Children's Protection Law Reform (Transitional Arrangements and Related Amendments) Bill

Second Reading

Ms CHAPMAN (Bragg—Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (12:34):  I rise to speak on the Children's Protection Law Reform (Transitional Arrangements and Related Amendments) Bill 2017. Essentially, the government requested a meeting yesterday to advise that they would seek to introduce this bill and further undertake procedural orders, as we have just done, to progress it through the House of Assembly forthwith on the basis that, firstly, we have somewhere between six and nine days left of parliamentary sitting for this session and, secondly, it is necessary to pass this legislation to give sufficient workable operation to primary legislation that has been passed in respect of child protection and child safety in the preceding few years. For that reason, we note some urgency if the bill is to have an application that is of some benefit to children as soon as practicable.

I thank those advisers in the Attorney-General's Department who attended yesterday's meeting for the information on a number of transitional matters, but, as we would expect with the government, of course, there are many more amendments that they want to progress from their perspective to make improvements to the legislation. Some we do not necessarily accept as urgent, but, obviously to deal with other aspects, they seek to have them included.

Our party room has not yet seen any advice as to the detail of the bill. The reason for this bill coming in has been explained to them. It is always disappointing to us, obviously, when governments seek that matters be dealt with on the run, but we accept that there may well be some delay in application otherwise and, therefore, we think it is prudent to acquiesce to the government's request on the clear notice that we will consider this matter in more detail over the next week. Now that I have the government's formal detail as to the reason for each of the amendments and the transitional provisions, we will examine those, but there are a few aspects I wish to address while we are here.

The first is part 2, which contains the transitional provisions relating to the Child Safety (Prohibited Persons) Act 2016. Essentially, clauses 5 to 17 in this part, we are told, are designed to allow a staggering of the working with children checks. This is the new description to apply to the procedure that people need to undertake when they are working with children or before they can lawfully commence their employment. This is essentially to be able to deal with the fact that DCSI (Department for Communities and Social Inclusion) is already swamped with the check procedures necessary for people seeking employment and those who are doing volunteer work and the like.

In support of the government, over the years we have set up a process to identify or better identify, as a precautionary measure, and ensure that, where possible, children who may be exposed to someone in a working environment—a local school camp or the like—or volunteers, are protected. This is one measure whereby we can do that. What has been shamefully ignored by the government is that, when you set these rules up and make it a comprehensive application, it actually requires a significant amount of resources.

We have been very disappointed with the government's desire to come in here and make the legislative reform but not actually provide the services to ensure that there is a timely approval of these types of processes to ensure that volunteers do not get bored, in the sense of too lengthy a period of time to be properly processed, and go off and find some other activity. In a voluntary situation, you might lose that person. Even worse off still are people who want to commence employment. They cannot hang around for weeks or months. They have to get on and get some work. The process is unreasonably delayed and they therefore miss out on the opportunity of that employment.

I think the government has to understand that when you go out and make grand statements about protecting children, which we are happy to support, you have to make sure that you put the resources behind it in order for it to happen. Nevertheless, we know that there is a huge backlog, and the whole purpose of these transitional provisions is to allow the government to progressively introduce the new regime up to a period of three years.

Obviously, the logical question from us was: in the meantime, how do you protect those children who are in an environment where we are relying on the old system for their protection? The answer essentially from the government is that there will still be a continual monitoring on a daily data exchange basis. That works on the basis that if somebody is convicted of an offence which may interrupt their capacity to be able to lawfully undertake employment with children, that data is transferred on a daily basis to the relevant unit and they can then notify the employer and set in place a process where there will be a termination or at least a suspension of their employment, and some action can be taken.

We note with some reassurance that that is the general objective, to still be able to protect children while the government gets its act together and makes sure that there is some process. As usual, the government has not consulted anybody other than the Teachers Registration Board, or the Department for Health, or the Department for Child Protection, or the Department of Transport in relation to these areas of employment that are covered—teachers, health practitioners, passenger transport services, etc.

That is always disappointing because the government has to understand that government departments are not the reservoirs of all information, and they are certainly not the repositories of all things that are relevant to this type of reform. It is important that they consult with agencies that deal with children in vulnerable situations—the NGOs and the like. I just do not understand why it is that if legislation passed last year needed transitional provisions—and we are a year or so down the track—that at the very least other agencies have not had a chance to consult about this.

Obviously, because the government are now facing an embarrassing situation near the end of the legislative and calendar year, they have to progress this. We are not here to hold that up, but I make the point that they need to get their act together. They need to understand that they do not know everything in government and that there are other people who can make a sensible contribution to the development of legislation and ought to have an opportunity to do so. As best we can, we will obviously have a look at that in the meantime.

Part 3 relates to transitional provisions relating to the Children and Young People (Oversight and Advocacy Bodies) Act 2016. I almost choked when I saw that in this bill—almost choked—because the government say, 'Look, we need to have a continuation of term of office of the Child Death and Serious Injury Review Committee and the continuation of the chair.' Absolutely—if, in fact, this bill was even operational at all.

