Two weeks ago, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child handed down a critical report following its review of Australia. Australia is a wonderful place for most of its children, however not necessarily all of its children, especially Indigenous children.
On the show, Ben Schokman and Evelyn Tadros spoke with Frank Hytten, who recently returned from briefing the UN Committee in Geneva. Frank is the CEO of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), the peak body for Aboriginal children in Australia. We spoke with Frank about his experience in Geneva and what needs to be done to ensure a better future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Australia.
You can listen to the interview here: Frank Hytten Interview.
RN: Last week, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child handed down a critical report in relation to Australia. It found, basically, that Australia is a good place for many but unfortunately not necessarily for all of its children. On tonight’s show are going to be speaking with Frank Hytten, who is the CEO of SNAICC. Welcome to Right Now Radio Frank.
FH: Thank you Ben, thanks for having us.
RN: SNAICC is the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, a peak body that represents Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children around Australia.
FH: Yes, we are an advocacy body, not a service provider. We do policy development and lobbying; we develop resources across the sector and try to consult as much as possible with our membership, which is in two areas: the child welfare area, which is primarily child protection, and in the early years area, which is pre-schools primarily.
More children have been taken from families now than when the Stolen Generations was going on.
RN: You have just returned from Geneva, where you attended the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Before we get into the details, can you tell us very briefly about the Convention on the Rights of the Child and what that important document is?
FH: Essentially, and to keep it straightforward, it is a Convention that outlines the rights of children. SNAICC’s engagement is primarily around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children. The delegation was of about six people representing all Australian children and young people that spoke around a range of issues. The CRC is also a committee that examines each country around the world roughly every five-and-a-half years and considers their human rights record in terms of that particular Convention. So we get a day-and-a-half per country roughly …
RN: … to cover all of children’s rights issues in Australia?
FH: That’s correct.
I was blown away by the fact that there is so much energy being put into holding countries accountable
RN: It’s a periodic report as you mentioned, and Australia was last reviewed in 2005 and it was this year that the most recent review took place. What happens at the end of this process is that there is a series of recommendations made by the committee to Australia on what it needs to do to better comply with its obligations under the CRC. Now, it has just handed down those recommendations, and I should say, firstly, I’ve read a lot of recommendation made by various UN human rights treaty bodies in relation to other Conventions, I don’t think I’ve ever seen, firstly as comprehensive a list in terms of the broadness of the issues that are covered, but also the specificity of the recommendations that the Committee has made. What were you first impressions of the recommendations?
FH: I’ll just preface that response by saying that they have been working on their report, really, for probably the better part of 18 months. So they’ve been to Australia. Then actually, in Geneva, the NGOs don’t get to speak. They build a bunch of questions out of what they’ve already heard and the government, represented by fairly senior bureaucrats. My impressions were at the time that they weren’t asking very many questions about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, until the sum-up was given by the Special Rapporteur for Australia and that was really quite specific and quite detailed, particularly in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. So I was very happy about that and I thought, well, we’ll wait until the report comes out. The report has just come out and it, as you say, is quite specific, it’s quite comprehensive, it shows quite a lot of understanding about issues and is fairly highly critical around some issues, particularly around the Northern Territory intervention and Stronger Futures follow-on from the NTER, and then a whole range of other things to do with out-of-home care and why children are being taken away and the numbers that being removed from families. And as an aside, more children have been taken from families now than when the Stolen Generations was going on, so that’s really a bit scary, I would think, for most people to realise.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to be at the centre of decisions being made about their communities and about their children.
RN: SNAICC is one of a range of organisation that has spent a lot of time providing resources to the Committee to brief them on what the issues are here in Australia. What are your personal reflections on how effective that was and what it was like being in Geneva, interacting with the Committee members?
