In response to the revelations in Commissioner Nyland’s report on the South Australian child protection system there has been a genuine outpouring of concern from the public, the media and our parliamentarians and a universal desire that reform will start quickly and be profound.
The creation of a Children’s Commissioner has been one of the first major recommendations actioned and although we endorse the recommendation, the prioritising is unfortunate and distracting because this is not a child protection issue. It is, of all of Commissioner Nyland’s recommendations, perhaps one of the least relevant to the reform of the child protection system.
The role of the Children’s Commissioner, as described by Commissioner Nyland, endorsed by the Youth Affair’s Council of South Australia and embodied in the draft legislation, will be to listen to the voice of and represent the opinions and interests of, all of the children and young people in our state. It is widely recognised as an important role and one that is legislated for in other Australian jurisdictions 1 and in advanced societies around the world.
But being caught up in the necessary rush to reform child protection has real dangers for getting the Children’s Commissioner right. The community has waited since at least 2002 when Robyn Layton QC recommended the role be established – it is important but it is not urgent.
An urgent focus on establishing a Children’s Commissioner will take away energy and much-needed resources from critical child-protection reforms and divert some of the public passion for change when both are most needed. Child protection reform will suffer because of this distraction.
As well as distracting the process of child protection reform, this false urgency causes other problems. After waiting 14 years to see the Children’s Commissioner legislation, the draft was exposed to the public only briefly, for just ten days. Even then what was seen was only a small part of a Bill which, if it is true to Commissioner Nyland’s intention, will see a major restructuring of the current independent statutory bodies, including this Office and possibly their legislative functions. The changes are complex in broad principle and in the finer detail, and getting it right will be vital to the effective functioning of all of these bodies. Working this through will take time.
A consistent theme in Commissioner Nyland’s report and a criticism of what has gone before in government was the failure to be transparent, to cooperate and to collaborate in planning and execution. There are many areas in child protection in which the report has given the government a mandate to move quickly and decisively. But defining the role of a Children’s Commissioner and the bodies that will surround it is neither urgent nor critical to child protection.
We should take the time to get it right.
Let us know what you think.
1 ACT has the Children and Young People Commissioner, NSW has the NSW Advocate for Children and Young People, the Northern Territory has a Children’s Commissioner, Tasmania has a Commissioner for Children, Victoria has a Commissioner for Children and WA has a Commissioner for Children and Young People. The Commonwealth has also appointed a National Children’s Commissioner.