Senate debates

Thursday, 1 March 2012


Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010; Second Reading

9:31 am

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Australian Greens consider that the welfare and the best interests of children should be front and centre in government decision making .We know that failure to address issues of disadvantage in the early years has lasting consequences for adulthood and people's entire lifespan. Senator Hanson-Young's Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010 recognises the need for Australia to catch up with other nations around the world and implement a properly resourced commis­sioner for children and young people within the structure of the Australian Human Rights Commission to oversee the rights of young Australians with the powers to ensure recognition of their needs and views.

It is logical that the commissioner be located alongside the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, age, disability, race and sex commissioners. The childrens commissioner will be able to utilise the pre-existing structures but will also be effectively independent from government. The commis­sioner would tackle problems such as child abuse, neglect, poor education, poverty, youth homelessness and social disadvan­tage—all issues we all agree need to be addressed. A commissioner would also provide a voice for young people, means of communication with government and a simple avenue for complaints of ill treatment.

Most importantly, this bill would assist Australia in meeting its international obligations—in particular, its obligations under the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child. Australia has for more than 20 years been party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This document, which Australia signed and ratified, was agreed to by world leaders in 1989 in an attempt to ensure every child and young person has the best opportunities in life regardless of their ethnicity or gender. Despite Australia's agreement to abide by the convention, the UN have made repeated calls—in 2002 and 2003—for us to establish a national children's commissioner. But, to date, no action has been taken.

While all of us here can agree that the welfare of children should be paramount when making decisions affecting their wellbeing, the fact that Australia still has no independent statutory body dedicated to children's rights and development is very concerning, particularly given that this is not a new proposal. The idea of a common­wealth commissioner has been on the agenda at a community and parliamentary level for years because there is a pressing need for an independent commission to ensure that children and young people are not neglected during government decision making. Whether it is children in child care, state care, the education system, the juvenile justice system or homeless shelters in big cities, small towns or outback and remote communities, all young people deserve to have someone who is there to look after their best interests.

While the government's national framework for protecting Australia's children will play an important role in a national conversation about how best to advance the rights and interests of children, it can be no substitute for an independent commissioner appropriately resourced to have regard for these issues at a national level. While this framework will play an important role in a national conversation about how best to address the rights and interests of children, the Greens, along with many key stakeholders—including UNICEF, Save the Children, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition—argue that it can be no substitute for an independent commissioner appropriately resourced to have regard for these issues at a national level.

A commonwealth commissioner would perform the following functions: stand up for children and young people at a national level by monitoring the development and application of laws affecting children and young people; coordinate relevant policies, programs and funding; and proactively engage children and young people in decisions which affect them. It would also assist Australia in meeting our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including: article 2 on nondiscrimination in the applicability of children's rights; article 4 on the primacy of the consideration of a child's best interests; article 6(1) on a child's right to survival and development; and article 12 on a child's right to participation in decision making. I am sure every person in this chamber would agree to all of those things.

Last year UNICEF launched the 2011 child's rights non-governmental organisation report on Australia's progress on implemen­ting the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This report found, among other things, that a national children's commissioner is essential because improving outcomes for children involves actions across many areas of public policy. In particular, the report found that three groups of children in Australia have been routinely disadvantaged by the failure of government to involve them in decision making. These groups will come as no surprise to people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have mortality rates three times their non-Aboriginal peers. The number of children in out-of-home care has increased by 51.5 per cent since 2005, yet we collect no data to tell us why these children are being placed in care to begin with. And there are more than 700 children who continue to be held in some form of immigration detention, despite it being a breach of the UN's children's convention. The examples articulated in the report further highlight the unacceptable outcomes for children in Australia.

The amendments circulated today by Senator Hanson-Young enhance her children's commissioner bill in a number of ways. The amendments were developed in consultation with a broad coalition of children's and young people's non-govern­ment organisations. They take into account the findings of the 2010 inquiry into this bill. We know there are children in Australia who suffer from disadvantage. We know, for example, as articulated in the report by UNICEF, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are the most disadvantaged in this country. Just last week the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs heard yet again, when it was in the Northern Territory holding hearings into the stronger futures legislation, the details of the disadvantage that Aboriginal children face. For example, 48 per cent of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory need some form of special assistance in the classroom and 60 per cent in prescribed communities need some form of assistance in the classroom. Those are just two examples of the massive disadvantage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children face.

Let us look at homelessness. Tonight approximately 105,000 people will be homeless across the country, of whom 12 per cent, or 12,133 people, will be children under the age of 12. Among the homeless will be 7,483 families with children. Another 21 per cent, or 21,940 people, will be children and young people aged between 12 and 18. Most of them are homeless as well as estranged from their families. One in every 39 Australian children under five accessed homeless assistance service last year. Nearly 30 per cent of the children accessing homeless assistance services are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children. Every day two out of every three children who request immediate accommodation are turned away from homeless services. Aboriginal peoples generally are significantly more likely to experience homelessness than non-Aboriginal Australians. Aboriginal Aust­ralians are also significantly more likely to live in overcrowded housing. We have discussed this issue in this chamber on numerous occasions. Overcrowding is identified as a major factor affecting Aboriginal people's physical and mental health as are the social and schooling disadvantages faced by Aboriginal children, which are of course intimately linked to overcrowding. Their inability to access education can also be directly related to overcrowding.

UNICEF has said that Aboriginal children are overrepresented in nearly every measure relating to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Aboriginal children account for almost half of all homeless people in Australia under the age of 18. They have much higher rates of youth suicide—just recently we heard of more tragic circumstances of youth suicide. It is a problem that urgently needs to be addressed. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have comparatively little access to education and are overrepresented in their experience of poor access to health services and overall inadequate standards of living. We already know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are far overrepresented in the justice system. The detention rate for Aboriginal juveniles is 397 per 100,000, which is 28 times the rate for non-Aboriginal juveniles of 14 per 100,000.

