Many would agree that Australia is, in so many ways, a great place to be a child. Many children have positive experiences and opportunities. One key comparative index of child well-being, developed by the OECD, places Australia at around the average for wealthy countries, and we do well in environmental and educational well-being. Why then, does Australia need a National Children's Commissioner? Why should we welcome the announcement of the establishment of a commissioner as a major step forward in ensuring the best interests, needs and rights of all Australian children?
Australia is indeed a wonderful place for many children. We are not, however, without significant problems. Many children are failing to thrive, and are unsafe and unsupported. Achieving an average ranking among rich countries on child well-being indicators may not be good enough, particularly given that Australia ranks much higher on key global indices for adults. We can and should aspire to do better for children. A National Children's Commissioner will play a key role in articulating and promoting such an aspiration.
Some groups of Australian children are not faring well. Most notably, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's 2011 report on children's health, development and well-being finds that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are two to three times more likely than non-indigenous children to die as infants or as a result of injury or to be born with low birthweight. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 20 to 30 per cent less likely to meet national minimum standards for reading and numeracy. Indicators such as these are not new, but they remain unacceptable.
A National Children's Commissioner has a key role in focusing attention on the problems we must address, on the causes of these problems, and on systemic failures. One of the first tasks for the new commissioner should be to focus on the nation's child abuse problem. During 2010-11, more than 31,000 children were involved in substantiated cases of child abuse, that is, 6.1 for every 1000 Australian children aged between birth and 17 years. Other major issues include the increasing number of children in out-of-home care and the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children within the child-protection system.
The National Children's Commissioner is a much-awaited development for many in the community and will be situated within the Human Rights Commission. This is most appropriate, giving the commissioner both independence and a mandate for promoting children's human rights. The human rights of children have been somewhat controversial in Australia - with concerns sometimes raised that children's rights sit uncomfortably with parents rights and roles. This is not the case. Based on the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child, four key principles underpin children's rights: survival and full development; the best interests of the child; non-discrimination; and respect for the views of children. Few parents would be opposed to the idea that their children should be entitled to the services and support that ensure they not only survive childhood but are able to develop to their fullest potential. Few parents would be happy knowing that policies and institutions do not promote the best interests of their children. Discrimination against certain groups of children is not something that is generally accepted within Australian society, where equality and egalitarianism are highly valued. That children have important contributions to make on a range of social issues is well demonstrated by research - and is known by many parents, teachers and others who interact and share ideas with children on a daily basis. That the National Children's Commissioner advocates for children's human rights will make him or her a natural ally for parents who want the best for their children. The National Commissioner can be a powerful and independent advocate for effective child-centred and family-centred practice. The role of the commissioner becomes even more crucial for those groups of children who do not have parents or families to advocate on their behalf.
What will it take to ensure that the National Children's Commissioner achieves all that the office promises? Four principles will be vital. First, complementing existing state and territory commissioners is crucial, adding value rather than duplication. Second, independence from the political process. The commissioner should report to Parliament on an annual basis, be adequately resourced and have the right to initiate inquiries free from party-political interest. Third, the commissioner must adopt a strong and actively consultative approach, developing effective ways of engaging with children, young people and families across the widest possible spectrum. Central to this, the commissioner must ensure that children's views, experiences and priorities are valued, respected and represented. Finally, the National Commissioner must provide national leadership in promoting an inspiring vision for the well-being, status and role of children and young people.
The National Children's Commissioner has a vital role to play in ensuring that Australia is a wonderful place for all children, without exceptions.
Dr Sharon Bessell is a senior lecturer and director of the Children's Policy Centre, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.
Brian Babington is chief executive officer of Families Australia, Canberra.