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Thursday, 30 September 1993
Page: 1485

Senator COONEY (11.34 a.m.) —There is no doubt that everybody supports the thrust of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and properly so. Senator Boswell, in his usual magnificent contribution, made that point. It was also made right at the start of this debate in the parliament by the honourable member for Tangney, Mr Williams, who is the shadow Attorney-General, when he moved a motion of disallowance in the House of Representatives on 1 September 1993. He said in the course of his speech:

No-one should argue with the general objectives of the UN convention, namely, to prevent the exploitation of children and to ensure their rights are recognised. The convention is directed towards preventing such dreadful practices as child prostitution and slavery and towards ensuring adequate representation of children in legal proceedings and for other desirable objectives.

So there is no objection to the content of the convention, to the general thrust of what it is about. The objections are referred to in the next paragraph. It continues:

  However, given the lack of clarity of the terms of the convention and the acknowledged difficulties in interpreting it, given the government's failure to make an express reservation at the time of ratification that would have clarified the meaning of crucial articles of the convention, and given the widespread concern that this has generated in the community, its wholesale incorporation into the HREOC Act is highly undesirable. As with the UN religious declaration, the incorporation of the convention under the HREOC Act also illustrates the unsatisfactory structure of the HREOC Act alluded to earlier this evening.

Of course, if this law is to become applicable in Australia so that it actually touches the citizens of Australia in a way that other laws that are made here do, it will have to become part of the domestic law. The legislation for that will then be subject to interpretation by the courts, and that is a thing courts do every day. That is the very idea of having courts. So to say the legislation is unclear is a reasonable point, but not a point that should lead to the acknowledged good that is contained in this convention being stopped from being bought into domestic law. I think there is a feeling amongst some of us that there is not a need to have laws to protect children and, if that is the approach taken, it is quite misconceived.

Senator Calvert —We have already got them.

Senator COONEY —Senator Calvert, a person who has great interest in this area, says that we have got those laws. That is the opinion he holds, and great respect should be given to that opinion; but great respect should equally be given to the opinion of other people who have had much to say in this area. May I quote, for example, the statement of Miss, Mrs or Ms Moira Rayner which appeared in the Age. I will just read the first two paragraphs of the article:

Australia's child-protection services were in a mess and a national approach to children's rights was needed, the chairwoman of the board of governors of the National Children's Youth Law Centre, Ms Moira Rayner, said yesterday.

  Ms Rayner, who is also Victoria's human rights and equal opportunity commissioner, said Australia never seemed to get it right on child protection. `We have scandals, we have deaths, we have a review and then a few years later it's all in a heap again,' she said.

Senator Calvert —Is that Mrs or Ms?

Senator COONEY —It is Ms.

Senator Calvert —Has she got children of her own?

Senator COONEY —I do not know; it does not appear in the article. I would take it that as the chairwoman of the board of governors of the National Children's Youth Law Centre and as Victoria's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner, she is a woman of some substance, and this ought to be taken into account.

Senator Calvert —What does your church say about it?

Senator COONEY —What my church says about children and their protection is that they ought to be protected. In any event, the convention either stands or falls in its own terms. As people keep repeating, there is no objection to the convention except for the reservation, and except for the way it is to be carried out. There is much good fortune in this debate coming on now, because this is a very big issue at the moment in Victoria following the report of Mr Justice Fogarty. Mr Justice Fogarty has come in for considerable criticism, but may I say that he is a person who has had a most distinguished record in the law, both as a barrister and a member of Her Majesty's Counsel and then as a judge in the Family Court at first instance and as a judge on the appeal court of that body. He has revealed some most dreadful conditions that exist for the looking after of children in Victoria, and much criticism has been made of him in respect of that.

  On the other hand, it is interesting to see what people have to say. Mr Justice Fogarty has had great support from people such as Mr Mark Longmuir, executive officer of the Victorian Youth Affairs Council, who said that it would be irresponsible for the government to ignore or reject the report's finding and to go ahead with its savage and totally unjustified cuts. In this respect—and taking up the invitation from Senator Calvert about what my church might say—a spokesman for the Melbourne Catholic Social Services, Father Peter Norden, a man highly respected in my home state, said that the government, by pressing ahead with its cuts, would be abandoning the objectives of saving children's lives in favour of saving the dollar. The director of St Augustine's adolescent family services in Geelong, Brother Trevor Parton—also a member of my church, I remind Senator Calvert—said that the government's decision to cut its $780,000 funding by $400,000 would force it to close three or four residential care units for young people.

Senator Calvert —What does your church say about this Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Senator COONEY —The Pope signed it with a reservation. What I am saying to Senator Calvert is that our decision as a nation should be to sign this convention without the reservation, because the bulk of the good in this convention far outweighs any disadvantage that might arise from it.

  What members of the opposition have done is to look at this convention and, having looked at it, they have found that they must support the general thrust of it. But then, as they do not want it to go through because, for whatever reason, they have got reservations about it, they have scanned it to find any sort of peg to hang a disallowance motion on. That is not a happy way of going about these things.

  What we should do when looking at legislation is to look at the general thrust, at the good that it will bring about, at the overall objectives it pursues, and to pass it on that basis rather than trying to find an excuse for rejecting it. When those opposite look for an excuse to reject it, people might well draw the conclusion that they are not rejecting it for that particular excuse, because they have found a blemish in it, but because they do not like the overall objectives. That is the difficulty they find themselves in.

  If they reject it for one reason, the appearance is that they have rejected it holus-bolus, which they have done. If they reject it holus-bolus, as they must on a motion such as this, then they are rejecting a convention, as Mr Williams, the honourable member for Tangney, said in the other place, which prevents the exploitation of children, which ensures that their rights are recognised, which is directed towards preventing such dreadful practices as child prostitution and slavery, and which ensures adequate representation of children in legal proceedings and for other desirable objectives—and at a time when there is much adverse criticism of the way we treat children in this society.

  There is the discussion about the Fogarty report. There was discussion earlier about the juvenile justice legislation in Western Australia—which was passed by an Australian Labor Party government, that is conceded. There are concerns about the way children are treated in every state of this Commonwealth. Yet when there is some proposition brought forward in this House which, at the very least, goes against the culture that has produced that sort of abuse, it is rejected because of what could only be described as fairly technical reasons at best. After all, if this convention were finally put into domestic law, it would be interpreted by domestic courts. Even at this stage, when it goes into the HREOC legislation it is interpreted by the Federal Court, and there is an overall supervision of the way it is administered by the Federal Court and by the High Court of Australia.

  The rejection of this convention is a rejection of the proposition that our courts are courts of high quality, courts able to administer properly the law in this nation in the best interests of this nation. The more one looks at it, the more one wonders why the opposition wants so strongly to reject this report, given its application to the situation in Australia. We should be supporting it because it sets world standards, and children around the world obviously need protection and help. If we reject this, we are saying that we have got no interest in what happens to children around the world. That is understandable if a very parochial view is taken. But what is not understandable is that this particular convention has great relevance to Australia at the moment, because of the concern about the way children are treated. In the light of that concern and in the light of the overwhelming evidence that children do need protection and do need rights, when we, as a federal government, have an opportunity to do something about that, what do we do? We move to have it rejected.

  People on this side of the House will not be taking that approach. Knowing Senator Spindler and his great and well-established appetite for civil rights and for justice, I imagine, without knowing, that his party would be supporting this. I would hope the members of the Greens party would also do so, they having the same sort of approach as I would have hoped most Australians would have towards this.

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Herron)—I call Senator Watson.