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Monday, 1 September 2014
Page: 9227

Mr RUDDOCK (BerowraChief Government Whip) (19:33): I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Intercountry Adoption) Bill 2014. I have had an interest in matters relating to intercountry adoption over a long period of time. My comments may in fact take a different perspective in part to that put by the member who preceded me. I have no personal interest in the issue of intercountry adoption. I have been fortunate to have children of my own and grandchildren. But I do know people who are relatively close to me who have sought to adopt children who find it in enormously difficult to do so. In part, I have come to a view that a lot of the bureaucracy that has been developed over time has been designed to limit the opportunities for overseas adoption rather than to promote the opportunities overseas adoption. I think that is an unfortunate outcome because there are children in great need of assistance abroad and there are Australian couples who are unable to have children of their own who would be loving parents. To be able to match them, in my judgement, is something that should be encouraged. I have had people who I have known who have adopted children. I have seen them brought up and I know that that family has provided that sort of environment for the child.

This legislation needs to be understood in the context of some fundamental changes that the government is intending. I want to put that beyond doubt. While the legislation itself deals particularly with the need to facilitate the grant of Australian citizenship to children adopted by Australian citizens under bilateral adoption arrangements between Australia and countries that are not a party to the Hague convention on intercountry adoption, this measure will ensure that such children who otherwise would have required a passport from their home country will be able to travel on an Australian document on the basis of their Australian citizenship. That will facilitate their entry to Australia being undertaken far more quickly and easily than might have otherwise been the case. That is what the bill does.

But if you go to the Prime Minister's speech introducing this—and this is an unusual bill in the sense that, while it deals with the citizenship issues relating to intercountry adoption, the Prime Minister wanted to make it clear, and I want to agree with him, that for too long it has been too hard to adopt—he said that for too long this has been a no-go zone. The Prime Minister makes it clear that there are too many children who have no parents, or no effective parents, who deserve a better life and that adoption is a way of giving it to them. I could not agree more. He went on:

The government wants to make it easier to adopt when it is in the best interests of the child. We do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past, but we do want to remove the red tape—

and those factors that reduce delays. And further, the Prime Minister said:

So in December last year I announced that the government would improve overseas adoption by the end of this year.

The government has been delivering on it. He went on:

… the government has considered a report by senior officials on options to reform overseas adoption which was informed by over 100 submissions from the public.

The Prime Minister then said:

We have announced improvements to the process for families adopting children from Taiwan and South Korea.

We have opened a new overseas adoption program with South Africa—and are commencing discussions with seven other countries …

He further made it clear that the Council of Australian Governments, COAG, had agreed in principle to a new national overseas adoption service from 2015. Then he spoke of the matters that the Minister for Immigration was dealing with.

Why do I take an interest in these matters? It may surprise you, Mr Deputy Speaker, but back in March 1991, I addressed a question to the then minister for immigration, Gerry Hand. I asked him about consultations taking place between the government sector and non-government organisations and about resolutions of the Social Welfare Administrators Conference that were made in June 1990 on the issue of overseas adoptions. I believe that was when it was decided that all states should close their intercountry adoption registers. I asked why, because it seemed to me that we were making it more difficult for prospective parents to be able to adopt. I asked whether it was resolved to consider new programs only at the request of government-recognised welfare authorities and, if so, why? I also asked:

Does the term "government recognised welfare authorities" include both overseas adoption agencies that have been recognised or registered by the Government and the appointed adoption authority of that country, in the terminology used in principle 3 of the Joint Committee report of April 1986.

I was particularly concerned that what we had seen was a closing of registers that enabled children to be accessed. I was concerned that there were some, I think, prejudicial views that had informed this discussion. I raised that matter because, in 1994, I had the opportunity to do what members opposite are now doing and that is speaking to a bill introduced by the then government. That bill, the Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Amendment Bill 1993 gave certain guardianship powers of non-citizen children to state and territory governments rather than to the federal minister. While we did not stand in the way of it, I was concerned at the way in which a lot of the decisions had been made in this area. I want to repeat what I had to say in 1994 because I thought it was particularly germane at the time. While the opposition did support the bill at that time I did say that, having previously held some responsibility as shadow minister for immigration, I was not comfortable with a lot of the secrecy and the approaches between the Commonwealth and states, and meetings involving state welfare ministers in the various practices that states sought to put in place.

I was concerned that at that time Western Australia had had an inquiry in relation to overseas adoptions and in that inquiry they had found concerns about early Australian practices in relation to domestic adoptions involving Aboriginal children where it was alleged that, in some cases, children were removed from their families and placed in foster care situations in Australia. Because of the issues in relation to separated children we were being asked to take a much more critical view of the way in which overseas adoptions might be considered. It impacted upon the way in which state government officials were advising their governments on the way in which these issues should be addressed. It troubled me as to whether that was the appropriate way for overseas adoptions to be considered.

When Deborra-Lee Furness established her adoption awareness program through the creation of the National Adoption Awareness Week—she was one of the creators and patrons of the Lighthouse Foundation—there was a new enthusiasm to look at overseas adoption. I want to single her out as someone who has, I think, helped to change attitudes in relation to these matters. I think she helped to familiarise the Prime Minister with the need for these reforms. In a sense I am disappointed that, in dealing with the states, as I had to when I was the Attorney-General, in discussing some of these issues I found there was not a ready acceptance, as I think has now emerged, to entertain a number of these issues.

I go back to the comments of the member for Hotham. In terms of the Hague convention and the issues that go to the need to provide appropriate care for children I do not wish to see those matters in any way compromised. But I think we need to ensure that where Australians have satisfied the requirements to be prospective adoptive parents they should not be unreasonably excluded, as I think many are, left waiting, sometimes until they are then judged to be too old to adopt, when there are so many children living in institutional care abroad, who, if they were able to come to Australia would have a better life.

I think long-term institutional care is much less satisfactory than putting children into a loving family relationship where they are able to be fully supported. In fact, if you look at the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, you will see that it says:

… the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding …

That starts to put this issue into perspective. This legislation is important because it starts to reposition Australia in these matters. I strongly support the legislation, but I look forward to the further measures that the government is intending to press.

I again reiterate my personal admiration for Deborra-Lee Furness for the leadership she has taken in this area and for the way in which she has started to change community attitudes. In my view, over time, many more children will be able to be more adequately assisted and will be able to live far more satisfactory lives than if they were left in institutional care abroad.