Aboriginal juveniles are overrepresented in community and detention based supervision. In 2007 Aboriginal juveniles accounted for 59 per cent of the total juvenile detention population. Aboriginal children make up 53 per cent of all juveniles in detention and 39 per cent in community supervision—bear in mind that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up three per cent of Australia's population. Aboriginal juveniles in detention are younger on average than their non-Aboriginal counterparts: 22 per cent of Aboriginal juveniles in detention were aged 14 years or less, compared to 14 per cent of non-Aboriginal juveniles. There is a strong link between the disproportionate rates of juvenile detention and the disproportionate rates of adult imprisonment. Although Aboriginal Australians make up only three per cent of our population, 25 per cent of prisoners in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Prison census data shows that between 2000 and 2010 the number of Aboriginal men and women in custody increased sharply: Aboriginal men by 55 per cent and Aboriginal women by 47 per cent. In the Northern Territory 29.5 per cent of Aboriginal children report having completed year 8 or below, 25.8 per cent of year 5 students achieve at or above the national minimum for reading and Aboriginal children are underrepresented in early childhood education and care services. They comprise 41.4 per cent of the population but represent only 9.8 per cent of children who attend early childhood services.

Children living in poverty also need support from a children's commissioner. The number of people estimated to be living in poverty is over 2.2 million; approximately 12 per cent of children in Australia live in poverty. In 2007-08, it is estimated, there were over half a million low-income households with children aged between zero and 12 years receiving an average equivalent disposable income of $412 a week—that is $278 less per week than middle income households with children of the same age. We know that children with a disability also need support; 12 per cent of people with a disability are children. UNICEF said:

Whilst Australia’s ratification of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, signing of a National Disability Agreement and subsequent National Disability Strategy were commendable, there are concerns over the scarcity of data on children with disabilities. There is also concern over the existing care and support resources available for children with disabilities and their families. Children with a disability miss out on crucial and early intervention services, support to assist with life transitions and support to prevent family or career crisis and breakdown.

We know of the alarming mental health statistics. These are particularly alarming for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, as I mentioned before, with higher rates of suicide and other poor mental health outcomes.

While we have seen boosts for funding for mental health in Australia and I have been on the record congratulating the government for those boosts, we still are below other Western countries. For children and young people who are seeking help, many do not receive timely access to appropriate services. Particular groups are at higher risk of poor mental health outcomes, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children; children from refugee and migrant backgrounds; same-sex attached, gender questioning or gender diverse young people; young carers; children with disability; and children in rural, regional and remote areas. Inability to access suicide intervention and prevention programs continues to be a problem for remote communities and the system employed to monitor suicide youths and youths at risk across central and western Australia continues to be inadequate.

Nationally the number of children in out-of-home care has risen each year from 2000 to 2010. There were 35,895 children in out-of-home care on 30 June 2010. That is an awful lot of children. At June 2010 there were 11,468 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care. The national rate of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care was almost 10 times the rate for other children. Almost one-third of children in out-of-home care were aged between 10 and 14 years, a further 30 per cent were aged five to nine years, 25 per cent were aged less than five years and 15 per cent were aged 15 to 17 years. Most children who were removed from their homes were placed in home-based services, 94 per cent. Of these children in home-based care 49.1 per cent were in foster care, 48.5 per cent were in relative or kinship care and 2.2 per cent were in some other type of home-based care. A small proportion of children, around five per cent, removed from their home were placed in residential care where staff were paid to care for them. The number of children in out-of-home Australia has increased by 51.5 per cent since 2005, with Aboriginal children almost 10 times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care. We have a lot of work to do in this country.

Inadequacies in the care system include inappropriate placements of children; a shortage of care options; poorly supported home-based carers; mental health issues exacerbated by and in fact caused by care; poorer outcomes for young children in care than for the general population in terms of health, education, wellbeing and develop­ment; abuse and neglect of children in care; Aboriginal children placed outside their communities; and inadequate preparation for young people leaving care for independent living. These are not issues that happened decades ago, these are statistics from now. These children need our support. They need a national commissioner. It has been recommended and supported across-the-board. It is what our children deserve. I commend Senator Hanson-Young for bringing on this bill and I urge the Senate to support this vitally important measure that will significantly add to helping and supporting the children of our nation.

9:48 am

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to provide a contribution to this debate on the Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010, which, if passed, will establish the Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People. There is no doubt that Senator Siewert has outlined a range of facts and figures before us today that do highlight that in this country we have got some work to do in relation to protecting and guiding and looking after the children under not only our care but the care of the states and territories, whether it is under state and territory legislation or Commonwealth legislation.

This bill was first introduced back in September 2010. In fact, I think it might have been earlier than that, before the 2010 election. It was reintroduced after the 2010 election and at that time the Selection of Bills Committee sent it off to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee, which I chair. We held an inquiry into this piece of legislation during 2011. From memory, we got 93 submissions. What I want to do today is take the Senate through the outcome of the inquiry. At the end of the day basically everyone said, 'We certainly do need a children's commissioner in this country.' There was overwhelming support for the concept, the idea and the position. But there was not overwhelming support for some of the measures in this bill, and I will take you through some of those in the moment.

The purpose of this bill is to establish an independent statutory office of the Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People. The purpose of the office will be to recognise and advocate for the rights and needs of children and young people in Australia and to ensure that Australia's domestic and international human rights obligations are upheld. I noticed, reading very quickly a moment ago, that the amendments Senator Hanson-Young has now circulated suggest that it should not be an independent statutory office but should be part of the Australian Human Rights Commission. That is what leads us to the very nature of the problem with this legislation, because there was discussion during the inquiry on whether it should be a commission or a commissioner—should it be an independent statutory office or should it in fact be part of the Human Rights Commission. But I think at the end of the day what everyone felt was that there needed to be much broader discussion about the benefits of all those options. What we have today is a decision by the Greens and by Senator Hanson-Young that the best option is to actually put it inside the Australian Human Rights Commission. I am still unsure whether that is the best way to go. I think it is evident that there is a need for broader consultation around the country about what the best thing to do is. If we are going to do this—and we need to do this—we certainly need to do it in such a way that it stands for all time. We do not want to be in the position where, after a couple of years, we say: 'Maybe that was not the best way to do it. Maybe we ought to have an independent office.' That signals to me that we should not be rushing through this bill or the proposed amendments and that there needs to be further time to consult with all of the parties in the industry—not just the 93 who made submissions to the inquiry. We need a broader consultation about the best way to go.

There is no doubt at all that the establishment of the Commonwealth Com­missioner for Children and Young People would help move our national approach beyond the narrow focus on neglect and abuse that dominates much of the public dialogue. In her speech, Senator Siewert raised the issues of low participation rates in early childhood education and the problems faced by children with disabilities. But I do not think it is just about neglect and abuse; I think it is also about safety and wellbeing—other matters that were raised during the committee's inquiry.