As the government well know, after we had had a very long legislative debate (three years in fact) dealing with the question of the appointment of a commissioner for children and young people, with investigative powers—which was the sticking point over a number of years, notwithstanding that Commissioner Nyland and every other body that was relevant to this issue across the care and protection of children had strongly recommended it—the government resisted it to the eleventh hour. Ultimately, when the legislation passed in November last year it proclaimed that almost every operative part of that bill would be suspended.

I almost choked with laughter when I saw that we needed this transitional amendment to be able to get on with that legislation. Well, they have taken a year and still they do not have the regulations in place. Remember that the bill we are talking about, which now has to have these transitional provisions, provided for the appointment of a children's commissioner. Just about every other state in the country has one, so why we needed to take a year to do the regulations is totally beyond me. I will come to what the minister said here in the house.

I am not sure that the Attorney-General was actually available to listen to her answers to questions a week or so ago on this matter, and we are aware that he was attending to some other matters. Of course, they are always available, we recognise that, and I do not in any way make adverse comment on whether he might have been otherwise engaged at the time these particular questions were asked.

The government's excuses for the delay in the implementation of the bill—and, in fact, the reprehensible action of suspending almost every operative part of this act for which they now want a transitional clause—are utterly disgusting, especially when the parliament had made a decision about what should happen not just in the appointment but in the reform of areas of responsibility for the Guardian for Children, for the Child Death and Serious Injury Review Committee (for which they now want to ensure a transitional clause for the continuation of the membership of that committee until their term of appointment has terminated under the current act and the legislation that was to be then redundant) and for an upgrading in relation to a council for children, which I think they were going to give another name. In any event, the substantive legislation of that act, passed over a year ago, has been suspended.

One of the most contemptible aspects—other than in relation to the Commissioner for Children and Young People, which has been almost everything other than her appointment (it happens to be 'her' now that they have been appointed) and their power to have staff and resources and employees and delegation of powers, and they have absolutely no powers to do anything else which this parliament has vested them with—of the proclamation to suspend the operation of this act was to suspend the obligation of all the state authorities to seek to give effect to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I cannot even understand why that is necessary.

I cannot understand why any state government that has signed up to the obligation of the United Nations convention that permeates other legislation would move to suspend it. It currently has an obligation under section 5:

Each State authority must, in carrying out its functions or exercising its powers, protect, respect and seek to give effect to the rights set out from time to time the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and any other relevant international human rights instruments affecting children and young people.

It is beyond belief. I am almost shocked into silence at the government's decision to suspend that provision.

Since then, I see that an early intervention bill has been tabled in another place to deal with prevention of harm to children. I cannot remember the full name of the bill, but they want to insert in it a very watered-down obligation in relation to the charter—and, again, I am disgusted at that—but nevertheless we will deal with that bill in due course. What is concerning to me is the government's decision to suspend the operation of this legislation.

It has been in prior legislation. It ought to be in the conversion into this principle bill of which we are being asked to do transitional clauses today, and it has not been. So far, we have had no satisfactory explanation from the government as to why they would suspend their commitment to that obligation, and I am appalled by it. I am so appalled that I have written to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and I have raised this with them because I am so utterly disgusted at the government doing such a thing, to not honour that and not even have the decency to come to the parliament and tell us why they did it.

When the minister stood up here like a stunned possum in the spotlight the other day to tell us her pathetic excuses on some other matters, she did not even give an answer to it. She said, 'I haven't had a response. No, I have not had any requests from the human rights commissioner. I do not know anything about that.' I am so utterly disgusted. In the 15 years I have been here, I have never been so disgusted with the government's conduct in contempt of the parliament—never.

It is not going to go away. When I see a bill that has been raced into the parliament to deal with transitional clauses in an act of parliament that has been passed here a year ago, of which they have suspended almost every operative clause, I almost have to choke with indignation at the appalling gall of this government to ask us to do that when they have so disgracefully suspended its operation.

With that, I indicate that overall it is reasonable that we are going to upgrade the rights, obligations, powers and responsibility of the Child Death and Serious Injury Review Committee and the continuation of its chair, Ms Dymphna Eszenyi, who I think does an excellent job. Every year, I read the report and, sadly, about 100 people die in this state. About a third of them are known to welfare agencies. Some die tragically in swimming pool accidents and some have post-birth conditions. Some of them are preventable, in the sense of being accidental, and some children are murdered.

Very sadly, it is a committee that has to trawl through the records and identify whether there are areas of reform or protection that we can enact or whether there are resources that the government should contribute to try to ensure that where possible, where children die or have a serious injury, we do something to try to reduce that risk. Every year, when I read this report, they outline concerns they have about not even having enough resources to get into the list of serious injury. What we end up seeing are reports year after year, which came from the Layton inquiry, probably circa 2003, in which Robyn Layton QC recommended we have a committee of this standard.

