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Interview with Megan Mitchell – Australia's National Children's Commissioner

This week, happychild had the privilege of speaking with Megan Mitchell, Australia’s first National Children’s Commissioner. We were interested to understand more about her role and what she has to say about the state of children’s rights in Australia after her first eight months on the job.

happychild: Megan, could you please explain your role as the National Children’s Commissioner?

Megan Mitchell: As National Children’s Commissioner I have responsibility to promote the rights and interests of children and young people, and to a large extent that involves ensuring the national laws and policies and programs reflect those rights and interests of children [0-17 years].  I also have a role in monitoring Australia’s progress in realising the rights of children and our international obligations which are enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. There are around 5.2 million children in this country and this role exists to give children a voice as citizens.

There are many issues facing children in Australia. What is within the scope of this position?

It is great that there is now a body at the national level that can focus solely on the rights and interests of children. And it is very challenging to focus in on where I can actually make a difference; there are a lot of concerns out there. My main focus is on issues that have a national significance for children in Australia. While the role is for all children, it does allow me to focus in on the most vulnerable children. We know, for example, that children experiencing child protection or juvenile justice issues have particular support needs and don’t fare as well as their counterparts, so we have a responsibility to address the needs of the most vulnerable children, to let every child thrive, regardless of their background.

Why is your role significant for Australia?

There are now a number of national frameworks being progressed relating to children – the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children among them – and having an advocate for children, like this role is, was a recommendation from that framework.

Australia ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child 23 years ago, but hasn’t done much since. Now the National Children’s Commissioner can facilitate a more consistent and quality approach to embedding children’s rights in laws, policies and programs concerning children who are at risk in this country. To date, this is not something we do systematically, and I want to change that.

It’s also a great opportunity for all of us, including children, to learn about children’s human rights. That can be very empowering for children and families, and especially those in more vulnerable circumstances – to know that they are rights holders and that we as a nation have responsibilities to them to uphold their rights.

What exactly are the human rights of children?

They are as written in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is the most ratified of all international treaties. Essentially the rights of children are the same as adults, except that we know they are vulnerable because they are children, and are not as enfranchised as adults. Examples of their rights are: the right to safety and protection from harm; the right to education; the right to a caring family; the right to information and to be heard; and the right to a good standard of physical and mental health.

We can apply the guidance provided under the Convention to shape our courts, health services, education sector – to best support children in these systems.

How do you go about uncovering the human rights concerns of children and families in Australia?

I strongly believe children are great advocates for themselves. I conducted a national listening tour between June and September of this year, called the Big Banter.  I used all the goodwill there is out there in the community to connect with kids;  I’ve been to schools, out-of-school-hours centres, youth centres…I have met face-to-face with well over a thousand children from very diverse communities. I’ve held forums and workshops, and the young people have told me what makes them happy, what concerns them, and what they’d like me to change if I could. I also conducted an online survey and then asked children to write a postcard answering ‘what would make life better for Australian children?’ I have over 1400 survey and postcard responses with really valuable insights from children; they have been very generous to me. I have also had lots of conversations with adults – there are a lot of people who care for, and work with kids, so they have also informed what my priorities should be. We’re also looking at ways to develop the website  so it is more child-friendly and interactive, allowing us to have ongoing  conversations with the community. I encourage anyone, old or young, to contact me at any time via email at kids@humanrights.gov.au.

And what have you learnt about the human rights and wellbeing of Australian children in the eight months that you’ve been on the job? What are the priority areas for action moving forward?

Speaking to children, I learned that very few of them know about their human rights. I want more children and families to understand their rights and how they [their rights] can be a practical benefit to them, so part of my achieving this will be through education – with schools and other places where children are. We can build children’s understanding of their responsibilities and capabilities, and that is extremely empowering for them – they start to think about what life decisions they can have input to, and how they can realise their rights and the rights of other children.