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Second Reading Speech - Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010

Speeches in Parliament
Sarah Hanson-Young 12 May 2010

Advocacy for children and young people should be a national priority. At present, child protection is a state and territory government responsibility but with increasing community awareness of the importance and broad scope of child protection, it's time for the establishment of a national system that co-ordinates these varying state-based regulations and programs.

The Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill 2010 recognises the need for Australia to catch up with nations around the world, and implement a properly-resourced Federal independent statutory body to oversee the rights of young Australians with the powers to ensure recognition of their needs and views.

Last year, nations around the globe celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child; a convention that seeks to ensure that every child and young person has the best opportunity in life regardless of their ethnicity or gender.

Yet, twenty years on, as we enter a new decade the rights of children and young people continue to flounder on the national agenda. And while it must be said that children in Australia fair better than their brothers and sisters in many parts of the world, significant steps must be taken before true representation of our commitment to the Convention can be realised.

Community support for the establishment of a Commonwealth Commissioner is growing, with the national charity organisation Save the Children reporting that 78% of Australians believe there is a role for a specific national Commissioner for children and young people.

It is clear that if we want to effectively tackle serious problems such as child abuse, neglect poor education, poverty, youth homelessness and social disadvantage, we need to recognise the value and key role children and young people bring to the community. In order to achieve this, Australia needs to follow the lead of countries such as New Zealand, Britain, Norway and Sweden in providing children and young people with a voice at a national level, to ensure that we adequately fulfil our international obligations as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Catherine Branson recently observed that, "the wellbeing of children...aims to empower and engage children, their families and communities, in the creation of solutions for them. A human rights framework recognises not simply a need for, but also an entitlement to, a fair life chance for all Australian children.

The rights of children and young people must be taken seriously by their elected representatives, and it is through this legislation that for the first time, their voices and opinions will not only be heard by those that seek to represent them, but will sit higher on the national agenda.

According to the 2008 Australia Research Alliance for Children and Young People Report Card, Australia is not performing as well as other OECD countries when it comes to many of the key indicators. For example, Australia is ranked 20 out of 27 OECD countries for infant mortality; the rate for Indigenous Australians is more than double the non-Indigenous rate, ranking 26 out of 28 OECD countries.

The clear disadvantages that our Indigenous Australians, in particular, are faced are of serious concern, and should serve as a wake up call to the community at large, governments, families, businesses, and parents that we need to do more in monitoring and advocating for the wellbeing of all children and young people in Australia.

Given Australia's international tag as the ‘lucky country', it is concerning that in our national pursuit for wealth and success; we have forgotten the importance of empowering our children and young people to engage in the decisions that affect them.

Whether it is children in child care or state care, in the education system, the juvenile justice system, immigration detention or homeless, in big cities, small towns or outback communities, all young people deserve to have someone looking out for their interests.

A Commissioner for children and young people would ensure the needs, views and rights of people under the age of eighteen are recognised and promoted. This role would promote investment in early childhood development as a priority, and outline requirements for quality childcare and early childhood services.

Along with promoting the rights of children and young people, the Commission would monitor and review laws, policies and practices which impact on service provision. The establishment of a Commonwealth Commissioner for children and young people will also help move the approach beyond a narrow focus only on neglect and abuse to encompass broader concepts of overall safety and wellbeing for children and young people.

As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Australia has a responsibility in upholding the full range of human rights-civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, which are essentially underpinned by four paramount principles:

• Non-discrimination in the applicability of children's rights (Article 2)

• The primacy of the consideration of the child's best interests (Article 4)

• The child's right to survival and development (Article 6(1))

• The child's right to participation in decision-making (Article 12)

These principles should inform our approach to protecting the best interests of our children and young people.

Establishing an independent Commonwealth Commissioner for children and young people would ensure Australia's international and domestic obligations are met and upheld. These fundamental human rights principles provide a clear framework of minimum standards to ensure the wellbeing of our children and young people.

While the Greens welcomed the first ever National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020, endorsed by the COAG in April, and note that the Government is exploring the potential role of a National Children's Commissioner, we believe that the broad community support and backing from organisations such as Save the Children, UNICEF, Australian Human Rights Commission, and the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Young People, should serve as an indicator on the importance of such a role.

Given Australia is lagging behind global developments that aim to protect children, with other western countries such as Britain having had an independent Commissioner for Children for four years, establishing a Commonwealth Commissioner for Children and Young People would help bring the different mandates of state and territory Commissioners that already exist, together within a consistent, well co-ordinated program.

Establishing a national Commissioner will help ensure adequate protection for all who are vulnerable and disadvantaged. Importantly, this mechanism will extend support to young non-citizens who have arrived in Australia without the protection and resources that are afforded to those with requisite visas or other authority for entry into Australia.

It is time to change business as usual when it comes to the views and opinions of children and young people.

It is time our Federal Parliament showed a real and practical move in supporting and protecting Australian kids, showing leadership for the essential need to invest and value our youngest citizens.

We need a system that embraces, invests and encourages the next generation of Australian workers and leaders, and providing a national independent body that will advocate for the needs, views, and rights of those under eighteen is essential in achieving this outcome.

For too long the rights children and young people have been swept under the carpet, put in the too hard basket, or stopped at state borders. With my Bill for the first time, we have an opportunity to create a Commonwealth Commissioner dedicated to this purpose.

I commend the Bill to the Senate.

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