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Monday, 22 September 2014
Page: 9944

Mrs GRIGGS (Solomon) (13:11): This is an issue that is close to the hearts of many women and men in Australia today. It is a proud moment for me, as a representative of the people of Solomon and the Northern Territory, to be able to stand here in this parliament today to debate this very important piece of legislation.

While I am not at liberty to identify them by name, I would like to dedicate this speech to the couples that I have spoken to during my time as a local member who have been pushing for changes to the rules surrounding overseas adoption. While they have not been substantial in number, the passion, the emotion and also the very good sense that these people have brought to this discussion has been both powerful and compelling. I strongly emphasise with their predicament and with their determination to have a family. The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Intercountry Adoption) Bill will go some way towards simplifying the overseas adoption process for them and for other couples in my electorate.

Children give life to families and give enormous personal and collective joy, on an individual basis as well as to couples and families more broadly. In recent months, I have been reminded of this. Our son and his wife just had a baby, Evie. She has brought amazing joy to the family and is quite extraordinary. Evie has been brought into a loving, stable family with lots of extended family to dote over her and spoil her. But the same cannot be said for countless other children who have been born both overseas and in Australia.

There are pockets of tremendous disadvantage in the Northern Territory, particularly in some remote communities. There are places that are very tough for the adults that live there, let alone for the children. Notwithstanding these challenges, every child has a right to be brought up in a loving, supportive family. It follows that parents have a responsibility to provide the type of environment where children can thrive and prosper.

This government has indicated a willingness to support parents in providing the best opportunities for their children and there is a mutual obligation for that. This is the balance that federal and territory governments are trying to strike with their policies as they relate to the delivery of welfare and school attendance. It is about protecting the interests of children. I say this because I think it is important that this government cannot be accused of turning a blind eye to disadvantage in its own backyard while legislating to support children from overseas.

But today's legislation is focused specifically around improving the processes around overseas adoption and, as the Prime Minister said in his second reading speech, for too long adoption has been in the too-hard basket. For too long it has been too hard to adopt and for too long it has been a policy no-go zone. As I alluded to earlier, one of the greatest rewards of being a member of parliament is that I am able to in a small way be involved in helping people improve their lives and be involved in making decisions that have a positive impact within families. In opposition the Prime Minister identified a raft of red tape within the overseas adoption process that created a barrier to the smooth facilitation of child adoption. Already the government has improved the processes for families adopting from Taiwan and South Korea, a new overseas adoption program has been opened with South Africa and discussions have already commenced with seven other countries.

As part of the process of enabling overseas adoption in Australia the Prime Minister has commissioned a interdepartmental committee report. The committee is charged with identifying options for implementing reforms within Australia. Chaired by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the committee has senior representatives from the Attorney-General's Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection as well as the Department of Social Services. I recommend anybody considering adopting a child from overseas, or with an interest in this subject, read this report. It is well researched, informative and takes an eyes wide open approach to this complex and sometimes emotive issue.

In the process of removing overseas adoptions from the too-hard basket, the government is well aware of some of the pitfalls that could potentially derail trust in this scheme and damage its reputation permanently. For instance, Australian authorities suspended the overseas adoption program with India as a result of child-trafficking allegations. It is a given that Australia requires that all programs be ethical and meet the standards and principles set by The Hague convention. This was ratified in 1993 and underpins the framework under which overseas adoptions have taken place over the past two decades. At its core the two key principles are: firstly, that the best interests of the child are the paramount consideration in all convention countries and, secondly, that adoption is subsidiary to care by family, and intercountry adoption is subsidiary to domestic adoption.

The report identifies that the practice of legally adopting a child from another country was first practised widely by the United States as a humanitarian response to the enormous number of children from Germany, Italy and Greece orphaned during World War II. In Australia it was not until the Vietnam War and the resultant war in Cambodia that overseas adoptions were practised in significant numbers. The report says that in the final days of the Vietnam War the Australian government authorised two dramatic airlifts of about 280 children from orphanages in Saigon to be adopted by Australian families. This was part of the US-led initiative known as Operation Babylift that saw over 2,500 Vietnamese orphans removed from their war torn country.

