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Thursday, 30 September 1993
Page: 1478


Senator BOLKUS (Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Multicultural Affairs) (10.55 a.m.) —I rise in support of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and in opposition to the position taken by the Liberal and National parties in this place on this issue. What we are talking about is an international instrument which has as its primary objective the protection and the rights of children. It is an instrument which does not, in the way that it has been adopted by the government, take instant effect as domestic law in this country. It is an instrument which will, because of its application, provide the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission with a role in protecting the rights of children—an educational role and a safeguarding role. It will not have any power to incarcerate a person because that person does not agree with the convention but it will have a role to ensure that the public are educated.

  The other role of the convention will be to ensure that Commonwealth practices are in conformity with the convention. We do not talk about this convention as something that does not have any real, meaningful, direct relevance. We talk of it as having direct and important relevance, not just domestically within Australia but also internationally. I think the honourable member for Boothby (Mr Hall) in the House of Representatives made the point that in Australia in 1991 we had some 21,000 established cases of abuse of children. That figure itself reflects the fact that legislators in this country are not doing enough to protect children. That fact itself indicates the direct relevance of this convention, a role for HREOC and a responsibility on all legislatures, but particularly this one, to take a further interest in the rights of children.

  Not only does it have that sort of role domestically but the convention is an important international instrument. It is important in that it targets the malpractices being perpetrated on children. Children are being sold; male and female children are being used for prostitution from the age of 12 or 13; children are being deliberately maimed; and so on. The world has set an international benchmark for the treatment of children, and it is important for Australia to be part of that. We were part of it in its formulation. It is important for us to continue to be part of it now.

  To that effect, the Australian government has already taken measures to gauge the compliance of governments in this country with these benchmarks that even the opposition accepts. Both in this place and in the other place, there is an acknowledgment by opposition members that they do not oppose the instrument that we are talking about. To the extent that we as a government are operating, we have set seven major goals of an action plan against which we will check our obligations to this instrument. Those seven major goals are important and they are probably worth enunciating right now.

  They are the reduction of infant and under five years of age mortality rates; the reduction of maternal mortality rates; the reduction of severe and moderate malnutrition of children under five years of age; universal access to safe drinking water; sanitary means of excreta disposal; reduction of the adult illiteracy rate, with emphasis on female literacy; and improved protection of children in especially difficult circumstances. They are all honourable goals, goals with which opposition members agree.

  The trouble is that, once again, when it comes to actually putting their hands up on an issue of social importance, an issue of social reform, opposition members are being led from behind. Senator Hill, who has been leader in this place for a number of years, has once again abdicated his role of leadership. Dr Hewson, the leader in the other place, has also abdicated his role. They are allowing the wild backbench—the feral backbench—of the opposition to take over once again. They are abdicating responsibility in such a way that the public will very soon become aware that we have an opposition whose members not only are prepared not to make difficult decisions on policy on the economic front but will go to the next election, as they went to the last one, without a socially relevant policy; without a policy to cater for the social problems of this country; without a policy to cater for the needs of children, the needs of women, the needs of families and the needs of migrant groups—and this is another instance of it.

  Opposition members come in here and go into the other place—and, I must admit, some of them who make these points are people with some intelligence—and try to weasel their way out of this instrument. They try to weasel their way out of support for an instrument which has overwhelming support in this country and has overwhelming support internationally. As I said yesterday, they do not come in here with any solid arguments, any rational arguments; they come in here with spurious rhetoric, with fabricated points of view, but none of them are relevant to the people of this nation or to people internationally.

  They say that there needs to be a reservation to the instrument. The first line they advance is their claim that Senator Tate, when questioned about this matter some time ago in the Senate, gave an undertaking that there would be a reservation and that that reservation has not been made. The quote they use from Senator Tate is a deliberately misleading one and it does them no good to pursue it. They say that Senator Tate said in the parliament in respect of a reservation, `It would be surprising were that not the case', implying there was a full stop at that particular point. But Senator Tate went on to say a couple of important sentences. I will quote his remarks so as to give the full meaning of what he said. He said:

It would be surprising were that not the case, given the fact that Australia inserted article 5, meaning that for the first time in the international community a document was open to ratification which recognised that pre-eminent role of the family, parents or legal guardians in giving guidance and direction to children in accordance with their evolving capacities.

