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Australian Citizenship Amendment (Intercountry Adoption) Bill 2014 – Second Reading

22 September 2014


Mr ALEXANDER (Bennelong) (15:46): Mr Deputy Speaker, I speak today for the government’s Australian Citizenship Amendment (Intercountry Adoption) Bill 2014. Last year, the Prime Minister announced that the government would improve overseas adoption by the end of 2014. The government has been delivering on that commitment. There are three categories which well express the foundations of this amendment. These categories are historical, personal—personal in a constituency sense, and humanitarian. These are separate categories, but they are inextricably intertwined.

Intercountry adoption was first practised widely by the United States as a humanitarian response to the situation of European children from Germany, Italy and Greece, orphaned by World War II. In the 1950s, children similarly orphaned or abandoned during the Korean War were adopted by families in the US and in Europe, and intercountry adoption extended to Vietnam in the 1960s, following the Vietnam War. It was not until the Vietnam War that intercountry adoption was practised in significant numbers by Australian families. Subsequently, as interest in intercountry adoption increased, adoptive parent groups established during the Vietnam War began to extend their operations to other Asian countries.

In 2005, Bronwyn Bishop MP was Chairman of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services, and launched that committee’s report titled Overseas Adoption in Australia. Two key findings of the 2005 report were: that Australia’s per capita rate of adoptions from overseas was less than one-third the rate of most First World countries; and that the Commonwealth, rather than the states and territories, should establish and manage new programs with overseas countries. Furthermore, the 2005 report found that fees in some states were too high, and that rules were needlessly harsh. One Australian state used a Body Mass Index to determine those parents who might be too fat to adopt. Another state required prospective adoptive parents to be fingerprinted. There was also a range of signals from state authorities demonstrating that they did not want people to adopt from overseas. When discussing submissions and evidence received by the 2005 committee, the Chairman also noted that, ‘Adoption officials have a great deal of power over adoptive parents. Some parents declined to give evidence because they were afraid it might jeopardise their chances of a successful application.’ This is unconscionable behaviour on the part of public servants: putting their personal or professional prejudices—wishes—before the very reasonable and understandable longing of parents wishing to adopt. The Chairman of the 2005 committee added: ‘In the area of intercountry adoption, ministers and their departments have been unaccountable for too long. The committee is pleased to redress the balance.’

In June 2008, the responsibilities of the Commonwealth government and of the state and territory governments were set out in the Commonwealth-State Agreement for the Continued Operation of Australia’s lntercountry Adoption Programme. This demonstrated that good intentions prevailed, though—sadly—actual practice lagged behind. Finally, in December 2013, our Prime Minister announced that he would establish a committee to report to him in 2014 with options for implementing reform within Australia over the next 12 months to improve intercountry adoption. The committee was chaired by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. It had senior representatives from the Attorney-General’s Department, DFAT, the Department of Immigration, and the Department of Social Services. In April 2014, the Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Intercountry Adoption was completed and tabled. One clear term of reference was: ‘immediate steps that could be taken for improving and streamlining the delivery of intercountry adoptions to make intercountry adoption easier and faster for Australian couples’. The 2014 report provides both immediate and longer term options for reform. It noted also that the short-term reforms, in and of themselves, are unlikely to see a significant change in the numbers of adoptions. However, they may assist in reducing some of the frustrations that are experienced in Australia.

The Prime Minister noted in May, during the second reading debate for this bill, that he would not pretend that everything was going to be simple and straightforward immediately. However, he did say that this bill will provide ‘significant new hope for parents without children, and significant new hope for children without parents’.

With regard to parents, I now address the personal side to my support for this amendment. A constituent of mine, Ms Jo Ellem, contacted me in March this year. In April, I met with Ms Ellem and her husband in my office and heard their story. It took them five years to bring their first child home, and they have now been waiting seven years to adopt their second child.

During the 2005 parliamentary inquiry, Ms Ellem was invited to present to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services, chaired by the Hon. Bronwyn Bishop MP. The Hon. Julia Irwin MP was deputy chair of the committee. In her covering letter to the report, the Hon. Bronwyn Bishop MP referred to the diligent and enthusiastic support of her colleagues on the committee, making special mention of two Labor party committee members, her deputy chair, the Hon. Julia Irwin MP, and the Hon. Harry Quick MP. It should be noted that there was no dissenting report to the committee’s report.

