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Children and Young People (Safety) Bill

The Hon. A.L. McLACHLAN ( 15:55 :49 ): I rise to speak to the Children and Young People (Safety) Bill. I speak on behalf of my Liberal colleagues. I advise the honourable members that the Liberal opposition will support the second reading of the bill. It is the intent of the Liberal Party to explore the impact of the clauses of the bill in detail and to inform itself from the debate at the committee stage on the implications of the bill as a whole on child protection in South Australia.

Honourable members will be aware this is our practice in all but exceptional circumstances. I make this point as there have been ardent calls from community groups for the bill to be voted down because it is manifestly inadequate and does little to improve upon the extant legislation in force. The Liberal Party believes that it is through debate that ideas can be truly tested and adequately explored. In my reading, I discovered an instructive quote from the Finnish academic Juha Hämäläinen:

P rincipally, human beings have always understood that children need to be cared for and protected. Paradoxically, child protection activities and the philosophy of the rights of the child are there because this is not or has not been true.

We, as a community, should rightly question why, in the modern era, we continue to fail to meet the needs of our citizens when we have, as compared to the past, all the resourcing and focus on caring for the vulnerable, young and old in our society. We have a government department filled with bureaucrats devoted to it, we have academics devoted to it, we have front-line staff devoted to it, and we have not-for-profits devoted to it, yet we still managed to fail, and now here we are, debating in this chamber another iteration of the legislative framework protecting children.

From my personal perspective, all failures of this magnitude are seated in a lack of leadership—an inability to do what is right and just, as well as taking accountability for real and meaningful action. We have the manifestation of a culture which prides itself on purposefully leaving the hard work to others, not asking questions in case something is revealed and refusing to drive performance and compliance. The behaviour of the ministers of this Labor government bring to mind the proverb of the three wise monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.

In Western tradition, the proverb refers to a lack of moral responsibility of those who refuse to acknowledge impropriety, look the other way or feign ignorance. The Labor government should be held accountable for the failures in child protection. Its failure to protect children in its care has cut away at its self-proclaimed progressive credentials. The Labor brand no longer stands for the progression of the worker, but the regression of our community values and attributes. If only the collegium of the Labor Party spent less time with their progressive university colleagues and other fellow travellers focusing on social engineering, and more time on the real, complex and difficult issues facing families, parents and children today, we may not have found ourselves on this road.

This is a stain that will never be removed from the record of this Labor government. It will and should overshadow any hubris from this government’s members that their regime has contributed or achieved any self-styled progressive ideal. We are here now, debating this bill because the Labor government has failed to provide the leadership required to protect the most vulnerable children in our state. All that remains is to try to develop the best legislative framework going forward that meets the expectations of the people of South Australia: this is what the Liberal Party is endeavouring to achieve.

The Liberal Party comes to this debate with goodwill. While it will continue to hold this government to account for its grotesque failings, at all times it is conscious of its solemn obligation to develop legislation that is sound and effective and restores community confidence.

I draw honourable members’ attention to the litany of reports, inquiries and commissions into the care of our children. We had the Layton report in 2003, followed by the Mullighan inquiry in 2008. That same year there was a select committee into Families SA. That committee reported in 2009. Then there was the Debelle inquiry, which reported in 2013. The same year we had a review by Allen of Families SA, as well as one by Moss on internal record keeping. Finally, there was the Nyland royal commission.

On top of this was a collection of findings by the Coroner in respect of particular tragic cases. The government cannot argue that it was not aware of the deep dysfunction in our government assets that were tasked to affect the will of the government and protect children. I have assumed, probably incorrectly, that there was a desire by this government to actually affect real and lasting outcomes for the vulnerable.

A genuinely progressive child protection education approach should be judged on how effectively it assists children to transcend the circumstances of their birth, and how comprehensively it equips them to take control of their own lives. Having regard to this test, we as a community are sadly observing a failure on a grand and tragic scale. The Labor government has breached its sacred duty to its peoples.

The question before us in this debate is: when should we intervene in the life of a family, and how should we execute that intervention? It is, should be and always will be an extremely difficult and sensitive decision for the state to intervene in the life of a child and the family. The principles that govern these decisions will be the subject of much debate at the committee stage should the bill pass the second reading.

The nurturing of children has occupied the minds of community elders for generations. While the ancient Athenians prided themselves on raising their children, their myths and legends abound with stories of child abuse. It is clear that the moral obligations of parenting was front of mind. All communities, regardless of their cultural foundation or their environment, place great importance on the protection and nurturing of their children. Any response to child abuse and neglect has been marked by a tension between two approaches—an emphasis on rescuing children on the one hand and efforts to support the family on the other.

There are those whose first instinct is to seek to remove the children from homes to protect them from poverty and maltreatment. In contrast, there is the family support approach, which focuses on ameliorating social and environmental factors which contribute to parental stress and maltreatment of the children. Children grow and thrive in the intimacy of the family unit. Parents should be free to raise their children without undue interference from the state. However, where there is family dysfunction, children—unless close to age—are not always able to request community or government assistance. Therefore, the state must, in certain circumstances, breach the intimacy and privacy of the family and seek to protect the child.

The essence of this debate is striking the right and morally grounded balance between the community’s obligation to protect a child and place the appropriate value on the benefits of the family unit. There is an increasing movement by many with an interest in these difficult issues that the child’s welfare and the welfare of the family go hand in hand and, further, that government policy should also focus on building and educating the family, howsoever defined, as much as on intervention when difficulties merit such government action.

I make this point because, to solve the underlying cause of family dysfunction, legislation alone will not heal the wounds and sadness that still abounds in our community. Only with a strong commitment by the government and our community as a whole can we take the first steps on a long road to create a system that will help our children grow into happy and healthy adults.

The Liberal Party is listening to the community; the Liberal Party is consulting with community groups. We note the strong views of the Attorney in the other place. We note the strong views of community groups that are advocating that the bill should not pass into law, and retain extant laws at the very least. We are considering carefully the joint statement from the following organisations in respect of amendments to the bill: the Law Society of South Australia, the Australian Medical Association, the South Australian Council of Social Services, the Child and Family Welfare Association, the Council of Care of Children, the Youth Affairs Council and the Child Protection Reform Movement.

Honourable members, despite the rancour over issues within the bill, we must remind ourselves that, regardless of our political orientation, we all share the objective that we seek the best legislative framework for the protection of our children in need. I would like to think that we in this chamber are not motivated to protect our children for economic, cultural or social reasons, but rather from a fundamental moral conviction that children need to be loved, cared for and have their needs attended to, an idea so basic that it binds our society and guides us, as individuals, in how we act in our lives.

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