Senator MOORE (Queensland) (19:03): The Australia Citizenship Amendment (Intercountry Adoption) Bill 2014 amends the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 to extend citizenship to children adopted directly from a country that is not a signatory to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. These include South Korea, Taiwan and Ethiopia. Our party is supporting this bill, but I have deep worries about the way it will work. I need to put on record my concerns and the concerns of people that I have worked with over the last years who are engaged in issues around adoption in this nation and also the concerns of many of the women who had children taken from them. We had a Senate inquiry that considered their views and considered those issues, and they have raised with many of us their concerns about this bill. But, nonetheless, in supporting the bill the opposition has noted work that the government has done and also the expectations of many families in this country that the bill will be passed.
We know that Australia has a long history of participating in intercountry adoptions, dating from the Second World War. Perhaps the most dramatic instance of this participation was the well-publicised-and well-televised, to a large extent-Operation Babylift in the final days of the Vietnam war, when Australian families adopted 280 children from Saigon orphanages. That was well known in the community, and it is something of which our community has been proud. But also coming out of that experience have been some deep warnings to us, as a community and as a government, about how the processes of adoption should be handled and the sensitivities that must be taken into account when looking at any issue of adoption. It must be the wellbeing of the child and the rights of the child that must always be paramount, and not the preferences of families wishing to adopt.
Children must be protected from adults who intend to abuse and exploit them and from people who use them as commodities, not as people. That is why, in 1998, Australia signed the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. This convention exists to protect children and their families against the real risks of illegal, irregular, premature or ill-prepared adoptions abroad. The convention operates through a system of national authorities and acts to support and reinforce the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has particular clauses about protection of children.
Labor supports the bill because we acknowledge that simplifying the immigration process will help Australians acting in good faith who genuinely want to adopt children from overseas. But we caution the government that those who have the oversight of the new citizenship procedures will bear a grave responsibility. It is essential that there should be no unintended consequences of liberalising the existing law. In particular, the risk of exposing children to trafficking must be avoided at all costs. This is a real risk. There are documented instances in the recent past which have proved that trafficking of children as a commodity does occur and that it does occur under the guise of adoption. The government must ensure that the most strict safeguards are in place to prevent these horrors happening. We must not compromise our commitment to international legal obligations. We must make sure that vulnerable children, or indeed vulnerable families who are seeking to grow their family, are not put in harm's way. Nor should we ignore the exploitation of children and families in home countries. Regrettably, this does occur. Families whose only desire is to provide a better life for their children might be tricked by false promises and misinformation into taking part in adoption processes.
Sadly-and this is a very recent experience-we have already seen such exploitation in Ethiopia, which led to our government's decision, when we were there, to close the Ethiopia-Australia Intercountry Adoption Program in 2012. This was a painful, difficult but absolutely necessary decision. There were a number of problems with the Ethiopian program, including the difficulty in identifying trustworthy orphanages. There had also been a significant increase in the number of private operators of adoption businesses in Ethiopia, which created an unhealthy competitive environment-a business environment-for overseas adoption. That kind of competition for overseas adoption possibilities does not sit well with Australia's responsibilities under the Hague convention.
In Ethiopia, there were not only dangers for children who might have become involved; many Australian parents were left in limbo. Some travelled to Ethiopia only to discover that a child they had believed to be available for adoption was in fact not there. Different documentation was being transported around purporting to be appropriate and legitimate adoption processes. I have met with families who were caught up in that process. It is painful and it operates, in the best possible way, as a warning that we must make sure that processes are completely stringent and that the communication links are transparent and open.
When I was in Ethiopia with one of the delegations, we met with the Ethiopian government. This was after our decision had been made to close this adoption program. They expressed the same concerns. These were people who had been working within Ethiopia itself to identify where the processes had gone awry and also to ensure that criminal aspects were investigated. It was tragic to hear the concerns that the government of that country had about the impact on their families and their children but also the concern that their legal process had been compromised in this way. Closing that program was the only responsible thing to do.