The concept of a national commissioner is not new; it has been canvassed by community organisations and advocacy groups for a number of years. Even in opposition, way back in 2003 when Nicola Roxon was our shadow Attorney-General, we had the establishment of a children's commissioner on our policy books and platform. We even produced draft legislation back then—the A Better Future for our Kids Bill 2003 was tabled by us.

There is now a need to have the states and territories come on board and that is in the process of happening through COAG. The National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009 to 2020—so we are talking about an 11-year plan here, now called 'the national framework'—was endorsed by COAG in April 2010. It was developed by a dedicated working group of the Community and Disability Services Ministers' Advisory Council. They under­took an extensive consultation process involving the states and territories, non-government organisations, academics, child protection practitioners, carers and young people. That is the context in which the federal government is now working.

It should be noted that all states and territories in Australia have either a commissioner or a guardian for children and young people—even the Northern Territory, my home base. But the roles and responsi­bilities of those commissioners or guardians vary considerably across jurisdictions. In some ways that is beneficial, I think. However, if you are going to lay a federal children's commissioner over the top of that, with associated issues of how that federal commissioner would interact with the states and territories, it could well become problematic.

I draw people's attention to the report of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee into this bill. It was tabled in May 2011. At the back, it provides a terrific summary of the role of the children's commissioner in each state and territory. If you are interested in a comparison of what each state and territory does in the various areas of responsibility, it is laid out quite well in the back of that report.

National commissioners have been appointed in other countries around the world and these are examples we ought to be looking at. Those countries include Norway, New Zealand, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Not a lot of countries have yet embarked on this process. We would become, perhaps, only the fifth country in the world to do it. While there is a need to do it, there is not a lot of precedent out there to tell us what is working and what is not working.

I mentioned the national framework that was endorsed by COAG. As part of that, the government is exploring the potential role of a national children's commissioner. The national framework will be implemented through a series of three-year action plans over the 11 years of the framework. The first three-year action plan, going from 2009 to 2012—due to end at the end of this year—identified 12 national priorities, including advocating nationally for children and young people. This national priority—one of the 12 national priorities—is about exploring the potential to establish a position of Common­wealth Commissioner for Children and Young People. Progress on this priority was covered in a 2009-10 report to the Council for Australian Governments, entitled Protecting children is everyone's business: national framework for protecting Australia's children 2009-2020. So there is work being done. The Greens may argue that perhaps the work is not being done quickly enough, but I think we need to do it thoroughly and properly.

During our inquiry into the establishment of a Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People, we identified about seven issues that have not been resolved in this legislation. The amendments we have seen today are, I think, trying to resolve some of those issues. There are complexities involved in establishing this new position, however, and I worry about the wisdom of considering amendments which have just been tabled on the day we are debating the bill without those amendments first going back out into the community for broader discussion.

One of the issues identified was, as I have said, whether there is a need for a Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People and whether the bill addresses such need. Clearly, as I said, our inquiry overwhelmingly concluded, based on all of the submissions presented by the various groups and stakeholders, that, yes, there is a need for such a position. So you tick that box. But there was no agreement about how the commission should be established—whether it should be a com­missioner, a commission or a dedicated com­missioner under the Human Rights Commission. There were varying views about that. Some witnesses felt that if in fact it was under the Australian Human Rights Commission there would be constraints about what you could do. Some felt that if it were a commission then it would have much wider powers to do a whole range of things like investigate, research and advocate. Others thought there should just be a commissioner as a statutory authority.

One of the other issues is the actual adequacy of the bill that is before the Senate. Despite support for the establishment of a Commonwealth commissioner, a number of the submitters actually questioned whether the framework provided in the bill was appropriate. That went to a whole range of suggestions that the bill ought to be strengthened and enhanced to really articulate the operation, functions and powers of the Commonwealth commissioner. Others suggested that there needed to be further consultation on the bill, and that even consultation with children needed to be undertaken before this legislation was put through. Some submitters thought that the proposed model outlined in this bill should not proceed. Some submitters argued that the role and functions provided in the legislation were limited and were unlikely to provide the commissioner with the required capacity, independence or scope to enable it to effectively carry out the proposed functions.

Berry Street, in their submission, said:

The breadth of proposed functions and powers ... require independence of government, a requirement to represent and act on behalf of the government of the day ... These distinct roles should not be located with the one position.

The picture I am trying to paint here is that this bill still really needs a lot of work and consultation before we can actually give it the tick.

One of the other major areas of debate that was highlighted during the inquiry was whether the commissioner should have a rights based approach or whether it should be a welfare model approach, or in fact both. There was a lot of discussion, if I remember, about that. Some people suggested that there would be some severe limitations on the role of the commissioner about that. The Australian Human Rights Commission explained that a human rights framework empowers children and young people as rights-holding citizens. So, of course, they believe that that would be a better way to go. Others like PeakCare argued for a family welfare model such as that adopted in Sweden and other European countries, as opposed to the current child protection model. Again, we still have an area of debate that I do not think has been fully explored and resolved.

Let us go to the structure: the establishment of the commission as a statutory authority, whether it should be a standalone office or part of the Australian Human Rights Commission. I do notice that Senator Hanson-Young is suggesting it should now be in the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Law Council of Australia noted further advantages in incor­porating the Commonwealth commissioner into the Human Rights Commission. They observed that if the commissioner were created as a member of the Australian Human Rights Commission then the provisions of course of that act would apply, thereby negating some of the concerns held regarding the drafting of the provisions of the bill.

Let us move to another area of contention: the definition of children and young people. Again, it was interesting to note that some people believed that the definition should be extended to include those aged 25 years or younger in certain circumstances, particu­larly if they were children or young people leaving out-of-home care who were not yet independent. I had not actually thought about that. I had always thought you would define a child and a young person as someone between the ages of zero and 18. The UN definition of a child is a person under the age of 15, believe it or not, and youth are defined as those between the ages of 15 and 24. So, already, we have under the age of 15, under the age of 18, under the age of 24 and up to the age of 25. I do not think this bill clearly specifies the definition—and maybe it does not need to do that; I am not sure. Some people might think 35 is still young these days!

