Page 2529 - Week 07 - Tuesday, 1 July 2008

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I do not want to change the upper limit of 14 for criminal responsibility, but I agree with international human rights experts who consider that the lower limit should be raised to 12 years of age. Our current minimum age of criminal responsibility of 10 years is contrary to mainstream international jurisprudence and has been the subject of severe criticism by bodies such as the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. While there are undeniably reasons for keeping the age limit as it is, I think on balance that the reasons for raising the limit outweigh the reasons for keeping it at 10.

The real thrust of this approach is to move young offenders from a criminal to a welfare trajectory, with the object, of course, of identifying risk factors and changing behaviours before they become established. It is not as if I am advocating ignoring the behaviour of young offenders, and I am assured that there are a number of programs and agencies that would take responsibility for addressing the child’s behavioural problems.

Nothing ensures recidivism more than a spell in a criminal institution, and if this initiative helps to divert children from that path then it will have proved its worth. Of course, criminal behaviour is a multifaceted phenomenon, and if the root causes of the behaviour are generated by the home environment, or lack of a home environment, the odds of positive outcomes are commensurately reduced. I hope the government has put in place the resources to be ready for the added responsibility which this will place on its child welfare agencies.

I understand that the government is working through COAG towards a national approach, but we should not be so backward in being forward when it comes to protecting the interests of children, and mere administrative convenience and neatness are not excuses for failing to act now. I understand that the ACT government has set in train a process for lifting the minimum age to 12, either bilaterally with Victoria, which is the other human rights jurisdiction, or through COAG. But, really, that is too slow and it could be done through this legislation now.

While I am aware that this issue has the potential to bring out the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” brigade, the government should know that any progressive human rights ideas do attract this kind of right-wing nonsense. The government should implement legislative change now rather than waiting for the glacially slow COAG or SCAG process to bear fruit, if it ever does. Hopefully a coalition with Victoria will convince cabinet that any right-wing backlash would be worth weathering.

However, I do have sympathy for the view that if I push ahead with my proposed amendment I will have given the opponents of this change some advantage, by locking the government into formulating and advocating reasons as to why my amendment should not be supported. Having locked themselves into position by opposing my amendment, it will be that much harder for the Attorney-General, the health minister and whoever has relevant responsibility for child welfare to argue the exact opposite when their staff are ready with a bilateral or national model bill of their own.

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