Thank you for inviting me here to speak with you today.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the Lands on which we meet today – the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation – and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging. I would also like to acknowledge their deep and ongoing connection to this land.
I’d also like to acknowledge everyone attending this week’s conference and the long wait you have had to be together in person.
Most of you have been looking forward to this conference for two years and sent your RSVP long ago.
I’ve been in my new role for two weeks now, so thank you for accepting my late RSVP!
I also want to acknowledge some of the attendees at this conference today:
- the Hon Dr Sharman Stone, AIFS Director
- Mr Ray Griggs, Secretary of the Department of Social Services
- Anne Hollands, National Children’s Commissioner
- Natalie Lewis, of the Queensland Family and Child Commission
- Catherine Liddle, CEO of SNAICC and the National Voice for Our Children
I’ve spent my first two weeks reading, learning, and talking to stakeholders. Trying to soak up as much information as I can – what is clear to me is that my portfolio is such a critical one which changes lives.
I have really enjoyed meeting with Department staff in Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane, and I have visited a Foodbank in my electorate as well as a Stronger Places Stronger People community social impact program in Gladstone – and what is clear to me is that those who work and volunteer across the community sector do it because they want to make a positive difference to others.
Families at the centre
When I saw the theme for this year’s conference – Putting families at the centre – I got sudden flashbacks to two weeks ago when as I was being sworn in as a minister or course all I heard was my 2 year only yelling from the crowd “I want my mummy.”
But in all seriousness this is the critical challenge for policy makers and service systems. Putting families at the centre has been the guiding principle of all the policy work I have done in parliament. And it guided my work as Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education and Youth.
Families form the backbone of our society, and it’s through the lens of our families that we develop our initial views of the world.
This year’s theme reminds us that the work we do in social policy touches the lives of every Australian, often through their families.
We have an ongoing responsibility to empower families and support them to make their own decisions through the good times, and the bad.
Social justice, equality, opportunity and a fair go are all concepts close to my heart – and it’s these sentiments I bring to my new role as Social Services Minister.
So, I’m very pleased to be here at the AIFS 2022 Conference in one of my first engagements within this portfolio.
I’d like to take this opportunity to commend the work of the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) in contributing to the wellbeing of Australian families through quality research. And of course the contribution you all make on how governments can do better and respond to changing needs of Australian families.
Since 1980, AIFS has been successfully informing government policy by painting a clear picture of how our families are doing, and what they need to thrive, from year to year, decade to decade.
In the 42 years since then, a lot has changed and AIFS has been central to an increasing focus on research about families.
AIFS celebrated its 40th Anniversary in 2020 and what a huge achievement that was.
The Families, then and now series produced in recognition of this anniversary, provides some fascinating insights into how families have fared in a range of areas of life since 1980.
Whether its work, housing or income and wealth, it’s safe to say that life looks a bit different in 2022 than in 1980.
And we have a rich set of data and research to inform our ongoing efforts to ensure families and children are supported to thrive.
Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) is a world-class study following the development of 10,000 young people and their families from across Australia since 2003.
This is a treasure trove of data and insights about Australia’s children and their life trajectories.
The Families in Australia Survey, allows us a snapshot of the significant events in families' lives. It provides incredible insights into how families coped with the COVID-19 pandemic.1
These are just a few examples of the fine research being undertaken by AIFS.
As their work reminds us, research is key to discovering what works for families and the individuals in them.
Ten years of neglect
Ten years ago, my colleague and now Minister for Skills and Training, Brendan O’Connor gave a speech at this very conference.
At that time he noted – “We know that many families are struggling to pay the rent or the mortgage, to buy groceries and school uniforms, and pay the bills.”
Unfortunately, a decade on, these same challenges persist, and they have been exacerbated by COVID and natural disasters.
We can’t as government and community take a ‘it will all be fined, nothing to see here and that government has no role to play in people’s lives’ approach.
COVID showed everyone just how important a role government can play in supporting people through times of trouble.
We know that many families continue to do it tough, often outside their control.
They find themselves at the mercy of the push and pull of economics, politics and society.