That concern about the pre-eminent role of the family in giving guidance to children was responded to by Senator Tate. In the quote that was half repeated in this place and in the House of Representatives, he went on to say that concern `has been acknowledged by article 5'. Article 5 is an article that Australia had a major role in inserting in the instrument. It is there because Australia pursued it. That gives the lie to the point that they were making about a need for a reservation to protect the rights of families in terms of their guidance over children. Australia has already acted. It does them no good—and it does this institution no good—to come in here and half quote and deliberately misquote my former colleague Senator Tate. We have acted in the protection of the rights of families. That is there. It is there in article 5 of this instrument; it is there because of Australia's action.

  Opposition members then say that the other point is that we need to take the same position as the Holy See in respect to this. They claim the Holy See made a reservation in respect to this instrument to protect the rights of the family over such matters as religion, education and so on. If one were actually to read the Holy See's so-called reservation, one would probably see it as a declaration interpreting the way the Holy See would read article 5 of this instrument.

  The Holy See, I think quite fairly and quite rationally, can be seen to be taking that position, but let us have a look at article 5 in a general sense. Let us have a look at this instrument in a general sense. No other country around the world has made a reservation to this convention. No other country has made the sort of reservation that we are talking about. Other countries have not tried to weasel their way out of their commitments, their obligations both to our children in this country and children internationally. The countries include the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. This is probably one of the most heavily ratified instruments internationally that the world has seen. But no, standing alone, in isolation, back in the backblocks somewhere are the National and Liberal parties in this place.

  Come on, for God's sake, in the interests of the children of this country and of the world, can the honourable senators opposite just drop their ideological objection to some of these things and actually view them rationally—view them with some degree of decency and commonsense. It is no wonder the people of Australia have said to them that they have got no social policy, no social relevance. Time and time again, they are coming in here and showing it.

  As I say, this is one of the most heavily ratified international conventions, and there is one declaration—not reservation—from the Holy See. Opposition senators come in here wanting to weasel their way out of an obligation imposed on government to act in the interest of children, an obligation imposed on the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to publicise and to promote the interests of children. It is an obligation internationally to protect children from prostitution, from malnutrition, from illiteracy.

  No, it is only the opposition side in this place which is standing alone against the rest of the world. When I say that the Opposition side is standing against the rest of the world, I should point out it is not just a case of over 147 countries having ratified the convention. Even in our own country we should look at what has been said by the National Child-Youth Law Council, the Australian Federation of Children, the Family Welfare Association, HREOC and, not surprisingly in this case, the Law Council of Australia. The Law Council of Australia is a body which I do not often find myself agreeing with, but honourable senators on the other side always do. But what has it said about this issue? It is worthwhile for honourable senators opposite to listen to what John Mansfield had to say.


Senator Calvert —Listen to what the people say, not what the lawyers say.


Senator BOLKUS —What the people are saying all over the world, Senator, is that this is an important international instrument that needs to be ratified. Just a few years ago 49 leaders throughout the world got together and said it should be made a priority. People all over Australia with an interest in this issue are saying, `Don't put in a reservation'. The only people in this country, the only people internationally, who are saying, `No, we do not want to be part of this', are the troglodytes on the other side. It is no wonder that this Senate is getting the reputation of being the political Jurassic Park of Australia. It is because of the attitude expressed by people on the other side on issues such as this.

  Let us look at a letter dated 1 September 1993 which was sent to the Attorney-General ((Mr Lavarch) by Mr John Mansfield, the Acting President of the Law Council. It states:

Dear Attorney-General,

  You will be aware of the notice of motion—which I understand is to debated later today—

it was in the House of Representatives—

given by the Shadow Attorney-General, Mr Williams, calling for disallowance of a declaration by the Attorney-General that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is an international instrument relating to human rights and freedoms for the purposes of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act.

  The Law Council is concerned that the motion, if adopted, may prevent the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission from fully carrying out its responsibilities under the Convention, or at least may limit the Commission's role in relation to the Convention.

To paraphrase the letter, the Law Council is concerned that the opposition motion, if adopted, would prevent the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission from carrying out a very important function. It continues:

The Law Council believes adoption of the motion would be embarrassing to Australia.

It does not bother honourable senators opposite, the Jurassic Park of this political institution, that this might be embarrassing to Australia and it might limit the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in its responsibilities and functions in an area of priority and need. It continues:

Further, it would cut across and undermine much of what was achieved and agreed upon at the recent World Congress on Family Law and Children's Rights, held in Sydney, which the Law Council and LAWASIA sponsored.

