Hon Judi Moylan

Australian Human Rights Commission Amendment (National Children's Commissioner) Bill 2012- Second Reading

Mrs MOYLAN (Pearce) (10:50): Australia has a long history of advocating for and protecting human rights of its citizens. A central tenet of that protection is the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, which was established in 1986. Since then, the Australian Human Rights Commission, as it is called now, has continually expanded, creating specific commissioners for each piece of federal legislation enacted to protect citizen rights—such as the Age Discrimination Commissioner in response to Age Discrimination Act in 2004, and the Racial Discrimination Commissioner after the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. Six separate commissioners now exist and all sit within the Australian Human Rights Commission. Since the commencement of the Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1991, which Australia is a party to, there have been calls for the creation of a national children's commissioner to ensure compliance with the convention. Many inquiries have investigated the potential role and responsibilities of such a commissioner but the discussion stands apart as there is no single legislative instrument at the federal level encapsulating the protections which should be afforded to children.

Because of this anomaly there is debate about whether such a commissioner duplicates the functions of current state and territory children's commissioners and even whether a commissioner can play a meaningful role. This is compounded by the fact that most services and legislation affecting children actually fall under the jurisdiction of the states and territories. The lack of a comprehensive legislative framework to guide the work a national children's commissioner calls into question its potential effectiveness. In Senate estimates on 23 May this year the Hon. Catherine Branson QC, the Human Rights Commissioner, confirmed that unlike all the other commissioners—that is, the Age Discrimination Commissioner, the Race Discrimination Commissioner and all the others—a national children's commissioner will not undertake any casework, specifically due to the lack of overarching children's legislation.

This may also explain the relatively low amount of funding which is currently allotted for the commissioner. This funding will pay for the commissioner, a personal assistant and two research assistants at the most. The lack of funding is a dilemma in itself. Ms Branson confirmed that with the creation of a new commissioner, casework always increases. But there is not a substantial commitment to fund the children's commissioner, particularly due to its restricted functions. I put it to this House that it will simply not be effective in doing what it is intended to do.

This morning the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs tabled a report in this House. Unfortunately, we did not get an opportunity to speak to that. I would like to address a few comments specifically regarding that report because, like many of the bills referred to this place, the scrutiny of this bill was done in indecent haste without sufficient time to really prosecute the issues. The coalition has tabled a dissenting report, and I would like to explain the reasons this has happened.

The coalition members do not agree with the committee that the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 should be amended to establish a statutory office of the National Children's Commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission. Coalition members of the committee recognise the importance of promoting public discussion and awareness of issues affecting children. We also acknowledge that legislation, policies and programs affecting the rights, wellbeing and development of children should be properly examined. However, we are not persuaded by the committee that this bill would necessarily advance these objectives any further than is currently being achieved.

Coalition members are of the view that the AHRC, the Australian Human Rights Commission, in cooperation with the relevant state and territory commissioners and guardians, already adequately performs the functions envisaged for the new commissioner. The establishment of a new commissioner at a federal level would unnecessarily duplicate the policy and advocacy functions of the respective state and territory authorities as well as the advisory functions provided for in the Australian Human Rights Commission Act. Additionally, given the new commissioner will only function as an advocate and not undertake any casework, coalition members are not persuaded its establishment would support the work currently performed by the state and territory commissioners. Rather, the bill would merely contribute to the expansion of Australia's already burgeoning bureaucracy.

Coalition members cannot agree with the commission that there is urgency surrounding the establishment of a national children's commissioner. There is no evidence to suggest that there has been an increase in the workload of the AHRC or that of the respective state and territory commissioners to justify the establishment of a new commissioner at federal level. Coalition members are not persuaded that there are any compelling reasons to further expand the number of AHRC commissioners, nor significant justification to create a stand-alone advocacy function for children's rights in Australia at the Commonwealth level. Therefore, sadly, the coalition does not support the bill.

It is fundamental that the most vulnerable people in our society receive care and protection, and none are more vulnerable than children. But tokenistic gestures do not equate to real protection on the ground. If the government were truly sincere about protecting the rights of children we would not see children continuing to be locked up in detention centres when they have committed no crime, and the government would not pursue policies that penalise single parents and force small children onto the street.

