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Monday, 22 September 2014
Page: 9980

Ms GAMBARO (Brisbane) (15:31): I am very pleased to be speaking on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Intercountry Adoption) Bill 2014. The purpose of this bill is to facilitate the granting of Australian citizenship to children who have been adopted by Australian citizens under the bilateral adoption arrangements between Australia and countries that are not party to the Hague convention on intercountry adoption. As the Prime Minister said in the House on 29 May this year, policy reform and progress on intercountry adopting has been in the too-hard basket for far too long and simply because of red tape.

This bill has at its very heart a humanitarian focus that looks to remove the unnecessary red tape that gets in the way of children from around the world who have no parents or no effective parents being able to have a much better life in Australia. When you look at the state of the world at the moment, with the rise of mindless terror and vicious international criminal conduct, it is imperative that all of us do all we can to remove the barriers for entry for these children. That is absolutely clear. To this end I find it more gratifying that the policy focus of the bill in removing red tape for these children to have a safe and loving home in this country is not just a symbolic gesture but very real. It will produce outcomes that will make very positive and tangible differences to the lives of so many children around the world.

Earlier Madam Speaker was in the chair. I want to pay tribute to her and the work she and her committee did many years ago in this area. Too often in the past seven years the people of Australia have had their expectations falsely built up by symbolic actions with no substance behind them, but this bill is different because this government is different. Indeed, this promise was made by the Prime Minister in December last year when he committed to reforming overseas adoptions by the end of 2014.

To this end, on 19 December last year Prime Minister Abbott announced that he would establish the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption to consider options for reform and to improve intercountry adoption processes. There were a total of 108 submissions. Twenty-six were from organisations and the remainder came from individuals representing adult adoptees, adoptive and prospective parents, academics and individuals with a professional interest in intercountry adoption, and parents and children who are now adults deeply affected by past practices of forced adoptions. In addition, the Prime Minister received 60 items of correspondence on intercountry adoption reform.

Submissions made to the interdepartmental committee expressed a significant level of frustration with Australia's current approach to intercountry adoption. The particular issues raised were the Commonwealth's approach to selecting intercountry adoption partner countries, the quality of the states and territories' administration and level of support provided to prospective adoptive parents, the cost, the waiting times, the uncertainty of outcomes not only overseas but also within Australia, and the standard of postadoption support services. There were other criticisms that related to the current Commonwealth-state model of regulating intercountry adoption and the lack of nationally consistent laws, policy and procedures. That made it really difficult for families who had moved interstate and across territories to receive consistent and predictable levels of support. It also made it very difficult to provide consistent outcomes across Australia.

Taken as a whole these frustrations can represent significant impediments to Australians considering intercountry adoption. Given the frustrating history, the interdepartmental committee itself stressed that there is an imperative to be clear about the impact that any reforms are likely to have on these impediments to ensure expectations of families are realistic with regard to the future of intercountry adoption in Australia and to make clear that in many cases they will go towards improving the experience of people participating in intercountry adoption rather than making a dramatic change in the rate of adoptions.

It should also be noted that 24 of the submissions made to the committee did not support intercountry adoption and highlighted concerns with the safeguards in place to protect parents and children from unlawful practices and the effects on children growing up outside their culture. Such concerns were acknowledged up-front by the Prime Minister in his second reading speech, when he said:

We do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past, but we do want to remove the red tape and reduce the delays—that do not benefit anyone.

The interdepartmental committee noted that Australia is committed to ensuring that all parties to intercountry adoption arrangements are protected from exploitation and abuses. These vulnerable parties clearly include children and birth families, where a child has been relinquished, and the prospective adoptive parents. It should not automatically be assumed that the interests of these parties are necessarily in conflict. The interdepartmental committee addressed these concerns quite directly on page 8 of its report when it states that:

Greater efficiency in the process, so long as it does not come at the expense of thoroughness, may remove some of the frustrations experienced by prospective adoptive parents, while also reducing the amount of time spent by children in institutions. Australia's approach to adoption recognises that children who cannot be brought up with their family are entitled to grow up in a permanent, secure and loving family environment. A more efficient intercountry adoption system would be better able to provide children with this environment in a timely fashion.

Australia's current regulatory approach observes the international principles guiding intercountry adoption which is set out in the 1993 Hague Convention on the protection of children and cooperation in respect of intercountry adoption.

The fundamental principles in the Convention are: (1) the best interests principle that the best interests of the child are the paramount consideration in all Convention intercountry adoptions; (2) the subsidiarity principle that adoption is subsidiary to care by family, and intercountry adoption is subsidiary to domestic adoption; (3) the safeguards principle that safeguards must be developed to prevent the abduction, sale of, and traffic in children; (4) the cooperation principle that authorities must establish and maintain effective cooperation to ensure that these safeguards are effectively maintained; and (5) the competent authorities principle that only competent authorities—appointed in each country—should be permitted to authorise intercountry adoptions.