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I might take that interjection, Senator Fifield. It is not a matter to perhaps be frivolous about, but I do think that these are some issues that have not finally been bedded down in the proposed legislation. Let us ask teenagers what they think about that definition of 15 to 18. Let us ask young people in this country whether it should be 24 or 25. As with most of the submitters, the Law Council noted it supported the definition of children and young people as persons under the age of 18, as provided for in this bill. That is consistent with relevant legislation in the states and territories. It is inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is also consistent with the Youth Justice Act 1992 in Queensland, which defines a child as a person under the age of 17 years.

Again, if you are going to get this commissioner to have a role in oversighting state and territory legislation or just Commonwealth legislation—and we have not got to this point of contention yet—then in Queensland maybe the oversighting stops when a child turns 17. How would this Commissioner interact with the state and territory commissioners and guardians? Would they, as is currently drafted in the bill, empower the Commonwealth commis­sioner to interfere in matters that are clearly the responsibility of the states?

In contrast, Mission Australia recommended that the bill should specify the Commonwealth commissioner only has an oversight of Commonwealth and state and territory laws which affect children and young people. Others suggested that there needed to be clearer delineation of respon­sibility between the Commonwealth and the state and territory commissioners and guardians. The Law Council of Australia noted that the role of the Commonwealth commissioner could complement the functions of existing children's commis­sioners and guardians; however, to avoid duplication of functions the role of the Commonwealth commissioner will need to be focused.

We go to the independence of the office and reporting requirements. Should this office report directly to the United Nations? Should it report to the minister? Should it be answerable to the minister, or should it be a stand-alone statutory office? The appointment of the commissioner is unclear here, and many suggested that the appointment process should remain distinct from government—notice, again, there are some amendments here.

I have been through the reporting requirements but, what I want to do in summing up, is turn people's attention to the report. Because if you are interested in this, all of those anomalies and all of those questions that still need to be discussed and debated are outlined in our report. We do recommend a whole series of suggestions for expanding, clarifying, redefining and adding to the various functions and powers of the Commonwealth commissioner proposed in this bill. There are many dot points here—more than a dozen or so—that we felt are yet unanswered and that need further discussion and exploration. While everyone wants to see a national children's commissioner established, we do not think that this legislation should be rushed without further consultation right across the country.

10:08 am

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to speak on the Common­wealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010. This bill has a pretty straightforward purpose, which is to create the statutory office of the Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People. Although I understand the Greens have circulated an amendment to see the office of the commissioner located with the Australian Human Rights Commission, rather than as a stand-alone body, I suspect it is unlikely that that amendment will have the opportunity to be ventilated in the committee stage. But I think the fact that these amendments have come forward shows that even the Greens' own thinking on the office of a children's commissioner is evolving. During the Senate inquiry there was a view expressed amongst stakeholders that there was a need for greater consultation on the concept of an office of a children's commissioner—and I think these amendments show that that probably is needed.

As I mentioned, there was a Senate inquiry; it was a wide-ranging one. Just by way of background I might briefly go through what the situation is currently in the other jurisdictions in relation to the arrange­ments that they have for commissioners or guardians for children and young people. New South Wales has both a Commissioner for Children and Young People and an Office for Children; Queensland has a Commissioner for Children and Young People, and a Child Guardian; Victoria has a Child Safety Commissioner; Tasmania has a Commissioner for Children; and Western Australia has a Commissioner for Children and Young People. This bill seeks to create a Commonwealth-level organisation with some similar purposes to some of those state based bodies, and I think there are still questions about what the scope of the Commonwealth body would be, what the interactions would be between the Commonwealth body and the state bodies and what duplications there may be in those functions. I think that is something that still does need further examination.

This is not the first time that there has been a Commonwealth-level proposal for a national Children's Commissioner. I think on two previous occasions there have been pieces of proposed legislation. In 2003 the current Attorney-General introduced as a private member's bill something with a similar objective. That bill did not proceed beyond the first reading. On another occasion a former colleague of ours, the then Senator Bartlett, introduced a private senator's bill in 2008, which lapsed at the end of that parliament. I think Senator Bartlett is now a fellow traveller with the initiators with this piece of legislation. I think it is nice that his interest in public policy continues. I always like to see former members of the parliament continue to make a contribution in public life, so that is nice to see.

The committee did hear from stakeholders who did cite a number of concerns with the bill. There were some concerns expressed about the extent to which the office of the commissioner would take into account the needs of children and young people with disabilities. The committee also noted issues raised by a number of submitters regarding guardianship of unaccompanied non-citizen minors. The bill, as it currently stands, would have the children's commissioner act as the legal guardian of unaccompanied children and young people who arrive in Australia without the appropriate visa or authority to enter Australia. With this there are a number issues about blurring lines of responsibilities as to who is actually responsible for the welfare of people in that situation. We do know that the issue of legal guardianship responsibilities of the minister have been the subject of some public interest, following the High Court ruling on the government's Malaysia proposal. The Greens have circulated amendments that would remove from this bill the proposal to have the commissioner act as the legal guardian for unaccompanied minors—but, as I mentioned, I think it is unlikely that we will get to talk about those further in this place. The coalition are, I think, more focused these days on practical measures to benefit of the welfare of children and young people. We do have a number of policies to do that. One to which am particularly committed is the idea of an education card for students with a disability that would allow students to take an entitlement to the school of their choice so that it would not matter what school the student went to. Whether the school was independent, Catholic or government there would be a similar payment and similar support, which the parents could direct themselves. I think that that would be a good and practical thing to do. So we have a number of policies that we hope are practical and would make a real difference.

The coalition certainly appreciates the motivation behind this legislation and we certainly appreciate the objective, but I think it is always important not to do things that are purely symbolic, though symbols are important. I think it is necessary to make sure that you are not merely seen to be trying to do something good but that in practice you deliver something that makes a real difference in people's lives. So I think this legislation does need further consideration, particularly, as I mentioned before, in relation to the interaction between the existing state bodies and this new proposed Commonwealth body. We do have concerns about whether the legislation would achieve its stated objectives. In the light of what I have said, then, the coalition is not in a position to support this bill.

10:16 am

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This morning I rise to speak on the Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010. Legislative debates such as this are, as other speakers have highlighted, valuable. I, like the government, welcome discussion about measures that advance and promote the welfare and rights of children in this nation. The rights of children in this nation should be paramount. We want children to grow up nourished and supported in the sorts of loving and caring environments we know too many children this nation go without. We also know that over recent years the reported levels of child neglect and abuse in Australia have, sadly, increased at an alarming rate. This is an issue of national concern, and statutory child protection systems are struggling under the load.

