I Move that, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:
In the light of the repeated failures by our society to protect children from serious abuse and neglect, the need for all political parties to make child protection a national priority and for all government to urgently determine ways to significantly reduce the totally unacceptable levels of serious child abuse and neglect that is occurring in all sections of the Australian community.
I thank senators for their support for this important topic and what is, I suggest today, a matter of urgency. Last Thursday the Senate passed a motion urging the federal government to prioritise encouragement of uniform laws and strategies on child protection and urging all political parties to support child protection becoming a national priority. That motion, I should emphasise, was eventually passed without dissent.
It is one thing to make statements—I am pleased that that motion was passed; it marked Child Protection Week that occurred last week—but we need to make sure that we are not just making positive-sounding statements, that we are not just prepared to be involved where it is convenient or where it suits, but that we are actually prepared to take responsibility. My concern at the national level is that whilst the federal government has taken some specific actions and provided some funding for specific programs—and I am sure we will hear a bit about some of those over the course of this debate—we need to move from taking action from time to time, to taking responsibility and national leadership on this absolutely crucial issue.
We need to recognise that this is a major crisis nationally and that it affects all parts of the community. There has been a lot of focus, appropriately, on child abuse and neglect issues in some Indigenous communities around Australia. That requires action but we also need to recognise, firstly, that there are failings on the part of individual people or families. We should not blacken the name, reputation or culture of Indigenous peoples around Australia as a result of that; in the same way that we do not blacken the entire Australian culture and every part of our society because of the widespread amount of child abuse and neglect that occurs in the entire community. We need to be consistent about this and we need to show the same level of outrage and the same level of social responsibility for child abuse and neglect that occurs across the entire community. It must be recognised how widespread this is and that it occurs across all sections of our community.
As part of Child Protection Week there were a lot of reports, I am pleased to say, in the mainstream media, noting a lot of issues that need attention. One of the things that came forward was how significantly people underestimate the level of child abuse in Australia. For example, it was reported in the Canberra Times on 6 September that many people interviewed thought there would only have been about 5,000 reports of child abuse in New South Wales last year, when the figure was well over 100,000 and growing.
In the ACT alone, there were more than 8,000 reports of child abuse in the last financial year. These are reports—they are not all established cases—but they amounted to a 400 per cent increase on three years ago. As I said, in New South Wales there were over 100,000 reports in the last financial year and, according to a separate report, that number was going up even further. In the first three months of this year we had over 5,400 reports a week in New South Wales according to the Sunday Telegraph on 27 August.
In Western Australia we have had a lot of coverage about a few specific terrible cases but we need to look at the broader picture. According to the Australian on 6 September hundreds of cases of suspected child abuse and neglect in Western Australia are being placed in queues and not followed up for weeks. There are up to 900 cases not allocated to case workers.
In Victoria, according to the Australian of 7 September, child protection workers were criticised for failing to investigate properly warnings of sexual abuse, chronic neglect and family violence against up to 20 children who subsequently died. The Hobart Mercury of 8 September reported that newborn babies suffering drug withdrawal symptoms were among the record 1,648 cases of suspected child abuse or neglect not being investigated in Tasmania. This figure had grown from 120, less than four years ago. In my own state of Queensland the Chief Justice, Mr de Jersey—as reported in the Courier-Mail of 8 September—warned of what he called ‘the sickening level of child abuse in Queensland’, which shows no signs of abating, with more than 920 higher court convictions in the last 16 months alone.
These are not all failings of government. Some of them are—because some of the cases involve children who have been placed in so-called care on the part of government—but it is a social responsibility. There has been a failing of parents and our society in general, because this serious abuse and neglect are carried out by people in the community. It shows how our approach to date has failed and the fact that we as a society—as well as, I believe, at a national level—have not given this the priority it deserves. It affects tens of thousands of children every year throughout Australia. A harmed child, an abused child, is often harmed for life. That costs all of us as a society. I think all of us need to look at ways to make this a matter of urgency and a matter of national priority. We need to take it on board as a community and we need to recognise that we are failing. Whilst it is appropriate for parents to have the primary say in what happens with their children, we have to look at wider issues.
I thank all senators for their contributions on this motion. I would like to broadly concur with the statement by the NAPCAN foundation president, Teresa Scott, that child abuse and neglect is Australia’s greatest social problem, and it is the responsibility of all Australians to do everything they can to prevent it. That must include government and political parties, of course, but I should emphasise it is a responsibility for all Australians. It is not something that government can somehow fix without the community coming along with it and showing greater concern for the issue. However, I slightly disagree with Teresa Scott in that I think the continuing gross inequality between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians is our greatest social problem, and it is actually no coincidence that some of the ways that manifests itself is also through child abuse and neglect.
I acknowledge the contributions and the generosity of the contributions from everybody, but, frankly, I am not convinced that it is actually being given the priority it deserves from the federal government. That is not a criticism of them specifically. It is not being given the priority it deserves by state governments and it has not been given the priority it deserves by previous federal governments either.
I also acknowledge the impossible role of welfare workers in the field in this area. They make mistakes from time to time and occasionally they are very grievous mistakes, and they should be continually monitored. But, in many cases, they carry the can for society’s failures and for decades they have been under-resourced by governments. They are in the impossible position of deciding whether to remove a child from a family situation—and have to deal with all of the grief and upheaval that goes with that—or whether to leave the child in a situation where they may be at risk, and have to face all of the criticism if that pans out badly. As well, they have the knowledge that removing them and putting them somewhere else in care is not necessarily always terribly safe for the child either. We need to acknowledge the work of many people at the community level who are trying to navigate through this.
I support the call of Joe Tucci for a national children’s commissioner. I think that is absolutely essential. That is a recommendation of the Senate committee report that has not been taken up by this federal government. I think it is absolutely crucial that it is taken up, and the Australian Childhood Foundation has pushed for that for a long period of time. Why can’t we have a parliamentary secretary with responsibility for this? We have a parliamentary secretary with responsibility for water. Even though we all know that it is a state issue, it has been seen as an issue of national priority. I think the same sort of thing can be done with this issue, where we actually hold ourselves accountable as a nation and report to cabinet. It does not make it a national priority by just funding some programs now and then. You have consistent follow through, time after time, with the person who has that core responsibility. It is only when the parliament and all political parties agree to take the responsibility that you actually get some action.