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Thursday, 30 September 1993
Page: 1494

Senator CALVERT (12.25 p.m.) —Because of the amount of water I have consumed while I have been sitting here waiting and listening to Senator Spindler, my speech will probably be reasonably short. Senator Spindler has been talking about the effect, or the non-effect, of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. He said that it has no effect in Australia except to enforce the power to educate the community. I think the government has done a pretty fair job in that area. It does not need another convention to force it into educating the community in what is right and what is wrong with our children. If the convention has no effect, why did we sign it? Why have we gone to all this trouble? Why have we been standing here this morning and talking for 2 1/2 or three hours if it has no effect?

  Of course it has an effect. In my own state of Tasmania I have already seen the effect of these United Nations conventions that we have signed. The convention gives the Commonwealth the chance to override states' powers. The reason why so many people are concerned about this convention is that there is a possibility that it will take away the rights of parents. That has been mentioned by my colleagues and by people in the community. Unfortunately, because this convention has come forward in the way it has and because we cannot amend it, we have no alternative but to move for a disallowance of the convention and the power given to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to enforce it.

  In this day and age in Australia, ordinary parents like me and my colleague Senator Herron, who is the father of 10 children, are concerned about their rights concerning their families. Under Labor governments for the last 10 years, we have seen the powers of the family being eroded by unemployment and by other people in the community telling us what to do, taking away our rights as parents, trying to tell us how we should bring up our children and those sorts of things. Now we are getting to the stage where we have international courts, high courts, federal courts and conventions all telling us what we should and should not do with our children. The only court that really counts, as far as children and child abuse are concerned, is the criminal court. It is fully occupied with taking action against all the sorts of things Senator Spindler raised.

Senator Spindler —That is where your actions are leading us.

Senator CALVERT —I have no argument with that. The honourable senator and Senator Bolkus have been telling us today about the 20,000-odd children in our community who have been abused. On this side of politics, we know all that. We are very sympathetic towards them, but the criminal courts in each state are doing a very good job in trying to cope with that.

Senator Spindler —The courts are your only answer.

Senator CALVERT —Madam Acting Deputy President, it is getting a bit hard to talk with his yapping in my left ear all the time. I would like to be able to concentrate on what I am trying to say.

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator West)—Order! Senator Calvert, would you address your comments to me and, Senator Spindler, would you please refrain from interjecting. You know that it is not orderly.

Senator CALVERT —I sat in my place without saying a word while Senator Spindler was speaking but he rudely interrupted me. Obviously, he is very sensitive about this matter.

  Families have been coming to me. Senator Watson summed it all up. He has had hundreds of letters. So have I and so has just about everybody else. People fear that their rights as parents are being taken away. The reservations of the Holy See were quoted. Today it has been said on my left that Senator Tate was misquoted. I will read what he said:

I anticipate that when the Australian Government ratifies the convention, should it do so, one would find that those same understandings as to the pre-eminent role of the family would be acknowledged. It would be surprising were that not the case . . .

He went on, and it was said that we misquoted him. The fact is that I spoke to Senator Tate privately about it afterwards and he did have reservations. There is no question about that. We had reservations before the last election and we said so. We said that, if we got into government, we would put those reservations in the convention and then we would go ahead and ratify it. On 21 February 1991, Mr Peacock, the honourable member for Kooyong in the other place, made it quite clear when he said this:

There is no doubt that the aims of the convention are quite laudable. Had we been in government we would have ratified the convention, but we would have ratified it with reservations to particular articles of fundamental importance to the interpretation of that convention.

That has been our clear understanding all the way through. This was reiterated by our present shadow Attorney-General, Mr Williams QC, on 1 September this year when he said:

At the outset, I wish to make it clear that the coalition is not opposed to the convention itself. This has always been the case.

Those two quotes, and what has been said today by my colleagues Senator Watson and Senator Vanstone, have made it quite clear that we genuinely support this convention. But our position in relation to reservations has always been apparent right from the start.