FH: I go with a certain amount of skepticism to most of these giant processes, but I was extremely impressed, you could say blown away, by the fact that there are so many people – and they are all volunteers (they might get expenses paid but they don’t get salaries for it) – that are prepared to sit and spend all that time reviewing countries’ records. I was blown away by the fact that there is so much energy being put into holding countries accountable, firstly. Secondly, I was blown away by the fact that there is actually some international watch-dog that is actually trying to hold countries accountable. Now, how effective that is really dependent on people like your listeners as to whether they are going to do anything about it. Sitting in Geneva or New York or somewhere they can’t do a hell of a lot to hold governments accountable, they’ll come back in five years and – it’s actually closer to 2020 before this Committee will actually meet again around Australia – we’ll have different governments, there will be different people in different positions and the whole game will be changed by then. So in the meantime, part of SNAICC’s role is to create momentum and to maintain momentum to keep pressure on governments about these recommendations. So, on the one hand, I’m highly optimistic that all these things exist and maybe in 100 years or 1000 they’ll actually be effective in a more comprehensive way. And it also depends on ordinary people participating. As I said earlier, democracy requires participation; if there is no participation there is no democracy.
Apart from the obvious absurdity of taking money away from impoverished people, what does that actually mean for the child?
RN: There are two categories of recommendations: high-level, institutional-type recommendations such as participation in decision-making, and recommendations that address a lot more of the specific issues. How important are some of those high-level institutional recommendations, particularly with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children?
FH: Well, at the very core of those recommendations is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to be at the centre of decisions being made about their communities and about their children. Now that sounds on the one hand a very macro issue, but it actually translates into the day-to-day lives of people living in townships or living in the city or living wherever. Unfortunately, governments regardless of which government have top-down approaches, they like one size fits all, they like to come up with a grand idea and then they want it enforced, if you like, in whichever sector they are working in. That is never going to work with any community, but it is certainly not going to work with Aboriginal communities. And, for example, the CRC also critiqued the policy – I think it’s called SEAM – that if children do not go to school, parents will lose their welfare payments or a percentage of their welfare payments. Apart from the obvious absurdity of taking money away from impoverished people, what does that actually mean for the child? Does that mean the child gets victimized at home even further in a family that is not functioning very effectively because they have caused the loss of income? It is a top-down approach that doesn’t respond to the issues, that perhaps people are not functioning very effectively.
That children get a decent start in life should be self-evident.
RN: As for a top-down approach, one concern is the theme of participation in decision-making, or what a lot of people call self-determination. Self-determination is obviously something that is at the heart of the way SNAICC operates.
FH: Self-determination over the last few years have become like swear words to any government, so we try to avoid them. So we talk instead about being responsible for designing, developing and delivering their own services, or services to their own people. Now, that could apply to any community – Italian people in Brunswick or people who live in Brighton, however we describe those people. So if people are designing, developing and delivering them we have some chance of those people designing things that work. Where perhaps communities don’t have a lot of expertise in dealing with bureaucracies and politicians and all those university educated skills that we need to manoeuvre and navigate through the system, that we have an obligation to provide people who have those skills so that the local people can use them as tools to achieve what they need in terms of writing up what they are saying. So, as you unpack it, it becomes a little more complex, but it is incredibly doable, particularly if governments go for broad performance and say we must achieve this, this and this, and here’s some money, you go away and figure out how to do it. That approach should be able to work and it should be just as accountable as what we are trying to do now, which is nit-pick the details, which means that many communities without all those English-language skills, university skills, and all the other skills that the bureaucracy has, are found wanting. Not necessarily because they do not know how to organise their lives, but because they cannot meet a set of standards that are purely arbitrary.
You have to engage parents, which means we have to engage communities.
RN: Certainly many of the recommendations were especially critical of Australia in terms of the lack of adequate processes for children to be able to participate meaningfully. Why are those processes so important?
FH: Well, that children get a decent start in life should be self-evident. It doesn’t appear to be in government policy – although the rhetoric is there – but it doesn’t appear to translate into action. If children have got a life-span of – leaving aside the difference between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children – another forty, fifty, sixty years to live, then what happens now is critical to the quality of their lives and the cost of those lives if they are not very functional. If we don’t do sensible things with children now, we are going to pay for it in welfare payments and pay for it in jail costs, and pay for it in drug and alcohol damage and pay for it in whole range of ways. So at a purely pragmatic, economic level we need to be doing what can be done sensibly now. To do that with children, you actually have to work with parents; you cannot work with four and five and six year olds kids directly in any meaningful way across the country. You have to engage parents, which means we have to engage communities. So one of the quotes that I’ve got for you is: we need to actually strengthen communities if we want to work effectively with children. And Aboriginal people traditionally have lived in groups, for the want of a better word, which means that kids are often brought up by different members of that group and brought up as a collective responsibility rather than an individual responsibility. And that kind of way of being contrasts very sharply with the nuclear family way of being and a legal responsibility way of being that says you are individually responsible, so if you are not functioning well we will take your kids away. It doesn’t allow for, well, you are not functioning well at the moment – post-natal depression or for whatever reason – but “Aunty Agnes” is doing OK and she’ll help out. Traditional communities all around the world before and still work that way. But somehow our laws and our bureaucratic systems don’t cater for that at all, which means a high number of Aboriginal children are removed from their families.
