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Monday, 25 June 2012
Page: 4295

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (10:14): I rise today to speak in strong favour of the Australian Human Rights Commission Amendment (National Children's Commissioner) Bill 2012. It is high time that this legislation passed through this place. We know, just looking back through history, that Australia signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990—that was under Hawke government—thus enshrining our commitment to children's rights, not just here in Australia but also around the world.

One of our obligations when we signed that convention was to establish a national position such as this—a Commonwealth commissioner who could advocate for, look after, represent and speak for the best interests of children and young people in Australia. That was over 20 years ago and we are still here debating this issue. In 2012, it is well and truly time for this position to be established. It was only in March this year that I stood in this chamber to debate my own bill to establish a children's commissioner. I am thankful to see the government adopt this position and now to see legislation passing through the parliament. I listened to Senator Brandis's speech and, while I note what he said, I am extremely disappointed that the opposition will not be supporting this legislation. But, regardless of that, with the Greens supporting this legislation, it will pass the parliament today.

It is absolutely important that we give our youngest citizens an ability to have somebody to speak for their rights and speak in their best interests. We know that this position will be housed under the Australian Human Rights Commission. That body already has a number of commissioners who speak for those who are vulnerable in our community, those with special needs, whether it is the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, the Race Discrimination Commissioner, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner or the Age Discrimination Commissioner. All of those positions speak and advocate for the best interests, and shine a spotlight, on what as decision makers we could do better to look after those in our communities who are vulnerable simply because of—through no fault of their own—who they are. Children and young people in this country deserve a similar person to speak up for them. We are here as elected representatives, voted for by our communities. Young people in this country do not get an opportunity to vote until they turn 18. They have no-one who is officially there in any capacity to stand up for their rights and in their best interests.

Human rights organisations, children's support and welfare organisations around this country have been pushing long and hard for this position to be established. It is down to their hard work that this position will become a reality, that we will now have a National Children's Commissioner. When you look at the statistics, there would be no good reason not to have somebody advocating and shining a spotlight on what it is that governments--whether federal or state—and other elected representatives and decision makers in this place and in the other place just over the corridor, should be doing to strengthen the opportunities and the protections for children and young people.

We know that the highest number of people who are homeless--day in, day out—are young people. Those under the age of 18 make up the highest number of people living homeless on our streets in the cities and in our country towns. It is paramount that we start to do something to offer support and actual change to the realities that these young people live by. We know that the statistics of young Indigenous people are horrific when you compare those with the statistics of non-Indigenous children. Their health and education rates far outstrip the vulnerabilities of other children in this country. Of course, that is something that this role can specifically focus on.

Children with disabilities are in a particularly vulnerable category. While we have a commissioner for disabilities being able to advocate for people to become more able in their communities and looked after, represented and treated with dignity, it would be wonderful to see a children's commissioner work side by side with their fellow human rights commissioners to lift the standard of care and protection for children with disabilities. Young people who have come here as noncitizens—recently arrived migrants, those on refugee visas, those seeking asylum or simply new arrivals—are at a particular risk as well. This position could and should advocate specifically for their needs.

This bill in its current form did go to a brief Senate inquiry. We heard directly from organisations who wanted to see this position established that we needed to make sure that this role focused on the most vulnerable young people in our communities: those who are here as recent arrivals, Indigenous children and children with disabilities. They are the three key categories of children who are at risk. We know that those children who are in out-of-home care tend to fall into a number of those three categories. We know that the levels of mental illness amongst Australia's young people is skyrocketing out of control. We know that the issues and the struggles of young people battling mental illness are growing day by day. Statistics come out almost on a weekly basis about how dire and insufficient our community services are at dealing with the rising level of mental illness amongst Australia's young people and children. It is important that this particular role pinpoints what it is that government and decision makers should be doing to increase how we care for our most vulnerable young people and children.

I spent a good length of time talking to advocates in relation to the role of the Children's Commissioner when I first introduced my bill into this place. I distinctly remember having a discussion with young people who said: 'We don't feel like we have a voice. We want to know there is somewhere that we can go and someone we can talk to about the things that concern us the most, and engage with us about the things that we want to see dealt with in our communities.' These are amazing young people. They got together as a group and got themselves to Canberra, to Parliament House, and said on behalf of other young people: 'We want to see a special advocate for our rights and our needs, and for the needs of our peers who are in a more vulnerable position.' These young people knocked on the doors of parliamentarians in this place for many years, and that is why this position is being established. Organisations like UNICEF Australia, in particular, put a lot of time into the creation of this position. We know that various different youth services—for example, SNAKE, the organisation that advocates for Indigenous young people—put a lot of time into this bill, and they all support this bill going forward, which I think is absolutely fantastic.

It has taken us 20 years to get to this point. I would have liked to have seen this legislation passed a long time ago. But, finally, today, it seems as though it is going to happen. It is significant that last year when the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay, was in Australia she called directly on political leaders here to establish this position. She urged the government directly that it was time Australia stopped dragging its feet on establishing a children's commissioner and simply got on and delivered. It is something that we had not done and there was no explanation for it as far as she could see. It is fantastic that we are now in the position where we will be able to report back to the United Nations and say: 'We have done this now. We've taken our obligations seriously. Yes, it took us 20 years, but we have now established this position.'

A number of comments were made by the Human Rights Commission in relation to this bill when it was first introduced into the House of Representatives. They spoke of making sure that the legislation for this position was underscored by the various international human rights instruments, to give it strength, understanding and direction. The Human Rights Commissioner, Catherine Branson, noted in her submission on the bill the key areas where this commissioner should focus its time—that is, of course, in relation to the various protocols and optional protocols under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We also know that the only way to make this position really work and to give it the ability to deliver fruitful outcomes is to ensure that it is properly funded. While there is some money in this year's budget for the Children's Commissioner, I directly urge the government to make sure that they give it what is needed to allow this position to do its very, very important work. Do not fall foul of the criticisms of those opposite, who have made it very clear that they do not want this position to go ahead. Make sure you fund it properly so it can do the work, deliver the outcomes, contribute positively to human rights and provide for the best interests of children and young people right throughout the nation, particularly those from the most vulnerable groups.

I commend the bill to the Senate. It is high time this legislation was passed. It is high time Australia took the rights of children seriously. This is the future of our country. These young people will become the workers of tomorrow. They will ensure that our economy ticks over when the rest of us are getting older and are not able to contribute as perhaps we once did. This is a crucial role in being able speak up for the most vulnerable children in our community. When there are, as Senator Brandis pointed out, various different roles in relation to guardians and commissioners across the different states, let us have somebody at a national level who is able to bring together the best practices from around the country to make sure that, regardless of which state or territory the young person lives in, their rights are important and that the care that the government of the day has for them is clearly understood by all decision makers. Our younger citizens, the future leaders of our country, must have the ability to contribute and be the best they can possibly be, and that will be strengthened and underpinned by decision makers acting in their best interests. That will come from having somebody shine the spotlight on where we can do things better, what the best practice is and what we should adopt, which will ensure that in the eyes of the rest of the world Australia is putting the rights of our younger citizens first and foremost. I commend the bill to the Senate.