Australia performs well in many dimensions of well-being relative to other countries generally in income, jobs, education, health, environmental quality, social connections, civic engagement and life satisfaction.
As Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says, Australia is the best place in the world to live.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t do better.
We can do better
Data from last year’s HILDA survey is just one source that gives us insights into how families and households are doing financially. And it’s clear that, while we are a very prosperous nation, many Australians are still being left behind.
For example, it tells us that higher rates of income disadvantage persist for single parent families.
It tells us that female superannuation balances continue to significantly lag behind male balances.
It tells us that over half of Australians in the bottom income quintile in 2013 were still in the bottom income quintile five years on in 2018.2
This data is essential in understanding what supports are needed to help the most vulnerable.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the scale of the bushfires and floods over the past few years have impacted every Australian family to some degree.
These challenges have had impacts on mental health, general health, education, work and daily life, but in particular those experiencing poverty.
Commonwealth, state and territory government responses to these crises, such as supplementary payments and rent moratoriums, helped to lift or keep many families out of poverty, but these measures were temporary.
Of the 7.3 million families in Australia, a significant number are entrenched in long-term disadvantage.3
We know that rising housing and living costs are having a greater impact on those in deepest income disadvantage.4
A new survey commissioned by The Smith Family has revealed two-thirds (63%) of Australians are concerned about the gap between Australia’s ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, with around half (48%) of Australians believing this gap has widened since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
A third (33%) of respondents said their own financial situation is worse since the pandemic hit, with reports of financial stress highest among younger Australians.5
The situation is not improving for our most vulnerable Australian families and children.
Children that fall behind, stay behind
We know that if a child is disadvantaged, they are more likely to grow up disadvantaged.
The data on children in care and protection is sobering.
An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report released this week found that, despite efforts to shift the dial from 2017 to 2021, the number of all children in out-of-home care in Australia has continued to rise from 43,100 to 46,200.6
And First Nations children continue to be over-represented.
58,000 First Nations children received child protection services in 2020-21, an increase from the previous year, and eight times the rate for non-First Nations children.7
And 19,500 First Nations Children were in out-of-home care at 30 June 2021 – over 11 times the rate for non-First Nations children.8
This is unacceptable and must change. I will be working closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, alongside my colleague Linda Burney, Minister for Indigenous Australians, to turn this around.
In addition to the one in six adults who are severely food insecure in Australia, 1.2 million children are living in food insecure households.9
More than two in five severely food insecure parents (45 per cent) say their children go an entire day without eating fresh fruit and vegetables at least once a week.10
Although these statistics are confronting, we need to know the facts so that we have the best possible chance to turn things around for our most vulnerable.
It goes without saying that there are no quick fixes to these challenges.
We need to ensure our existing policies and institutions are calibrated for the long term, and we need to make sound investment decisions now for a better, fairer future.
The federal budget is in a trillion dollars of debt, so future spending decisions by government have to be focused on the quality of the spending.
Investing in the early years
For example, the economic cost benefit return of investing in early learning and care is incredibly strong.
This is something close to my heart. Labor’s plan for cheaper child care was our biggest single policy at last month’s election. A lot of attention was on the cost of living relief this policy will provide families – and it will save families thousands.
It will increase the hours worked by second income earners by 8 per cent – boosting family incomes and adding 44,000 skilled workers into the economy. KPMG modelled changes to the child care system that estimated a $2.5 billion investment would return a GDP boost of $5.4 billion.
And PricewaterhouseCoopers and The Front Project conducted a rigorous economic analysis in 2019 which identified a $2 benefit for every $1 spent
All of these Benefit to Cost ratios show a 2 to 1 return, which is better than those for some very high profile traditional infrastructure projects.
There is, of course, the double dividend that comes with investing in early learning and care.
Children who receive high quality early learning and care do better on a range of measures.
And we know that children from disadvantaged backgrounds get the biggest boost.
Participation in high-quality early care can help children avoid special education, grade repetition, early parenthood, and incarceration – all outcomes that imply large costs for government and poorer outcomes for society.
Furthermore, children and parents who participate in such programs are more likely to be employed; thus revenue from their taxes and enhanced buying power can positively contribute to the economy.