Protecting children is the responsibility of everyone in this nation. Communities, governments and business all have a role to play. I do not believe that the bill before us today presents a panacean solution to the problems associated with the protection of children. I listened to Senator Siewert's very compelling evidence about the plight of so many children in this nation. That evidence is a good reason to support the establishment of a national children's commissioner once we get the policy settings right, but its establishment would by no means be a panacea for the plight of the children concerned, and I know that Senator Siewert would acknowledge that.

What we need in this nation is a shared agenda for change—national leadership and a common agenda and specific goals—so I am particularly pleased that all Australian governments have endorsed the first National Framework for Protecting Australia's Child­ren. This framework goes through to 2020. It commits to action and is a long-term national approach to protecting Australia's children. Children in this nation confront many profound issues, but I think that those issues alone are not an adequate argument for the establishment of a national children's com­missioner in the form specified in this bill. I agree with the finding of Senator Crossin and the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs that there are, sadly, too many questions remaining about this bill; but I do think that the bill makes a valuable contribution to the debate about the need for a national children's commissioner.

Addressing the kinds of issues raised by Senator Siewert require cooperation between state and territory governments and a great deal of reform and policy commitment by a wide variety of agencies, but I am pleased to say that these issues are all on the agenda within the National Framework for Protect­ing Australia's Children. We can only do the right thing by the children concerned if we have workable and viable institutions that are all on the same page—institutions that make sense. While this bill has many com­mendable attributes, it does not in my view adequately address a number of concerns. Some of these concerns were shared by those who made submissions to the Senate Stand­ing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs inquiry into the bill. There were many proponents of the bill who, in addition to supporting the bill, put forward suggestions and amendments. Many of them were contradictory; many of them were also worthwhile; but there were many layers to these contributions that needed to be sorted through.

There is indeed a great deal of support for the establishment of a national children's commissioner. I certainly support it, and Western Australia has a children's commissioner, but I do not believe that this bill is yet the right vehicle for the establishment of the position. The bill has merit, but I do not believe that it should proceed at this stage. We need to take the time to work through the very important issues involved with the establishment of a national children's commissioner. The Senate inquiry drew out many of the issues about the establishment of the position. These ranged from support, in particular support to assist Australia in meeting its international obligations, to very specific proposals to amend the functions and powers of this proposed bill.

The government itself is currently deliberating on the role of a national children's commissioner under the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children. I am awaiting the outcome of those deliberations. It is a long-standing com­mitment of the Australian Labor Party to appoint a national children's commissioner, so I am pleased that the government is giving it close consideration and looking at the kinds of models that would be appropriate. Indeed, an exploration of the potential for a national children's commissioner was part of the 2009 Framework for Protecting Australia's Children, and, in 2011, the Attorney-General and the minister for foreign affairs announced that Australia's response to the United Nations Human Rights Council's universal periodic review of Australia included our consideration of the appointment of a national children's commissioner. So, in my mind, the things we need to concentrate on are, yes, really sorting through what a national children's commissioner could and should look like, but at the same time as working that through, acknowledging the substantial issues that are within the national framework. The national framework represents an unprecedented level of cooperation between states and territories when it comes to the welfare of children. It is about placing children's interests firmly at the centre of everything we do. It is not an institution out at the side. Reducing child abuse and neglect is not an easy task and it will take time.

The government has asked relevant departments to provide advice on possible models in order to develop a proposal that is acceptable to stakeholders. I would agree in particular that a children's commissioner at a Commonwealth level must not duplicate states' and territories' work. The establish­ment of a federal children's commissioner should not involve interfering in state responsibilities particularly the work of states and territories children's com­missioners and guardians. However, I believe that through the national framework these institutions will have the chance to collaborate and work together, but they do need to have distinct roles. So I think the Senate committee has made a valuable contribution through consultation with stakeholders in drawing out many of their views. It is important that we are able to work through these issues as a government in order to get the policy settings right.

We know, for example, that children's commissioners and guardians are playing a very important role at state levels. My own home state of WA has a Children's Commissioner and it is notable that, while WA would welcome a Commonwealth commissioner in particular, the role that such a commissioner would play in things like immigration detention or children under the guardianship of the Commonwealth Minister for Immigration needs to be considered carefully. Western Australia does not view that such a commissioner should be there to give oversight to the children in Western Australia. Clearly, there will be issues here that need to be resolved. We cannot just go storming into each other's territory without creating goodwill and workable solutions. Ultimately, any national children's com­missioner is going to have to work with the state children's commissioners so they have to have a workable relationship in terms of their powers and responsibilities. We really need to be able to carefully define where that overlap will exist and what kind of oversight a national children's commissioner would have for children at a state and territory level.

It is notable, for example, that the 2007 bill introduced a Children's Commissioner for the Northern Territory. If the Northern Territory has a Children's Commissioner—and I know that the Commonwealth has a special relationship with the Northern Territory because they do not have self-government—perhaps there might be a more extended role with its own roles and responsibilities as well.

Going back to the state of WA, they are of the view that many of the functions outlined in clause 9 are more appropriately carried out by state children's commissioners or similar bodies in respect of state responsibilities. I know that the Commonwealth view is that we do not want to overlap state responsibilities too much. My own personal view is that, clearly, we would need to have some oversight otherwise there might not be much point. But we have not actually worked through what those issues would actually look like. That kind of detailed work needs to go through the system to make sure that we have workable institutions.

The state of Western Australia also noted that the bill does not have a provision with regard to consultation, and I am unclear whether those issues have been picked up in amendments. It has also noted that the commission's functions needed to be limited to matters within Commonwealth juris­diction unless otherwise invited or agreed by the states and territories. So again, we have a signal saying: how are states and territories going to work between themselves to work out who is going to look into the different issues? I think that within the context of the national framework, which is something that has been signed off by all states and territories, we will actually have the foundation for a good working relationship to sort through these issues, but we must allow those arrangements to work. We cannot just bowl in with an important institutional reform like this without working through the substantial issues.

