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Monday, 25 June 2012
Page: 4298

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (10:29): I rise to speak to the Australian Human Rights Commission Amendment (National Children's Commissioner) Bill 2012, the culmination of a long-held Gillard Labor policy designed to strengthen human rights and to improve the lives and treatment of children and young people right across Australia. Promoting the rights, wellbeing and development of all Australians is a fundamental priority for the Gillard Labor government. Since Labor came to government, it has undertaken a number of substantial policy and cultural shifts that emphasise the importance of human rights. The evidence is in the nationwide conversation that Labor began on how to strengthen human rights, which led to each bill that comes before parliament being scrutinised for compatibility with our human rights obligations. The evidence is in the much-needed investigations into the culture and sexual misconduct and bullying in the defence forces now being carried out by the Department of Defence, with the assistance of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick. The evidence is also in the Labor government's preparedness to strengthen the investigative infrastructure we have in this country to protect against abuse and ill treatment in detention through the optional protocol to the convention against torture.

This bill provides a much-needed focus on the rights, safety and needs of children and young people, who are amongst the most vulnerable in our community to neglect and ill-treatment. They are a group of people who are amongst those most at risk of falling through the cracks without strong institutional support and oversight. We know that our nation's future depends on their reaching their full potential, and their reaching their full potential means fully enjoying the rights to live and participate in our society so that they can one day become our future leaders.

Labor came to government with a longstanding policy for supporting and protecting families and children. Across all areas of government, including family law, education and early childhood, youth health policies and programs of child protection and welfare, we are working to improve the wellbeing, rights and safety of Australia's children. In 2009, Labor delivered the first ever National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children. The national framework outlines an ambitious, long-term national approach to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of Australia's children. It aims to deliver a substantial and sustained reduction in levels of child abuse and neglect. In February 2011, Labor delivered Australia's first National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. The national plan focuses on preventing violence by raising awareness and building respectful relationships between young people to foster attitudes and behaviours that reject violence against women.

We have made unprecedented investments to close the gap and address the unacceptable levels of disadvantage faced by too many Indigenous children. The Labor government is committed to working in partnership with Indigenous families to deliver better opportunities for Indigenous children. But children and young people also need a voice at the national level that speaks out for their interests and their rights. Labor has sought to do this in a number of ways. We have given young people new ways to speak out for themselves, by providing forums for young people to organise, to lobby and to advocate, like the Australian Youth Forum, and by funding the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition. These reforms allow young people to represent themselves and speak about the things they truly value that are affecting their lives and about which they are most concerned. But the truth is there are many young people who do not have the capacity to speak out for themselves. They need an independent voice, one who is able to monitor and oversee the treatment and the system that affect young people.

The National Children's Commissioner is designed to be that advocate. It will be a strong and forceful voice for Australia's children and young people and will play a proactive and positive role in their wellbeing and development. The bill places that advocate within the Australian Human Rights Commission, the right place for this role to be and the right place to complement the other commissioners and responsibilities of the Australian Human Rights Commission. The 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 is adequately recognising and protecting the rights of children in Australia and will report on its findings to government. The commissioner will consult directly with children and their representative organisations, which will ensure they can influence the development of policies and programs that affect them at the Commonwealth level. This will signal to children and young people that we as adults think that they matter, that we value their childhood and that we listen to their needs, hopes and aspirations.

Importantly, the National Children's Commissioner will have a clear focus on vulnerable or at-risk children, such as children with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, homeless children or those who are witnessing or subjected to violence. The commissioner will give a voice to those groups of vulnerable children that have not had one in the past. A National Children's Commissioner will also provide an annual report to government on key issues affecting the human rights of our children, their wellbeing and their development, and that will be tabled through the parliament. The position will also contribute to meeting Australia's obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and reinforce our commitment to our international obligations and relationships with the United Nations. It is another example of how Australia is turning commitments made during its Universal Periodic Review at the UN into a reality.

I want to recognise the contribution of the previous speaker, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, and her interest in this issue, including her private member's bill on this topic. This bill differs from that of the Greens in that it does not seek to duplicate the roles of state and territory children's commissioners, but the National Children's Commissioner will seek to work with them to identify issues of national importance. The commissioner will not have a guardianship role or 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, as that is already carried out at the state level. However, the Children's Commissioner will have a limited role to seek leave to intervene in court proceedings which raise significant children's rights issues, but this will not extend to representing individual children. Instead, it is very much a system-wide policy role, one that is vitally needed as more and more institutions become, I think rightly, more focused on human rights in Australia. As that conversation on the role of human rights in this country continues to gain momentum and exposure, many institutions will be looking for guidance on how to best protect the rights of the patrons—their stakeholders, the people—that their activities and policies affect. I do believe that the National Children's Commissioner will be able to fill that role.

