The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) met for the first time this year on 9 February. A key focus of its discussions was the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission), especially protecting children in Australia through implementation of national child safe standards. The COAG also discussed the role of early childhood education in preparing children for school and initiatives to combat cyber bullying, after QLD's recent cyber bullying death.
Background to the COAG
The COAG was established in 1992 and is the peak intergovernmental forum in Australia. Its members are the Prime Minister, state and territory First Ministers and the President of the Australian Local Government Association. Generally, the COAG meets twice a year, however, it will meet when needed and it has met up to four times in a year.
The COAG's agenda is broad-ranging and focuses on improving the current and future wellbeing of all Australians. For the February 2018 session, issues discussed at COAG included:
- improving outcomes for Indigenous Australians, especially in housing
- reforming Australia's health system
- protecting Australia's children especially through discussion of the Royal Commission recommendations
- supporting those affected by terrorism, and
- maximising effectiveness in federal financial relations.
National Child Safe Standards and the Royal Commission
As we mentioned in our previous article, the Royal Commission handed down its final report in December 2017, and the COAG welcomed progress on developing the National Statement of Principles for Child Safe Organisations, agreeing on the importance of creating organisations where children are safe from abuse and neglect, and acknowledging the work underway to establish a national redress scheme.
Part of the Royal Commission's terms of reference was the direction to inquire into what institutions could do better to protect children against child abuse. The solution was a set of ten Child Safe Standards. The COAG acknowledged the current efforts of VIC, QLD and SA (identified by the Royal Commission as already having mandatory child safe standards) and tasked the COAG Education Council with advancing further recommendations relating to teachers and students.
The COAG also discussed the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory's findings regarding the failure to care and protect young Territorians, particularly Aboriginal children, who are up to 16 times more likely to be in child protection and youth justice systems than non-Indigenous children nationally. The First Ministers acknowledged that many of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory have relevance for other state and territory child protection and youth justice systems. The Leaders agreed to share lessons learnt and best-practices to improve outcomes for children, young people and their families either at risk of, or already in, the child protection and youth justice systems, through the Community Services Ministers’ Meeting.
The COAG also canvassed the national redress scheme for survivors of child abuse, as outlined in our previous article. Despite being recommended by the Royal Commission and detailed by the federal government in their bill released in October 2017, no firm commitment was made by states and territories to accept the proposed redress scheme.
The Prime Minister also affirmed that the states and territories would respond to the Royal Commission's final report by June 2018.
Early Childhood Education and Preparation for School
To ensure that Australian children have the best start possible, the COAG asked the COAG Education Council to provide advice in 2018 on reform principles, informed by the recommendations and findings of the ‘Lifting Our Game’ review. First Ministers invited the authors of the review, Susan Pascoe AM and Professor Deborah Brennan, and the chair of the Review to Achieve Excellence in Australian Schools, David Gonski AC, to present their findings at the next meeting of the COAG.
Schools are reminded of the ongoing 2018 National Quality Standard changes, as mentioned in our previous article, which, according to the COAG, implement initiatives to make sure all children, regardless of their background or location, are school-ready.
Cyber Bullying Ongoing Initiatives
After a series of student deaths from cyber bullying, as discussed in our previous article, the COAG acknowledged that bullying on any medium has no place in Australia, and can be especially harmful to children and young people. The growth of social media and mobile devices means that Australian children and young people can be subject to bullying 24 hours a day and from any location.
Leaders heard from the eSafety Commissioner, Ms Julie Inman Grant, on initiatives to combat cyber bullying and acknowledged the ongoing importance of this work. In particular, the eSafety Commissioner promoted the importance of parents being a part of the conversation with their children, and how schools can be an important touch point for awareness for parents of the issues surrounding cyber bullying and safe online conduct for students.
As mentioned by ABC News, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk put the issue of cyber bullying on the COAG agenda after the death of 14-year-old Amy Everett. The First Ministers agreed that if we are to successfully reduce the incidence of bullying, we must better understand its underlying drivers and adopt a whole-of-community approach. The COAG agreed that a working group of senior officials from the First Ministers, Education, Justice and Health departments consider existing and potential initiatives to help combat bullying and cyber bullying and establish a work program to be led by the Education Council. The Education Council will report to the COAG at its next meeting on tangible measures where there is an identified need.
The next meeting of the COAG for 2018 is yet to be confirmed. In the meantime, schools should keep the June 2018 deadline for state and territory responses to the Royal Commission in mind as legislative reform may follow.