School Boarding Facilities Legislation Amendment and Repeal Bill 2015

16 August 2016 HON LYNN MacLAREN (South Metropolitan) [3.52 pm]: I understand the convention of going here and there, and sharing it around, so I appreciate the opportunity to comment on the School Boarding Facilities Legislation Amendment and Repeal Bill 2015. I thank the minister for the briefing that I received at the eleventh hour. It was very helpful in giving me an overview of the situation with hostels in Western Australia. Much of what I have to say has been canvassed by Hon Sue Ellery in this debate, so I will just make just a few comments about this bill, which the Greens will support. This bill was introduced into the Legislative Council on 22 October 2015, so it has been a long time coming. I note that the bill has come about because of the recommendations of the 2012 Blaxell inquiry, and it implements the recommendations, which have been the subject of two other investigations: the review of the Commissioner for Children and Young People Act, which was completed in 2013, and the recently released parliamentary inquiry undertaken by the Joint Standing Committee on the Commissioner for Children and Young People. Its report was entitled “Everybody’s Business: An examination into how the Commissioner for Children and Young People can enhance WA’s response to child abuse”. It is clear that the better protection of children is at the forefront of all our hearts and minds, but the evidence shows that we are not making great gains in this area. The recent parliamentary inquiry report on this matter reflects how widespread it needs to become. Increasingly, awareness is growing that we all must take responsibility for the wellbeing of children more broadly, and there are clearly challenges for what this means in practice. Many members will be aware that earlier this year, Centrecare and Parkerville Children and Youth Care appointed former member for East Metropolitan Region in this house Hon Linda Savage to develop the Valuing Children Initiative. I want to make some comments about this, because I believe they are relevant to examining what we have before us in a bigger picture. It is about trying to make sure that children are adequately cared for, and that appropriate governance mechanisms, as well as reporting and complaints mechanisms, are in place. Underpinning that is the way that we value children. It is important that this bill comes before the house at a time when the Valuing Children Initiative is in the public domain. I want to make a few comments about that in relation to this bill. The initiative that Linda Savage and her team have put together is aimed at elevating the awareness of all Australians about the issues facing our young people, and for us all to take a role in protecting children and promoting their wellbeing. I want to read from a letter that I received from Linda, who is the project manager for the initiative. The letter was sent to all of us earlier this year, and it articulates well the challenge facing us. The letter reads The Valuing Children Initiative … is an ambitious project that seeks to inspire Australians to value all children, understand that a child’s wellbeing is the shared responsibility of the entire community and ensure children are at the forefront of our considerations. The driving force for the VCI is the desire to ensure that all children in Australia experience the caring, safe and supportive childhood they deserve. While the last 50 years has seen significant strides in reaching that goal and improving outcomes for children, it has also seen calamitous failures as evidenced by revelations at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, as well as the increasing number of substantiated cases of neglect, and emotional, physical and sexual abuse of children. Issues such as mental health, the lack of school readiness and obesity are amongst other serious concerns that have been identified as adversely impacting on Australia’s children. Today, for the first time, children in affluent countries like Australia are predicted to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents simply because of obesity and the chronic diseases that result. In Australia almost one fifth of children live below the poverty line. The question must be asked, what accounts for the gap between what we want for all children and the reality? The VCI believes it is time to ask some challenging questions about how we value children in Australia today, and whether our attitudes to children have kept pace with what children deserve and have a right to expect? How we value children matters, and has been identified as directly impacting on attitudes, behaviours and actions towards children. This in turn directly impacts on how governments, not for profit organisations, community groups, individuals and the private sector develop policies and provide programs for children and their families and carers. In Nordic countries such as Sweden, a strong culture of valuing and respecting children has been identified as an important factor contributing to their wellbeing. Research in Australia has found that children too, rate being valued as one of the most important contributors to their wellbeing. The need to make Australia a better place for all children, has been identified by some of the most respected and committed advocates for children. They have highlighted the need to reconsider the priority we give to children, as well as the need for the entire community to understand its shared responsibility for children. Professors Fiona Stanley, Sue Richardson and Sue Prior in 2005 in their seminal book, ‘Children of the Lucky Country? How Australian society has turned its back on children and why children matter,’ challenged Australia to, ‘... Put children in the centre of our society, (and) .... encourage a cultural change in Australian society towards greater equality and opportunity for our children.’ June Oscar AO, lauded for her work in leading the campaign for alcohol restrictions in Fitzroy Crossing, has spoken about children traumatised by family violence in the Kimberley and pointed to the need for society to more explicitly assume responsibility for all children, because it is, ‘... A societal issue, when we are wanting healthy human beings for the future.’ The VCI is seeking to stimulate and lead the discussion that explores our attitudes to children, how we value them and the priority we give their needs and rights. The aim is to engage with as many individuals and organisations in Australia as possible, in the belief that leadership at multiple levels and across sectors is needed to ensure the success of the initiative. When the Blaxell report was released, the government committed to implementing all its recommendations. However, the government subsequently announced that it would not pursue the concept of a one-stop shop. There was some negative media when it made that announcement. However, both the review of the act and the recent parliamentary inquiry found that the one-stop shop would confuse matters and that although the Commissioner for Children and Young People can make improvements in raising awareness about what to do in reporting child abuse, the commissioner should not have a role in child abuse reporting itself. I understand that the bill does everything outlined in the recommendations, apart from dealing with the one-stop shop. It is interesting that that has come to our attention possibly because of recent events in the news and also because it is the outstanding business of how we ensure that children are properly protected and that they have access to reporting and complaint mechanisms. I understand that the mechanism that we are dealing with today is largely an administrative change to move what was in the Country High School Hostels Authority Act into the School Education Act and will give a greater structure around the governance of these residential hostels in schools. We support that and we see it as an important step forward. I welcome the discussion about how we can better ensure that children have access to reporting and complaint mechanisms. That is a good debate to have, but on this specific bill, it is an extracurricular debate, if you will. What this bill will do is supported by members on both sides of the chamber who have spoken thus far. I want to draw attention to the other part of the recommendation that relates to the lack of ongoing advocacy and support for children in the whole process. We need to explore ways to ensure that there is effective oversight of agencies that have dealings with children. A whole range of strategies are required to address these issues. Moving the management of hostels to the Department of Education is one strategy, but it does not address the whole picture. I was interested to note that we are talking about 600 children who are in residential hostels in Western Australia. Currently, hostels have the capacity to take about 900 children. This is a very important step forward, especially in light of the Blaxell inquiry and how we were able to understand how things could go so horribly wrong for that community and those children. It is an important change that we are making for those 600 children who are currently in residential hostels, but also the many children who may indeed be housed in residential hostels over the months and years to come. As I understand it, there is potential to double the capacity of residential hostels. It is important for us to put in place the right structures now so that when we expand that, we can be assured that the appropriate governance structures and fail-safes are in place so that we do not have the same situation that we had previously. Again, the parliamentary inquiry picks up on these points: we need effective oversight of how policies and procedures are implemented; children must have a voice throughout; and these principles must apply to all facilities that deal with children, no matter what kind they are, whether they are boarding facilities, juvenile detention centres or mental health facilities. As I have said, the Greens will support this bill and we will continue to promote the need for fundamental, systemic change that seeks to address some of the root causes that place our children in danger in the first place