Speech by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Opening Address – The 12th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference

Location: Melbourne

**Check Against Delivery**

It’s a great pleasure to be here today, representing my Cabinet colleague Jenny Macklin.

Minister Macklin is very sorry that she could not be here, but she is working hard on getting the States to agree to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which we know will be life-changing for so many families around the country.


We embark upon Disability Insurance Reform because the Gillard Government understands that families need extra help when they are rearing a child with a disability, or coping with a breadwinner struck down by illness or injury.

We understand that while our economy is the envy of the world, not everyone is feeling the benefits of the mining boom.

We know that many families are struggling to pay the rent or the mortgage, to buy groceries and school uniforms, and pay the bills.

That’s why we are returning the Budget to surplus, to give us a buffer against global uncertainty and to give the Reserve Bank room to further cut the official cash rate, should it choose to do so.

It’s why we have introduced the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, to spread the benefits of the boom across the economy – to help families and small businesses which are struggling.

And it’s why we are making sure families, pensioners, students and other households are getting some extra help to keep up with the cost of living and to meet the modest impacts of the carbon price– a necessary reform to give us a stronger, cleaner economy.

Changing face of homelessness

In my role as Minister for Housing and Minister for Homelessness, I have had the great privilege to meet many dedicated people who work hard to help our most vulnerable Australians.

And I have also had the honour of meeting people who have struggled, endured and survived and in some cases succeeded in rebuilding their lives.

What has really struck me listening to their personal stories is how easy it is to cross that line between housing stress and homelessness.

The stereotype of the homeless person as a middle-aged man with his brown paper bag, sleeping rough on the streets, no longer effectively exemplifies those affected, if it ever did.

We know that on any given night, there are not only too many homeless – there are too many families who are homeless.

Indeed, the latest specialist homelessness services data released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that women, young people and indigenous Australians are overrepresented among those seeking help.

Sadly, of the almost 99,000 people who sought help in the three months to December 2011, 59 per cent were women, 48 per cent were under the age of 25 and 18 per cent were children under the age of 10.

These are confronting figures, yet they are consistent with what we already know – that family and domestic violence is one of the main reasons people need emergency shelter.

It is unacceptable in a wealthy country like Australia that a mother and her children should have to sleep in a car or that a teenager is sleeping rough on the streets.

Government strategy to tackle homelessness

That is why this Government has made addressing homelessness a national priority. In 2008, we released our inaugural White Paper on Homelessness, The Road Home. We set two ambitious headline goals, to halve overall homelessness and to provide supported accommodation to all rough sleepers who seek it by 2020.

Our White Paper sets out the plan to achieve these goals. It will require a sustained effort by governments, business and the community.

It includes improving services, intervening early to prevent homelessness and supporting people with accommodation to break the cycle of homelessness.

To reach our goals we have invested nearly $5 billion in new funding since 2008 to provide support services and programs to help people who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless.

Last year, more than 180 new or expanded services were delivered around the country under the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. As part of the Partnership, more than 400 homes have been built under the A Place to Call Home initiative, with a further 200 on the way. These are now housing people who were homeless.

A significant proportion of the Partnership funding goes to programs and services to assist families. We’re also funding services like Reconnect, a community-based early intervention service which has helped more than 50,000 young people reconcile with their families and return to school or training.

And the Household Organisational Management Expenses (HOME) Advice Program, which has helped keep more than 3,600 families off the streets. It provides budget advice and assistance to people who are struggling to keep up with the rent or the mortgage during a time of personal or financial crisis – such as separation, job loss or illness.

Housing affordability

Indeed, this Labor Government has invested over $20 billion in making housing more affordable for Australians and Australian families.

In fact, through programs such as the Social Housing Initiative, the National Rental Affordability Scheme, the Housing Affordability Fund and Building Better Regional Cities, the Government has made a direct financial contribution to one in every 20 new homes built across Australia since 2008.

This is in stark contrast to the previous decade of neglect under the previous Government, whose only action in the housing sphere was to reduce public housing by more than $3 billion.

As part of our investment, we’re building over 20,000 new social housing homes. More than 18,000 of these are already completed and families are living in 16,000 of them.

More than 8,000 of these individuals and families were homeless prior to moving into these homes.

We have also carried out repairs and maintenance to 80,000 existing homes, many of which would be uninhabitable by now without this work.