For the purposes of the Hague Convention, the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department is the Australian central authority for intercountry adoption. The states and territories are also central authorities under the Hague Convention. However, owing to the lack of political impetus from the Commonwealth, states and territories and the complexity of amending state and territory legislation that relates to both intercountry and domestic adoption, this work has not been progressed, despite many attempts. This is not an acceptable situation. As the Prime Minister said on 5 May this year:

For too long children who legitimately need a safe and loving home and Australians who dream of providing this home have been hindered by red tape and confusion. The Government is pleased to be able to undertake real action to bring families together.

Consistent with these goals, the government has been moving ahead in progressing this issue.

Apart from the Prime Minister's commissioning of the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption report, the government has also put in place amendments to the Family Law regulations that will make it easier to recognise adoptions from Taiwan and South Korea. We have also opened a new overseas adoption program with South Africa; we have instructed officials to commence discussions with seven other countries about possible new overseas adoption programs; we have chaired a COAG meeting which agreed in principle to the Commonwealth providing a new national overseas adoption service from 2015. We have introduced amendments to the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 to make it easier for children from Taiwan and South Korea to obtain Australian citizenship in their country of origin; and have asked the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship to develop options to reduce waiting times for visas for adoptive children from overseas. The government is now working through the details of the new reforms with the states so that the new approach to overseas adoption can commence as early as 2015.

The purpose of this bill is to facilitate the grant of Australian citizenship to children adopted by Australian citizens under bilateral adoption arrangements between Australia and countries that are not party to the Hague Convention on intercountry adoption. Under such bilateral arrangements, Australian citizens have for several years been unable to adopt children from South Korea, Taiwan and Ethiopia. Although the intercountry adoption program with Ethiopia is now closed, there are a number of families who are awaiting the finalisation of their adoptions.

At present, children adopted under bilateral arrangements require a passport from the home country and an Australian adoption visa to travel to Australia. This imposes additional complexity and cost on the adopting families. Under the amendments to be made by this bill, children will be able to be granted citizenship as soon as the adoption is finalised. They will then be able to travel to Australia on Australian passports with their new families as Australian citizens. The bill will place children adopted by Australian citizens under bilateral arrangements in the same position as children adopted by Australian citizens under Hague Convention arrangements.

The overarching requirement from Australia's perspective that a potential partner country is, first, willing participate in intercountry adoption arrangement with Australia, and, second, will meet the standards in safeguards equivalent to those required under the Hague Convention. Where a non-convention country meets these standards, there is no reason why adoptions should not be recognised in the same way as adoptions in convention countries. The government has recently given effect to this principle by amending the Family Law (Bilateral Arrangements—Intercountry Adoption) Regulations 1998 to provide for automatic recognition of adoptions in partner countries once the adoption is finalised and an adoption compliance certificate has been issued. And in this regard, the bill enhances the wellbeing of adopted children by creating a more streamlined and cost-effective process which allows them to commence their lives in Australia more quickly.

The bill will not change post-adoption support arrangements, which are provided by state and territory governments in accordance with their respective laws. While the laws and procedures may vary in some respects between states and territories, support services are provided to adopted children and their families on an identical basis whether the adoption took place under the Hague Convention or under bilateral arrangements. Children adopted from Hague Convention countries, which issue adoption compliance certificates, are already able to obtain Australia citizenship as soon as the adoption is finalised. This has been the case since the enactment of the Australian Citizenship Act 2007. The adoption compliance certificate provides assurance that the adoption has been carried out in accordance with the ethical and legal framework required by the Hague Convention. The process for adoption under bilateral arrangements, including automatic recognition under Australian law, is in substance identical. There is no reason why those children should be treated differently under the Australian Citizenship Act.

The key feature of the bill is an amendment to subdivision AA of division 2 of part 2 of the act. The amendment simply expands the scope of the existing Hague Convention provisions, so that they also cover adoptions in accordance with bilateral arrangements. There are many important safeguards that the government has built into this legislation. These would be relevant, clearly, if fraud or some other irregularity came to light before citizenship was granted. Similarly, the minister must not approve a child becoming a citizen if the minister is not satisfied of the identity of the child. The amendments proposed by the bill would apply for the benefit of all children adopted under bilateral arrangements, whether the adoption is finalised before or after the amendments come into force.

The government is realistic: this bill is not a magic bullet to solve all of the problems associated with intercountry adoption that have existed for decades, but it is an important and substantial step forward, and the bill gives hope to families. It gives hope to children without parents, where no hope previously existed. It is through actions such as these that we show our humanity—where we can demonstrate that we are not prepared to accept the status quo that presently values bureaucracy and red tape over the welfare of children. Never can such a situation be acceptable. We as a parliament must reject it. As I said earlier, there has never been a more important time for legislation of this kind to be put before the House—so that we as a nation can demonstrate to those who inflict hatred and fear upon the world that Australia offers hope and love to those who deserve a better life. There can be no more deserving recipients than children with no parents. I commend the bill to the House.