Children who receive quality early learning do better at school, are healthier, earn higher wages when they enter the workforce, and are less likely to enter the criminal justice system.
This evidence is even stronger for marginalised and disadvantaged children.
We need to prioritise our investment in the early years – as a matter of urgency.
High quality early childhood programs promote healthy development, they can generate savings by obviating the need for more expensive interventions later in a child’s life.
We can add more to the picture by interrogating the LSAC data what it tells us about the lives of our children and the challenges they face living in today’s world.
For example it tells us that children who are cyberbullied show elevated symptoms of depression and anxiety.11
It shows that children who are same sex attracted are at much higher risk of self-injury.12
We can discover that amongst children from minority groups, rates of discrimination remain particularly high.13
Having data that can quantify these challenges faced by our children is the first step towards taking meaningful action.
And it’s every bit as relevant and important as the headline statistics on income and poverty. I’m sure most of us with kids will understand it’s these sorts of challenges that keep our kids awake at night, make them reluctant to go to school and ultimately stop them from achieving their potential.
We can do much more to advance the interests of Australia’s children and their families.
Early Years Strategy
That is why I am so pleased that the Labor Government commited to a Whole of Government Early Years Strategy.
At the Commonwealth level, one of the problems we face is that current programs and funding for early childhood development are spread across a number of departments and agencies – Education, Social Services, Health, and the National Indigenous Australians Agency.
For example, the old Budget Based Funded child care services are currently funded by three different departments. Nobody is taking an overall view of how they are working and focused on the outcomes they are achieving for children and families.
Labor’s Early Years Strategy will:
- reduce program and funding silos across departments;
- better integrate and coordinate functions and activities across government;
- have a program of action – policies, initiatives and plans – to help achieve vision and outcomes; and
- deliver better outcomes for young Australians and their families.
That is the key point underpinning the whole strategy – we need to put children, and their families, at the centre of policy and decision making.
At the highest level, this Strategy is an expression of our vision for the future of Australia’s children and their families.
It will be a blueprint to ensure Commonwealth programs and funding are best targeted to achieve the outcomes of educating and nurturing children, and supporting families.
An evidence-informed approach that integrates research and practitioner expertise, and most importantly the experience of families and children, will underpin the development and implementation of the Strategy.
Collaboration is the key – we need to hear the views and perspectives of researchers, non-government organisations and governments alike, about these important issues – to design a strategy that makes a difference for our young Australian’s and their families.
Most importantly, we need to listen to families about what is important to them, and build that into our strategy.
Child protection framework
The strategy will also complement and support the new child protection framework.
Children and young people in Australia have the right: to grow up safe, connected and supported in their family, community and culture; to grow up in an environment that enables them to reach their full potential.
All Australians need to work together to keep children safe and to achieve the best outcomes for vulnerable children and those experiencing disadvantage.
As I noted earlier, the data shows that the rates of First Nations children in our care and protection systems are not reducing.
This overrepresentation of First Nations children and young people in out-of-home care is of particular concern to this Government.
We support and will implement Safe and Supported: the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2021 2031 (Safe and Supported), which was launched in December 2021.
Safe and Supported sets out how all governments and the non-government sector will work together to help children, young people and families in need of support, particularly those who are experiencing disadvantage and/or are vulnerable.
This framework was developed with First Nations people, marking a fundamental shift in the way governments work.
We will be working closely with state and territory governments, the non government sector and First Nations leaders to finalise the first five year Action Plans under Safe and Supported.
For the first time, First Nations people will have their own specific Action Plan across all aspects of Safe and Supported.
And, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-specific Action Plan will be developed in partnership with SNAICC and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership Group.
We are expecting the first five-year General Action Plan and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-specific plan will be delivered later this year.
And while recognising we need special protections for our vulnerable children in the home and community, we equally have a responsibility to ensure all Australians feel safe, where ever they are.
On that point – we will ensure there is strong national leadership on ending all forms of family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia.
The National Plan
The National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022–2032 will support a renewed national approach to reducing family, domestic and sexual violence into the future.
