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Family Court chief calls for Young People’s Commission

News

Cite as: (2002) 76(11) LIJ, p.24

One of Australia’s great champions of the rights of children has called on the state government to give Victoria’s youth its own voice.

Family Court Chief Justice Alastair Nicholson has called for the formation of a Victorian Children and Young People’s Commission.

Speaking at a Pitcher Partners/President’s Luncheon on 24 October, Chief Justice Nicholson outlined his vision for a Commission which would act as an independent and influential voice for young people and as an advocacy body with the power to introduce change.

“Crucially, the Commission must be independent, properly funded, and at arm’s length from government, particularly as there will be times when the Commission will make recommendations for legislative changes or other changes that the government of the day will find unpalatable,” he said.

Under Chief Justice Nicholson’s plan, the Commission would review and report on proposed and existing laws, practices and policies that relate to children and young people.

It would promote public education programs on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children, which would form the Commission’s frame of reference. Australia ratified the Convention in 1991.

Chief Justice Nicholson said the Commission would also promote models of children and young people’s representation in decision making on laws, policies and practices that affect them. He said the Commission would not be designed to focus solely on child protection, but on advancing and promoting respect for the rights, interests and wellbeing of all children.

The Commission would also conduct inquiries, either by reference or its own instigation, with the capacity to force the production of evidence and the protection of witnesses.

However, the Commission would not be a body dealing with individual complaints. Instead, it would provide assistance and referral to the correct complaint handling body, and provide support to aggrieved people as they negotiate the complaints system.

It would also be important for the Commission to be headed by a person of high profile.

“The recognition that children and young people require and deserve special advocacy by means of a Commission should, and I believe can, transcend party politics and enjoy bipartisan support,” he said.

The Youth Affairs Council of Victoria, which is also pushing for such a Commission, has met with the state government and opposition. State Youth Affairs Minister Monica Gould has sought further advice on the idea, while the federal opposition has incorporated it into its policy platform.

Chief Justice Nicholson said it was important that the Commission not only involved itself in government business, but also took an interest in the way the private sector related to children, for example through advertising.

Chief Justice Nicholson addressed what he called the three main objections to such a Commission. He said the first objection that such outcomes could be achieved through a non-government body, a designated minister, or a committee of ministers or public servants failed to appreciate the “critical importance” of the independence of the Commission.

He said the argument that young people should not get such a Commission when society’s senior citizens are also unrepresented could be answered by forming a Commission for any other segment of the community that felt disenfranchised.

Chief Justice Nicholson then addressed the third objection that a Children and Young People’s Commission would undermine the role of parents and family.

He quoted from the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria’s 2001 discussion paper Are You Listening to Us?, which found that Norway’s experience with a Children and Young People’s Commission had led to close ties between parents and the body.

JASON SILVERII

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