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Australia’s appearance before the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child
4 June 2012 - Opening Statement
Mr Chairperson, distinguished members of the Committee.
It is a pleasure to meet with you today to set out Australia’s record and achievements in implementing our commitments under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the optional protocols on children in armed conflict and sale of children. You have in front of you Australia’s Fourth Periodic Report to the Committee from 2008, and our written response to the list of issues the Committee sent to Australia in November last year.
We welcome the opportunity to update information from 2008. In this period, Australia has made considerable progress in improving our national approach to protecting and promoting children’s rights. There has been strong cooperation between all levels of government and civil society.
My delegation and I will be pleased to answer any questions you have.
Allow me to introduce you to some of the members of my delegation:
• I am Peter Woolcott, Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and to the Conference on Disarmament, Geneva.
• Mr Greg Manning, First Assistant Secretary, International Law and Human Rights Division, Attorney-General’s Department. The Attorney-General’s Department is responsible for providing legal and policy advice on human rights in Australia and for issues relating to law and justice.
• Ms Cate McKenzie, Group Manager, Women, Children and Mental Health Group, Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. This department is responsible for many of the services and programs that promote children’s wellbeing, and works closely with civil society and State and Territory governments.
• Ms Kate Pope, First Assistant Secretary, Community Programs and Children, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, who manage Australia’s refugee and humanitarian entrance programs, as well as other migration and community support work.
• Dr Russell Ayres, Branch Manager Policy & Strategic Coordination, Strategy and Family Payments Group, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. The portfolio responsibilities of this department include school education and early childhood programs.
• Ms Carolyn Guild, Section Manager, Indigenous Community Safety Branch, Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
• Ms Penelope Davie, Senior Policy Officer, Human Rights Policy Branch, Attorney General’s Department.
Tomorrow we will be joined by Major General Brian Dawson AM, Australian Military Representative to NATO & EU. Major General Dawson will assist with any questions relating to the Optional Protocol on Children in Armed Conflict.
Australia takes its obligations under the Convention most seriously. This is reflected in the senior delegation that is here today to answer your questions. Australia strongly supports engagement with the United Nations human rights treaty framework. As stated in Australia’s Human Rights Framework of 2010, we are committed to using this framework as a working tool to help us protect and promote the human rights of children in Australia.
Consultation and Coordination
Mr Chairperson, distinguished members of the Committee.
Australia has a federal constitutional system in which legislative, executive and judicial powers are shared or distributed between the Australian Government and the six States and two internal self-governing Territories. This means that nine governments in Australia share responsibility for implementing the Convention.
The Australian Government works and consults closely with our State and Territory governments. In recent years these governments have been working together to further develop cooperative and coordinated approaches to improving children’s wellbeing. We have consulted closely with States and Territories in responding to the Committee’s list of issues and in preparing information for the Committee at this meeting.
The Australian Government also works closely with Australia’s National Human Rights Institution, the Australian Human Rights Commission, to understand and address human rights issues for individuals and groups within Australia. The Commission has provided a shadow report on Australia’s situation to the Committee.
I would also like to express the Government’s gratitude for the constructive dialogue with non-government organisations in preparation for this hearing. We recognise the important role played by civil society in implementing the Convention in Australia, and in monitoring the Government’s policies and programs. The shadow reports prepared by these organisations for the Committee are already proving to be a useful resource for the Government.
The consensus view in the shadow reports is that for most children in Australia, the situation is very good, with high levels of participation in education, good healthcare, and safe environments. Australia is privileged to have a richly diverse community, acknowledging the importance of our First Peoples and migrants from many parts of the world.
That said, some children face barriers to full participation in the community. These difficulties are disproportionately borne by children with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children in remote areas and children from families experiencing stress or breakdown. Australia is committed to action to support these children to realise their rights.
Mr Chairperson, distinguished members of the Committee, I would now like to set out some significant developments for children in Australia since the preparation of our latest report under the Convention in 2008 and our last appearance in 2005.
I am pleased to say that in April 2012 the Australian Government announced the introduction of a National Children’s Commissioner. Mr Chairperson, your Committee has previously called for Australia to appoint an independent commissioner to monitor the implementation of the Convention and to promote and protect children’s rights at the national level.
The Children’s Commissioner will be a member of the Australian Human Rights Commission and will work to advocate for the rights, wellbeing and development of all children in Australia. The Commissioner will be empowered to focus on children facing particular disadvantages or vulnerabilities and will report to Government annually.
Legislation to establish the Commissioner was introduced on 23 May, and the new Commissioner is expected to take office by the end of 2012.
National Paid Parental Leave scheme
The Australian Government delivered Australia’s first national Paid Parental Leave scheme on 1 January 2011. The government-funded scheme provides eligible working parents, usually mothers, with 18 weeks paid leave at the National Minimum Wage.
Paid Parental Leave will give children the best start in life. For many women, particularly those in casual, part-time or seasonal employment, this will be the first time they will have the financial security to take time off with the new babies to bond and establish breastfeeding.
Building a national approach to children’s wellbeing and development
All governments across Australia are working together to build a national approach to promoting children’s rights and wellbeing. This is particularly so in the areas of child protection, early childhood development and education.
In the 2005 Concluding Observations, this Committee recommended that Australia should take steps to develop, coordinate and monitor law and policy for children throughout the country. Under Australia’s Human Rights Framework, Australia is presently developing a new National Human Rights Action Plan with initiatives across Australia, including for children. In 2012, Australia established a parliamentary committee to scrutinise new laws for compatibility with human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Since 2009, key initiatives to build a consistent national approach to children’s wellbeing and development include the National Framework for protecting Australia’s children 2009-2020, and the National Early Childhood Development Strategy, a national plan promoting early childhood health, and a new national curriculum. Together, these plans guide all levels of government and civil society, with specific programs, community engagement and policy aims. The plans include oversight at the national level and extensive arrangements for evaluation and research. Australia will be able to provide reports on implementation and outcomes of these plans to this Committee in the future.