The state of Western Australia certainly acknowledged that a national commissioner could play an important role advocating for and supporting children in this nation. But they also argued that given the existing mechanisms in place at the state, federal, and territory levels, children's commissioners should not have a role in relation to individual children or in the day-to-day care of children. Work needs to be done to ensure that the children's commissioner role is established in a way that provides the broadest possible authority to represent and advocate for the issues affecting children. A children's commissioner should not duplicate the advisory, monitoring, reporting and advocacy role performed by existing Com­monwealth Human Rights Commissioners. Consideration of the role and model of the children's commissioner will continue and therefore, in my view, this bill in its current form cannot be supported.

The government has committed to significant reforms to protect children and I am confident of the outcome. My home state of WA devotes considerable resources to ensuring children are able to reach their full potential. It is important that we invest in the nation's children so that they can indeed blossom and grow into wonderful human beings and that they are able to access their rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child across all areas of government including family law, education and early childhood, youth health policies and programs and child protection and welfare. This government, I am pleased to say, is working to improve the wellbeing, rights and safety of Australia's children. It is about a well-integrated national approach to protect Australia's children. It is about a shared agenda for change with national leadership and common goals for the nation's children, because this government knows that recognising the safety and wellbeing of children is the responsibility of all levels of government. It is certainly the responsibility of the Australian government, but it is something that we have sought to put into place and support through the national framework, working closely with the states and territories.

We know that these challenges are being faced across the nation. State and territory governments currently spend in excess of $2 billion annually on child protection alone. That is a massive amount of money and it is increasing at an annual rate of about 12 per cent. State and territory governments are also currently implementing reforms to their statutory child protection systems, all things that are focused on early intervention. But for these reforms to be truly effective they need to be coordinated with the Australian government. Programs, policies and payments are all important things that are part of the early intervention response, all the kinds of changes that will support this nation's children.

This bill sadly is not a panacea to the kinds of issues that our children in this nation face. What we do need is a national framework that delivers a more integrated response but does not change the respon­sibilities of governments. States and terri­tories retain statutory responsibility for child protection as the Australian government retains responsibility, for example, for providing income support payments. The national framework recognises the significant existing efforts and reforms which are being undertaken by governments across Australia in protecting children and supporting the families of those children.

Part of that national framework action includes a ministerial forum on protecting Australia's children. It will be convened to bring together ministers with responsibilities under the national framework and the forum hosted by the Community and Disability Services Ministers Conference will invite contributions from non-government representatives, including state and territory children's commissioners as well as children and young people. So we have a plan for bringing together children's commissioners in this country and all the kinds of agencies that are responsible for the oversight and protection that I know Senator Hanson-Young is trying to put forward in this bill. We really need to think about how what Senator Hanson-Young puts forward in her bill joins up with all the other rights and responsibilities that are undertaken by other agencies.

We know that in the last decade all state and territory care and protection systems have undergone significant reviews. In most, but not all cases, reviews have been triggered by revelations of abuse and/or death of children in state care. There are a number of reforms, though, that are common to all systems. These are things like the safety and wellbeing of children as a shared community responsibility; collaborative interagency partnerships and, in some instances, priority services to children and young people in the care and protection system; expanded roles for non-government providers of family support and out-of-home care services; strengthened requirements for the recruitment and training of foster and kinship carers; charters of rights for children and young people in care; empowerment of children and families to participate in decision making; creation of children's commissioners and/or children's guardian positions to advocate for children within systems to monitor the performance of child protection and, in some cases, to monitor the performance of out-of-home care systems. They have included significantly increased investments in services available to vulnerable families and children at risk and specific services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander children and clients.

When you look at that you can see that there is a strategic framework. There are always things that are unaddressed when you look at the legacy of the very significant issues confronting Australia's children raised in this debate, but there is a holistic approach to tackling the issues confronting children in this nation and it is important work that needs to continue.

The Care and Protection of Children Act 2007 provides the legal framework for care and protection for children in the Northern Territory, for example. That act established a Northern Territory Children's Commissioner. I think that the work of the Northern Territory Children's Commissioner is particularly important. I, for one, want the Northern Territory to be able to develop and strength its institutions so that the issues that we debate in this place about things like the Northern Territory intervention can have more weight by virtue of stronger institutional responses at a territory level. I, for one, in the long term want the Northern Territory to obtain statehood so that we do not have the high level of intervention that the Australian government has in things like child welfare. We have a bit of a de facto debate about child welfare in this nation because of that. I have been through many of my reasons for not supporting this bill, but I do look forward to working with my colleagues to continue to advance the welfare of children in this country.

10:36 am

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to oppose this bill, the Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010. That is not because I do not support the protection of children—I think I share with many in this place a firm commitment to the protection of children, their welfare and rights, and the obligations that the community, including the parental community, has to them—but, in fact, quite the opposite: I am a steadfast defender of these rights, right from conception through to adulthood. However, I do not support the expansion of government to replicate functions that in effect are already fulfilled by state and territory bodies as well as in part by the federal government. Senator Pratt, Senator Fifield and a number of others have articulated where this bill seeks to duplicate those services. Creating this body, while well meaning, would do exactly as has been outlined. Further, it would require an annual appropriation which would entail staffing and resources; it would create increasing bureaucracy. These are things that this country can ill afford at the moment, no matter how well meaning this bill may be. I do not support gestures of good intent, which is what I consider this bill to be.

Senator Hanson-Young, in introducing the bill, makes some very good points. I would like to quote from Senator Hanson-Young. She said:

Advocacy for children and young people should be a national priority.

I happen to agree with that.

The rights of children and young people must be taken seriously by their elected representatives …

I agree with that also.

For too long the rights children and young people have been swept under the carpet, put in the too hard basket …

I agree with those sentiments as well. But unfortunately I find those words ring very hollow when you compare them with the voting record of the Greens and Senator Hanson-Young on protecting children.

I refer specifically to a bill that I introduced in this place on child sex tourism. It was meant to address the issue of Australians grooming children overseas online and then travelling overseas and behaving in a sexually predatory way to these children. It was my belief that these Australians should be held to account. It was my belief that, in some countries where the government did not adequately protect these extremely vulnerable children, we should be doing all we could to stop Australian citizens from getting involved in this awful, degrading and vile trade.

My bill sought to expand and contemporise the powers available to police to stop and prevent these predatory actions taking place—which, as I mentioned, were grooming online, travelling with intent and actual sexual activity with children overseas. It was a very sensible bill. It was a bill that had the bipartisan support of the Labor Party and the coalition in the government prior to the 2007 election, but it lapsed before it could go completely through the Senate.