We are committed to deliver a strong National Plan that sets out our collective ambitions to address, and ultimately end, violence against women and children.
We will work closely with states and territories, women’s safety experts, services, and most importantly victim-survivors to make sure the National Plan is going to bring about the changes we need to see.
Caring for Australians with disability
Caring for children and supporting families also means taking care of Australians with disability.
We all have a role in empowering and including people with disability across the nation.
And as a Commonwealth Government we take that responsibility very seriously.
That’s why our Government is committed to implementing Australia’s Disability Strategy 2021-2031.
This important strategy is set to drive change over the next decade to uphold the rights, inclusion and participation of people with disability in all areas of Australian life.
Most critically, it was people with disability themselves that were central in shaping this strategy along with their families, carers and representatives.
The Strategy prioritises and plans for governments at all levels, to work with the community, business, and people with disability to deliver needed changes.
And importantly it aims to improve the lives of all Australians with disability, not just those accessing the NDIS.
It recognises all levels of government are responsible for supporting people with disability to reach their full potential, as equal members of the community.
This includes providing employment opportunities, high quality inclusive education, and making homes and communities safe, inclusive and accessible.
This Strategy builds and expands on the original National Disability Strategy 2010-2020, adding key new features to drive more action and accountability.
Governments will work directly with people with disability to drive change and report regularly on progress of the Strategy’s actions and outcome areas.
We will work closely with the Strategy’s Advisory Council led by Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Ben Gauntlett, to hear direct, independent advice on the Strategy’s implementation and progress.
As the Strategy is implemented over the next ten years, everyone in Australia will be able to see real, tangible results being achieved.
As part of the new Strategy, a two yearly report will be presented to the Parliament to show what progress has been made for people with disability.
With all governments working together to deliver on our responsibilities, we can achieve the Strategy’s vision of an inclusive Australian society that ensures people with disability can fulfil their potential, as equal members of the community.
Guiding principles as Minister
In summary, it’s no secret that we have lots of work to do as a new Government, particularly in the social services space, but we’re up for the challenge.
I’ve covered a lot of ground this morning – I haven’t been able to cover the whole portfolio or the issues in the detail they warrant – but I hope I have been able to convey to you all my determination to drive better outcomes for Australian children and australian families in everything I do.
And my guiding principle as Minister for Social Services – government is here to support people. Government is here to enable our citizens reach their full potential .
We aren’t going to be able to fix all these problems quickly. And we won’t get anywhere by pretending these problems don’t exist or by arguing over the definition of poverty.
I look forward to working with all of you here today, and with all stakeholders across the sector, large and small to produce the best possible outcomes for Australian families going forward.
As Minister, my door will always be open. I don’t have all the answers, and nor do I have all the funding. But I want to hear your ideas and have a conversation.
In closing, a big thank you again to the Institute for organising such a great conference.
And a big thank you to everyone at AIFS for all the work you do.
I’m sure I will cross paths with many of you over the coming weeks, months and years. I can’t wait to meet you all.
1Families in Australia Survey | Australian Institute of Family Studies (aifs.gov.au)
2 Wave 16 HILDA, p34, 44 and 28
3 June 2021, Labour Force Status of Families, June 2021 | Australian Bureau of Statistics (abs.gov.au)
4Behind the line: poverty and disadvantage in Australia 2022
5New survey: concerns of a widening gap between Australia’s ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ – and the impact on children’s education (thesmithfamily.com.au)
6 AIHW Child Protection 2016-17 and 2020-21 (note 2020-21 report embargoed until 15 June 2022)
7 AIHW Child Protection 2020-21 (note 2020-21 report embargoed until 15 June 2022)
8 AIHW Child Protection 2020-21 (note 2020-21 report embargoed until 15 June 2022)
9 Foodbank Hunger Report.
10 Foodbank Hunger Report.
11Children who bully at school | Child Family Community Australia (aifs.gov.au)
12Around one in three adolescents have considered self-injury | Australian Institute of Family Studies (aifs.gov.au)
13Teenagers' experiences of discrimination: Snapshot Series - Issue 1 | Growing Up in Australia