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Monday, 1 September 2014
Page: 9224

Ms O'NEIL (Hotham) (19:20): I very much appreciate the chance to speak on this very important bill. In my first speech in this parliament I spoke about the special interests that I have in the welfare of children.

I am someone who has my own child, I have fostered children in the past and I am also a member of parliament who is interested in pursuing good public policy. I think all those lead you to really think about the special role that we play in this House in protecting children.

In speaking today in this bill on intercountry adoption, I want to revisit some of the statements I have made and talk about how any policy that we put in place in this House to extend adoption needs to be very balanced and it needs to put the interests of children first. In many instances this is going to mean facilitating the smoother passage of intercountry adoptions, and that of course is the subject of the bill today. But in doing so we have to ensure that Australia keeps the safeguards in place that will make sure that children are protected.

This bill has been under debate in this House for a number of months now. During the sitting break we had an incident that I guess you could say exploded in the media around Australia of issues relating to the surrogacy program that is in place in Thailand at the moment. This bill, of course, is not to do surrogacy. I raise that simply to make the point that for people of goodwill and good-thinking people, it is almost unimaginable that there are people out there in the world who will seek to use things like surrogacy and adoption for ill means. But I think we all discovered that the issues relating to baby Gammy in Thailand illustrate that there are people out there who will try to use these types of systems for really evil acts. I just want to reiterate today that what we have to strive for in this parliament is to find the right balance. I appreciate, I accept and I applaud families who go through intercountry adoption to bring children who are living in very difficult circumstances in other countries in the world—in countries where they will never have anything like the opportunities that Australian children will get—and that adoption is a very legitimate and laudable way for many Australians who cannot have children or perhaps who want to have a larger family. But there are risks and I think we need to be alive to those.

The bill before us today seeks to amend the Australian Citizenship Act so children who are adopted directly from nations who are not signatories to the Hague convention are granted Australian citizenship. That sounds a little bit complicated but what we are really saying here with the bill that we put forward today is that we are broadening the range of countries from which children can be adopted and actually become Australian citizens overseas. So it will help people who are adopting from those countries to have a smoother and simpler transition for their new child in the family to become an Australian citizen.

The amendments we are talking about today follow work undertaken by the interdepartmental committee on intercountry adoption, which made actually quite a significant series of recommendations about how intercountry adoption can be made easier. One of those recommendations was that we allow citizenship to be extended for countries that are not signatories to the Hague convention. I know that this issue is one that the community feels really strongly about, because we are talking about the welfare of children here. There is nothing better than giving a child a home who would otherwise not have one or not be in a safe and loving home. For adoption to be made smoother means that more children can potentially be welcomed into those situations in Australia.

Australians are, I think, by heart generous people and we have a long and proud history of welcoming people overseas to start new lives here. In my own electorate of Hotham, the history of migration in that area can be seen up and down almost every street along the suburbs that I represent. There are hundreds of instances every year where that is facilitated through intercountry adoption. We see somewhere between 100 and 400 families a year.

We have quite a long history of intercountry adoption in Australia. I would say that, while a vast majority of adoptions have been happy stories of creating larger and nicer families for people, there have been issues with some of those instances in the past. Through the 20th century it has become a lot easier for people to move around and forge connections. The issue of intercountry adoption has evolved and as it evolves and as people can travel more easily, the need for regulation has in one sense increased.

It is with that knowledge that Australia signed up to the Hague convention on protection of children and cooperation in respect of intercountry adoption. Australia signed up to that in 1998 and it put in place really important principles that should govern how these agreements are put into effect. I think the first one is really the most fundamental of those principles, and that is that intercountry adoption should only take place when it is in the best interests of the child and with respect to his or her fundamental rights. The Hague convention also established cooperative system amongst contracting states so that safeguards are respected and the abduction, sale of and trafficking in children is prevented. The third critical principle of that agreement was to ensure that contracting states like Australia recognise adoptions that are made in accordance with the convention. From those principles you can see that what the Hague convention is really trying to do is create a network of countries around the world who all share this strong view that intercountry adoptions should only take place when they are in the best interests of the child.

There are many families in Australia that would love to give a home to a child but are unable to have children themselves. These families often turn to adoption. I am very sympathetic about the plight of any family who want a child and have a lovely home to offer but are just unable to have a baby. As a mother I can say I know how devastating it would be not to be able to have a child for someone that desires that in their lives. I know, by and large, that families who are seeking to adopt from overseas do want to help vulnerable children. Of course, these incidences that I referred to earlier are very much the minority, but the amount of human pain and agony that is in each of those instances is so profound and so great that we simply must have laws in place to provide those protections. And when it comes to children, before almost anyone else in our society, it really is the law and it is this parliament and the people that stand in this parliament that provide those checks and balances to make sure that vulnerable children are not taken advantage of. It is the sentiment of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to respect and protect a child's interests and needs that finds expression in the Hague convention that I have talked about. We need to ensure that this sentiment finds expression in the legislation today.

I want to talk a little bit about the specific provisions of this legislation. There are many countries around the world that are signatories to the Hague convention in those countries have signed up to the principles I have talked about. But there is a view that, having signed up for those principles, Australia confers a certain, I guess, smooth transition of young children who come through that adoption program for signatories to the Hague convention. The legislation here is really extending those privileges, if you want, to a few countries that are not part of the Hague convention.

We on this side of the House will support the amendments and the general objectives of the bill, but I do want to talk a little more about the risks in place here. We are effectively removing a protection that was provided to children who might be adopted into Australia. In relatively recent times, we have seen adoption programs in parts of the world that are not signatories to the Hague convention not working very well and not protecting the interests of children. We have seen, very sadly and unfortunately, the Ethiopia-Australia intercountry adoption program closed. That was closed by the former Labor government because, in all honesty, the ministers who were responsible for overseeing the program could not be confident that the best interests of children were being protected by the partner country. One of the reasons that led to the closure of the program was Australia being able to identify orphanages in which it could have confidence as well as the increasing competition for overseas adoption in Ethiopia, which led to a very large increase in non-government agencies operating there. In that particular program, the quality of those agencies and the nature of the competitive system that had developed were reasons for deep concern, and we were hearing significant and frequent reports of issues.

To in any way trade children in a competitive system runs absolutely counter to the spirit in which almost all families go into the adoption process and counter to the Hague convention of which Australia is signatory. But these will remain a risk when we are dealing with nations that are not signatories to the Hague convention. We need to make sure that there are stringent safeguards in place if we are going to deal with countries as though they are part of the Hague convention, after all the focus on adoption must always be finding a family for the child not finding a child for families. It is paramount that we remember that children are at the centre of this process and it is their protection that is the most important thing. That ultimately should be what drives all of our legislation in this very important area.

Labor will support this bill, but there are reservations around this issue which I think anyone in this House would have to share, especially given the events that transpired with the Thailand surrogacy program over the last few months. But, of course, we do not want to stand in the path of the new happy families that can be created through intercountry adoption. There is no doubt that one of the greatest gifts Australia can give to children anywhere in the world is a safe and loving home for a child that does not have. There are 129 children who are living in loving homes now with a future full of possibilities in Australia. Those children were all adopted, I think, over the last 12 months. When we look at where those children have come from, the reality is that about half of them come from places that are not signatories to the Hague convention, so there is a need to try to provide a better process for intercountry adoption from those countries.

We can make adoption simpler. We can make it safe. We are very prosperous. We are generous here in Australia. We can give so many children good lives. That is why Labor will support a streamlined process for intercountry adoption that provides safeguards for children, and that is why I stand in support of this bill today.