  The Congress called upon all governments which have not yet done so to give immediate and serious consideration to the ratification and implementation of the Convention. It also called on all governments to establish, develop and support at the national, regional and international levels effective, independent machinery to monitor compliance with the rights prescribed in the Convention, and to provide adequate resources to enable that machinery to operate.

  For Australia to take the step contemplated in Mr Williams' motion would, the Law Council believes, be most unfortunate and would be likely to hold Australia up to ridicule in the international community.

It does not bother the Opposition; it does not bother the troglodytes on the other side; it does not bother those with no social commitment, no social policy. The letter continues:

We believe the Convention sets out the rights of children in a proper and commendable way, and we do not believe it holds any threat to the rights of parents to fulfil their obligations to their children, or any threat to the family, as alleged in the motion.

Let me just repeat that. It says:

We believe the Convention sets out the rights of children in a proper and commendable way, and we do not believe it holds any threat to the rights of parents to fulfil their obligations to their children, or any threat to the family, as alleged in the motion. Indeed, in several specific provisions, particular weight is given to the central role of parents in guiding and supporting children in the exercise and protection of those rights.

  We understand that the Convention is supported by a wide range of organisations in Australia, including the Uniting Church Social Responsibility Committee, the Australian Early Childhood Association, the Youth Affairs Council, and others.

With best wishes,

John Mansfield

There it is. There is no problem with the rights of parents—as the Law Council should rightly say, given at least article 5 of this instrument.

  Mr Acting Deputy President, this is an important convention. It is one that this government is taking seriously to the extent that we have initiated already our response to our obligations under the convention. It has been necessary to consult with state and territory governments as well as relevant Commonwealth agencies in the preparation of our report. Letters seeking assistance and attaching a questionnaire were sent out at the start of 1992. The last response was received in June 1993, and a draft report was circulated in May to relevant Commonwealth departments and state and territory governments for comment. Not all have responded to this date, but we hope to lodge Australia's first report by the end of the year. In the context of the report, we are finding particular problems. Problems have been raised, for instance, by non-government organisations, on areas that in their view need to be changed, on laws with particular provisions to wards of state, care and control orders and so on. All are initiatives geared towards enhancing the rights of children.

  I do not need to go on much longer, other than to make this very fundamental point: we have before us the opportunity to bowl over Australia's involvement in an international convention which has universal support across the world. At least 147 countries have ratified it. A few years ago 49 national leaders got together and proposed that governments should act on this instrument as a matter of priority. Of those 49 heads of government, governments such as those of the UK, Canada and New Zealand had ratified the treaty previously. If I have not got it wrong, that means that even Maggie Thatcher was one of those 49 leaders who in 1989 urged an early adoption of this particular instrument.

  In Australia there is widespread support from the Law Council and from many organisations, including the Uniting Church Social Responsibility Committee and so on. There is only one force in Australian community life—and there is probably only one force in world affairs—that says, `No, let's not be part of it'; and it is the senators on the other side. If those senators continue with this course of action they will not only continue to have attached to themselves and this institution the title of the Jurassic Park of political thought in this country, but they will hold us up to ridicule, not just domestically but internationally.

  We are not talking about an instrument which changes and has direct domestic law effect in this country. We are talking about an instrument which will be used by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission for educational and promotional purposes, and will be a benchmark for the Commonwealth government to be assessed against. That is what we are talking about. We are talking about an instrument which universally in this country—apart from some of the shonky advice that they have got over there—acknowledges quite fairly, properly and adequately the rights of families when it comes to the protection of children.

  The final point is that we are talking about an instrument with widespread international relevance, and not just domestic relevance. We are talking about situations of children. We are talking about weak members of our society who do need all the protection they can get. They need it against instances of child abuse—and, God, we have seen some quite horrific instances of that in this country recently. But they also need it internationally against abuse, against maiming, against being led into prostitution, against being sold and so on. It is a pretty important instrument. Our commitment to it in the scheme of things—


Senator Ellison —What has that got to do with it?


Senator BOLKUS —I am asked what that has to do with it. Our commitment to this instrument in the scheme of things is very important. It is totally irresponsible for those people over there to come in here and try to weasel their way out of it and try to weasel the parliament of Australia out of it.