When I reintroduced it I was, frankly, appalled that petty politics got into it and that neither the Greens nor the Labor Party supported it. But, with continuing pressure—and I accept the fact that he did—the then minister, who was, I think, Senator Ludwig, pursued it through the Senate and introduced a bill of his own and it was passed, and I think that has gone a great way towards satisfying the international obligations that we have. So the Labor Party did indeed see the light in this respect.

But that is why I find this bill quite amazing: we already have many existing bodies in this country that provide the types of services and the advocacy that Senator Hanson-Young wants and yet Senator Hanson-Young herself refused to support a bill that would stop Australians from taking—

Senator Hanson-Young interjecting

Excuse me—are you saying it did not get to the Senate? Senator Hanson-Young, you refused to allow it formality. You voted against it with Senator Fielding.

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Bernardi, I remind you that you are actually talking to the chair.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. I was just reminding Senator Hanson Young—

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you for that.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

that she has clearly forgotten her own voting record; she does not like it being talked about and displayed because, quite frankly, it is appalling. My bill was refused formality with the votes of the Greens and Senator Fielding, and I find that appalling. For someone to come up here and put in a private senator's bill, I applaud; I think that is great. But for that person to put in a bill that is going to duplicate services that already exist, in the name of protecting children, when that same person was prepared to turn a blind eye to the activities of Australians doing disgraceful things overseas, I find appalling.

Senator Hanson-Young interjecting

You may swear, Senator Hanson-Young. I do not find your swearing becoming in this chamber. So please do not do that. You can interject if you want to—

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Bernardi, if that is a direct allegation about Senator Hanson-Young swearing in the chamber—

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, it is true. I heard her swearing.

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am sorry, Senator, I did not. But, as you put it on record, I felt I had to draw your attention to it.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

You might like Senator Hanson-Young to withdraw. If you want to swear, Senator Hanson-Young, you can withdraw. I think it is appropriate that you do.

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Are you speaking through the chair or are you speaking to me?

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I will speak through the chair. I heard Senator Hanson-Young swear, Chair, and if she would like to withdraw, she can.

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I did not hear it. So I will ask you to continue.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

Indeed I will. I agree with the sentiments that many in this chamber have expressed in speaking on this bill. We do need to do all we possibly can to help children. We recognise that they are, after all, the future of our nation: our doctors, nurses, teachers, plumbers, electricians and, indeed, our generational successors in this place. But we should be delivering to those successors a system of government that is lean enough to function efficiently and effectively, one that understands and advocates that the state governments, too, have an important role to play by doing whatever is possible within the separation of powers and undertaking their responsibilities effectively. And we should not be unnecessarily duplicating these services. Unfortunately this bill does not satisfy the criteria and, accordingly, I endorse the decision of the coalition to oppose this bill.

10:43 am

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak in favour of the Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010. I just want to give a little bit of history in relation to Australia's commitment to intro­ducing and establishing this type of body. Australia, of course, ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990—it was under the Hawke government—thus committing to enshrining that every child has rights under the convention. One of our obligations in relation to this signing of the convention was to introduce the ability to establish a federal or Commonwealth commissioner position who could advocate for, look after, represent and speak for the best interests of children and young people in Australia. That was over 20 years ago and yet here we are today still debating whether this is something we should do. We signed up to it in 1990. Today is 1 March 2012. A lot of water has gone under the bridge and a lot of proposals have been put on the table in this place. We have heard already today that a number of other senators in past years have introduced legislation to do exactly this. We know that the current Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, introduced legislation in 2003 to establish a national children's commissioner. We know that in 2008 Senator Andrew Bartlett introduced legislation to establish a national children's commissioner. We know that during that time our own Leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown, introduced legislation to establish a national children's commissioner.

In 2010 I reintroduced a bill to establish a national children's commissioner. That bill was sent off to a Senate inquiry, which was conducted over the March period in 2011. There was a lot of consultation and a lot of support. In fact, the only bodies that disagreed with the establishment of a national children's commissioner were the government's own departments. Every other organisation that submitted to that inquiry said this was something whose time had come; this was a position that needed to be established. But, of course, we went through the process of inquiring into this legislation, to work out the best way to deliver it. That is why there have been amendments circulated in this chamber today: to deal with the tweaking and changes that were proposed in that consultation period.

Last year, the United Nations human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, was in Australia. She is the UN's peak spokesperson on human rights in the world. She urged the government directly that it was time that Australia stopped dragging its feet on establishing a commissioner and got on and did it. It was something Australia still had not done and there was really no explanation for it. She directly urged Prime Minister Gillard that the government should get this done.

We have heard today from senators on both sides of the chamber—the government side and the opposition side—that, despite 10 years of debate on this issue, they still want more. The issue of the rights of children, the rights of our young Australians, is still being put in the too-hard basket. It is all very nice for members in this place to stand up and talk about how much they would like to recognise the rights of children and how nice it would be for Australia to catch up with other countries around the rest of the world that have done this, but not one of the people who stood in this place today suggested a way forward. Not one of these people who spoke about how wonderful it would be to have a national children's commissioner will, when I complete my speech, vote to allow the Senate to move to the committee stage so we can deal with the concerns that both sides have.

I want to bring to the chamber's attention that, following the Senate inquiry and following the call by Navi Pillay from the UN human rights commission last year, a coalition of over 40 of the country's leading children's rights and young people's advocacy groups got together and said, 'We need to get this done. We support a children's commissioner and here are the things we would like the parliament to consider in amending and adopting this legislation.' There has been a lot of talk today about the fact that there needs to be consultation. That is exactly why the entire NGO sector in relation to children's rights and young people's advocacy in this country have put together what they want this parliament to do. They are asking this parliament to vote on this legislation, debate the amendments that they have outlined and get on with the job we said over 20 years ago that we would do.

I will go through the list of those organisations because they are very important to this idea of consulting with our community and ensuring that this is a national priority for us. They are: the Association of Children's Welfare Agencies, the Australian Council of Social Services, the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition, Children with Disability Australia, Create Foundation, Families Australia, the Foundation for Young Australians, the Human Rights Law Centre, the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network, the National Children's and Youth Law Centre, the New South Wales Centre for Advancement of Adolescent Health, Oxfam Australia, People with Disability Australia, Playgroup Australia, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, the Refugee Council of Australia, the Salvation Army, Save the Children, the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, St Vincent de Paul's national council, UNICEF Australia, the United Nations Youth Association, Uniting Care Children, Young People and Families New South Wales, Uniting Care Australia, World Vision Australia, the YMCA and the list goes on.

