Standing up for Canberra

National Children's Commissioner Bill 2012

The Human Rights Commission Amendment (National Children’s Commissioner) Bill 2012, which establishes a National Children's Commissioner in Australia, fulfils a longterm commitment by Labor to appoint a national advocate for children. I underscore the comments of the previous speaker in saying it is an achievement of which we are very proud. The new commissioner will focus on promoting the rights, wellbeing and development of children and young people, advocating for their rights on a national level. The National Children's Commissioner will ensure the voices of children and young people are heard in the development of Commonwealth policies and programs, an incredibly important initiative. The new position will begin from 1 July this year or on royal assent, whichever is later. The National Children's Commissioner will join the six existing commissioners at the Australian Human Rights Commission: the Human Rights Commissioner, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, the Age Discrimination Commissioner, the Race Discrimination Commissioner, the Disability Discrimination Commissioner and the Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

We want every child in Australia to grow up safe, happy and well. The new commissioner will represent the views of children and young people, particularly those who are most vulnerable. It is time for children and young people to have a national advocate to ensure their rights are reflected in national policies and programs as more of our policies focus on the health and welfare of children. I would also like to point out—and this is important—that the commissioner will not duplicate but complement the work of states and territories, particularly the work of other commissioners and guardians. The commissioner will take a broad advocacy role to promote public awareness of issues affecting children. He or she will also conduct research and education programs and consult directly with children and representative organisations, as well as monitor Commonwealth legislation, policies and programs that relate to children's rights, wellbeing and development.

As part of the 2012-13 budget the government has committed $3.5 million over four years to fund the new Children's Commissioner position. This is welcome funding and will ensure the Children's Commissioner has the resources to carry out its important mandate. Certain comparable jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Norway, already have full-time children's rights commissioners, so this development is incredibly welcome and is one of which I am very proud.

The objectives of establishing this position are: to improve advocacy at a national level for the rights, wellbeing and development of children and young people up to the age of 18 years; to improve monitoring of Commonwealth laws affecting the rights, wellbeing and development of children and young people; to encourage the active involvement of children and young people in decisions that affect them, particularly in the development of government policies, programs and legislation; to support government agencies to develop mechanisms that enhance the active involvement of children and young people; and to assist Australia in meeting its international obligations by promoting and advancing the rights of the child, in particular as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The commissioner will have discretion when performing any of their 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 are witnessing or subjected to violence. The commissioner will also have discretion to consult with whomever is considered appropriate, with a focus on children —representative organisations of children, state and territory children's commissioners, and guardians. The commissioner will not, however, have a complaint-handling role or a role in dealing with individual children, including individual children's cases in the context of child protection or family law. Although the commissioner will have a limited role to seek leave to intervene in court proceedings that raise significant children's rights issues, this will not extend to representing individual children. They will not have a role as the legal guardian of unaccompanied children in the immigration area or in any other guardianship role.

I am pleased to say that the establishment of a National Children's Commissioner has been well received by stakeholders. Children's rights groups have heralded the establishment of this position as a major step forward in championing children's rights. Early Childhood Australia said: The creation of a position dedicated solely to promoting the rights, wellbeing and development of children in Australia will ensure that children’s voices are no longer overlooked.

They say it will 'play an important role in ensuring children grow up in a happy and safe environment'. A coalition of Australian's leading children and youth focused organisations—the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition, Save the Children and UNICEF—have also welcomed the announcement as 'an important further step in establishing more robust accountability in government policy and practice for children'. Dr Norman Gillespie, Chief Executive of UNICEF Australia, said: We need bipartisan support for the role to ensure that the outcomes for children are effective.

The Australian Human Rights Commission itself has also welcomed the news and said: … the Commissioner will be an important advocate for the protection and promotion of the rights of children and young people across Australia and will help ensure that their voices are heard.

According to the commission: A National Children’s Commissioner will play an important role in advocating for the protection of the human rights of some of the most vulnerable children and young people in Australia.

It is also important to note that many children and young people in regional and remote Australia who are at risk of social exclusion and poor outcomes will be better represented thanks to the establishment of this position. In recognition of this, the National Children's Commissioner proposal includes funding specifically for the commissioner and staff to travel to regional and remote Australia to consult directly with children and young people and to deliver education and public awareness sessions in those locations.

I applaud the Gillard Labor government for taking action to appoint a National Children's Commissioner. It says a lot about the way Labor thinks and feels about children and children's rights in our society. Gone are the days when children were seen and not heard. More and more we are seeing the rights of children being taken into account in our courts, our classrooms and our parliaments. This is important because human rights are children's rights too. International human rights instruments recognise that children as well as adults have basic human rights. Children, most importantly, also have the right to special protection because of their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.

