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Ms Parke (9:40 am) – The 17 December 2010 marked the 20th anniversary of Australia's ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I took the opportunity on that occasion to table a motion in which I outlined a number of promising and not-so-promising aspects of child protection both in Australia and overseas. These included the significant progress that has been made in the reduction of global child mortality, where now something like 10,000 fewer children die each day than did 20 years ago. That is a wonderful statistic. There has also been a sizeable increase in the number of children who have access to primary education compared with just 12 years ago following the introduction of the Millennium Development Goals.
My motion in December 2010 noted that, as one would expect, Australian children fare better than children in many other parts of the world. We know that Australia is, generally speaking, a wonderful place for most children, but while the majority of kids who are lucky enough to grow up in Australia benefit from the high quality of our health and education systems and from the opportunities that exist in a free, safe and democratic society, it must be acknowledged that kids within certain demographics face very different prospects indeed. Significant issues remain to be addressed in this country, including child abuse and neglect, youth homelessness and the disadvantage suffered by Indigenous children.
The motion, also spoken to by my parliamentary colleagues the members for Pearce, Newcastle and Bowman, called for the federal government to consider appointing a National Commissioner for Children. As the Chair of the UNICEF Parliamentary Association I was glad to move the successful motion at the ALP national conference last year on this issue, while noting that the establishment of a National Children's Commissioner has been a longstanding commitment of the Labor Party and of the Attorney-General herself. So I am absolutely thrilled to be speaking on the introduction of this Australian Human Rights Commission Amendment (National Children's Commissioner) Bill 2012 for the creation of a National Children's Commissioner, which is not before time but which will be vital to driving efforts to establish a level playing field for all Australia's children.
I join with UNICEF and the Australian children's coalition of organisations in welcoming the government's announcement of the establishment of a National Children's Commissioner. This reform has been called for by a large number of organisations and individuals across Australia for many years. The Australian Child Rights Taskforce in the Listen to children report last year found a number of disturbing outcomes, including that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have child mortality rates three times that of their non-Aboriginal peers. These are clearly the Australian children whose needs we listen to the least effectively. It also found that the number of children in out-of-home care has increased by 51.5 per cent since 2005. Yet Australia collects no data on the reasons children are placed in care.
The children of asylum seekers continue to be kept in detention facilities in direct contravention of the UN children's convention and Australia currently offers no legal remedies for any such breaches of child rights. Children with disabilities often miss out on crucial and early intervention services and lack the support necessary to assist with life transitions and the support needed to prevent family or career crisis and breakdown. Children and young people who are seeking help for mental health concerns often do not receive timely access to appropriate services. Particular groups are at higher risk of mental health problems, including Indigenous children, children from refugee and migrant backgrounds, same-sex-attracted children, gender-questioning or gender-diverse young people, young carers, children with disability and children in rural, regional and remote areas. In the report, more than 35 leading NGOs, ranging from UNICEF to church organisations to state based children's advocacy agencies, reinforced their agreed position on the importance of a Children's Commissioner and outlining the key roles and powers of such an office. The stakeholder organisations emphasised the importance of a Children's Commissioner being in a position to monitor and secure the effective participation of children; to oversee the observation of child rights principles; and to ensure coordination and nonduplication when it comes to existing child protection frameworks. They also placed great significance on the need to prioritise the protection of vulnerable groups; to recognise the special risks in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children; to focus on endemic problems in the areas of discrimination and accessibility; and to be in a position to take a proactive and systematic approach to policy development. It goes without saying that the National Children's Commissioner needs to be adequately resourced, with properly defined functions and powers.
I am very pleased that this bill addresses these important principles. As a result of this legislation the role and office of the National Children's Commissioner will be in a position to: improve the monitoring of Commonwealth laws affecting the rights, wellbeing and development of children and young people; encourage the active involvement of children and young people in decisions that affect them, particularly in the development of government policies, programs and legislation; support government agencies to develop mechanisms which enhance the active involvement of children and young people; assist the overall Australian effort to meet its international obligations by promoting and advancing the rights of the child, in particular those enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child; and provide the commissioner with discretion when performing any of his or her functions to focus on particular groups of children who are at risk or vulnerable such as children with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, homeless children, or those who witness or are subject to violence.
The introduction of a National Children's Commissioner will represent the first dedicated advocate for children and young people at the federal level. All Australian states and territories have established similar offices and a national commissioner will consolidate and coordinate the expertise and knowledge that exists at the state level. A National Children's Commissioner will give Australian kids a voice at the national level and bring attention to issues of neglect, abuse and discrimination. A national advocate for children will offer a powerful focus for hearing children's voices, especially on the subjects of youth justice, child protection, Indigenous health outcomes and homelessness.
