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Children and Young People (Oversight and Advocacy Bodies) Bill

Second Reading

Adjourned debate on second reading

(Continued from 20 September 2016)

The Hon. J.A. DARLEY ( 15:37 :19 ): I rise in support of this bill, and am glad that the government has finally seen fit to move ahead with the proposal to introduce a commissioner for children and young people.

The suggestion to establish a children's commissioner was first made to the government by the Hon. Robyn Layton in her 2003 report. Since that time our state has had about half a dozen investigations into our child protection system in the form of parliamentary inquiries, royal commissions and coronial inquests and it is now, 16 years later, that the government has finally decided this is a matter worth taking action on.

The government may accuse the upper house of stalling its previous attempts to establish a children's commissioner; however, it is the government's unwillingness to negotiate on the matter which has resulted in its previous bill sitting on our Notice Paper for nearly two years. The people of South Australia have waited a long time for this, and it is important that we now take the time to get it right. Belinda Valentine, grandmother to young Chloe Valentine, agreed with me on this sentiment when we discussed this bill.

As I mentioned before, the government introduced another bill in 2014 which established a children's commissioner. This bill is still on our Notice Paper because there was disagreement over whether the commissioner should have investigative powers or not. Belinda Valentine, grandmother to Chloe Valentine, came out last year and strongly stated that a commissioner without investigative powers would essentially be a toothless tiger. I, and the majority of members in this chamber, supported this position.

The bill before us now has given the commissioner investigative powers; however, only if matters relate to systemic issues. The commissioner will have the power to investigate individual issues but only if they relate to systemic issues. To me this seems a bit like putting the cart before the horse.

How is the commissioner meant to know if an individual matter relates to a systemic issue if they do not investigate? It was only through investigating the matters relating to Chloe Valentine's individual case that the Coroner was able to uncover systemic issues within Families SA that caused him to describe Families SA as being broken and fundamentally flawed. Prior to this, all those involved denied that there were any issues within the agency and, indeed, supported the actions of Families SA staff.

I note that clause 12 of the bill states that the commissioner may conduct an inquiry if they suspect that the matter is of a systemic nature—that is to say that the threshold would be low enough for the commissioner to investigate individual matters if they have the mere suspicion that it may relate to a systemic issue. I would be grateful if the minister could provide details on this and clarify my understanding that a person would only have to make a complaint about a matter and accuse this of being demonstrative of a systemic problem to trigger the commissioner's ability to conduct an inquiry.

I understand that part of the reason the government did not want the commissioner to have investigative powers was that they did not want the commissioner to become a clearing house for complaints. In fact, the Premier has said on a number of occasions that Families SA is swamped with inquiries and he did not want the commissioner to be similarly swamped. I agree that we did not want the commissioner to be a clearing house, but it is important that those with concerns—and, clearly, there are many people with concerns—have a clear indication of where they need to take their complaint.

I understand that the Ombudsman will be given more powers under this bill to investigate matters and to streamline the investigation of complaints. I am advised that the government plans on having a public campaign to educate the public on where they can go with their complaints and I would like the minister to provide more details on this. In particular, I would like further information on whether this means there will be more staff for the Ombudsman or the Health and Community Services Complaints Commissioner and the budget implications for this. I would also like information on what the public campaign will entail, who it will target and the method by which the information will be disseminated.

Further to this, using the example of Chloe Valentine, can the minister provide details of where Belinda Valentine would have gone with her complaints and the exact process of how her complaint would have been handled? Would the commissioner have been able to conduct an inquiry? My office has discussed the bill at length with Belinda Valentine, who raised some issues with regard to how complainants were treated. She is particularly concerned that the commissioner has the discretion to refuse to investigate matters and that there did not seem to be any further recourse available to complainants.

As such, I will be moving an amendment to the bill which will allow persons who have approached the commissioner but whose request to investigate a matter has been declined by the commissioner to approach the minister, who can reconsider the matter and advise the commissioner. This will also ensure that, if matters go wrong in the future, the minister cannot then claim that they did not have any knowledge of the issue.

Another issue that Belinda raised was the fact that complainants were not given any response or acknowledgement of their complaint. A person who is unaccustomed to dealing with government departments may not be aware that it is best practice to take down the details of conversations, including who they spoke to and when. Belinda raised concerns that there was no paper trail to demonstrate that contact had been made with the relevant agencies. As such, I will be moving amendments which will require agencies to provide an acknowledgement of a complaint in writing. Not only will this strengthen accountability, but I believe it is a practice that should be commonplace within the public sector.

Finally, I note that the provisions in the Children's Protection Act with regard to the independence of the Guardian have been removed and I ask the minister to advise why these were not carried over to this new bill. I look forward to receiving the minister's responses to the matters I have raised today.