One outcome worth of note is in relation to the Australian Government’s commitment to ‘Close the Gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians’ life outcomes. One of the specific commitments is to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in remote areas of Australia have access to a quality preschool program. In 2011 the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that the enrolment rate for this group of children – among the most disadvantaged in Australia – had reached 94 per cent. This is pleasing progress towards addressing an important issue in our nation.
Australia is also developing a strong capability in terms of data and information about children. In 2009 Australia was the first country to implement a nation-wide survey of children’s development, through the Australian Early Development Index (AEDI). Conducted in the first few months of school, the AEDI provides rich community-level information on children’s developmental vulnerabilities. The AEDI is being conducted again in 2012, as part of a planned 3 year cycle of collection.
States and Territories are taking action within their own jurisdictions to contribute to national improvements. For example, the State of Victoria announced in its May budget that it will significantly increase funding for children who have experienced violence and abuse, including more support and counselling. Victoria also announced steps to improve access to education for young people leaving out of home care.
In another example, the State of New South Wales has developed specific programs to address risk of homelessness for Aboriginal children and young people, including children leaving out-of-home care. These programs take into consideration such issues as the urban or regional area, mental health support, and responding to complex needs. These initiatives may form part of national programs, but allow for the programs and policies to respond at a more local level, with an understanding of demographic, cultural and local need.
National Disability Strategy and National Disability Insurance Scheme
Mr Chairperson, distinguished members of the Committee. I am pleased to be able to inform you of Australia’s plans to fundamentally reform disability care and support through a National Disability Strategy and National Disability Insurance Scheme. As the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs has said, ‘right now, people with disability, their families and carers face many obstacles when they try to access care and support’. This, of course, includes children with disability.
Australia has committed to increase spending and to develop an approach to providing services and funding in a way that gives people with disability, their families and their carers the power to make their own decisions and participate as fully as possible in the community. We recognise the importance of children with disability being able to develop and grow with confidence so that they can participate without discrimination.
In recent years the Australian Government has also introduced significant, evidence-based early intervention initiatives to help children with disabilities that affect their learning and development, including for children with autism.
In addition, the national curriculum presently under development recognises the specific learning needs of children with disability, and emphasises the importance of inclusion and the right of all children to reach their full potential.
Protection from inappropriate online content and exploitation
Mr Chairperson and distinguished members of the Committee, Australia takes seriously the responsibility to protect children from exploitation and in 2010, Australia reformed laws to strengthen penalties for child exploitation offences such as slavery and sex tourism.
Children seeking asylum in Australia
The distinguished members of the Committee may also be aware of changes Australia has made to treatment of children who arrive in Australia without documentation and who seek asylum.
In 2005, this Committee made a range of recommendations particularly about the treatment of unaccompanied and separated children. Since then, Australia has introduced a range of alternatives for children and young people in this situation.
Under Australian Government policy, children are held in the least restrictive immigration detention settings for the shortest practical time to enable an assessment of health, identity and security risks. This assessment is prioritised for children, both accompanied and unaccompanied, who are placed in community arrangements while waiting for decisions. The placement of children in detention is subject to monthly review to ensure that the accommodation arrangements remain appropriate for the person’s needs and circumstances.
Community-based accommodation arrangements were expanded in October 2011. Since then, more than 1700 children have been moved into the community. Children in families live with their parents in rented accommodation in major centres all over Australia. Unaccompanied children are placed in households with live-in carers provided by out-of-home care specialist organisations. People living in community detention are not guarded and live close to normal lives with children attending school and participating in community life. Unaccompanied children are the highest priority for community placement.
My delegation will be able to answer further questions about these changes.
Mr Chairperson, distinguished members of the Committee. Australia is aware that there are other areas where improvement is needed, despite our investment and our effort.
We remain concerned at the rates of children in out-of-home care, with national rates at 34,069 in 2008-9, 35,985 in 2009-10 and 37,648 in 2010-11. We acknowledge the difficulties that face children in these circumstances. We are concerned that Indigenous children are disproportionately entering the juvenile justice system and about the disruption this causes to their education, their relationships and their futures.
The Australian Government works with States and Territories, with civil society, with families and communities to try innovative approaches. To try to break the cycles of disadvantage and inequality faced by children in these circumstances. We are committed to developing an anti-racism strategy, led by the Australian Human Rights Commission, and to improving the cultural awareness of police, public officials and the community.
As recommended in the 2005 Concluding Observations, we maintain our commitment to public health and education programs in such areas as child health and development, suicide prevention, HIV prevention and substance abuse.
In our response to the Committee’s list of issues we have outlined programs and approaches that are now being implemented and developed. My delegation will be happy to answer further questions about new policies and programs since Australia’s last appearance in 2005 and our last report in 2008.
Engagement with Committee
Mr Chairperson and distinguished members of the Committee, the members of the delegation look forward to answering your questions during this appearance. Australia appreciates the Committee’s time and attention to the situation of children in Australia. We look forward to receiving concluding observations on how we implement the articles of the Convention and would welcome any suggestions as to how other countries are addressing some of the difficult problems I have mentioned above. Children in Australia should be confident that they can live rewarding lives, and that each child will have an opportunity to be a valued part of our diverse community.