Australia's first National Children's Commissioner

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Australia's first National Children's Commissioner

Posted 26/02/2013 by Janet Phillips

On 25 February 2013 the Government announced the appointment of Australia's first National Children's Commissioner, Ms Megan Mitchell. The position of National Children’s Commissioner will sit within the Australian Human Rights Commission and commences on 25 March 2013. In its announcement, the Government outlined the Commissioner's legislative mandate to 'focus on vulnerable or at-risk groups of children, such as children with a disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, homeless children or those who are witnessing or subjected to violence'.

In A picture of Australia’s children 2012, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) noted that while many of Australia’s children are faring well, there are still significant gaps in positive child welfare and health outcomes for certain children. At risk and vulnerable children can include those from economically or socially disadvantaged backgrounds; children with disabilities; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children; children living in remote areas; children in detention; and children at risk of abuse. In terms of child abuse alone, the Australian Government's National framework for protecting Australia’s children 2009–2020 acknowledged that child abuse and neglect rates have 'more than doubled over the past 10 years and the number of children subject to child abuse and neglect remains unacceptably high'. 

There have been calls for many years from various children's organisations, child advocates, health professionals and other stakeholders for the establishment of a children’s commissioner in order to better protect, care for and represent Australia’s children at the national level. Many argued that although there were children’s commissioners or guardians in all states and territories, until an independent commissioner for children was established to oversee children’s welfare, protection and care nationally, significant disparities in the treatment of children would remain.

There have also been several key inquiries and reports touching on the need for a children’s commissioner over the years. For example, in November 2004 the Senate's Standing Committee on Community Affairs commenced an inquiry into children in institutional care. During the inquiry the Committee received many submissions and stakeholder comments in support of a national children's commissioner from a child protection, child welfare and child health perspective. The Committee produced two reports—Forgotten Australians: a report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children (2004) and Protecting vulnerable children: a national challenge (2005)—and later produced a progress report, Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians Revisited (2009). The reports all recommended the establishment of a national commissioner for children in order to drive a proposed national reform agenda.

The Howard Government did not support this recommendation stating in its response to the first two reports that 'the Australian Government does not believe there would be any benefit in having a National Children's Commissioner, as this would duplicate processes already in place'. However, the ALP had been committed to examining the merits of a federal children’s commissioner for some time. In May 2002, the then Leader of the Opposition, Simon Crean, announced Labor’s commitment to establish a National Commissioner for Children and Young People 'that will play a proactive and positive role in improving and protecting the general welfare and well-being of our nation’s children, including indigenous children'. In a 2004 election policy document, the ALP (now under the leadership of Mark Latham) also committed to establishing a National Commissioner for Children and Young People if elected.

In May 2008, the newly elected Labor Government canvassed the possible establishment of a National Children's Commissioner during its consultation process to develop a national child protection framework. In March 2011 the first 'National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children' annual report was published. It stated that exploring the possible establishment an Australian Commissioner for Children and Young People was a national priority.

The announcement of the appointment of Australia’s first National Children's Commissioner has been well received by stakeholders. However, there are still some concerns remaining for certain vulnerable children, such as unaccompanied minors held in detention. Guardianship arrangements for unaccompanied minors are covered by the Immigration Guardianship of Children Act 1946 that was first introduced to protect unaccompanied minors arriving in Australia following World War II. Under this Act the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship is the legal guardian for unaccompanied minors arriving unauthorised by boat, but some argue that there is an inherent conflict of interest given that such children are detained under the Minister’s guardianship.

In December 2002, the ALP's asylum seeker policy, Protecting Australia and protecting the Australian way: Labor’s policy on asylum seekers and refugees, stated that under a Labor Government the proposed National Children's Commissioner would be the legal guardian of any unaccompanied children who arrived unauthorised by boat. However, under the amendments made to the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 to create the National Children's Commissioner there is no explicit mention of children in detention.

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