  The convention is a further development of the declaration of Geneva relating to the rights of the child, which was adopted as long ago as 1924 as a response to the problems being suffered by children after World War I. These problems have not stopped; they have continued right through to this very day. In 1959 the United Nations adopted its own declaration of the rights of the child which related to 10 principles to guide parents, governments and others in the treatment of their children. So this is nothing new. As Senator Boswell said, in 1979 the United Nations Human Rights Committee commenced drafting the current convention relating to children's rights. We all know that that convention was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 November 1989, and came into force internationally on 2 September 1990.

  Naturally, some components of the convention relating to behaviour patterns would be almost unanimously supported by the general community. In particular, such matters as child prostitution and child slavery are referred to in the convention. My colleague from the Australian Democrats has concerns about this. I know that the government has been concerned about this. Members of the government have travelled to Asia. The Minister for Justice, Mr Kerr, went to Asia recently to look at the problems regarding Australians, in particular, sexually abusing child prostitutes in Thailand. The government has been taking steps to do all this.

  As I said at the beginning of my speech, if this convention has no power, why the hell are we signing it? Why are we leaving ourselves open to the possibility of its being used and having the unintended consequences that we have seen in other conventions? The Catholic Church—the Holy See—and some members of the Presbyterian Church in my own state have all had concerns about this and they have relayed them to me and to other members of the parliament. They are not doing it because they do not believe in the rights of the child; they are not doing it because they do not believe in parliament having the power to impose sensible laws on the population; they are doing it because they are genuinely concerned about the possibility that some rights unintentionally may be taken away from the parents.

  People have said to me recently that they do not want their rights as parents to be interfered with, or to be told by the United Nations how to bring up their children. It is getting harder and harder, with the social pressures, unemployment and the like, to be a good parent and to run a family these days. But I think the record of the family unit in Australia has been second to none in the world. The two basic things that most people in this country hold dear are the freedom of religion and the freedom to be a good parent. In the last two days we have had before us two conventions which try to tell Australians how they should conduct their religion and how they should bring up their children. That is what people are objecting to: being told by the United Nations—in this case, through this government—what they should be doing.

Senator Spindler —What about the children who die at the hands of their parents?

Senator CALVERT —If this particular convention were going to stop one person from dying at the hands of his own parents, I would not be standing here talking about it this morning. There are enough laws about that and enough publicity in the community at the moment. Everybody in the country is well aware of the disgraceful things that have been happening in recent times. The situation is brought about mainly by the pressures put upon these parents by the economic situation that this government has caused in this country in the last 10 years. That is the reason.

  We are stuck with this convention. We have got no alternative on our side of politics, because of our concerns, but to vote to disallow the regulations. We are not against the principle of the whole thing, it is just the way in practice that this convention may be interpreted. I do not believe that if we disallow this convention it is the end of the world. For the life of me I cannot understand why the government did not insert reservations, just as the Holy See did. We would have been supporting it. If the government were so concerned about the rights of the child why would it not take the advice of some of its own members, in particular former Senator Tate?

Senator Colston —His Excellency.

Senator CALVERT —Yes, His Excellency, former Senator Tate. I thank Senator Colston. In summing up there are three critical areas which I believe need to be addressed by this government.

Senator Panizza —Would this make you a better parent?

Senator CALVERT —I doubt very much whether it would do what Senator Panizza suggests. As I see it, the three critical areas are, firstly, that there is an overlap between the convention and some existing Australian statutes which has not been resolved. The Public Interest Advocacy Centre, which was engaged by the government in 1991 to review the convention and its implications for Australian law, has yet to finalise its report. That is how difficult the matter is—after nearly three years it has still not come up with what the effect will be.

  The next major issue is that there is no express recognition of the rights and responsibilities of parents in certain crucial articles of the convention. This should have been the subject of a reservation by the government. We believe that the best action for the government would be to review the convention immediately and ensure that Australian laws are consistent with its provisions and are capable of being correctly interpreted. It should also ensure that there is no need for the convention to be given a wide range of Australian law or to work against the wide range of Australian law which already exists. I look forward to hearing the contribution from my fellow senator from Western Australia.