The recommendations from these organisations are in this bill and the circulated amendments. I am very sorry to hear that the government and the opposition have made it clear that they will be voting down this legislation because they do not want to take up the recommendations of these groups or have this debate in this chamber today.

I remind people why it is important not just that we signed up to this 20 years ago but that in today's context we still need to strive for the establishment of a Commonwealth commissioner for children and young people. Let us look at some of the harsh realities of the Australian community facing our young people. Australia is ranked 20th out of 27 OECD countries for infant mortality, and that jumps significantly once you talk about the health of young Indigenous children and Indigenous mortality rates. Who would the largest group of homeless people in Australia be? They are the 12- to 18-year olds. The largest group of homeless people in our country are our young people, our children. We need to tackle this. We need somebody to advocate. We need a body that we as parliamentarians agree can be empowered to take on these issues and reflect on our legislation, our laws and our policies and on the directions and the priorities of government and our parliament.

The 2008-09 report stated that there were 32,641 children who had confirmed cases of abuse or neglect. Only five per cent of young Australians are Indigenous, yet they make up half of those in juvenile detention and almost 60 per cent of detainees who have not been sentenced. In the 2008 UNICEF report The Child Care Transition Australia was ranked 22nd out of 24 developed countries for child care and early learning. We need to do better this.

We are the Lucky Country. We have vast resources and vast wealth and we are an intelligent country. It is time that we started putting the rights of our youngest citizens—the rights of our children and the future of this country—a little higher in our national priorities. That means stopping with this delaying and saying it is all too hard for us to think about what advocating and being realistic about our commitments to the rights of children as outlined under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child would mean. We have to do that through the establishment of a children's commissioner.

There are four guiding principles in relation to upholding children's rights as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child: non-discrimination in the application of children's rights, the primacy of the consideration of the child's best interests, the child's right to survival and development and the child's right to participation in decision making. These are all things that we have to start taking seriously. These are four principles that should form the basis of our approach to protecting the best interests of our children and our young people.

In August 2011, Navi Pillay was visiting and she questioned why it was still taking Australia so long to move on this crucial issue, which should not be something that is particularly political in this place. I know we debate a lot of issues and get very hot under the collar about various things, but let us get real. This is about children's rights. This is about protecting our youngest citizens. This is about saying that, with our vast wealth and resources in this country, we know we can do better. We can promote the protections, rights and best interests of those who will take this country forward for generations to come.

In 2005, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child gave another nudge to Australia and said: 'You know what? You really need to get on with establishing this children's commissioner.' In October last year, the UN committee gave us another nudge and said: 'Come on, guys. Where is the commitment to fulfilling your obligations under this convention? Where is the process and the pathway for establishing a Commonwealth commissioner as required under the UN convention?' Today is 1 March, the deadline that we as Australia have been given by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to give an explanation of what we are doing to establish a children's commissioner to look after the interests of children and young people. I hate to say it, but I wonder what the report is going to say. On the day that we are meant to be reporting to the UN committee on our pathway, is the report going to say: 'I know we've been debating it for 20 years. We've had these various different bills. But, by the way, we voted down the legislation in the Senate today. It's going back to the backburner. It is back in the too-hard basket.' I do not think it is a very good reflection at all of where we have been able to bring this debate, considering we have had so much collaboration and consultation and we have so much support from the rest of the country and from those who know—youth organisations, young people speaking about this issue themselves.

Young people come visit us in this place, which is always a little daunting for anyone. The young people take time from their studies or their school holidays, taking a day off school because they think it is an important thing to come speak to their elected representatives. A number of young people have come to visit me and, I am sure, other people in this chamber, saying, 'Please; when are we going to have a voice in a national sphere advocating for our rights?'

I have of course circulated amendments in relation to the recommendations from the various consultations that have happened, and everybody has a copy of them. I seek leave to table the explanatory notes relating to the amendments so that everybody is very clear about them.

Leave granted.

This is an important issue for us in this place. We debate so many pieces of legislation that relate to all sectors of our Australian community, and there is rarely a piece of legislation that passes this place that does not have some direct impact on young people—some direct impact on children who have been born into this country who, perhaps because they are not age 18 yet, have not formally got a voice to participate in the democratic process. We pass pieces of legislation in this place on a daily basis that directly affect them now or will affect them into the future. It is time that we acknowledge that if we are to build or continue to build the Lucky Country then we need to do much better in advocating for the rights of children and providing a voice for those who are particularly disadvantaged and at risk.

My colleague Senator Siewert went through a number of the statistics relating to Indigenous children, and it is appalling. We all know that. We all talk very often in this place about how young Indigenous children are not getting the best deal they should from the Lucky Country. We know that we need to do much better when it comes to their health and education, but we also know we have to do much better in giving them a real voice advocating for their rights. When you look at those four principles—non-discrimination, the consideration of the child's best interest, the rights to survival and development and the rights to participation in decision-making—these are all things that we know, even just in relation to Indigenous children, that we have to do better on.

Then we look at all of the children associated with disability issues. We know that we have to be doing much better in giving them a voice and in advocating for their rights. We know that there are 500 or more children still locked in immigration detention centres in this country. Surely somebody needs to give voice to them as well? And it is not just about giving them a voice; it is about ensuring that there is someone there to tap the government on the shoulder every now and again and say: 'Hang on a minute—you've forgotten about the kids. You've forgotten how this will affect your youngest citizens. You have a responsibility to uphold their rights and do things in their best interest.'

We know that there is much, much more that needs to be done regarding the issues of homelessness, access to disability services, levels of education, the needs in relation to in-home and out-of-home care and Indigenous mortality rates.

I commend this bill to the Senate. A lot of work has been put into this, and not just by me and my colleagues. As I said, this has been 20 years in the making—being able to bring forward these issues. It is time that we actually stopped putting it off. It is time that we allowed for proper debate on these things so that we can actually start to move the issue forward.

I understand the concerns around amending things that need to be amended, so let us go into the committee stage and do it. That is not what is going to happen, because we know that the government and the opposition will vote against this legislation as soon as I sit down. I think that is shameful. I think that on the day we are meant to be reporting to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child about what steps we have taken to establish this body, that this is a pretty sad report.

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that this bill, the Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010, be read a second time.