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Thursday, 1 March 2012
Page: 1337

Senator FIFIELD (VictoriaManager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (10:08): I also rise to speak on the Common¬≠wealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010. This bill has a pretty straightforward purpose, which is to create the statutory office of the Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People. Although I understand the Greens have circulated an amendment to see the office of the commissioner located with the Australian Human Rights Commission, rather than as a stand-alone body, I suspect it is unlikely that that amendment will have the opportunity to be ventilated in the committee stage. But I think the fact that these amendments have come forward shows that even the Greens' own thinking on the office of a children's commissioner is evolving. During the Senate inquiry there was a view expressed amongst stakeholders that there was a need for greater consultation on the concept of an office of a children's commissioner—and I think these amendments show that that probably is needed.

As I mentioned, there was a Senate inquiry; it was a wide-ranging one. Just by way of background I might briefly go through what the situation is currently in the other jurisdictions in relation to the arrange­ments that they have for commissioners or guardians for children and young people. New South Wales has both a Commissioner for Children and Young People and an Office for Children; Queensland has a Commissioner for Children and Young People, and a Child Guardian; Victoria has a Child Safety Commissioner; Tasmania has a Commissioner for Children; and Western Australia has a Commissioner for Children and Young People. This bill seeks to create a Commonwealth-level organisation with some similar purposes to some of those state based bodies, and I think there are still questions about what the scope of the Commonwealth body would be, what the interactions would be between the Commonwealth body and the state bodies and what duplications there may be in those functions. I think that is something that still does need further examination.

This is not the first time that there has been a Commonwealth-level proposal for a national Children's Commissioner. I think on two previous occasions there have been pieces of proposed legislation. In 2003 the current Attorney-General introduced as a private member's bill something with a similar objective. That bill did not proceed beyond the first reading. On another occasion a former colleague of ours, the then Senator Bartlett, introduced a private senator's bill in 2008, which lapsed at the end of that parliament. I think Senator Bartlett is now a fellow traveller with the initiators with this piece of legislation. I think it is nice that his interest in public policy continues. I always like to see former members of the parliament continue to make a contribution in public life, so that is nice to see.

The committee did hear from stakeholders who did cite a number of concerns with the bill. There were some concerns expressed about the extent to which the office of the commissioner would take into account the needs of children and young people with disabilities. The committee also noted issues raised by a number of submitters regarding guardianship of unaccompanied non-citizen minors. The bill, as it currently stands, would have the children's commissioner act as the legal guardian of unaccompanied children and young people who arrive in Australia without the appropriate visa or authority to enter Australia. With this there are a number issues about blurring lines of responsibilities as to who is actually responsible for the welfare of people in that situation. We do know that the issue of legal guardianship responsibilities of the minister have been the subject of some public interest, following the High Court ruling on the government's Malaysia proposal. The Greens have circulated amendments that would remove from this bill the proposal to have the commissioner act as the legal guardian for unaccompanied minors—but, as I mentioned, I think it is unlikely that we will get to talk about those further in this place. The coalition are, I think, more focused these days on practical measures to benefit of the welfare of children and young people. We do have a number of policies to do that. One to which am particularly committed is the idea of an education card for students with a disability that would allow students to take an entitlement to the school of their choice so that it would not matter what school the student went to. Whether the school was independent, Catholic or government there would be a similar payment and similar support, which the parents could direct themselves. I think that that would be a good and practical thing to do. So we have a number of policies that we hope are practical and would make a real difference.

The coalition certainly appreciates the motivation behind this legislation and we certainly appreciate the objective, but I think it is always important not to do things that are purely symbolic, though symbols are important. I think it is necessary to make sure that you are not merely seen to be trying to do something good but that in practice you deliver something that makes a real difference in people's lives. So I think this legislation does need further consideration, particularly, as I mentioned before, in relation to the interaction between the existing state bodies and this new proposed Commonwealth body. We do have concerns about whether the legislation would achieve its stated objectives. In the light of what I have said, then, the coalition is not in a position to support this bill.