Pretty much everything I did this week could have had a ‘last time’ label attached to it – last Party Room meeting, last Committee meeting, last Whips meeting, etc. I’ve avoided recording all of those, as it quickly gets rather tiresome. However, I thought I’d record the last Democrat question ever asked in the Senate. Partly because of that historic significance, but also because I think it is and will remain an important ongoing issue.
QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE: Child Abuse
Senator BARTLETT (2.42 p.m.)—My question is to Senator Evans, the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Minister representing the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. I remind the minister of the Senate resolution of 30 March 2006, which was supported by all parties, calling for the development of a national strategy on the abuse of children, in partnership with state, territory and local governments and key stakeholders. I also remind the minister of the Senate resolution of 20 September last year, again supported by all parties, which noted the damaging long-term effects to Australian society caused by the serious abuse of children and young people and which expressed support for a comprehensive royal commission into the sexual assault and abuse of children throughout Australia. Given that government senators supported both these calls for action when in opposition, and opposition senators supported both these calls for action when in government, can the minister inform the Senate what has and is being done to act in the spirit of these unanimous and very important Senate resolutions?
Senator CHRIS EVANS—I thank Senator Bartlett for what was his last question and for his ongoing interest in these issues. The government believes that as a nation we do need to do much better at protecting all our children from neglect and abuse. I think the recent reports of child neglect in Adelaide and Canberra have deeply disturbed the nation. To be confronted with the severe neglect of children, resulting in the horror of malnutrition or starvation, is pretty confronting. It seems incomprehensible that these things can happen in suburban cities in Australia. These cases of course are now the subject of police investigations, but I think we all support the view that children deserve a safe, healthy and happy childhood. We all share the community’s concern about child neglect cases. As a nation we obviously need to do better at protecting all our children, and this includes state and Commonwealth governments.
In 1999, there were 107,000 notifications of abuse or neglect of children. By 2006, notifications had increased to 309,000. Last year, there were around 60,000 occasions when authorities found that a child either was or was likely to be harmed, abused or neglected. Those rates have doubled in the last decade. The number of children in formal out-of-home care has doubled between 1996 and 2007, from almost 14,000 to over 28,000. So child abuse is very much an issue for national concern, and that is why the government is delivering on its election commitment to develop a national child protection framework. Progress on the framework has begun, as a result of recent budget commitments.
In January, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Ms Macklin, met with the key community experts in child welfare who were calling for national leadership in protecting children. Workshops were also held with representatives from state and territory agencies responsible for child protection and family welfare to discuss a national approach. Minister Macklin released a discussion paper in May, after consulting with these groups. It is available on her department’s website, and the minister is distributing copies to all members of parliament. She welcomes feedback from members of parliament in developing this framework. Intensive consultations with key stakeholders are already underway. A joint meeting has been held with state and territory governments. A number of expert committees, drawn from the community sector, academics and child welfare practitioners, have been meeting over the last two weeks. In coming weeks, Minister Macklin’s department is hosting a meeting with the 51 representatives of the Coalition of Organisations Committed to the Safety and Wellbeing of Australia’s Children.
While statutory responsibility for child protection is with the states and territories, consultations are exploring practical ways the Commonwealth, the states and territories and non-government organisations can use their resources more effectively to improve the safety and wellbeing of children. Under the framework, the Australian government will give state and territory child welfare authorities the power to advise Centrelink to quarantine government payments to ensure children are provided for. The budget committed $36 million to our welfare reform agenda, and that will help protect children.
Parenting is a tough job, and we need to support parents in that role. We also need to support them if they seek help. I agree with Senator Joyce’s comments, which I saw reported, where he emphasised the role of the community. We are all responsible for the care and upbringing of our children and I think —(Time expired)
Senator BARTLETT—Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for outlining some of the focus the government has given this important issue since coming to office. I appreciate that it is a work in progress, I appreciate that government cannot fix everything, and I appreciate there is no magic bullet. I would like to ask the minister whether or not the government and the minister are giving serious consideration to putting in place a national commissioner for children, or some similar office, as an independent, permanent officer who will focus continually on the interests of children—as was recommended unanimously by more than one Senate committee inquiry, such as the forgotten Australians inquiry in years gone by.
Senator CHRIS EVANS—I thank the senator for his supplementary question. I think the key response is that this government has made the protection of children a federal priority. We have actually sought to engage the Commonwealth very much in the fight against child abuse and neglect, even though it is predominantly a state responsibility. We do recognise that, unless the whole nation takes on this responsibility, we will not deal effectively with this growing epidemic, almost, of abuse. I think what has happened in recent days has brought home to us that these are not just issues for Indigenous communities. I think some people were taking far too much comfort, as if the problem is only in Indigenous communities. These are problems for Australia.
In terms of Senator Bartlett’s specific request about a child commissioner, I will take that part on notice. I am not sure what the minister’s views are with regard to that particular initiative, but I can assure the Senate that Ms Macklin is very much focused on this work, and there will certainly be more to come.