The Gillard Labor government is implementing important policy reform that complements this role and redoubles the recognition of human rights in our legislative and policy framework. One of the other examples, which is also likely to result in greater responsibility for the Australian Human Rights Commission in monitoring and investigating situations of potential human rights abuse, is the Australian government's ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, or OPCAT. Australia has been party to the optional protocol to the convention against torture since 1989, along with most other nations.

Senator Brandis: Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order related to relevance. We are debating an amendment to the Human Rights Act to create a Children's Commissioner—we are not debating the optional protocol to the convention against torture or other human rights instruments. I accept that it is proper for a senator to provide context but providing context does not extend to dealing in detail with measures that are unrelated to the measure before the chamber.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Edwards ): A wide interpretation of relevance has always been a feature of this chamber. There is no point of order.

Senator SINGH: If Senator Brandis continues to listen to my contribution, he will see how OPCAT is very much relevant to the bill before us. The convention against torture, which we have been a party to since 1989, creates an obligation for states to prevent torture within their jurisdiction. But the optional protocol goes a step further. It requires states to establish national preventative mechanisms to monitor the places—particularly places of detention—in which there is a high risk of torture. It also establishes an independent international Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture with the responsibility of visiting nations and inspecting and monitoring those same places.

Under the Howard government, the coalition rejected OPCAT, as it rejected the concept of multilateralism and of learning from our partners across the globe. I am pleased that the Labor government has reversed this short-sighted policy, signed OPCAT and announced its intention to ratify the protocol. The experience of the many nations who have ratified OPCAT and implemented an NPM—which can be a new institution or an existing body—is that OPCAT has helped them deliver better human rights protections and administrative and judicial detention systems that are less liable to litigation and risk. In jurisdictions similar to Australia, like the United Kingdom and New Zealand, ratification has helped to create useful standards or identify system-wide and recurrent issues in detention facilities. This experience provides a firm, evidence based argument for countries like Australia, and I hope allies such as the United States, to accede to the protocol.

In these cases, OPCAT has served to emphasise the notion that torture and cruel and degrading treatment is neither acceptable nor helpful. There can be no excuse or justification for practices that hurt or humiliate people in order to intimidate, punish or coerce them. No matter what the suspicion, conviction or circumstance, people are entitled to have their human dignity respected.

There was considerable discussion within the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, of which I am a member, about the OPCAT recommendations, and I want to thank all members for their engagement with the issue. The committee's recommendations reflect very much what has gone on in other jurisdictions. For example, I know that in my home state of Tasmania Breaking the cycle: strategic plan for Tasmanian corrections explored options for the establishment of an independent prisons inspectorate.

I have no doubt that Australian authorities and agencies will be able to use the new functions that will flow from OPCAT to learn how to deliver police, judicial and correctional practices that are more aware of human rights and the risk of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment. A more human-rights-aware community, especially in those areas where the risk of human rights breaches is elevated, can only be a good thing. OPCAT will have implications for children who remain in detention in Australia, and the valuable information sharing that will go on with the new commissioner is important in relation to OPCAT and those other human rights instruments that fall under the jurisdiction of our Australian Human Rights Commission.

I would like to thank the various non-government organisations such as UNICEF and a number of other youth organisations for their support along this journey to bring this bill to the parliament. As I said at the outset, the bill provides a much-needed focus on the rights, safety and needs of children and young people, who are amongst the most vulnerable in our community to neglect and ill-treatment, giving them advocacy and a voice. I also commend this bill to the Senate as it is the culmination of so many people's work for so long—people who have dedicated their lives to protecting children and young people in often incredibly difficult circumstances. Our focusing on the rights of people, especially vulnerable young people, in Australia as well as elsewhere in the world, is overdue. I am very pleased that human rights has received much more attention in the last four or five years than it did in the previous decade.

We know we are talking about a group of people who are amongst the most vulnerable, who can fall between the cracks. Without our strong institutional support, which is provided through the introduction of a National Children's Commissioner, which this bill provides for, they could continue to fall through the cracks. Providing for the best interests of children and young people in Australia through this advocacy of a National Children's Commissioner is something that we should commend and support, and we thank those who have worked for and supported the bill along its journey to the parliament.