Public Guardian Bill; Family and Child Commission Bill; Child Protection Reform Amendment Bill

Hon. GW ELMES (Noosa—LNP) (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Multicultural Affairs and Minister Assisting the Premier) (3.00 pm): I rise this afternoon in support of the Child Protection Reform Amendment Bill, the Public Guardian Bill and the Family and Child Commission Bill. Commissioner Tim Carmody, in the final report of his enquiry into child protection, gave the government and this parliament a very clear task. He said—

The new child protection system must be one that encourages and enables everyone to take responsibility for protecting children

The overall tone of his report, Taking responsibility: a roadmap for Queensland child protection, was that more prevention and early intervention services are needed and they have been needed for too long. Mr Carmody also made the point that if the recommendations of two previous child protection inquiries had been implemented then the child protection resources of the department would have been able to meet both the family support and child safety service demands more effectively and more efficiently than they currently do. Commissioner Carmody goes on to say—

... the symbiotic link between supporting families and having fewer children in the system is irrefutable and has been ignored or underestimated by government for too long.

This government inherited a child protection system that was overburdened and unsustainable. That is not to say that previous governments, both the one before us and those going back before, have not tried, but clearly what those previous governments have done has not been effective and the efforts have not been altogether in the right areas. It is very disappointing to hear the shadow minister rise in this parliament today and say that the Labor opposition will not support these bills. This government is prepared to act even if Labor is not prepared to support us.

My particular interest in speaking to these bills is that Indigenous children are over-represented in the child protection system to an unacceptable level. They represent only 6.6 percent of the state’s youth population, but the latest available data shows they accounted for: 27.3 per cent of children notified to the Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services; 30.6 per cent of children subject to a substantiation; 38.4 per cent of children subject to child protection orders; and 39.5 per cent of children living away from home. I share the Commissioner’s observation that co-operation between my department and Child Safety is essential. I also agree with his finding that reducing over-representation needs to start with addressing the high rates of parental, family and community risk factors for child maltreatment among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.

I am working with ministerial colleagues through the Cabinet Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs to address housing, health and community safety issues across discrete Indigenous communities. The Newman government’s Indigenous agenda is focused on ensuring that state government programs and funding are directed towards improving the stability and sustainability of Indigenous communities. Commissioner Carmody was moved by the plight of children in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities whose lives and futures, he said, are dominated by adult alcohol consumption and violence and who too often lose connection with their communities when taken into a child protection system that dislocates them from their roots. I want to see both the cause and effect of the situation witnessed by the Commissioner come to an end so that Indigenous adults and children alike can enjoy a more fulfilling life. Adults can make their own choices and are often aware of the potential consequences of poor lifestyle choices, but children cannot. They are powerless and require protection from the state when their own parents and communities cannot or will not provide it.

I would like to commend the Attorney-General for including in the bills provisions which address the specific cultural needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. While many of the needs and desires of Indigenous children are no different to others, there are circumstances related to things like remoteness and historic family relationships that do require special attention. The Queensland government is committed to addressing over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the child protection system. That was an important instigator for establishing the Queensland Child Protection Commission of Inquiry in the first place. This government saw the need to chart a new road map for child protection over the next decade.

The inquiry’s report released in July 2013, put forward 121 recommendations to the government, including a number that are aimed at addressing the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the child protection system. The government has accepted 115 recommendations, while the remaining six recommendations have been accepted in principle. The Premier has established the Child Protection Reform Leaders Group, made up of senior executives of key agencies, including my department, to lead the reform of the child protection system. This group oversees an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Service Reform Project to identify and address gaps in child protection and related services for families. This project is focused on formulating and driving responses to the inquiry’s recommendations that address over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people or that have specific implications for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. While the project will have a focus on service delivery in the discrete communities, its broader focus will be to ensure that the whole child protection system adequately meets the specific needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families across the state.

Commissioner Carmody’s report also commented on the potential impact on children of the current review of alcohol management plans in discrete Indigenous communities. He has no reason to be concerned in that regard because I have made it quite clear from the outset that no alcohol restrictions will be relaxed until the government is clearly satisfied that to do so will not have a negative effect on women and children. Communities are at different stages in responding to the review and all are aware that with rights come responsibilities. Any community that wants a relaxation of current alcohol restrictions will have to demonstrate it has strategies in place to promote community cohesion and to protect women and children.

I would like to conclude with a final reference to Commissioner Carmody’s report. The Commissioner laid out clearly that the government has a responsibility to protect children but a greater responsibility rests with parents. He said—

There is ... a clear imperative for everyone involved in child welfare—starting with parents—to take responsibility for their own role.

The combined effect of these bills is that parents who need more support will get it and the opportunity to be the best parents they can be. Where parents fall short of their responsibility, appropriate systems will be in place to identify at-risk children and to intervene at the earliest possible stage. The overwhelming focus of the government is to support families and keep children from entering the child protection system. That is an outcome everybody in this House, including the Labor opposition, must support. I commend the bills to the House.