Child and Family Welfare Association of Australia

Tuesday, 3 September, Child Protection Week 2002

Speech by Nicola Roxon MP
Shadow Minister for Children & Youth

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you tonight.

At the end of a two day conference where you have been confronted again by the awful statistics and horrific circumstances that many abused children in this country face on a daily basis, I would like to offer some thoughts about a positive way forward and a vision for a truly better future for children and families at risk.

My portfolio of children and youth is a great one ­ not because it is free of challenges (it certainly is not!) but because if we get our policies right in this area and think about some serious planning, support and investment we can really make a difference to children's lives, and, over time, to the population at large.

Wanting to make a difference, a positive difference, is what drives me as a Labor politician ­ and I know it is what drives you in your day to day work, often in the most difficult of circumstances.

I know that you deal with children and families under enormous, sometimes unbearable, stress. Poverty, family breakdown, abuse and lack of support and opportunities are often the focus of your day to day life as support workers and child welfare advocates.

But I also know we can't really talk about children at risk without talking about the whole web of issues in the community which have an impact and must be factored in to any discussion.

This is the reason that Labor believes that Australia needs a plan for all of its children.

Currently at the Federal Government level we lack any national statement about a child growing up in Australia and what that child should be able to experience and expect. Without such a plan or statement we will inevitably be stuck with bandaid approaches and a patchwork of service provision and support. Of course, this patchwork is seen clearly within the child protection field, but it is just as cluttered and divided and ad hoc in children's services generally.

Speaking to various child welfare and advocacy groups over the past six months, it is clear that the community sector has been calling for a National plan for some time. I am also aware that Government advisory bodies such as the Commonwealth Child Care Advisory Committee and the Australian Council for Children and Parenting have been calling for such a plan. To date, the Government has not taken up this challenge.

I think this reflects a low level of attention generally given to children and young people in the national, political debate and perhaps in the community at large. The signal that this sends to children, their families and others in the community with a keen interest in the health and wellbeing of children is exactly the opposite of what we all want to hear.

We want to hear that governments understand that children are valuable to us now, and if we ensure they have the best start in life, will be even more valuable to us as a community and a nation in the future.

I also believe that we need a plan for children that will work over 10-20 years, not just the next two or three years. The history of Australian children's services has been a bits and pieces affair, but now that we know more about how children develop in these early years we need to use this information, and all the existing practical experience, and put it to work. We must also reassess the changed families and the benefits of different services and work through how to readjust a working and cohesive system for the future.

I have been calling for that discussion to be national and to be bipartisan ­ and we can do with your help to ensure that it is. I understand that the Minister yesterday indicated he now seems prepared to take up this offer, which I was extremely pleased to hear and will be looking for a meeting with him soon to discuss this further.

The lack of a National plan is an obvious gap. The Federal Government has national plans for a whole range of issues like:
a National Car Industry Plan
a National Plan to Combat Pollution of the Sea by Oil and Other Noxious and Hazardous Substances
a National Mental Health Action Plan
and even a National Plan for Space Re-Entry Debris!
So if it's important to have national plans for these topics, then surely it's important enough that we have a national plan for our children.

We believe such a National plan, once set out, puts the debate about some of the tougher issues in context. We can't tackle poverty, educational and social disadvantage and even child abuse without recognising the value of children in the community. We must look at children's needs and look at what families want in order to provide the best chance for their children's growth and development.

Labor's proposal for a National Commissioner for Children and Young People fits as part of this broader plan for children ­ one Labor is working on as part of its policy review and development process. We are grateful that so much work has been done by so many of you to inform that debate. In some ways, we don't need a grand new or brand new plan ­ we need to bring parts together, listen to what has already been said and raise the importance of the issues. We need a plan to map where we want to go, not just where we have come from or where we are at noe.

