Minister Rishworth interviewed on Radio National with Patricia Karvelas


Topic: National Early Years Summit, Children’s Commissioner, unemployment

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Think about what kids learn in the first five years. It's obviously the fundamentals of life; how to walk, how to talk, go to the toilet, eat, communicate. Those early years are when 90 per cent of the brain development actually happens, but in Australia, there is a disjointed approach to how we care for those young minds and bodies. Today, the Federal Government is convening a summit to discuss what needs to change in order to streamline care for younger kids and, well, make our system better. Amanda Rishworth is the Minister for Families and Social Services and our guest this morning. Welcome.


PATRICIA KARVELAS: What is the current state of early years care in this country?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: If we look across the board, it is not just early years’ education. It is our health, our primary health care. It is about support for parents. There is a lot of areas where Australia does well. Immunisation is one of those areas, but there's areas where we do need to do better and I think if we look at some of the results down the line, whether they are education results or others, we can see that we're either stagnating or actually going backwards. So we need to be investing in the early years, I think, in a much more coordinated way, so that we can get the best outcomes for children, but also their families.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Some would argue we know all of this. You've got all the research before you. Why do you need to have a summit or a talkfest to go to action? It's all before you, isn't it?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: What we've got is a lot of siloed information and what we need to do is bring that all together in how we make sure that the systems, the policies, the programmes are better integrated, but importantly, have the voice of families and children at the centre. Often programmes and interventions are developed without the voice of families and knowing what they actually want and need. So bringing those with the research and the expertise along with families and children is really important. If we're going to get a system that works for them.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, so what sorts of proposals are on the table? By the end of the day, what are you going to walk out with?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: What we want to walk out with is the start of developing our Strategy. The beginning we want to talk about…can we discuss what is the vision we want for our children in this country? Where are some of the gaps that have emerged? Where are some of the duplications? Where are things not actually working together? And how can we better coordinate across the Commonwealth and of course align with the states and territories? So there's a significant amount of work to be done, but certainly when I speak to parents, one of the big things they tell me is that they don't know if a system is in health or in education and where to go for that extra help and support. So it is about making sure the gaps are filled, but that the systems are easier for parents to navigate as well.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Earlier in the show, we heard about the situation for children with delayed speech. There's a patchwork approach right around the country. And there's staggeringly a two year waiting list for support, which is really, too late when you're dealing with the speech delay to try and intervene and help these kids get on track. This is replicated for a range of health and social problems. What are you going to do about it? How quickly can you commit to turning that around?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: This isn't going to be easy to turn around overnight. But what we don't even have in the Commonwealth is a coordinated strategic approach to these issues. So we're really starting, like I said, there's programs in place at the moment, but in terms of that coordination, it's not happening as well as it could be. When it comes to areas like that, we need to identify where are the gaps, where are the significant problems, and where are the programs that may be duplicating and not delivering necessarily the outcomes we want? I'm really keen to be outcomes-focused and it isn't all up to the Commonwealth, there is working with the states and territories. Some of our job is about looking at what the states and territories do and aligning what the Commonwealth does alongside and cooperatively with what states and territories do.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: If families don't have private health care, they can be waiting for years to get medical help. In the Hunter Valley, for instance, you can wait between two to four years to get help for an ear, nose and throat specialist. And that, of course, again compromises children's development to adulthood. Is there going to be a commitment to try and bring those waiting times down as well out of this meeting? Is that a kind of goal you'll have? To try and meet those sorts of goals?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: What we're going to try and do in the development of the strategy is look at where we need to go, where the gaps are and how we might get there. So looking across the board at different gaps in terms of service provision and in what is impacting children's development. It's absolutely what we want to identify and then have a pathway about what we want for our children. Where do we want the investment to go? So that is a big discussion. I think for a long time it has sat in different buckets, you know, is that education, is that health, is that disability support? And of course we know that it's all integrated entirely. It is about working through those and looking at making sure the services are there when people need them. And I think what you've identified is that it's not equal around the country in rural and regional areas. We know access to some of these supports and services is not equal to those in metropolitan areas. So that is some of the areas we want to look at - where does the extra heavy lifting need to happen as well.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: When we look at this year's Closing the Gap statement, First Nations children's school readiness, child removal rates and incarceration rates went backwards. So actually the kids in our country that are suffering the most. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids, will they be at the top of the agenda today?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: There is a significant focus and we’ll have discussion on those children that are most at risk of falling behind, of not getting support. And as you've properly identified, First Nations children are absolutely one of those groups of people that we don't see the outcomes we need to see. And so there is a significant focus today in the Summit on how we can best lift those that are falling behind the most, or at risk of falling behind the most, up. There will be a focus, particularly on First Nations children as well as, for example, children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and children with disability. So there is a focus, of course, in how we not only best support those children, but how we intervene early to make sure we're not dealing with these issues and are there things we can put in place for prevention.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: On Monday, we spoke to the Children's Commissioner Anne Hollonds about her push for a Children's Minister. Now, I know you're not the Prime Minister, but do you think there's a case for such a role?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: For me, I want to hear different perspectives. What Anne has identified is making sure that children have a voice. You know, one of the things I've often said, there was that old saying children should be seen and not heard. That's not right. And I think what Anne's pointing to is how do we best ensure that children's perspectives, children's voices are embedded in policy? I'm not wedded to a particular model of how that should happen, but I definitely understand her call of making sure that children are not just seen and not heard, but actually embedded. And already, Minister Aly, for example, we've reset up the Office for Youth. We're re-engaging. That's with older, people, but we really are committed to looking at what structures we can put in place to ensure the voice of children and their families are embedded ongoing in policy decisions, because, of course, the strategy is about the blueprint forward. But we are going to need to have constant feedback of whether we're achieving what we set out to do, and that involves making sure children do get to have their voice heard.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just finally, in turning to the social services portfolio yesterday, the unemployment level went up from 3.5 per cent to 3.7 per cent. That means more than 11,000 Australians...well, there were 11,000 fewer jobs in the market. Given people have to stay on the unemployment benefit in those sorts of situations, do you think there's going to be a strong case made at these very, very difficult times for an increase to JobSeeker?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: We know people are doing it tough and people on JobSeeker are no different to that. The unemployment rate did slightly tick up, but it is still at 3.7 per cent, which is, you know, pretty low in the context of history. But when it comes to support for people on Jobseeker, obviously we have the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee that was set up having a look and advising through the budget process. There will be indexation. I think it's important to recognise indexation does happen on JobSeeker twice a year and the next indexation based on CPI will be in March. We do need to be very cognisant and support people if they find themselves unemployed, that we do have an adequate safety net and that work will continue through the Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee, but also through our budgetary process.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, thanks for joining us.