Good morning everyone and welcome to the National Early Years’ Summit, here in Parliament House.
Nothing focuses the mind more than when you leave the hospital and no-one is there to help you and you realise you’ve got this small child and you’ve got to do it on your own, but, of course, that is what today is all about – it’s making sure that families don’t feel like they’re doing it all on their own.
I know that today’s discussions will bring forward many ideas about the future of our nation and it sounds a little glib but it is true: our little children and the families that support them is about our nation’s future. And I am really excited today not just for their lives, but for the future prosperity of our country.
Our little children and their families are our future – and I’m excited about what today will do not just for their lives, but for the future prosperity of Australia.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people – the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet today and pay my respects to elders past and present.
I particularly thank Paul for his generous open hand and his Welcome to Country. Of course, building an enduring partnership with First Nations Australians is something that our government is very much committed to, and, of course, part of that journey is the Voice to Parliament, enshrined in the Constitution.
My colleagues; the Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney; the Minister for Education Jason Clare; the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme Bill Shorten; the Assistant Minister for Education and Regional Development Anthony Chisholm.
And of course, my partner on this journey to shape the Commonwealth Early Years’ Strategy - Minister for Early Education and Youth, Anne Aly, are all joining us today.
The Early Years Strategy is about ending the siloed approach to policy for little children and their families. And right across Government we are working together on this.
There are more than 1.5 million children aged zero to five in Australia today. Every minute and 43 seconds a new child is born across our nation.
At more than any other time in life, the first five years are when a young child’s biggest developmental leaps occur. According to UNICEF – – and I’m sort of preaching to the converted here though, but it’s worth reminding - children’s brains are built – moment by moment – as they interact with their environments.
In the first few years of life, more than one million neural connections are formed each second – a pace never repeated again.
The quality of a child’s early experiences makes a critical difference as their brains develop.
We know that the early years are where the building blocks are stacked for life-long physical, emotional, social and cognitive health and wellbeing.
There is strong evidence that when we identify and intervene early for issues arising in the early years, this significantly alters the trajectory for children.
In the lead up to last year’s election, Labor committed to delivering Australia’s first National Early Years Strategy. A roadmap for how we best shape these crucial years.
I know many of you here in the room today have been advocating in this area for a long time.
Our Government is listening – and today is an important day on that journey.
We know how crucial the Early Years are and it’s why we have invested in early childhood education – a key pillar of early years’ development.
Parents don’t see their children through a binary lens of health or education. When it comes to raising healthy, happy, well-adjusted children all facets and aspects that intersect in their lives need to be considered.
New parents simply want the best opportunities and outcomes for their children. They don’t care who funds what or which department is setting up a service that will give their children the best opportunity to thrive.
They just want the right supports. Labor understands that Government policy needed to reflect this.
That’s where the Early Years Strategy was born.
We know, for instance, that rates of childhood and adult obesity can be prevented with good early nutrition and eating habits.
Connection to early childhood education can result in better educational outcomes in secondary and even tertiary education.
For children who haven’t had the appropriate support or intervention in those crucial early years, the investments required later in their childhood often are larger.
Investing in this space leads to well-adjusted children, better supported families, better societies and a better economy.
And it’s important we don’t overlook that – because it’s a significant point. Getting this right has economic implications for the nation – and, significant implications.
These include higher earnings and workforce participation for parents, increased tax revenue to allow for greater government re-investment as well as considerable savings in health, education and justice budgets.
It’s not just the individual children and families who benefit. It’s broader society too.
I’ve used this research many times, but the Front Project’s economic analysis conducted with Price Waterhouse Coopers in 2019 outlines that for every dollar invested in early childhood development today, Australia receives $2 back over a child’s life.
When children and families start their journey together with the supports they need to be happy, healthy, safe and supported – all of society stands to benefit.
Today is an important step on the journey of delivering on the Commonwealth’s Early Years Strategy and we want to generate ideas from this room which will help us develop our strategy and will form a solid basis for discussion at roundtables with parents and families.
After all, parents and families are a key part of this journey.
The Early Years Strategy will not just help them, but – and I know I keep saying it – it will help all of society.
Other countries and leaders are paying attention to the fact that investment in the early years is critical. We want to ensure we can be world leaders in investment in this space.
This is important work and we must be evidence-based.
One of the key data sets we use in Australia to ensure we are tracking across domains when children start school is the Australian Early Development Census data.
Unfortunately, the AECD data in 2021 showed us that, for the first time since 2009, around 45 per cent of Australia’s children are experiencing higher rates of developmental vulnerability in at least one area.
That includes their physical health, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognition and age-appropriate general knowledge.
No one of these markers is more important than the other.
And in fact when well-developed collectively, they equip children with the core skills they need to continue to do well into later childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
This is what our Early Years Strategy is all about.
We have a moment now, through the development of the Early Years’ Strategy to identify the best course of action, and address this decline.
For some groups of children, there is an even larger risk of going backwards. For those children, a heavier focus and attention is required to give them the best start in life.
As such, it’s important our responses are varied and present bespoke, but simplified options for families and communities to raise children in the best way they can.
That’s why all of you are here today. You know and understand this space best.
We are laying out this roadmap together, to guide policies and programs and to provide a vision of what Australia wants to achieve for children and their families in the early years.
Nevertheless, we also have to be aware this cannot be done in isolation at a Commonwealth level.
Nevertheless, we have to recognise that the Commonwealth in isolation cannot do all the work. We need partners in this.
This Strategy must align with the work that state governments, local councils and other organisations are doing in this space. It must be underpinned at every stage of engagement with families and children both including their voices at the centre of the Strategy will be crucial as well as the evidence base.
I do want to make sure that when we are looking at this Strategy, we are looking, importantly, at avoiding duplication, to target our efforts and our investments where we get the outcomes.
The Commonwealth is only one part of this village it will take to raise a child and it cannot do this on its own. That’s why we want to partner with you. The Strategy’s job will stitch all these pieces together to ensure that we build solutions that are aligned and not fragmented.
The Commonwealth in particular in my area of social services is a big contributor in this space. Not only do we make sure that we are investing in parental support, but we’re also looking at how we can link together education, primary health programs, financial capacity, as well as early intervention programs to address developmental delay.
To make our nation one in which every child and family is given the support they need to thrive together in the early years and beyond, we need to amplify the benefits of all domains of early childhood development.
And we need to end the siloed approach to policy. A lot of good work is already happening, but much of it is fragmented.
All of you in this room today are representative of that.
Your life’s work in many different fields is to advance a better, brighter future for all children and families in Australia, from all backgrounds, all circumstances.
The best way to achieve this is to do it together, to take what we establish – here today - as the vision, principles and priorities for our children’s early years.
We must shape this vision into meaningful reform and we have a unique opportunity here.
The Albanese Government was elected on the foundational principle of leaving no-one behind or holding anyone back and I think we can apply that today.
We want to ensure every child, no matter where they grow up, can grow up to reach their full potential.
We’re doing that with our Early Years Strategy. Today we’re in the centre of Parliament House, but this Strategy will be at the centre of our Government and – with all our efforts combined - our nation.
I am keen to hear the ideas that are generated today and to take them beyond this room to discuss with parents and families around the country.
You are all part of something that will make a huge difference to the future of our nation.
Not just for our little children – but for our parents, for our families, for our economy.
So, I’m really looking forward to today. I think there will be wonderful discussion and look forward to really shaping our nation together.