Looking to the future: a national approach


5.32 No Australian government has a particularly good record in ensuring that policies and services for children are properly co-ordinated, that waste is reduced or that service delivery is effectively targeted.

The Commonwealth will never achieve much for children while its policies and programs for children and their carers are scattered across every conceivable portfolio area …[54]

The Commonwealth provides significant funds for children. It has the revenue raising ability and the central position to enable it to provide leadership, co-ordination and priority for children’s issues. However, it has not met its responsibilities to children even at a service delivery level in its own agencies, such as income support and immigration, and in federal legal processes in which children are commonly involved, particularly family law. As yet, it has provided little effective national leadership to the States and Territories.

5.33 The Inquiry was repeatedly and emphatically told by professionals working with children that the Commonwealth must be engaged explicitly on matters relating to children and the formulation of a national solution to specific problems. National co-ordination of agencies dealing with children’s issues across the whole of government is required. Effective and independent national advocacy for children is also required. A substantial infrastructure already exists to provide these functions.

Co-ordination and advocacy: a national package

5.34 Proper co-ordination and advocacy, to a large extent, simply requires rationalising and integrating existing initiatives and agencies. The Inquiry does not advocate a proliferation of government co-ordination, monitoring and complaints bodies. That is not merely inefficient but counterproductive and confusing to consumers of services. Rather, we recommend a package of mechanisms to provide an integrated approach to co-ordination and advocacy.

5.35 Our recommendations focus on the need for national leadership in policy formulation and systemic advocacy for children, with full participation by State and Territory governments and advocacy bodies, non-government organisations and individual community and youth workers.

5.36 In recognition of the essential role of States and Territories and the significant work undertaken by non-government bodies, the Inquiry recommends the convening of a National Summit on Children comprising all Heads of Australian Governments. The aim would be for the Heads of Government to reach a consensus on nationally co-ordinated strategies and commitments to address nominated areas of particular concern in relation to children who come into contact with legal processes. The organisation of the Summit might be undertaken by a small group in the Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet (PM&C).

5.37 Following the Summit, a small Taskforce on Children should be established. Appointments to the Taskforce would be agreed by Heads of Governments during the Summit and announced at its conclusion. The Taskforce would be responsible for implementing the nominated strategies into action plans, drawing together national standards and ensuring performance of commitments over a period of 18 months to 2 years.

5.38 The Summit’s organising group, as an embryonic Office for Children (OFC), could support the Taskforce through the provision of secretariat services. The Taskforce would receive advice from relevant government agencies, community organisations, professionals and young people themselves.

5.39 When the Taskforce’s work is completed OFC, either remaining with PM&C or in another central national location,[55] could carry on the broad policy co-ordination and monitoring role in relation to children’s issues. This federal co-ordination would be complemented by similar action in each State and Territory. Some jurisdictions already have these units. The OFC and State and Territory groups would ensure that nationally agreed standards and co-ordination arrangements operated effectively and efficiently.

5.40 To overcome the inadequate grievance mechanisms, the comparatively low priority given to children’s interests, the poor standards of services for them and their general reluctance to complain, the Inquiry also endorses the establishment of Commissioners for Children. The Inquiry is also recommending the establishment of these offices in all States and Territories as well as the enhancement of HREOC’s role and responsibility for children at the federal level by the establishment there of a specialist children’s unit.[56] These federal, State and Territory Commissioners would have strong links to OFC. Commissioners or similar offices already exist in some States and Territories.

5.41 To complement these systemic advocacy bodies and in recognition of the difficulties many children face in accessing services and processes, the Inquiry is also recommending the formation of a network of individual, ‘grass-roots’ advocates to provide children with directed, individual assistance.[57] This network would also be co-ordinated by OFC.

5.42 The following two chapters discuss these recommendations in detail. The National Summit, to provide the impetus for reform, is discussed here.

National Summit on Children

5.43 National solutions to key problems facing children and young people should be addressed at the beginning of the process through high level Commonwealth, State and Territory involvement in a National Summit on Children. The Summit, to be attended by all Heads of Australian Governments, would address issues and problems facing children and young people including, but not limited to, assistance to children whose families have broken down, child abuse, causes of offending and crime prevention, youth suicide and youth homelessness.

5.44 The Summit would enable discussion and agreement between the Commonwealth, States and Territories on the strategies and co-operation needed to address these problems. Resources should be committed and responsible representatives in each relevant department nominated as contact people. OFC would be established first in limited form to organise the Summit and begin to make links with the relevant stakeholders within and outside government. During the Summit, the Heads of Government would compile a follow-up list of priority tasks for OFC to undertake.

5.45 The Summit should be convened as a matter of priority to enable Heads of Government to announce a national commitment to children.

Recommendation 1 A National Summit on Children should be convened as a matter of priority. The Summit should be attended by Heads of Australian Governments. Areas requiring particular attention to promote co-ordination include assistance to children from broken families, child abuse, causes of offending and crime prevention, youth suicide and youth homelessness.

Implementation. The Prime Minister should convene the National Summit as a matter of priority.

[54] M Rayner ‘Protection and promotion of the best interests of the child’ Paper Children’s Rights: The Next Step Conference Qld University of Technology & Defence for Children International Brisbane 3–5 April 1997, 11.

[55] See para 6.47.

[56] See rec 4.

[57] See rec 9.