Since its operation in around 2004, we get these annual reports and they do an assessment largely focused on the deaths of children because they do not even have enough resources to actually deal with serious injury. Nevertheless, they do a good job. We passed legislation, which was to upgrade their areas of responsibility and protection against interference and all sorts of things, in line with the Nyland inquiry. Obviously, we will be supporting the transition, but mark my words, I am not happy that, a year later, they have not been upgraded.

There are transitional positions in relation to the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017 and, again, we are talking about this whole question of working with children checks and the existing DCSI screening services to be able to then deal with the continuation in relation to voluntary custody arrangements, approved foster-parents, licensed foster care agencies, and the licensing continuation for those who are already in a children's residential facilities. The notification processes are to continue.

The family care meetings are to continue. Orders in relation to access to children that were the court's are now to be the chief executive's. There is the continuation of certain delegations under Families SA, certain policies and procedures to satisfy chapter 8, and also some interim registration and the continuation of certain commercial carers being approved carers. These are genuine transitional requirements, on my assessment of the briefing that has been provided, and I do not expect that there will be any issues with those.

Part 5 is the beginning of the amendments, in this case, to the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act. The government suddenly decided that they want to have provisions where children or a carer are able to make an application, reviewable via SACAT, to change the name of a child. I am told that they have a couple a year that come forward to seek negotiation with the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act. Under their procedure, they have the capacity at an administrative level to hear a request, be satisfied of certain things and grant them.

I do not yet have any detail as to whether that has ever been rejected. On the face of it, it does not appear to be, so I am not sure why it is necessary to introduce that. However, some information is to be provided and we will consider it in due course. The assessable information under part 7 adds in new offences and largely, as I understand it, it is to deal with areas of offence such as bestiality, which has accidentally been left out, and some child pornography and overseas offences which quite properly should be incorporated.

I refer to part 9, which is the amendment to the Children and Young People (Oversight and Advocacy Bodies) Act 2016. Most of the operations of this act have been suspended. In this case, they want to be able to deal with the functions and powers of the guardian. There is some material we will need to look at, including the reporting obligations. I am stunned to find that, here we are in mid-November, and we still have not had the report of this newly appointed Commissioner for Children and Young People for April, May and June of this year. She has obligations.

In this bill, the government are asking to bring the commissioner's reporting obligations to the parliament in line with others who report, which is usually in October each year. I think I am right in saying that under the commissioner's provisions she has to report by September; she wants to be in line with everyone else. That might be perfectly reasonable, but for goodness sake, it is November and we still have not seen a report. The commissioner has been operating with no powers of investigation—and not much else, actually. She has been working around the state, going to high schools and visiting and interviewing children, and she has raised an issue in relation to cyberbullying at one of the southern schools.

The commissioner is probably doing quite good work in that regard, but nothing like the extent of obligation and responsibility we invested in her within the act. In any event, if we need to be able to refine that for the purposes of the ultimate implementation of the principal act, ultimately the government can expect that they will have our support. Frankly, they should start complying with the rules that are already in place so that we make sure that we see the material that these people are obliged to produce.

The office of the Commissioner for Children and Young People has been operating since April. It has staff, it has an office and it has a website, which means there is the capacity to be able to tell us what they have been doing. When members look at this issue—which I am sure they will—I am sure some of them will be as disgusted as I am. When you go to the website, you will see the commitment to the obligation of the office of the Commissioner for Children and Young People to recognise United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It is disgraceful that the government has issued a proclamation to suspend the state authority's obligation on that, yet they parade a commitment to it across their website. I would be very interested to read the commissioner's report on what she and her staff have been doing over the past few months. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Adjourned debate on second reading (resumed on motion).

Ms CHAPMAN (Bragg—Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (17:59): The issue relating to part 9 again identifies the significance of having some response from the commissioner for children, in particular in respect of her obligation to file her annual report. I look forward to receiving it in the next five sitting days. The other matter related to the Criminal Law Consolidation Act and amendments are there in part 12 and appear to be in order. They are to deal with unlawful sexual intercourse, persistent sexual exploitation, consent being no defence in certain cases and procuring a child to commit an indecent act. I expect the incorporation of foster-parents there to appropriately deal with the defect.

Other amendments largely claim to be consequential, and they are matters we are currently investigating. There is provision under part 15 of the Intervention Orders (Prevention of Abuse) Act 2009 to maintain the principle of where the priority is to lie with the inconsistency between the Family Law Act and state child protection orders and of course the prevailing of the intervention order. Of course, at times a judge may be called in to deal with the consequences of any conflict.

They all appear to be quite within the reasonable remit of amendments consequential to legislation, but let us be under no illusion here: we need to have the principal acts actually operating. That is the priority of the opposition and it is almost insulting to come in and say, 'We demand to have urgent attention to transitional matters and extra amendments,' when in fact the principal acts have been frozen into inaction. That is completely unacceptable. With that, my colleague the shadow minister for child protection wishes to make a contribution.