After two decades of economic growth, one in six children in Australia still lives below the poverty line. A disproportionate number are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and children from low socio-economic backgrounds. In today’s post, James McDougall examines Australia’s inconsistent record of promoting the rights of children and argues that instead of simply reacting to policy failure, we must coordinate planning, effort, knowledge and resources across jurisdictions to improve the wellbeing of all young Australians.
Recently the Australian Child Rights Taskforce, a coalition of organisations and individuals committed to the promotion of the rights of children, published a 25-year review of the Australian Government’s effort to ensure compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child[i]. The Convention was proposed by the United Nations General Assembly in November 1989[ii] and came into force as an international human rights treaty less than twelve months later in September 1990. The Australian Government ratified the treaty in December 1990. Today every nation state has ratified the treaty except for the United States of America.
Since 1990 the Convention’s principal monitoring body, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, has developed a detailed knowledge base on how nation states can implement their obligations to protect and support children. The Taskforce has drawn on this knowledge as well as our own Australian experience in applying best practice knowledge in caring for children in a wide range of areas. These areas include health and wellbeing, education and development, protection and participation.
As you would expect for a country ranked in the Top 5 by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development for GDP per capita[iii], Australia should be well placed to provide the necessary resources and take the appropriate best practice measures[iv] to make sure that Australia’s children get the very best in those areas – especially health, education and protection. Surely we would want our children to also rank in the Top 5.
In March 2013 the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth produced its Report Card on the Wellbeing of Young Australians.[v] The Report Card compares the Australian average, the Indigenous Australian average and international performance.
“[There] is evidence to suggest Australian children and youth are not faring as well as they could. In an international context, Australia can best be described as ‘middle of the road’. Comparative indicators across OECD countries show that while we are doing well in some areas, others, such as child poverty, infant mortality, and youth participation in education or employment, are of concern.”
The Taskforce has more recently reached similar conclusions – not bad for most Australian children but a significant number of Australian children are missing out. The two particular groups that miss out most often are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and children from low socio-economic background.
By OECD measures 603,000 children in Australia are living below the poverty line. This amounts to 1 in 6 Australian children or nearly 18 per cent. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children feature at disproportionately high rates on many measures of disadvantage. 19.3 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are living in poverty, compared to 12.4 per cent of non- indigenous children. Neither figure is really satisfactory.
In education, there is a 20 per cent gap in attainment of Year 12 between the highest and lowest socioeconomic status quartiles. In care and protection, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 9.2 times more likely to be in out of home care than non-Indigenous children. In justice settings the figures are getting worse, not better. The level of over-representation of Indigenous people aged 10 – 17 years in detention increased from 19 times the rate of non-Indigenous young people in 2011 to 26 times in 2015.
Why are so many Australian children missing out? Could it be that our current political system doesn’t give appropriate priority to children? Consider when children become the subject of political attention at a national level. In the last twenty years, we have seen a number of key political actions seeking to address the circumstances of particular groups of children.
Most recently we have seen the Australian Prime Minister act swiftly in response to the Four Corners report on abuses within the Don Dale Correctional Centre in the Northern Territory by establishing a Royal Commission. The Gillard Government also instituted a Royal Commission into the sexual abuse of children in institutional settings over many years. The Howard Government invoked the protection of children as the principal reason for its Northern Territory Intervention. Successive Australian Governments have acted to ameliorate the impact of their own asylum seeker policies upon children (albeit without addressing the underlying policy framework). In 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave an Apology to the Stolen Generations – those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who had been forcibly and unfairly removed from their families and culture. In 2013 Prime Minister Julia Gillard gave an Apology to those children removed from their families by forced adoption.
Some of these actions will hopefully result in changes as well as acknowledgement of the flaws of past practices. But have we noticed a consistent theme? These actions are reactive – usually to injustices that have occurred over many years and often only after considerable public pressure.
So it appears that as a nation, we care about children but not enough to plan ahead. In Australia’s federal system where legislative responsibilities in many key areas are shared across national and state and territory levels of government, the need for coordinated planning at a national level is even greater[vi].
This failure of our current political system to plan for children has been noted by the United Nations Child Rights Committee. In its 2012 Concluding Observations, the UN Committee
“remains concerned at the absence of a comprehensive National Plan of Action .... [and] recommends that [Australia] develop and implement a comprehensive strategy, in consultation with children and civil society … and which can provide a framework for states and territories to adopt similar plans or strategies”[vii].
A National Plan for Children would provide a framework for the coordination of effort, knowledge and resources to ensure that we consistently provide for children. And we could ensure that no child misses out on the not inconsiderable resources that we have at our disposal to devote to their development and engagement in Australian society.
iv] The Committee expects the use of ‘legislation, the establishment of coordinating and monitoring bodies - governmental and independent - comprehensive data collection, awareness-raising and training and the development and implementation of appropriate policies, services and programmes.’[iv] The Committee notes ‘the development at the national level of a ...variety of ... bodies, structures and activities - children’s rights units at the heart of Government, ministers for children, inter-ministerial committees on children, parliamentary committees, child impact analysis, children’s budgets and ... reports, NGO coalitions on children’s rights, children’s ombudspersons and children’s rights commissioners’
[v] http://www.aracy.org.au/projects/report-card-the-wellbeing-of-young-australians Once again the lack of reliable data is raised as a key concern. “For example, we do not have comprehensive data sets on critical areas, such as social and emotional wellbeing of children and young people, comparative data for children with disability, an agreed poverty measure or index, and agreed measures of family functioning or participation.”
[vi] This was a key recommendation of the comprehensive landmark “Seen and Heard: priority for children in the legal process” report jointly produced in 1997 by the Australian Law Reform Commission and the Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission (Chapter 6)
[vii] United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding Observations: Australia 28 August 2012, at paragraphs 15 and 16 - http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/CRC/Pages/CRCIndex.aspx
About the author
James McDougall is a Consultant working in policy development and building community partnerships. James is also one of Australia’s leading child rights advocates. He has held executive management positions at the Youth Legal Service WA; the National Association of Legal Centres; the National Children's & Youth Law Centre and Save the Children Australia. He has worked in Australia, China and the Asia Pacific.
He is a Steering Committee member of the Australian Child Rights Taskforce, providing strategic and technical advice in the development of the NGO report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child.