We are building 50,000 new homes under the National Rental Affordability Scheme. We are investing in affordable rental housing for two reasons:

  • the best way to stop people becoming homeless in the first place is to make sure their accommodation is affordable and sustainable, and
  • because people need somewhere to live when they are back on their feet and ready to come out of crisis accommodation.

By increasing the stock of affordable housing we enable individuals and families to move from homelessness into stable accommodation and through social housing into the private rental market, when they are ready to do so.

This transition, in turn, creates space for other people to access accommodation when they are in dire need.

Private and community sector support and accurate data

Even with our significant investment, our White Paper recognises that addressing homelessness and housing affordability is a challenge that requires the combined effort of all governments, as well as the wider private and community sector.

The Government can assist by ensuring we all have an accurate picture of homelessness so we are in the best position possible to appeal to, or work in partnership, not just with the not-for-profit sector but with philanthropists, business and the corporate sector.

To do so, the Government will draw on robust Census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and use the figures I referred to earlier that are collected by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. This data will be supplemented by the first national longitudinal study of homelessness in Australia, Journeys Home.

Journeys Home is part of our $11.4 million National Homelessness Research Agenda, which is designed to help drive the development and implementation of evidence-based policy.

In addition to Journeys Home, we have supported research that, among other things:

  • looks at the effectiveness of family support and crisis intervention with homeless families housing,
  • considers how we best respond to children in specialist homelessness services, and
  • examines early intervention strategies to reduce the need for women and children to make repeated use of refuge and other crisis accommodation.

Combined, these facts and figures will give us the most accurate picture of homelessness in Australia that we have ever had. We will better understand how homelessness comes about, and how we can help individuals and families get back on their feet.

AIFS research – Influence of Unstable Housing on Children’s Development

The Australian Institute of Family Studies forms a critical part of our Homelessness Research Agenda.

And today, I am pleased to release its report on the influence of unstable housing on children’s wellbeing and development.

This study relies on 2004 and 2008 data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, called Growing Up in Australia.

We all know that the dynamic of the traditional Australian household is changing. It’s not just Mum, Dad and the kids any more. It might be two single-parent families sharing a home, or the grandparents bringing up children because the parents have been lost to drugs or violence. And more Australians are living alone.

It’s important that we understand how family shape and size affects the type of housing they need and can afford. Housing affordability and experiences of homelessness can have a huge impact on the decisions families make about relationships, education, or employment, as well as the general health and wellbeing of parents and children.

To date there has been little research on the influence of housing on children’s development in Australia.

The Institute’s research is a welcome contribution. It examines the association between residential mobility, unstable housing tenure and housing stress on children’s cognitive development, learning and social and emotional functioning.

Some of the research confirms what we already know instinctively – that parental relationship breakdown can lead to unstable housing.

Other evidence revealed in this paper is not so obvious.

It found that housing mobility itself does not necessarily undermine children’s development.

Rather, children’s development is most affected by housing tenure – in particular, children living in public housing had lower levels of receptive vocabulary and higher rates of emotional or behavioural problems.

It also revealed that separated families had much higher levels of housing stress than couple families, although there was little difference in their children’s receptive vocabulary or rates of emotional or behavioural problems.

Of course, this should not be taken as an indictment of public housing but it is important that we look to this research when we create policies and programs for children and families affected by unstable housing circumstances.

And it is important that our programs and services reach those most in need.

To do that we need to ensure that service providers, researchers, practitioners and policy makers have all the information and evidence they need – and pieces of research such as this are an important component.

AIFS research – Strategic Directions

Of course, this is just one of a number of very important research projects the Institute conducts as the Government’s key family research agency.

Today, I am pleased to release two papers that set out the Institute’s priorities for the next three years – its Strategic Directions and its Research Directions 2012–15. These papers have been developed in extensive consultation with staff, the Institute’s Advisory Council, peak bodies and not-for-profit organisations, as well as many government portfolios.

Research Directions identifies four key priorities:

  • family change, functioning and wellbeing;
  • social and economic participation for families;
  • child and family safety; and
  • services to support families.

This research will contribute strongly to the ongoing discussions in Australia about how we develop the best policies possible to give families the opportunities they need to prosper.

Child Family Community Australia Information Exchange

And the Gillard Government has also committed $3.2 million over the next three years so that the Institute can establish and maintain the new Child Family Community Australia Information Exchange.

This exchange brings together several other repositories of critical research: the Australian Family Relationship Clearinghouse, the Communities and Families Clearinghouse Australia, and the National Child Protection Clearinghouse.