Despite the committee’s agreement and its bipartisan nature, it is Ms Ellem’s belief that the findings of that report are still to be addressed. However, Ms Ellem was much heartened by the Prime Minister’s statements regarding intercountry adoptions just two days before she contacted me, and she sought my assistance to get her message to him. According to Ms Ellem, most of the nine programs available for Australian couples to adopt are barely functioning, and they all have long waiting times. She and her husband have been told that there is no end in sight. Nevertheless, they continue to explore all options.

Ms Ellem found out about a new program for the adoption of mixed race children being run in Japan. Ms Ellem called Family and Community Services New South Wales—FACS—and asked them if they would ring the intercountry adoptions branch in Canberra to pursue the adoption of mixed race children from Japan. I regret to inform the House that Family and Community Services New South Wales refused to even call the intercountry adoptions branch in Canberra. Ms Ellem was told that, even if they did call and even if the Canberra branch said that FACS New South Wales could decide whether this should happen, FACS would refuse to do so. Rather, FACS New South Wales told my constituents that they should look at existing programs in Thailand and the Philippines. Both these countries have waiting periods of four to five years, or even longer. FACS New South Wales told my constituents that it did not have the resources to do otherwise. This was greeted with incredulity by Ms Ellem.

She and her husband have paid a great deal of money to FACS for their adoptions. They do not object to the not inconsiderable fees, but they do object to the fact that their monies appear not to be used as they would or should have been. As already noted, their second adoption has been going on for seven years, and there have been further fees paid for what clearly is little or no facilitation or progress.

As her elected representative, I made formal representations to the Prime Minister, to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and to the Attorney-General. Later, I was very pleased to receive an email from Ms Ellem telling me that she had received a telephone call from the Prime Minister’s office. Senator Brandis’s office had also contacted her. She also had a meeting with the Prime Minister’s senior policy advisor on social affairs and has had further communications with the Prime Minister’s chief of staff. I am proud to point out that this is a government that, from the Prime Minister down, takes action, seizes the initiative and puts the interests of Australians first.

Finally, there is a humanitarian side to this bill. The history of intercountry adoption is humanitarian—the generous, enlightened and humane response of the United States and of European countries from the 1940s through to the Vietnam War, at which time Australia became more involved, and on to the present day. We pride ourselves as a nation on our enlightened generosity, our charity and our compassion, and we will continue to pursue a humane response to this matter.

MPs involved in the various committees were deeply moved by their experiences during the various inquiries. Their feelings were moved on a number of levels. During the 2005 inquiry, Labor MP Harry Quick said he was deeply moved by his visit to a Chinese orphanage—and understandably so. However, he was also upset that some parents here in Australia felt afraid to give evidence in public in case their chance of a successful application to adopt was harmed. He was quoted as saying:

It is disappointing that we have six states and two territories that are thwarting parents … when there are literally thousands and thousands of young children … who can be placed in loving families, supported far better than they are wandering the streets of countless cities right across the world.

By 2005 Australia’s per capita rate of adoptions from overseas was less than one-third the rate of most first world economies. In Australia in 2004, there were 434 intercountry adoptions. In 2010, this number had dropped to 222—a 60 per cent fall. This decline has continued in Australia, with only 129 intercountry adoptions in 2012-2013. This is hardly a magnanimous, charitable and humane approach to a desperate problem which so many generous and loving Australians who want to become parents or who want to complete their families stand ready to alleviate.

There is no decline in Australia in the numbers of couples like Ms Ellem and her husband who want to adopt, yet it would appear that the lack of unification between the states and territories, combined with endless red tape regarding the processing of adoption applications, is preventing Australian couples from applying for overseas adoption.

The 2005 federal parliamentary committee into adoption found that state authorities were biased against adoption generally and appeared, in principle, to be prejudiced against the practice of adopting children from overseas. The 2014 committee’s report received submissions that expressed a continued and significant level of frustration with Australia’s current approach to intercountry adoption. Particular issues raised include the quality of states’ and territories’ administration and level of support, and the cost, waiting times and uncertainty of outcomes.

Our Prime Minister and this government have seized the initiative and have taken action. We have opened a new overseas adoption program with South Africa and are commencing discussions with several other countries about possible new overseas adoption programs.

It behoves us to live up to our values and standards of charity and common humanity and to remain mindful that, in improving the adoption process for prospective parents, the paramount consideration for the government is the best interests of the child. There have been bipartisan efforts on the part of this House to reform. May that bipartisanship continue, and may this bill, as presented by the Prime Minister, be accepted by this parliament. I echo the words of the Prime Minister: the effort we are making in this important area will result in more children who need families and more families who want nothing more than to provide a loving and stable home being brought together. I commend this bill to the House.