Child Protection

Senator BARTLETT (2.42 p.m.)—My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. It relates to the issue of sexual assaults on children. The minister would be aware of the recently tabled report, Little children are sacred, on the sexual abuse of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory and of the very first recommendation of that report, which calls on the Territory and national governments to designate child sexual abuse as an issue of urgent national significance. I also remind the minister of the resolution passed by this Senate in March last year, supported by all senators, including government senators, calling for a national strategy on child sexual assault to be developed in conjunction with all stakeholders. In light of this renewed recognition of the urgent need for concerted national action on child abuse, will the government, firstly, reconsider its previous rejection of unanimous Senate committee recommendations on child sexual abuse and assault and, secondly, in accordance with one of those recommendations, move to establish a national commissioner for children to drive a national strategy and reform agenda for child protection?

Answer
Senator SCULLION—I thank Senator Bartlett for the question. I would also like to recognise his longstanding interest in this matter and the contribution he has certainly made to the Senate on this very important matter. I think that, right throughout the Senate, everybody has made a unanimous contribution to the matter of the protection of our children.

I, like every Australian, am extremely concerned when I hear about the levels of violence and child abuse in Indigenous communities. I am personally dismayed at the extremely stark findings in the report—the title of which is Little children are sacred—that has been well-publicised by the Northern Territory government. I think that this can be couched in terms of no less than a national disaster. Senator Bartlett asked specifically about what the Australian government has done. I will be able to provide him with a whole range of things in a moment that the Australian government has done, but I want to preface that by stressing that this government is ready and willing to provide any level of amenity to ensure that this scourge is stopped and stopped now.

The Australian government has made significant progress on this issue. Whilst recognising that responsibility for child protection lies with the state and territory governments, we are there to help and assist them where necessary in this matter. That is why, on 26 June last year—almost a year ago to the day—we called the states and territories to a summit on violence and child abuse in Indigenous communities. We offered up to $130 million on a whole range of measures to directly address the issue of family violence. This was predicated on information from the state and territory enforcement divisions and from the Australian Federal Police about ways in which we could throw the spotlight on this and try to provide an environment across the community that would enable us to better deal with an issue which, I have to say frankly, is poorly understood by most of us. I heard Noel Pearson say yesterday, ‘I don’t think you can education somebody to change the way they feel where they see a 12-year-old as a sexual opportunity.’ I tend to agree with him, but what we can do is provide an environment that provides safety.

We formed a comprehensive package that established the National Indigenous Violence and Child Abuse Intelligence Task Force. It is very important to coordinate the Federal Police and all the resources of the state and territory governments. They really have done a fantastic job. With regard to the police infrastructure in remote areas, we have provided a great deal of assistance to the states and territories when they have requested it. This is not an area where you want to point the finger at who is not playing ball. You may be very pleased to understand that Queensland was one of the areas where this was not able to take place. They believed that they had the infrastructure required, but later on they requested an aeroplane.

We have provided additional sniffer dog teams, and additional drug and alcohol treatment and rehabilitation services. And of course, one of the most important provisions is the assistance to the states and territories to provide child health checks. We provided locations so that all the children’s health issues can be continually checked. This is a very important aspect of our contribution on this matter.

Question
Senator BARTLETT—I have a supplementary question. Minister, with regard to the various actions you have outlined, does that constitute a national strategy for dealing with child sexual assault or is the government planning to develop one? Secondly, I ask for a specific response—if not now, then when you can bring it back to the chamber—to my question about whether the government will reconsider the unanimous recommendations of the Senate committee regarding this issue, including the establishment of a national commissioner for children.

Finally, can the minister indicate what other measures he will take with regard to non-Aboriginal people who are involved in child sexual assault? The report makes it clear, on pages 59 and 63 amongst others, that this includes offences perpetrated by non-Aboriginal people on Aboriginal children. Indeed, child sexual assault occurs at totally unacceptable levels in other parts of the community as well.

Answer
Senator SCULLION—I thank the senator for the supplementary question. I do not think it is useful to get into the particular demographic of offenders. One of the things I will say is that the 2007-08 budget made some further forward commitments in this regard—and I think they are very important—worth $13.8 million for playgroup services. This is less about playgroup services and child care than it is about ensuring that we have a focused place. These are the places that will be providing continuous assessment in terms of the welfare of children in those environments. We are providing 25 childcare hubs, under which a whole range of services are provided, particularly for young Indigenous Australians. There we can provide a check on their safety and their health. Having that level of amenity is important. We have made a significant contribution to that. We have only just received the report—as has everybody. This government will obviously very carefully consider the report and look at how we can further assist the states and territories with regard to the protection of Indigenous children. (Time expired)

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