Fresh from its return from Geneva, the Australian government is preparing to sit down with leading child rights advocates to review a recent UN report that shows how Australia measures up to its international obligations for children.
Following Australia’s examination by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on how the country cares for and protects its children, the international body of experts has now handed down its conclusions on Australia’s performance. The verdict? Whilst the Government has been given credit for a number of initiatives, a quick read through the report gives the clear impression that this is a disappointing “report card” for the government of one of the ‘most affluent economies in the world’, as called by the Committee.
If the report was to be graded, it feels like a C plus, where the plus indicates a late burst of effort – namely, the announcement of a National Children’s Commissioner in April – that must absolutely be acknowledged, but still leaves fundamental work to be done.
The Committee giving this report is well-placed to recognise government efforts and to call out abuses and inaction. This June marks the third time the Australian Government has engaged in what is termed diplomatically a ‘dialogue’ with the UN Committee. Australia is not the only one – nearly all nations in the world submit to this process, albeit with varying levels of frequency and transparency in their reporting.
So what was the outcome? This June, the Committee agreed that most Australian children are well cared for; the standard of living, the health and education outcomes and the freedoms are what you would expect for a developed nation. And yet, in the eyes of the Committee, the Australian Government lacks a clear, coordinated and cohesive national policy framework for the care of children.
Although the Committee does not expect the different governments it engages with to use a particular template in measuring and reporting on their progress for children, it does expect a firm commitment to gather consistent data to properly measure outcomes across the nation. It expects the use of mechanisms to effectively monitor laws, policies and outcomes at national level to ensure that no particular groups of children are missing out or worse, experiencing systemic or entrenched discrimination or abuse. It expects the evaluation of those initiatives that purport to address inequities and disadvantage.
Yet in Australia, we don’t always collect data that allows us to compare from state to state our programs for children. We have no central point in national government to develop, coordinate, assess and evaluate programs and initiatives for children. Government often claims initiatives are for the benefit of children but rarely invests in systems to measure their effectiveness – so we don’t know how much these initiatives are actually benefitting children. The truth is, Australia has signed up to international standards for children but doesn’t allow its courts or bureaucrats to use those standards to measure how well children’s rights are protected.
So where is the central coordinating mechanism that ensures that state, territory and national governments are sharing information, data and best practice on policy for children? Where is the Minister or national-level office responsible for making sure that policy in health, education and child protection do not contradict each other? Where is the national responsibility to lie for raising the well-being of Australia’s most vulnerable children and young people?
The response to many of these challenges in the past has been to blame our federal system that divides responsibility for most of the areas of policy that affect children between the levels of government. But when an issue is seen to be important enough, we find a solution. In the last 20 years we have seen comprehensive solutions developed – for gun control, industrial relations, corporate governance, security and water – but not for kids.
This June, the UN Committee has called us on this shortfall. The establishment of a National Children’s Commissioner, discussed this week by Senate, is an essential first step in addressing this shortfall. So let’s do it properly. Let’s take the first step, create the Commissioner role with adequate resources and mandate, and get serious about providing a national policy framework for all our children.