The importance of upholding the rights of ACT children
Thank you, Madam Speaker, and I thank Ms Cody for bringing this matter of public importance into the Assembly today. As Shadow Minister for Families, Youth and Community Services, I am likewise concerned with the need to uphold the rights of children in the ACT, including their most basic rights.
One of these, as noted in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is the right to adequate housing. Unfortunately, far too many of the families who reside in my electorate of Ginninderra face constant worries about providing adequate shelter for their children. Last year a report by Anglicare ACT determined that only 2.3 per cent of rental accommodation in Canberra was affordable for low-income families. This was in contrast to 4 per cent in Sydney and 40 per cent across the other capital cities. Susan Helyar from the ACT Council of Social Service has pointed out the inadequacy of this number in light of the fact that 35,000 Canberra households survive on less than $500 per week before tax.
Many people would assume that the solution is to be found in public housing stock, but the figures here are likewise less than encouraging. As noted in the Canberra Times earlier this year, whilst public housing accounted for 12.4 per cent of Canberra’s total stock in 1991, that figure has declined to 7.1 per cent. What is the result, Madam Speaker? The average time that an applicant in Canberra now spends on the waiting list for public housing is 983 days. This is just four months short of a full three years – on average.
Meanwhile, as we all learnt just two weeks ago, the ACT Government has not updated its forecasts of demand for public housing dwellings for more than six years. But even just using the figures from 2012, this government would need to build 2,048 public housing dwellings in the next 14 months if it were to meet the demand expected by 2020. In such a situation, what hope does a low-income family have in this territory of finding secure accommodation for their children?
Another basic right we should expect for our children is access to quality health care. Access to this care should begin long before a child is born. We should therefore all be concerned by the recent report that a woman in labour was denied a bed at Canberra Hospital until just 40 minutes before delivering her son … despite experiencing a high-risk pregnancy. As reported in the Canberra Times, her husband, when he rang the hospital saying that his wife was stressed and in pain, was told, ‘We’re too busy at the moment. There are no beds. If you come over, you might just have to sit in the tea room like everybody else’. Which is exactly what they were forced to do. This appalling situation highlights the concerns expressed in a letter, written in April by senior nurses and midwives at the Centenary Hospital for Women and Children, in which they claimed that mothers’ and babies’ lives are being put at risk by chronic overcrowding within the maternity unit.
Of course, it’s not just the maternity unit at Canberra Hospital that his struggling to keep up. We recently learnt that more Canberrans are waiting longer than clinically recommend for surgery and to be seen in the emergency department. Especially worrying is that in 2017–18, only 37 per cent of category three patients – who are considered to be in potentially life-threatening conditions - were seen within the recommended 30 minutes of arrival. This was a sharp decline from 50 per cent one year earlier … which itself is an unacceptably low figure. None of this, Madam Speaker, bodes well for our children and their right to access quality health care when they need it.
Our children should also have a right to quality education in a safe environment. This week, the fifth report in a row found, however, that the ACT’s schools are underperforming when compared with similar schools across the nation. In some cases, students are as much as a year and a half behind their peers in learning. Moreover, Madam Speaker, I have spoken to constituents who have told me in rather harrowing terms that their children do not feel safe at school, where in some cases bullying seems rampant and school leaders seem incapable of stopping it.
Another right that the ACT’s children should have access to is stability. In this chamber yesterday I discussed the known impacts that not having a stable, secure home can have on children and young people. For that reason, this government has openly committed itself to ensuring that children in its out-of-home care system spend no longer than a maximum of two years in that system. But as we learning during estimates hearings earlier this year, the government estimated that it would reach only 60 per cent of its goal of permanency for children in care in 2017–18 – a goal that was already worryingly low.
Lastly, Madam Speaker, children have a right to be heard. Again, I addressed this important point when speaking to my motion yesterday regarding increasing the visibility of children and young people in the ACT’s system for responding to violence in the home. The Domestic Violence Prevention Council has recommended strongly that this government needs to do a better job of hearing kids’ voices in this space, and I will again state that I am grateful that preliminary steps have been taken to begin consulting children who have experienced and/or witnessed domestic violence.
At the same time, I would suggest, Madam Speaker, that we need to do a better job of listening to children’s voices across the board. I am familiar with cases where the wishes of children and young people in out-of-home care seem to have been ignored. This is serious when it happens. But children have a right to be heard when matters are considerably less serious, too. For example, a young school student recently pointed out that the ACT Government had replaced the playground equipment at the school that she attends. None of the kids like this new equipment, apparently, because it hurts their legs. She then asked me a very important question: ‘Why can’t they ask us what we want? After all, we’re the ones using it.’
A very good question, Madam Speaker.