We need to actually strengthen communities if we want to work effectively with children.
RN: I guess what you are talking about there is fundamental cultural differences, where you do get policies and law developed and looked through the lens of, for want of a better word, through white eyes judging black communities. That comes back to why Aboriginal participation in the development of laws, policies and practices is so crucial make sure they are adequate and in the long-term effective. I wanted to ask about any other areas that SNAICC focuses on where you say recommendations of the Committee were particularly useful.
FH: I think they reinforce the areas we already work in. So the child placement principle, in other words keep children as much as possible with their own families and own communities and they focus on that quite strongly. They talk about closing the gap and how the best way to close the gap is to actually give authority to people to run their own lives. They talked about a deputy Commissioner. As people probably know a Children’s Commissioner has been approved by the government.
There needs to be a very strong focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, because they are the largest group of disadvantaged people.
RN: In fact, the legislation passed earlier this week so we have the office of a National Children’s Commissioners.
FH: And I understand government is moving as quickly as possible to fill it. Our argument has been that there needs to be a very strong focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, because they are the largest group of disadvantaged people. The statistics are that around 31 per cent of those in out of home care – that is, those that have been removed from their families – are Aboriginal, of a population base that is probably 4 per cent of children across the country. So it is very, very disproportionate. All of that not only costs money now, it is going to cost money in 20 or 30 years time if those people are not treated well and do not grow up with self-esteem. What Aboriginal people tell us is the best way for those kids to grow healthy is to have strong connections to culture and to understand their family and their culture and so on. So that is an example of bad decision-making now that will cost us all for the rest of those children’s lives.
At a federal level, from my point of view, the present government is not the worst possible offender in relation to many of these issues.
RN: We talked before that this was a periodic review of Australia, and one of the things that the Committee was unhappy about is that there has been very little developments since the previous review seven years ago in 2005. The million-dollar question is where to next – how do you envisage where Australia is going to be in the next five or eight years, and what do we need to do to get there?
FH: Some of the recommendations have been OK-ed, like the Children’s Commissioner, at the very last second. But other recommendations, like self-determination and so on, have been largely not implemented. What happens next, I guess, is that we need as with many issues – the environment and refugees – we need the community to engage in this, even in a cursory way of signing those petitions that go everywhere. And we need to increase the numbers of people who are willing to look at those things and engage with them even superficially, even if they do not understand the detail. The next time the committee meets Australia is going to be putting in two reports, one after the other, so the next meeting of the CRC Committee probably won’t be until 2019-2020. So there is a whole range of things that can happen in that time; what’s going to happen domestically is that it requires continuity, it requires people to still pick this thing up, and we probably will have changes of government all over the country. Some of the changes of government have been quite good in relation to policies shifts we have seen in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, even if in other areas we would be unhappy. At a federal level, from my point of view, the present government is not the worst possible offender in relation to many of these issues, although it is not quite clear where they are going – a potential Minister for Indigenous Affairs recently made some extremely, in my opinion, stupid comments about Aboriginal people all being “pissed anyway”; that kind of stuff that is straight out of 70s or 40s or 20s, or perhaps [the previous] century and he made them publically and they were reported in a paper in Canada, that’s the only way I got it as it wasn’t reported here. So what on earth are we going to do if that becomes the prevailing view? We’re going to suddenly leap backwards by 30 years. And, again, only the voting power of citizens is going to stop that. SNAICC can do a whole range of things and we will. I was in Canberra yesterday and in Sydney on Tuesday and I’m again up there next week. But we are a small organisation, we need the force of a whole range of people.
RN: As you referred to earlier, a bit of participatory democracy. Frank, thank you very much for coming in to talk to us.