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From the President : Suffer the little children

Every Issue

Cite as: (2003) 77(7) LIJ, p.4

The establishment of a Victorian Children and Young People’s Commission would go a long way to protecting the state’s young people.

In all the controversy surrounding the resignation of the Governor-General, the issue that stood out was the community’s abhorrence of child abuse and the desire by all Australians for children and young people to be protected.

The Law Institute has, for more than 12 months, been advocating the establishment of a Victorian Children and Young People’s Commission as a forum for the protection of children. Other leaders of the campaign calling for a Commission include the Chief Justice of the Family Court, the President of the Children’s Court and the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria. As well, the Australian Council for Children and Youth Organisations, Victoria Police, Open Family and Youth Law have given their support.

I recently met with the Victorian Minister for Youth Affairs Jacinta Allan. She is willing to consider a Commission if the Institute can suggest a structure that would not see the Commission duplicating existing government responsibilities or being an activist or advocacy organisation continually lobbying government.

The Institute’s position is that the Commission should not be taking on an advocacy role for interest groups but rather should identify issues that need addressing and leave it to the government to fix them. If they are not fixed, the Commissioner’s annual report can highlight the lack of action.

One of the arguments raised by the Victorian government against the Commission is the establishment and running costs. We are in the process of preparing a cost analysis which will be presented to the government. We should also remember that the cost of keeping disaffected and disengaged children in community care far exceeds any money that might be spent on a Commission.

I suggested to the Minister that the Institute could use its legal expertise to draft a model Bill for the government’s consideration. This could perhaps alleviate some of the government’s fears about the role of the Commission.

At a meeting held in late May in Melbourne, a decision was taken to form a Children’s Commission Coalition, consisting of the Youth Affairs Council, Youth Law, the Defence of Children International – Australia and the Institute.

The Institute sees the Commission as having a role in identifying policy shortcomings relating to children and young people in our state. The Commissioner would bring these shortcomings to the attention of government with a view to having them rectified. The Commissioner’s role is not to duplicate the activities or responsibilities of government.

It is important that the Commission identifies issues affecting all children and young people, not just those deemed “at risk”. For example, public transport timetables in the outer suburbs may need to be reviewed to accommodate the needs of young people, particularly on weekends. Recreation and leisure facilities in many of our suburbs would benefit from an overhaul and perhaps more facilities need to be made available. Often young people are entering into contracts for mobile telephones that are, in many cases, one-sided.

In the end, we want every major policy initiative of the Victorian government to include a “Children and young people’s impact statement”. Just as major government decisions now require equal opportunity principles to be considered in making the decision, so also should the interests of children and young people.

We see the structure for a Children and Young People’s Commission as similar to that of the Auditor-General or the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. The Commissioner should report directly to Parliament and not be part of a government department.

The Commissioner’s annual report to Parliament should set out the work undertaken during the year, the various initiatives identified and whether or not there has been satisfactory progress to remedy these shortcomings.

Last month I advocated the need for such a Commission when I spoke at the LAWASIA conference on Children and the Law.

The President of the Children’s Court Judge Jennifer Coate will speak on this issue at a President’s Luncheon on 16 July. She will examine the case for the establishment of a Commission. I urge as many of you as possible to attend and support the campaign. I am pleased to note shadow Attorney-General Andrew McIntosh, who has indicated his support for the campaign, and Dame Elisabeth Murdoch will also attend. Dame Elisabeth has been a tireless worker for children and young people throughout her life. I know she is also passionate about the need for a Commission and I am grateful to her for her support.

If we neglect our children and young people then we damage the entire community and our future. We need a Commission for all young people – not just those at risk or in trouble with the law. As lawyers we must be committed to defending the human rights of every group in our society. And there is no group more precious than our children and young people.

Bill O’Shea

president@liv.asn.au

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