Last week the Senate agreed to my motion calling for a national strategy to address the issue of child sexual assault.
The motion, which builds on one adopted at last year’s Australian Local Government Association Conference, called on all politicians to work together to develop a national strategy on child sexual assault in partnership with State, Territory and Local Governments and key stakeholders. Its passage is a significant recognition by all parties in the Senate of the need to work harder and smarter on the ongoing tragedies caused by child sexual assault.
Despite the success of the motion, we all know there’s a difference between making statements about how important something is and actually putting it front and centre as a political priority, getting action on it and continually following up to ensure that the issue is being addressed.
The bottom line, of course, is that children do not vote. Children don’t ring or email politicians and complain. They have to rely on others to advocate for them and without doubt there are some wonderful people out there doing just that. However, while you’d be hard pressed finding a politician who wouldn’t agree the issue is important – and there have been spurts of activity from time to time – overall we continue to fail to put it sufficiently near the top of the priority list.
Ensuring the wellbeing of children, most particularly when they are at risk of abuse and assault but in a broader general sense as well, is absolutely critical – not just for the wellbeing of the children but for the wellbeing of our nation, now and in the future. I guess it’s a bit of a cliche to say that children are our future but it is, nonetheless, absolutely correct. The bottom line is if we don’t address issues affecting children then we will be faced with having to address the consequence of that inaction for decades to come.
There’s plenty of research around that clearly shows a significant proportion of harmed and abused children descend, as adults, into homelessness and welfare dependency, a cycle of failed or dysfunctional relationships, crime and other problems. It is in our interests as a society to prevent this as much as possible and to intervene and address abuse and assault as early as possible – and it’s obviously also in the interests of the child to do so.
Over the years the Democrats have continually advocated the need for a national approach with national leadership, repeatedly calling for a royal commission into child sexual assault and abuse. Back in June 2003 the Senate passed a Democrats initiated resolution, supported by all the non-government parties, to set up such a Royal Commission, a resolution that three years latter is still being ignored by the Howard Government.
Senator Andrew Murray has also taken a strong role in driving two specific Senate inquiries into the experiences of children in institutional care in Australia (click here for the first report and here for the second report). I’m sad to say the government response was less than ideal (warning – large pdf file).
Still, at least the Government is now finally taking steps, through two proposed conferences, to hear from experts in this area. I’m hopeful that these will be more than a talkfest or an excuse to play the blame game with the States. It is not good enough to say it is a state jurisdiction and therefore a matter for them to deal with. Child abuse is a crime that respects no boundaries – we need national laws and a coordinated national strategy to ensure that the perpetrators of child abuse cannot take advantage of differences in laws and enforcement priorities in the states and territories to escape detection. A national approach will ensure that child sexual assault victims receive the same protection and their perpetrators the same punishment, no matter where the crimes are committed.
And while all state and territory governments are doing some things, it’s clearly not enough. The problem is very much bigger than each individual state/territory can address. We need the extra weight and momentum that you get only if you give national leadership, national resourcing, national priority and proper coordination to this issue.