This speech was delivered on the 29 May 2013 in the NSW Upper House. You can read the full debate online here.

CHILD PROTECTION LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (CHILDREN’S GUARDIAN) BILL 2013

Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE [5.51 p.m.]: I support my colleague Hon. Jan Barham, who led for The Greens in debate on the Child Protection Legislation Amendment (Children’s Guardian) Bill 2013. I will concentrate on two matters. The first is concern about the future of the Commission for Children and Young People. It would appear that the Government seems intent on if not downgrading then potentially abolishing that office entirely following a review in the coming months. If the Government is of that view it should state it openly now in this legislation. The bill will transfer the great majority of the functions of the Commission for Children and Young People to the new Children’s Guardian. If the position of Commissioner for Children and Young People is substantively filled with a separate appointment, its future will be very much up in the air. It is appropriate to address that matter now; we should not effectively undermine 90 per cent of the role and allow it to remain in name only. It is not appropriate to say in three or four months, following a review, that the commissioner has few functions left and so the office is abolished, or that a temporary or part-time appointment should be made. It is essential to have a robust, independent advocate for children. To date, the commissioner has filled that role and it would be a great tragedy if, with the passing of this legislation, we saw the removal of that robust and independent children’s advocate.

The second aspect about which I have reservations is that although the Children’s Guardian will be appointed by the Governor—it will be an independent statutory appointment and so will have some statutory independence—it will be an office within the Department of Family and Community Services that reports to the Minister. The Children’s Guardian needs to be absolutely independent of the department. The office should have absolute statutory independence and not have to report to the Minister. One imagines that if the Children’s Guardian were to exercise its duties frankly and fearlessly there will be occasions when it will be deeply critical of departmental practices. I am concerned that having a reporting role within the department will potentially prejudice its fierce independence to some extent.

I note the balance of observations by my colleague the Hon. Jan Barham, and I endorse her position in relation to this bill. However, I think she has been a little modest about the amendment that I hope will receive majority support in this Chamber. The amendment will insert on page 8 in schedule 2 to the bill a further provision in what will become new section 181, which sets out the principal functions of the Children’s Guardian. I note that the Hon. Jan Barham has circulated amendments that will make one of the principal functions of the Children’s Guardian to “encourage organisations to develop their capacity to be safe for children”. I understand that in order to guarantee majority support my colleague the Hon. Jan Barham will not move her amendment but that substantially the same amendment will be moved by the Christian Democratic Party. I respect her position that the outcome is more important than claiming credit. If only all members in this Chamber were as focused as my colleague on getting a good outcome for children, regardless of whose name attaches to it.