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Rights for kids at Christmas


Hands make starWe love democracy. How can we not, we tell ourselves, when we look at the alternatives? It's interesting though to reflect on what democracy means to us. We generally measure it by the extent of the right to vote for our political representatives or by the plurality of political parties.

Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, says democracy is the ancient Greek name for 'the intrusion of the Excluded into the socio-political space'. This is a useful conceptualisation. It raises the practical question for any society as to where the excluded are. When you start to think about the excluded and ask why their exclusion is happening you begin to re-evaluate the strength of your democracy.

As Italian political theorist, Domenico Losurdo has written: 'Democracy cannot be defined by abstracting the fate of the Excluded.' If we love democracy we will want to find out who is excluded and why. We will not be satisfied with glib justifications that put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the excluded. We will take practical steps to remove the structural causes of exclusion.

One of the decisions at the recent ALP Conference that has gone almost unnoticed is the resolution to appoint a National Children's Commissioner. This was moved by the Member for Fremantle, Melissa Parke, who chairs the UNICEF Parliamentary Association, and was strongly supported at the conference and later by groups such as the St Vincent de Paul Society, UNICEF and Save the Children.

Children and young people figure prominently among the excluded in our democracy. Hopefully the appointment of a National Commissioner for Children will be an important step in creating a vehicle for their intrusion into the socio-political space.

During the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay's visit to Australia earlier this year she urged the Federal Government to appoint a commissioner to protect the rights of vulnerable children. It has been 21 years since Australia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which affirms that children are entitled to enjoy the same human rights as adults.

It is time we took seriously our obligations to prevent the growing inequality of resources and opportunities that condemn many children to exclusion and disadvantage. Article 4 of the convention states: 'Governments must undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognised in the convention.'

Most states or territories already have a designated commissioner or guardian for children and young people. The appointment of a National Children's Commissioner would help provide a coordinated approach to children's rights in this country. Australia would also be following the example set by New Zealand and England who have already appointed people to such positions.

In 2009 the Federal Government developed the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children (2009–2020). Not surprisingly the release of the 12-year plan further highlighted the inadequacy of existing state and territory frameworks.

The easiest approach, of course, is to blame parents. This, sadly, has been the basis upon which numerous government policies have been predicated.

These policies include SEAM, which links school attendance with income support for Aboriginal families, compulsory income management, and a new round of persecution for young single mothers, which the government is set to introduce in ten trial areas from 1 January 2012. Teenage mums in these locations will be threatened with the suspension of their social security payments if they do not attend school or return to study within six months of giving birth.

The government can threaten with all the sticks under the sun but this will not lead people to learning. They can suspend a young mother's entire income if they want. This will cause hardship for both mother and child and will mean that the young woman will need to get assistance from her extended family or friends, neighbours or a charity. But will it instil a desire to learn? Not likely.

Following the ALP Conference's resolution Dr Norman Gillespie, Chief Executive of UNICEF Australia, spoke of 'the need to give voice to children and young people who are so often excluded from the decisions that affect them'. I cannot think of a better way to begin than by challenging the hopelessly paternalistic policies the Government has taken to championing in a moment of ideological madness.

You don't strengthen and respect the rights of children by humiliating their parents and tearing down their communities. Rights don't fall from the sky.

They are built on a firm foundation of a strong and respectful social security system (not one with income support levels that are below the poverty line); a job guarantee; and high quality social infrastructure, especially in areas of, and among cohorts experiencing, concentrated exclusion.

This includes the provision of appropriate housing, education, health, transport and childcare as well as family support and youth programs.

Another area of concern that seems to slip under the radar when we talk about children is the growing trend in Australia towards insecure and casual employment. We have the second highest rate of workforce casualisation in the developed world. The affects of income inadequacy, job insecurity and irregular work hours have serious impacts on the children in these households.

The appointment of a National Children's Commissioner won't solve these social problems overnight but it will send a powerful message to the community that children's rights are human rights.

At Christmas we remember the intervention of the Divine in human history on the side of the poor and oppressed. It is a good time to reflect on the story of God coming into our midst as a child on the margins of Bethlehem, an intrusion, par excellence, of the excluded into the socio-political space.

John FalzonDr John Falzon is an advocate with a deep interest in philosophy, society, politics and poetry. He is the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council Chief Executive and a member of the Australian Social Inclusion Board. 


Topic tags: John Falzon, Labor party, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights



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Existing comments

One of the most excluded groups - now and historically, are children in residential care. Half a million Australian children grew up separated from their families in the 20th century and countless of these vulnerable children were abused and neglected by the very people charged with their protection and nurturing. The long-term effects are still apparent in older Care Leavers: witness endemic homelessness, long-term unemployment, lack of access to health and mental health services etc. While we say we have learned from the mistakes of the past, the reality is that we are still seeing widespread sexual abuse of children in 'care', separation of siblings, instability of placements and continuing lack of accountability, transparency and independent advocacy that allows things to go horribly wrong.

Frank Golding | 21 December 2011  

And how many refugee kids will be left in prison for another Christmas, how many Indonesian fisher kids, how many aboriginal teenagers, how many foster kids.

Marilyn Shepherd | 22 December 2011  

Well said Doctor John.

Jim Jones | 23 December 2011  

As John writes "we all love democracy" - but it should be more than having a vote. We need greater fairness in the presentation of opinion. The quality of democracy is damaged if not destroyed when, for example, newspaper owners (or those who pay for big black advertisements) can have their views shouted hundreds of thousands of times each day while the rest of us, by comparison, are reduced to tiny whispers.

Bob Corcoran | 23 December 2011  

I have no horse in the race about whether financially punitive measures against parents of children is commendable or not. What is obvious to me is that Dr Falzon has a conception of how society ought to be constructed that is almost totally at odds with mine. For example, he rightfully laments the "tearing down" of communities. But for my money, almost all the policies he advocates contribute directly to a tearing down of communities! He's a big state man, and I'm a very limited state man. We're both arguing our visions in the name of community! We're both staunch Catholics! How about that? I'll continue support St V de P's micro assistance. But this macro-vision is something I - a Catholic - trenchantly oppose.

HH | 03 January 2012  

With the greatest respect to the views of Dr Falzon I am unable to agree with same . The assertions as to the effectiveness of programmes such as SEAM appear to lack any empirical evidence in support of same . Dr Falzon appears to dislike the policy ( and others like it )on a philosophical level however that does not justify his assertion that it will not work . His assertion about 'hopelessly paternalistic policies " appears inconsistent with his desire for more paternalistic oversight by yet another government instrumentality . Anybody who has had occasion to work in areas of disadvantage would readily accept that one of the striking problems is the problem of generational disadvantage where a failure to attend schooling or achieve useful academic outcomes condemns people to a lifetime of dependency on social security . Any policy that may improve that outcome is worth a serious try . Similarly policies that promote responsibility in parenting including proper budgeting and allocation of finances is worth pursuing . Dr Falzon appears to like the idea of state expenditure as the remedy for all ills . Experience suggests otherwise .

m. moore | 04 January 2012  

Children have never in history been so over-represented in the political, economic and cultural landscape. It is a travesy to include the children of white middle class Australians with the children of Aboriginal Australians. The gulf between makes any lumping together as unrepresented 'excluded' savagely unfair.

graham patison | 10 January 2012  

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