The commissioner will have an important role in monitoring, reviewing and commenting on laws, policies, service standards and practices that affect young Australians. As part of the Australian Human Rights Commission, such a position will have the mechanisms to receive and investigate complaints of breaches of children's rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child through the implementation of a child-specific complaints system. It will be able to assist in and drive law reform and policy development, and develop consultation mechanisms that encourage the participation of children.
The commissioner will collaborate and coordinate with the community and business sectors to develop and strengthen community understanding of the issues and experiences of children, and have the power to intervene in court proceedings involving the rights of children and young people. The commissioner will also advocate for effective data collection on children's health, wellbeing, development and participation.
In Western Australia, the office of a Commissioner for Children and Young People was created by the state Labor government in 2006, with Michelle Scott becoming the first commissioner on 7 December 2007. The WA commissioner oversees a broad range of areas relating to children's welfare, including early childhood, complaints about government agencies relating to children, mental health, young people and the law, participation, reducing alcohol related harm, middle years and sexualisation of children. As a Western Australian representative I am very much aware of the good work that Ms Scott has been able to do, and this was certainly a strong part of my motivation in pushing for a commissioner at the national level.
At this point I would like to particularly recognise the work done on this cause by the people at UNICEF Australia—CEO Norman Gillespie, Communications Manager Tim O'Connor, and Advocacy Manager Aivee Chew. In October last year, Ms Chew was a member of a delegation to the United Nations in Geneva with the task of briefing the Committee on Child Rights, and on the broad question of where Australia was succeeding and failing in protecting the rights of its most vulnerable. Ms Chew said at the time that:
We know that Australia is a wonderful place for most of its kids, yet not everyone experiences the same and just levels of opportunity in Australia.
Gross inadequacies remain in Australia's commitment to its children, despite recommendations made five years ago by the UN Children's committee. It has been more than two decades since Australia ratified the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child—the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. Yet despite 20 years of 'commitment' to child rights in Australia, there is still no national framework and no national children's commissioner.
The delegation presented findings to the committee from the Listen to children report I referred to earlier.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has long recognised that traditional mechanisms within governments do not provide sufficient protection to these vulnerable groups in society. When England introduced a Children's Commissioner in 2005—some time after similar offices had been created in Wales, Scotland and Northern Island—Australian based children's advocacy organisation Children's Rights International released a discussion paper on the issue. Its authors, Claire Bessant and Rhona Smith, wrote:
... children are frequently denied access to justice and indeed may even lack awareness of their rights. Accordingly, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has advocated the creation of national strategies promoting children's rights and independent human rights institutions to publicise and realise them.
Children's Commissioners, charged with defending and supporting children's welfare, rights and interests, guided by the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Children, have clear potential as human rights institutions.
This makes an irresistible case for the introduction of a Children's Commissioner in Australia, and I am glad that we are now responding to that case. We cannot be complacent when it comes to children's rights, even though the rights and protections in for children in Australia are comparatively strong.
As I said in my speech on the motion in December 2010, there are actions against children in Australia's recent history of which no-one can be proud. The children of the stolen generation and forgotten Australians:
... did not receive this special protection. Our acceptance of responsibility, our sorrow and our sincere apology for the suffering of these children has a sobering resonance in the context of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. That episode in our history is a tragic demonstration of the vulnerabilities of children and of the susceptibility of government agencies to systemic failures when it comes to even the most basic protections. The two anniversaries, a month apart, should remind us of the terrible harm that can occur when the rights of children are not protected and should strengthen us in the ongoing imperative of recognising and protecting those rights.
The third anniversary, in a few months time, of the national apology to the stolen generations will be another point of reflection. It is of course an anniversary which tolls a heavy warning on the unacceptable consequences of neglecting the rights of children. The stolen generations and the forgotten Australians are not people who exist in some sepia-coloured, less enlightened Australian past. They are with us now, with their pain and also their courage and resilience.
Today we make a real and critical improvement to the protections that exist for children in this country, and in so doing we meet and strengthen the obligations and the spirit of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I wholeheartedly welcome the creation of a National Children's Commissioner, and I commend the minister for moving so quickly to bring this bill forward. The Children's Commissioner at the Commonwealth level is certainly not a role and function that is arriving ahead of its time, but I am proud to be part of a Labor government that is learning from the past and looking to shape a future in which Australian children and children overseas can live to their potential with the protections and freedoms that all children should have.