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Monday, 25 June 2012
Page: 4293


Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (10:02): After careful consideration, the opposition has decided to oppose this bill. We do so mindful of the considerations recited by the coalition members of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs. We see it as an entirely unnecessary expansion of the existing very healthy human rights bureaucracy—unnecessary because there is no function that the proposed Children's Commissioner would discharge which is not already dealt with by like offices in the states and territories.

The Australian Human Rights Commission currently consists of a president and six commissioners dealing with specific areas—namely, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner; the Age Discrimination Commissioner; the Disability Discrimination Commissioner; the Race Discrimination Commissioner; and the Sex Discrimination Commissioner—as well as the human rights responsibilities that vest in the president. The coalition has supported the expansion of the remit of the Australian Human Rights Commission to deal with particular sectoral areas. In particular, most recently the coalition supported the amendment to the Human Rights Act to include as an additional commissioner an age discrimination commissioner, so it cannot truthfully be said that the opposition is not disposed to supporting expansion of the human rights apparatus of the Commonwealth in appropriate cases. But each of the cases where the government seeks to expand the human rights apparatus must be an appropriate case. It annoys me, I must say, that when in a simple-minded fashion some politicians say, 'This is a human rights issue' there is a presumption for that reason alone, merely because it is given a rhetorical label, that there is an obligation to support it rather than to ask the intelligent questions which careful legislators ought to ask—that is, whether this genuinely is a human rights issue, whether there is an unmet human rights need identified and whether that unmet human rights need will be suitably or properly addressed by the legislative measure being propounded.

In this case the answer, on a careful consideration of the bill, is no, there is no unmet human rights need which this bill addresses. There are of course human rights needs of children—there is no question about that—and the opposition supports the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. In fact one of the prime movers for the creation a quarter of a century ago of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child was an Australian Liberal, a friend of mine, the late Robert Nestdale, who was at the time the chief executive officer of UNICEF Australia. So on our side of the aisle we not only support appropriate measures to protect the rights of children within the human rights framework; but it was to a significant degree because of a member of the Liberal Party of Australia operating through international agencies, in particular UNICEF, that we have the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. We oppose this bill because it is unnecessary. It does involve an additional expenditure of Commonwealth money—$3.5 million over four years. That is not in the scheme of things an enormous amount of money; however, at a time of budgetary constraint due to four years of profligacy and awesome waste any new expenditure measure should begin with a presumption against it. But we oppose this bill because this commissioner will have no work to do that is not already being done in the Australian public sector. Every state and territory has an equivalent office. The protection of children in this country is exclusively a function of the state and territory governments, and in each state and territory there is an officer and a department of children's services responsible for the guardianship of children, the protection of their interests, their removal from circumstances in which they may be in physical, emotional or moral danger, and such other protective measures as are dictated by the acts of the various state parliaments.

I know from my own experience as a legal practitioner in Queensland that those state departments of children's services, however described in the various states and territories, are very busy. They have a great deal of work to do. They have a large caseload and their resources are stretched. This commissioner, the Children's Commissioner, will have no caseload at all—none. The relatively modest amount of money, $3.5 million over four years, which the government proposes to spend on this commissioner could, in the opposition's view, be better spent were it contributed to the financial support of those state and territory agencies which actually do protect children. Let me say that again: they have a large and busy caseload. They are underresourced. The child protection function with which they are charged by state and territory acts of parliament could be better fulfilled if they were better resourced. If you were seriously interested in the protection of children, you would properly resource the agencies which have an actual caseload rather than spend the money on an advocacy role—because that is, in effect, all this legislation provides for: an advocacy role.

I said a moment ago that this legislation duplicates what the states and territories do. Not only do the state and territory children's services departments or equivalent officers have a caseload, not only do they look after children in distressed and necessitous circumstances; they also have an advocacy role which, within the limitations of their resources, they discharge fully. So, again, it is not as if the importance of advocating for the human rights of children is an unmet need in this country; it is a need that is being fulfilled at the state and territory level.

So we come to the question that we must always ask whenever a government proposes to create a new statutory office or to expand an existing bureaucracy: what is this person meant to do? Well, not very much. What this person is meant to do is to engage in advocacy and, in particular, it appears, advocacy of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Advocacy unaccompanied by casework that actually deals with the needs of children in distressed circumstances amounts to very little other than pieties. I am sure we will hear some pieties from the government and perhaps from the Greens about how important this role is. Resource the states to deal with children who are in distress, if you want to protect human rights. Too much of the human rights dialogue in this country is based entirely on pieties which do not translate into practical action on the ground to look after the interests of those in whose name the need for the new bureaucracy is invoked.

The opposition, as I say, oppose this measure. We support an appropriate apparatus of human rights protections in those areas where the Commonwealth can do something useful. We support the state and territory agencies which handle the caseloads of children who actually need the intervention of government to protect them. It is actually quite an old function of government, intervening to protect children who need that protection. We regret the fact that the state and territory agencies are insufficiently resourced. But, for as long as the human rights debate in this country is conducted only at the level of pieties and without sufficient emphasis on the importance of results, care for those in need and the application of actual resources to specific individuals—in this case, to specific individual children who need the help of government to be protected from circumstances beyond their own control—we will have a degraded human rights discussion. So many of the human rights discussions we have in this chamber have that degraded, abstract quality: they are not about people; they are about airy sentiments which somehow never translate into helping the people in need in real communities. It is because we are concerned that the debate about the rights of children seems to be taking that turn that we are unpersuaded by the need for this bill.