Children and Health Legislation Amendment (Statement of Recognition, Aboriginal Self-Determination and Other Matters) Bill 2023 Second Reading

9 Mar 2023

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I am pleased to speak on behalf of the Greens to the Children and Health Legislation Amendment (Statement of Recognition, Aboriginal Self-determination and Other Matters) Bill 2023. This bill is about one of the very important things, one of the most important things, we can debate in this Parliament, which is addressing the ongoing trauma and injustice caused by colonisation.

First Nations people were violently dispossessed and had their families separated, children taken and land stolen and destroyed. Too many of the harms of colonisation remain in this land. We see in the laws and the policies that led to entrenched disadvantage, deaths in custody and children being taken from their families the trauma and impoverishment of many First Nations people. There is systemic racism embedded in laws, in policies and in organisations, and it does continue to affect the lives of First Nations people.

In Victoria we have recently begun the steps towards justice and healing. We have begun the treaty process and embarked on truth-telling with the Yoorrook Justice Commission. This process of truth-telling is fundamental towards the journey of justice and healing, as is the Voice and as is a voice. Certainly I support the Voice to Parliament and the upcoming referendum, because we need to understand and reckon with the horrors of colonisation and the ongoing impact it continues to have on First Nations people and their cultures. It is timely that we are debating this bill at a time when the Yoorrook commission is considering the child protection system, the lasting impacts of the stolen generations and the continued harms caused by the current system. We are hearing that there is so much more to do to close the gap and to secure true justice for First Nations people. We do need systemic reform to address entrenched health and educational disadvantage, to stop the over-policing of First Nations people, to keep kids out of prison and to stop deaths in custody, and particularly much-needed reform to address the continued removal of First Nations children from their families and their homes.

The Greens are pleased that the government has committed to reform early in this term of government. We had two pieces of child protection legislation before the previous Parliament. Disappointingly, the government failed to progress either of them before Parliament was dissolved prior to the election. This work should be a priority of all governments. Too often the child protection and family services portfolios and issues are overlooked and underfunded. In the last 18 months in Victoria we have had five different child protection ministers. The system has been steadily descending into crisis. We have been failing our First Nations children by failing to address the rising rates of removal from their families and homes.

The facts are extraordinary. Victoria has the highest rate of First Nations children in out-of-home care – 103 per 1000 children, which is double the national rate. One in 10 First Nations children are in care. One in three are known to child protection services, and that has been getting worse. First Nations children are currently 20 times more likely to be removed from their families and placed in the child protection system than their non-Aboriginal peers; this is more than a doubling of that rate in the past 15 years. We know that the separation of children from their families has many harmful and long-term effects for children. It causes entrenched social and economic disadvantage, long-term impacts on physical and mental health and increased contact with the justice system. We need to start reversing this upward trend in numbers of First Nations children removed from their families, so we are supportive of measures in this bill that aim to reduce the number of First Nations children in out-of-home care.

This bill, in detail, will expand the role of Aboriginal community controlled organisations in the child protection system, allowing agencies to be authorised for any specified child protection functions following the receipt and classification of a report. It will allow for earlier intervention and targeted support for First Nations families. It will introduce a new statement of recognition of the impact of past government policies on Aboriginal people and a recognition of principles that must be considered by decision-makers like judges and child protection workers. It enshrines in legislation five elements of the Aboriginal child placement principle, adding prevention, participation, partnership and connection to the legislation alongside the existing placement. We know and the Greens know that continued over-representation of First Nations children in care and the increasingly widening gap must be addressed as a priority, and we support measures that empower Aboriginal controlled community organisations to manage the care and protection of First Nations children and to offer early intervention and support prior to any interaction with the justice system.

Now, we do hold some concerns with the development of the bill and the impact of some of these reforms in practice. As noted by some of the key stakeholders, aspects of the reforms are largely symbolic and must be implemented hand in hand with major systemic reform. While the government’s commitment to all elements of the Aboriginal child placement principle is welcome, we note the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service’s (VALS) concerns that these changes will mean little in practice and differ little from current legislation. While the statement of recognition acknowledges harmful laws, policies and practices of governments past, it does not include a full admission that many of these practices still continue today. And most concerning, it has been incredibly disappointing to hear that the government has not fully consulted with all relevant stakeholders.

Both the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and Djaara, two incredibly important Aboriginal controlled community organisations, have expressed frustration at the limited amount of consultation offered on both this bill and its previous iteration in 2022. Both have highlighted concerns with aspects of the bill and requested that the government and department work with them on addressing concerns on a full redesign of the child protection system so it works better for First Nations women and children.

The Greens raised these concerns last year with the then minister and asked him to urgently meet with both Djaara and VALS to undertake genuine consultation on proposed changes in the bill. It is incredibly disappointing to discover that on the introduction, or reintroduction, of the bill this did not occur, even though it has been six months, and it is even more important because this is a bill that seeks to empower entire the First Nations community through self-determination. It is absolutely critical, and it cannot be achieved unless all First Nations organisations and groups, critical groups, are included in that consultation. Their views need to be considered and incorporated in this reform.

As VALS noted, it is impossible to properly design a child protection system for Aboriginal children without involving the Aboriginal legal services that represent them and have the legal expertise required to understand the impact of legislation on children and parents in practice. We will have more to say on the bill in the other place, but I would certainly urge the government to consult properly with VALS and Djaara and genuinely engage with them on their concerns. The Greens will be supporting this bill in this place, and we wish it a speedy passage

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