I believe that any plan must have the Commonwealth role in child care as central to it, not to mention its role in family and income support. But my hope is for this plan longer term to fit with children's services generally ­ Commonwealth child care, state pre-schools, more innovative family services, children's health, early childhood development, welfare, family support and much more.

I want to talk today in more detail about Labor's proposal to establish a National Commissioner for Children and Young people. Labor is committed to the establishment of a Commissioner in order to provide National leadership and advocacy on children's issues and to monitor the well-being of Australian children.

But I wanted to clarify first where this particular proposal for a new Labor government fits among our other ideas in this portfolio and why we have seen fit to commit to it so early, while we are still undergoing our policy review on almost all other issues.

We see our Commissioner proposal as an important way to bring many of these children's issues together and to raise the profile of children generally.

We propose that the Commissioner be set up as an independent statutory officer with powers and authority through an Act of Parliament and adequately resourced.

In recognising the central and continuing role of State and Territory governments in handling matters of child protection, the Commissioner would not act on behalf of individual children or handle individual complaints, but take on broader advocacy and a leadership role in the field of children's issues.

The detail of our proposal is on my website ( or the ALP site. I will mention today just some of the roles we envision for the Commissioner.

A National Commissioner would be a strong voice for children and their interests and provide National leadership and advocacy on children's issues, independently of any government;
Monitor the welfare and well-being of Australia's children, reporting regularly on the status of children in Australia, including Indigenous children and other groups we know are at risk;
Provide leadership and coordination within government and between governments and look at the development of a National Code on relevant children's issues in consultation with the States and Territories
o On this point, we were concerned that the Prime Minister, in answer to a question from me in Parliament last week about the CAFWAA report, essentially said that he was prepared to put an item on the COAG agenda in order to encourage the States and Territories to use more of their GST income on child protection, but that it was 100% their responsibility. To be fair, he was at pains to indicate it was not a Labor/Liberal party issue but he certainly saw it clearly as a State/Commonwealth divide.
In contrast, we do believe the Commonwealth has a role to play, especially by trying to pick up nationally some of the good ideas such as the "Working With Children Check" which could be more effective nationally than at a State level and certainly a step in the right direction.
Promote relevant public education programs and encourage and facilitate community awareness and debate;
Promote understanding of, and investment in, early childhood development;
o This is another area where we believe need a proper debate in the community and where there is scope for bipartisanship, but it is hindered by some who seem to want to start the discussion with coercion and penalties.
Consult with children and young people about issues affecting them as well as parents, communities, community organisations and advocacy groups.

Labor is already well advanced with consultations on this proposal, and I am aware that many organisations represented here today have made well-considered written submissions to us. We have also held a number of policy roundtables in some states with key groups and initial conversations have been held with State and Territory Government Ministers, as well as the three existing Children's Commissioners in NSW, Qld and Tasmania.

One of the issues we have been consulting in detail on is our proposal for a national working with children check. We want feedback from organisations as well as parents and children on who it should cover, what should be checked for and how it should be conducted.

We have, amongst other things, also asked for views on national standards and definitions in child abuse matters. I know this is a hard issue and do not for a moment pretend that it would be easy to achieve, but serious discussion must be had. I know that CAFWAA has called for this, but just as importantly, I think the community is starting to look to us to play a more active role in this area. There is both State and Commonwealth hesitance, but I believe we need to look at it together and consider how we can improve the current system for the benefit of children, parents and their carers in the future.

The reason we have made our Commissioner announcement very early in this term is a reflection of the importance we are placing on children within our policy review, and the emphasis Labor Leader Simon Crean is placing on projects which aim to make a long term difference to our communities.
It also reflects an understanding that these are critical issues of the decade and in need of serious discussion and planning with many people in all walks of life and politics.

The reality, which you all know, is that we cannot improve the status of the most disadvantaged children without raising the status and importance of children generally.

That is where our job descriptions overlap and I hope we can both have success in meeting our missions ­ primarily in the interests of giving Australian children a better chance and start in life.

Thank you.

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