Every representative in this House has been exposed to children at risk and also children who have been the victims of abuse. Earlier this year I went to an event at one of my local schools. The kids were performing a concert, and there was one girl who was incredibly noticeable for the fact that for the whole time she covered her face in her hair and kept looking down. There was no engagement with the audience, with her teachers or with the other children in the choir. This child had, in a way, been stunted. It was obvious that she had low self-esteem, or no self-esteem at all. It was tragic to see this young person in, as I said, this stunted state. I turned to one of the teachers and said: 'Is that girl going through some body image issues? What's the story behind this young girl?' They told me that she had been a victim of abuse for many years, and essentially they had spent a lot of time helping her by counselling and trying to draw her out of herself and improve her self-esteem, her image of herself and her confidence. Putting her in the choir was part of that process to help her to engage with others—her peers, her teachers and also, hopefully, the audience. Judging from what I saw of that girl on that day it was going to take some time, given that, as I said, she was covering herself and almost wanted to become invisible through the hair over her face and the lack of engagement with anyone. It was just tragic to see that someone so young wanted to, in a way, write herself out of any presence on the earth.

In this job I have also, unfortunately, been exposed to many women and children who have been the victims of domestic violence. I have spoken many times in this House of women whom we have had to help out with social housing, including women with teenage kids. One woman in particular who came to see us very early in my term was a victim of domestic violence. She was sleeping in her car. She was undergoing chemo for breast cancer, and she had been living in this state in the car with these two teenage kids for weeks and weeks. She came to us to see if we could assist in any way with social housing, and we did, very fortunately, get a social house for her and her two teenage kids. The challenge she was also facing—as if she did not have enough challenges as it was—was the fact that one of her children was a teenage boy and there is a policy at some women's refuges that they do not take teenage boys. I understand why that is so, but it is an issue on which I have been in discussions with the ACT Minister for Women and for Community Services since I have been elected to see what we can do to allow teenage boys to access women's refuge services. I know that, as I said, there are very strong policies as to why some women's refuges do not take teenage boys, but it was particularly difficult for this woman, who was going through this dreadful predicament of not only being the victim of domestic violence but also undergoing chemo to treat breast cancer.

Late last year, during the school presentations, I had the privilege of going out to Galilee, which is out in the south of my electorate. Galilee looks after and educates kids at risk. They were largely young boys, but there were a few young women there too, and they had just spent the year achieving their year 10 certificate. It was a really special occasion just being there with them to celebrate this significant achievement. They had overcome a number of hurdles to attain that academic level—again, not just the self-esteem issues but also being the victims of abuse and other challenges— so it was a real privilege to be with Galilee. Galilee does great work with kids at risk in the community here in Canberra. I commend it for that, and this was an excellent example of the great work that it is doing to help kids through very difficult stages and get them an academic achievement that will form the building blocks for, hopefully, a bright and successful future. Again, very early on in my term I also had the privilege of going out to the Lions Youth Haven, where Galilee is located. I met with a number of young men who were also at risk and who were not doing particularly well at school. They had been signed up for a program where they were building barriers to protect the trees. At Lions Youth Haven there are a number of people who go horse riding and a number of horses are agisted out there, and the horses were eating the bark on these trees. A number of these trees were significant, and Lions Youth Haven and other members of the community rightly wanted to protect them. Lions Youth Haven decided to get these young men at risk to build barriers to protect the trees. This was great for the environment and it was great for the trees; it was not so great for the horses, who obviously liked the bark!

Just in talking to these young men I heard that it taught them not just a range of skills in how to build something and to see the product of their labour but also teambuilding skills. They had to build these barriers in a team but, most importantly, they had to erect these barriers as a team. It ensured that they improved their communication skills, and the fact that they had to manage as a group improved their abilities to work as a team and those interpersonal skills. If someone is a victim of abuse or if they are a victim of domestic violence they tend to shut those down, like the young girl that I saw in the choir at that school. In a way, they want to withdraw and become invisible and stunted. This program actually drew these boys out to engage with others and also to work in a productive way with others.

I hope that the establishment of this position will mark the beginning of a new era for children in Australia, particularly those who are most vulnerable, like some who I have just spoken about. Australia can be a wonderful place to grow up in; however, not all children have the same opportunities, and certain demographics are often at a disadvantage when they are young, which can lead to disadvantage later in life. We should do all we can to ensure that all children get the best start in life and are treated with dignity and respect. I have no doubt that this will have better longterm outcomes for those children and society at large. I commend this bill to the House.

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