CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Do We Need a Special Children’s Rights Body?

Nov 1, 1995

The West Australian Labor Opposition has called for the establishment of a children’s rights body. Various elements have been proposed, including a children’s advocate, a children’s charter, a children’s commissioner, and a children’s council. The Opposition said it would establish a special portfolio to represent children’s interests, and would appoint children as young as 11 to a children’s council to advise government of their needs. Also, all ministers would have to submit child impact statements on any legislation and initiatives introduced. Budget commitments for children would also be included.

The Western Australian Family Association joined the Government in condemning the ideas. Family and Children’s Services Minister Roger Nicholls said such proposals would turn child against parent. He argued that children’s interests are best served in the context of their own family. Support for families must be the priority, he said.

Government policy therefore “must focus on delivering support to children through their families, not apart from families. The community can be most effective in helping children only when we direct our support to parents to help them to build better relationships with their family. Any attempt to set up bureaucratic structures – no matter how well intentioned – which even appear to separate children from their families can only be destructive in the long run.

“If, in our attitudes and administration, we separate children and parents and treat them as separate entities with competing rights we will damage the most basic relationships at the heart of their existence. This approach to family and children’s policy is consistent with the long-held practical, legal, and philosophical beliefs that the family, in its role as family, is independent of the state.”

The emphasis must be on strengthening the family unit: “Our entire objective must be to strengthen the functioning of the family … because when families work effectively, society has very few problems with children, teenagers or the next generation of adults.”

The Minister admitted that not all families are functional, and on occasion children must be removed from seriously dysfunctional families. However, laws are already in place to see to this, he said. “The danger we are facing in current debates about new structures is that we are extrapolating from the dysfunctional to the functional. We are saying that because some families fail their children, we must set up a new bureaucracy to represent all children. Separating children from their families is a partial cure for the problems of seriously dysfunctional families [but] it would be the cause of problems in functional families.”

Surely he is right: we do not need another bureaucracy, especially one dealing with the very personal relationships found in families. Said Nicholls, “no bureaucratic or legal structure can assume the role of functional parents in `representing’ their children to the community. If a children’s commission or commissioner ‘represented’ children to the Government in ways most parents approved, we wouldn’t need it. If it did so in ways most parents objected to, we most certainly wouldn’t need it.”

“Families are at the heart of our being,” concluded Nicholls, and “parents are the people who make families successful. We should not allow a genuine concern for the well being of children to be the springboard for interfering in any way with the most important relationships in children’s lives. We as a community can do our best to substitute for parents who have failed, [but] we cannot substitute for parents who are successful because there is nothing we can do to match them.”

The Minister was joined by Mr John Barich, AFA State President, in condemning the proposals: “One of the main causes of the growing destabilisation of Australian society since the 1950s has been the continual undermining of the traditional family. Governments have played a significant role in undermining the family by measures such as reduction of economic support for families, easy divorce laws, elevation of `alternative lifestyles’ such as de facto relationships, voluntary single parenthood, and homosexual relationships to a status almost equivalent to that of the traditional family.”

Mr Barich noted other Government measures, like the Youth Homeless Allowance, which encouraged young people to leave home at an early age. Undermining the traditional family, said Barich, has resulted in “high levels of family breakdown, domestic violence, child abuse, divorce, welfare payouts, homeless children, juvenile delinquency, illicit drug abuse and suicide, and soaring crime rates.”

The push for children’s rights is not restricted to Western Australia. Last year the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre in Sydney issued a paper entitled “Why Australia Needs a Commissioner for Children”. And this year the Attorney-General Michael Lavarch initiated an “Inquiry into Children and the Legal Process”. The Inquiry will “look closely at the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child” and will examine whether Australian law needs to be altered to come in line with the UN.

The AFA, it will be recalled, vigorously opposed the UN Convention, because it overemphasised the rights of children while undermining parental authority.

America is now considering the Convention. As one commentator there put it: “The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child will exacerbate the ills it proposes to cure. In raising even the least doubt about parental authority, it undermines the one institution in which children are least likely to be abused, least likely to be poor, least likely to be promiscuous, most likely to be healthy, and most likely to be well educated: the traditional two-parent family.”

Such words are more than appropriate concerning the WA proposals.

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