandates of state and territory Commissioners that already exist, together within a consistent, well co-ordinated program. 

Establishing a national Commissioner will help ensure adequate protection for all who are vulnerable and disadvantaged.  Importantly, this mechanism will extend support to young non-citizens who have arrived in Australia without the protection and resources that are afforded to those with requisite visas or other authority for entry into Australia.

It is time to change business as usual when it comes to the views and opinions of children and young people.

It is time our Federal Parliament showed a real and practical move in supporting and protecting Australian kids, showing leadership for the essential need to invest and value our youngest citizens.

We need a system that embraces, invests and encourages the next generation of Australian workers and leaders, and providing a national independent body that will advocate for the needs, views, and rights of those under eighteen is essential in achieving this outcome.

For too long the rights children and young people have been swept under the carpet, put in the too hard basket, or stopped at state borders.  With my Bill for the first time, we have an opportunity to create a Commonwealth Commissioner dedicated to this purpose.

I commend the Bill to the Senate.

——————

1 As reported by AAP 19 November 2009

2 Conference paper given at Sept 2009 ARACY Conference,  How human rights can promote the wellbeing of children in Australia:

http://www.aracyconference.org.au/Wed%20IA2%201545%20Branson.pdf accessed 19 November 2009

3 Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth Report Card:

http://www.aracy.org.au/publicationDocuments/REP_report_card_the_wellbeing_of_young_Australians_A5.pdf accessed 19 November 2009


Senator HANSON-YOUNG —I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.

Ordered that the bills be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day.