Families Australia: submission to the ACT Government discussion paper concerning the design of a new model for the effective protection of human rights in the ACT

(This is an extract of the full submission. Please contact Families Australia to request a copy of the full version)

Summary

Families Australia’s standing in relation to the ACT Government’s review of its human rights framework is grounded in its work to design, promote and implement the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 (the ‘National Framework’)—Australia’s first-ever national policy aimed at making a sustained and substantial reduction in rates of child abuse and neglect. The National Framework was endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments in 2009. It is supported by the ACT Government.

On these foundations, Families Australia wishes to record its strenuous opposition to the proposed dismantling of the position of the Children and Young People Commissioner.

We make three main points in opposing the proposal.

First, without denying the importance of advocating for the needs of other individuals and groups who experience marginalisation and vulnerability, children and young people deserve a special focus of attention and recognition because of the magnitude of problems they face in terms of safety and wellbeing and the fact that the voices and perspectives of children and young people are often overlooked when compared with those of adults.

Rates of child abuse and neglect remain at crisis levels across Australia. In its latest report on this matter (Child protection Australia 2013-14), the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare stated that rates of child abuse substantiation, children on care and protection orders, and children in out-of-home care all increased over the period 2009-10 to 2013-14. For example, the rate of child abuse substantiation rose almost 30 per cent, from 6.2 per 1,000 children in 2009-10, to 7.8 per 1,000 children in 2012-13. Any diminution in the ACT Government’s hitherto strong recognition of the critical importance of child safety and wellbeing, such as through the abolition of a designated human rights commissioner for children and young people, would in our view send a negative signal to the community about the level of resolve held by government on these issues.

Second, the removal of a designated human rights commissioner for children and young people in the ACT would be a retrograde step when seen in the context of policy and practice in other Australian States and Territories as well as at the national level. All other Australian States and Territories have established independent statutory positions specifically relating to children and young people. Though the naming of these positions varies, all jurisdictions have clearly expressed the importance of having an independent statutory officeholder promote and protect the interests and needs of children and young people.

Moreover, flowing from the National Framework, in 2013 the Federal Government announced the appointment of Australia’s first National Children’s Commissioner. This step was welcomed by Australian governments, as well as by the NGO Coalition, not least because it brought Australia into line with common practice in other OECD countries. Thus, at a time when other Australian States and Territories are choosing to highlight the important role of a statutory office in promoting and protecting the interests of children and young people, and the Federal Government has also moved to establish the position of National Children’s Commissioner, it would be highly anomalous for the ACT Government to abolish the position of Commissioner for Children and Young People which focuses attention on this important cohort of citizens.

Third, we contend that the establishment within the proposed new Human Rights Commission of the positions of President and Commissioners for advocacy, community safety and victims of crime, and complaints will lead to confusion in the public mind and reduce the potential for the human rights framework to respond holistically to the needs of children and young people. Without a clearly distinguishable commissioner, children and young people and the community at large face the confusing task of deciding whom to contact to raise issues of concern. It is also unclear whether, and to what extent, any of the three commissioners would prioritise children and young people’s concerns compared with other areas within their remit. How can the public be assured that children and young people will receive due and proper attention in such an amorphous arrangement where their concerns are aggregated with a range of other (though nonetheless important) matters? Moreover, how can interactions between commissioners be handled without conflict of interest and procedures in cases which involve investigation of complaints as well as advocacy on behalf of children and young people?

In sum, Families Australia urges the ACT Government to reconsider the planned abolition of a designated position of Commissioner for Children and Young People. As argued above, such a step would run counter to the need to highlight the particular issues facing children and young people, proceed in a direction that is contrary to contemporary policy and practice in other Australian jurisdictions, and have adverse impacts in terms of the seamless handling of matters brought to the attention of the independent human rights commission by, or on behalf of, children and young people.

 

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New model for the effective protection of human rights in the ACT (June 2015)