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Wednesday, 9 September 2009
Page: 6096

Senator KROGER (1:00 PM) —The dialogue, debate and discourse that bounces across this chamber is frequently reflected in the daily headlines of media outlets, and so it should be. We as legislators, in fulfilling our obligations to the Australian people, must ensure that the decisions we make ensure that the best interests of all are served. This responsibility is no more profound than it is today during National Child Protection Week, established some 15 years ago to raise awareness of the increasing incidence of child abuse and neglect in our own country and the devastating, lifelong impact it is having on so many families and communities. It is an absolutely disgraceful blight on our country, and yet it is not one that we commonly read about on the front pages of our daily news journals. Sadly, it is only the tragic circumstances of beautiful, vulnerable children like Darcey Freeman, the gorgeous, golden haired four-year-old who was thrown from the West Gate Bridge in February this year, that galvanises the hearts and minds of our country.

Child abuse and neglect is a subject too shocking for many of us to turn our minds to, yet if we do not do so we destine so many innocent children to unspeakable futures—and for many, like Darcey, tragically shortened ones. This is a mainstream issue, not one to be dismissed as a product of economic disadvantage or a manifestation of cultural or social dysfunction. In the last year alone, more than 30,000 individual children were proven to be abused or neglected in Australia. As if this is not bad enough, we know that it might be just the tip of the iceberg, as there has been a total lack of resourcing invested in any comprehensive studies. Child abuse and neglect is a subject that is frequently swept under the carpet.

To every colleague in this place and the other place: I ask you to take off your shades and look around you in your neighbourhood or in your electorate. I regret to say that you will probably discover someone well known to you who has been either directly or indirectly affected by abuse. The statistics speak for themselves. One in four girls and one in seven boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. For those of you with children at school, take a close look around your child’s classroom and think about who the victims might be. I can tell you they will be close.

On Tuesday morning this week the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, NAPCAN, launched a nationwide survey in order to better understand and respond to the complexities of child abuse and neglect. It is the largest ever survey of community attitudes, conducted with the aim of learning more in an endeavour to safeguard our children. This survey is a joint effort of NAPCAN, the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth and many other leading agencies in the sector. The survey encourages broad engagement in a conversation that our community not only needs to have but must have. The purpose of the survey is threefold: to collect data on community attitudes to child abuse and neglect, to raise awareness of the issue within the community and to engage as many people as possible in ongoing involvement and action.

The fact is that child abuse occurs right across Australian society. And the long-term personal, social and economic costs of child abuse and neglect are immense. The Australian Productivity Commission found that the direct costs of the child protection system alone are $1.7 billion annually. I encourage you all in the strongest possible way to consider completing the survey. It will take as little as five minutes of your time and it is incredibly important.

I am pleased to be a convenor of Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse and Neglect. Re-established in October 2008, PACAN aims to increase awareness of and take positive action to eliminate the serious issue of child abuse and neglect. As parliamentarians we have a responsibility to work towards zero tolerance of any activity that is abusive or neglectful and against the best interests of children. PACAN supports the important work of NAPCAN as well as other organisations and individuals. PACAN has hosted regular briefings during each sitting period, with speakers such as the Reverend Tim Costello, who discussed the issue of child slavery; representatives from the Australian Federal Police, who spoke on child sex tourism; and, more recently, Father Chris Riley, who is from Youth Off The Streets. I am happy to report that these briefings have attracted much interest from senators, members and their staff. I offer my thanks to all those who have attended for their tremendous support and encouragement.

Renowned expert Dr Joe Tucci, CEO of the Australian Childhood Foundation, has warned that the number of child victims of abuse and domestic violence will possibly jump by at least 10 per cent in the current year. Research shows that economic trouble and financial and emotional pressure are leading triggers for family violence and, more disturbingly, for child abuse. If we want to protect children from abuse we need to do everything we can to make it easy for their parents to enjoy economic security so that they have time to spend with their children. The importance of family is significant for me. I have said in this place before that the reason I get up in the morning is for my two boys. They challenge and continue to inspire me.

But we would all agree that parenting is not easy. There is no simple formula. A sense of self-identity and confidence, which is so important in the development of children, is not something that can be found in a book. It can only be nurtured through years of care, direction and playful interaction with other family members. It takes time.

If our society is so driven by the need for two parents to work just to cover a mortgage, the time for leisure within family life will be severely diminished and, with this, the time for strengthening the bonds within the family will also diminish. As legislators, we need to consider the impact of economic decisions on the family unit. As labour markets become more flexible, couples often find themselves living a long way from other family members who might be called upon for extra assistance in times of stress. The so-called nuclear family is in many ways a fragile model of family life.

Between the state and the individual there are many extremely important voluntary associations which make up that body we call, and know as, society. It is in the interests of the state that these voluntary associations are as strong and self-sufficient as possible. The family is very much a paradigm of a voluntary organisation. As an institution, not only does it provide clothing and shelter for its young and care for its elderly but, above all, it is responsible for the emotional and cultural capital of successive generations.

The carers in families, whether they are a parent or an elder sibling, need to consider the impact of modern technologies and their impact on children. With the rapid increase in internet use, our society has been afforded many new opportunities. We are able to connect with other people in a new, efficient and exciting way. From personal communications to businesses, the internet has largely benefited our community.

But we also need to be mindful and aware of the safety risks involved with this medium. The internet has become a tool for potential criminal activity. Sexual predators are using the internet as a clearing house for sex tourism. It has become easier to swap and distribute explicit information with less risk. It is too easy for predators and sex offenders to find and groom new victims. This is an extraordinarily disturbing situation.

Cyberbullying is also a cause for concern and one that must be addressed. The internet has vaulted bullying from the playground to internet chat rooms. This has become a growing concern for parents, teachers and many community leaders. In late July this year we saw a great tragedy in Victoria where four teenagers from two different Geelong schools died. As we speak, the Victorian coroner is investigating whether cyberbullying contributed to these tragic deaths.

In the most recent case, 14-year-old Chanelle Rae committed suicide just hours after being bullied online. I can only send my heartfelt best wishes and prayers to her family as they deal with it. I really commend Chanelle’s brave mother, Karen, who went on radio shortly after, not to point the finger at any particular person nor to blame anyone for the loss of her daughter’s life, but rather to beseech all parents to be aware and to monitor their children’s use of the internet and how it is being used as a medium in their lives. This heartbreaking case highlights the urgent need to talk about how the cycle of bullying and abuse can be broken.

National Child Protection Week is only one week which is dedicated to highlighting child protection. It is incumbent upon us all in this place and in other jurisdictions to encourage open and frank discussion on the topic of child abuse and neglect. Once again, I urge all to consider going to the site to log on to the survey so that they can participate in that process.

In conclusion today, I am acutely aware that we do have to keep open this dialogue on how we can continue to strengthen the protection of our children. We must act in the interests of those who have no voice. We must act in the interests of the future of our nation. It is our children who are the future of this country and it is incumbent upon us all as members of this place to ensure that we have their futures at heart.