While a number of factors have contributed to a recent decline in the number of overseas adoptions worldwide, including strengthening economies in the South-East Asian region, the number of overseas adoptions in Australia is, in comparison to other developed nations, relatively low. I say this based on the discussions I had with the constituents I referred to earlier. They were unable to have children naturally or through IVF and found themselves being stymied by red tape during the overseas adoption process. This was extremely frustrating for them and, speaking generally, they felt frustrated and angry at a bureaucracy that put up roadblocks where there should not have been any.

Throughout the 1980s the number of overseas adoptions peaked at 420 and in the 1990s it dropped to a relatively constant figure of around 250. Australian ratification of The Hague convention in 1998 and an increase in adoptions from China saw numbers increase again, peaking at around 434 in the 2004-05 financial year, but we saw the number decline to 129 in the 2012-13 financial year.

The report says that the number of adoptions by Australians of overseas children is among the lowest of any developed country. That was the point I made earlier. It says the proportion of children adopted with special needs, such as being older or members of sibling groups or having disabilities or medical conditions, is exceptionally low compared with those in other developed countries. Numerically, rather than as a percentage of the population, it does certainly appear that Australia is behind the eight ball when it comes to overseas adoptions. In 2010, for instance, there were 222 intercountry adoptions in Australia. This compared to 655 in Sweden, a country with less than half of our population. The Netherlands, with about 16 million people, had 697 adoptions. Canada, with 35 million people, has an overseas adoption rate almost nine times that of Australia. Americans adopt by far the most children from overseas—with 12,149 adoptions in 2010.

As I said earlier, improving economic conditions in developing countries is one reason identified in the report for a substantial reduction over the past decade or so in adoptions. With the decline in Australia of around 60 per cent between 2004 and 2010 on a par with other Western nations, but by any measure the figure is, as I said, still pretty low. In my jurisdiction of the Northern Territory, the number has increased from one in the 2009-10 financial year to nine in 2011-12 and to 10 in the 2012-13 financial year. This was in part as a result of amendments made by the Northern Territory government that meant children born overseas could be issued with a full Australian birth certificate. Probably, the key recommendation in the interdepartmental report—and this is what we are discussing today—is recommendation (2), which enables children from non-Hague signatory countries with which Australia has a bilateral arrangement to obtain citizenship in their country of origin, where one or both of the adoptive parents is an Australian citizen.

At present children adopted by Australian citizens under bilateral arrangements require a passport from their home country and Australian adoption visa to travel to Australia. As the Prime Minister has already said, this imposes an additional complexity and cost on the adopting families. This bill will allow children to be granted citizenship as soon as the adoption is completed they will then be able to travel to Australia on an Australian passport with the new families as Australian citizens. It goes without saying that Australia will be very careful about with whom it strikes bilateral arrangements and that these agreements have in place the standards and safeguards that ensure the process is transparent, open and accountable.

The government does not pretend that the amendment today is a silver bullet that will certainly lead to overseas adoption rates soaring, but we are of the view that, if we do not start somewhere, nothing will improve. This legislation is a step forward and not the complete journey; as the government, we know there is still more to be done. But through the passage of this bill the Australian community can see for themselves the benefits of having a united government with a clear, coherent narrative as opposed to one that is divided, lacks focus and cannot wait to get out of office. Government is about helping people and helping the country. I think both those boxes are ticked with this amendment. The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Intercountry Adoption) Bill will help to give life to families and give life to neighbourhoods and communities. It is impossible to underestimate the pleasure that children can bring—watching them develop from infancy to childhood through their teen years to adulthood and eventually having their own families. It is with great pleasure that I commend this legislation to the House.