I take the first issue first because it is dear to my heart. In 2004 I, along with the former member for Kooyong, Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent, the member for McMillan, Bruce Baird, the former member for Cook and former senator, Judith Troeth, really struggled to convince the government that detention centres are not the places for people who have not committed any crime. In most cases—and nothing has changed—these are not detention centres but maximum-security prisons where we put murderers, rapists, armed robbers and people who are real criminals. These children have committed no crime. We fought tooth and nail to bring about changes and in 2005 the Howard government announced that it would only be under the most dire circumstances that children would remain in detention centres. A time limit was put on processing them and giving these families with children TPVs.

It greatly disturbs me that we have nearly 500 children—I think that is the number—who remain in detention centres in this country. If we are truly concerned about the plight of children then surely one of the first things we have to do is go back to the spirit of the agreement we made with the Howard government and make sure that we no longer keep children in detention centres in this country. It simply is not right. If the general public of Australia had seen what I saw when I visited some of the centres they would be shocked and would in no way sanction this policy. I continue to be concerned about these very basic and fundamental issues that could be addressed. So why are we pretending here that a children's commissioner is going to resolve some of the most fundamental problems that are before us today?

To go to the second issue, and I do not think I am out of order to speak on this now, social security legislation for what was formerly called Welfare to Work is scheduled to come into this House today and I will speak in greater detail on it then. But the issue here is that we have a bill coming before us which seeks to move single parents off the parent payment when their child turns eight and onto the Newstart allowance. This affects the most vulnerable people in our community, the most vulnerable families who are living below the poverty line. There are 100,000 single parents in this country and 90 per cent of them are women. They are not there because they want to be there. They are not there because they deliberately get pregnant and have children to get onto social security benefits, as many would want us to believe. They are there, very often, because they are escaping domestic violence. They are there because there is no-fault divorce. And sometimes they are there because their partner passes away. This group of people will, under the legislation to come before us later, lose a minimum of $60 a week from their entitlement by moving to Newstart.

What really upsets me is that this legislation says that it is to get people into work. If that is the case, why has the government taken $50 million a year out of job agency payments? These job agencies are already struggling to meet the needs of the long-term unemployed, and we are going to foist on them 100,000 people, or whatever the demographic might be that move over to Newstart allowance, who will be going to them to get help to go to work. These agencies are severely underfunded as it is and they are going to lose $50 million a year. It is just not right. If we truly wanted to move people from welfare into work then we would not be taking measures like that which provide them with very little support.

I listened to the radio this morning and heard about the many members of this parliament who will sleep rough on the streets tonight. I commend them for that. But I remind the House that if we were really serious about the human rights of children we would attend to their most basic and fundamental rights, which are to have a roof over their heads, to have food, to have clothing, to be able to go to school, to be able to have medical assistance and to be able to gain an education. The fact is that on the streets tonight more than 16 per cent of Australia's 105,000 homeless will be families—these are parents with children.

Mr O'Connor, the Minister for Homelessness, is a good minister for whom I have a lot of regard. I heard him say on the radio this morning that the number of women and children among the homeless on our streets are growing in number, yet we are going to drive them further into poverty by taking $60 a week off them by shifting them onto Newstart allowance. So I just wonder what we are doing in this place by standing up and trying to defend a piece of legislation to establish a children's commissioner. We are going to pay for another bureaucrat. I am not taking shots at bureaucrats; some are very good, they do a fine job and I have a lot of respect and a high regard for them. But we are going to pay for another bureaucrat while on our streets we are seeing those fundamental needs unmet. We are living in a wealthy country. Every person should think about this. I have heard a couple of members talk about the abuse and neglect of children. Fiona Stanley, a highly respected medical practitioner and worker in this field, wrote a very fine book a couple of years ago in which she pointed out that poverty is a big reason we are seeing increasing abuse and neglect of children. So I just shake my head at this legislation. It is not that I and the coalition do not want to see greater protection of children. We would like to see greater protection, but we need to address the fundamentals. (Time expired)


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