Labor expects that before reopening the program-or opening any program-the government will put in place procedures to ensure that future adoptions are carried out ethically and professionally. Unless the past issues in the Ethiopian program are resolved, the risk in reopening the program will be too high. The amendments in this bill will allow a child adopted overseas to be granted Australian citizenship once the adoption is formal in the child's home country. That will have the effect of the child not needing a visa, because he or she will be then an Australian citizen. Therefore, the adopting parents will not need to sponsor a visa application.
In March 2010, Labor introduced a sponsorship limitation in the Migration Regulations 1994 that prevents a sponsorship being approved if one of the proposed applicants is under 18 and the minister is satisfied that the sponsor, or the sponsor's spouse or de facto partner, has a conviction or an outstanding charge for a registrable offence. Sponsors, and their children and partners, of child category visa applications lodged after March 2010 are required to provide an Australian national police check and/or foreign police certificates as part of the process of assessing the applications. These police assessments are used by the immigration department to assess the sponsorship application and whether or not the visa application satisfies the public interest criteria relating to the best interests of the child. This process should be the minimum requirement for adopting parents seeking to have adopting children granted Australian citizenship. It is a sad reality that not everyone wanting to use these new arrangements will have the same admirable motives as many of the advocates for change do. It is tragic that child trafficking has occurred in countries that lack a properly vigilant adoption process.
As I have said, Labor supports the bill, but there has been significant unrest about this bill in the community of people who have been impacted by adoption practice in the past. They have made it known that they feel that this makes adoption easier and that, rather than understanding the special circumstances and needs of people caught up in the adoption process, this makes it seem to be rather a simple process.
There are many people with whom I work in the areas of people who have been impacted by adoption who do not believe that adoption should happen in any case. I do not share that view. I think there are occasions, when appropriately prepared and supported adoption processes are put in place, when it can have a very positive impact in the development of strong families and protect the best interests of the child, which must always be the key element of any process which is looking at adoption. However, their views must be acknowledged. Their experiences have so very recently been shared in this place and in the wider community through the programs supported by the government in an oral history project and work done through the Australian Institute of Family Studies, which talks about the longstanding impact of adoption practices in Australia and reflects the pain and quite tragic impact, in some cases, caused by adoption in Australia. It is important that that experience is understood and acknowledged and that the concerns raised about the need for specialist support for families and for people who are adopted are addressed, and that those processes are put in place to ensure that families who are working in adoption circumstances do have that support. This bill is looking particularly at the citizenship aspects of the process, but it is important that when we are looking at the issues of adoption we learn from past experience. As I have already said, we have had the trafficking issues that occurred in the Ethiopian experience. Also, we should not be moving into any extension or 'streamlining', the word that has been used in this legislation, around adoption that does not acknowledge the need for personalised, accessible support to allow new parents and the children who are in the adoption process to have support as they move through to the new family arrangements. We have seen the dangers and we have seen the impact of when that support is not available.
That has been made clear now by the Australian Institute of Family Studies project around the adoption experience. When we are looking at the citizenship processes, we should also be looking at the necessary interaction between departments to ensure that we give new families who will be developed through the implementation of this legislation the best to support in the hope that they bond effectively in the future. We have spoken many times in our working group about the need for departments to work closely together. This is a clear example of this.
This legislation looks at the processes to allow the citizenship aspects to be more straightforward so that when families come back to Australia they do not have the extra worry about visa applications. That is only one step. We also need to ensure that the other aspects of the legislation that complement this process are taken into account.
We support this bill, to the relief of Minister Cash-she may have been concerned at some stages through my contribution about where we stand. In terms of the citizenship aspects, yes, we support the bill, with the provisos that we made about ensuring the strict processes around the legal situation in the country of origin of the children are strong and transparent, and that the government is completely sure of about this when checking the application for visa rights. At all times in this legislation, the best interests of the children should lie at the heart of every decision. I feel confident that the people who are working in this space, and I have met many of them, share those concerns and every effort will be made to ensure that through this adoption process the best interests of the child, the best interests of families and the need for support are maintained at the front of any decision.