As manager of the project, the Institute has been supported by a new advisory group of leading researchers and practitioners who provide ongoing advice on potential topics for publications.

The new consolidated, interactive website features research publications, databases and information sharing opportunities through the new online blog, called CFCA Connect.

If you haven’t done so already, I urge you to go online and check it out at www.aifs.gov.au/cfca/

The more rigorous our research, the more robust evidence we have, and the more it is synthesised and shared, the better and more targeted our policies and programs will be to support vulnerable families and children.

Government’s reform agenda

Since being elected to office in 2007 this Government has delivered a strong social policy reform agenda with emphasis on assisting our most vulnerable Australians to provide them with opportunities to make the best of themselves and their community.

Of course, we have made reducing homelessness a national priority and invested nearly $5 billion in doing so. The Gillard Government has embarked upon a wide ranging Aged Care Reform package, including home care which will allow Australian families to be together in their family homes for longer.

We have also invested heavily in community health and Medicare Locals, to make it easier for patients to access services by better linking local GPs, nursing and other health services. We are investing more than $2 billion to improve front line GP and other primary health care services, so families have better access to after-hours care.

We’ve introduced tax cuts and tripled the tax free threshold from $6,000 to $18,200.

Our introduction of the National Broadband Network is a key policy and one which opens a raft of communication options for Australian families to stay in touch – no matter where in the country, or indeed, the world, they happen to be.

We have also taken an environmentally responsible approach and put a price on carbon. We have done so with families at the forefront of our mind. We have introduced the Household Assistance package, which compensates families for extra costs they may incur under a carbon price. Indeed, in many instances, through the Household Assistance package, millions of Australians will be better off.

And then there is the Government’s investment in the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which will give people with a disability more control over their lives, more certainty that they’ll get the care and support they need, and more opportunity to be involved in work, school and community life.

We think people with disability have waited long enough – that’s why we are launching the first stage of the NDIS a year ahead of the timetable set out by the Productivity Commission.

We have committed $1 billion for the first stage. Our funding is a sign of good faith to all States and Territories that we are serious about being partners in reform.

Not only have we invested in these critical social policy areas but we are also committed to ensuring that every child has the best start in life, that all our school aged children have the best life chances by either being in education or training, and supporting more people into work.

Supporting Australians into work is of absolute importance. This Government has offered incentives and opportunities so people can make the best decisions and choices for themselves and their families. Indeed, through our proactive and responsible policies, Australia’s economy and unemployment rate of 5.2 per cent is the envy of the developed world. To put that in context, unemployment in the United States sits at 8.2 per cent, the United Kingdom at 8.1 per cent, and Europe on average is over 10 per cent.


On top of our reform agenda, we have also invested in our community services work force. I know how hard people in this sector work and the passion and commitment they have for their jobs. Attracting and maintaining the best workers possible is essential, and was reflected in the significant pay increases proposed for community services workers by Fair Work Australia.

This is an historic decision, and one which this Government has rightfully supported and will continue to support by funding our share of the salary increases. Indeed, just recently, the Prime Minister announced a further $1 billion on top of our original $2 billion commitment to fund our share of the pay rises because we’re not waiting for the Liberal states – if we did, we’d be waiting a long time.


At the heart of our reforms is a refusal to accept that for some Australians welfare will always be, inevitably a way of life.

And we don’t believe there is an ideological choice between having a fair and equitable system and having strong economic growth.

Just the opposite in fact: a fair social system is a driver of economic growth.

A strong economy and disciplined fiscal policy is essential to build a fair society that supports its most vulnerable citizens.

But with welfare has come intergenerational welfare dependency.

People mired in this system do not necessarily respond to economic incentives.

Impacts of childhood socio-economic disadvantage, abuse and neglect reverberate later in life and there is no greater evidence of this than homelessness.

For the children growing up in these welfare-dependent families, there are too often, too few positive role models.

These children are more likely to drop out of school. Without an education or training, employment opportunities are limited – and so another generation is subsumed into the cycle of welfare dependency.

That’s not good for them, for their families, for their communities or for the country.

We know that disadvantage is often concentrated in specific locations, such as the sprawling outskirts of big cities, in struggling regional towns or in remote Indigenous communities.

To combat this, the Government is introducing a concentrated, place-based approach under the Building Australia’s Future Workforce initiative.

In these communities, services are tightly connected so that families benefit from an integrated network of support.

In the 10 trial communities, teenage parents, jobless families and vulnerable families will be supported to ensure a safe, nurturing and stable environment that promotes the emotional and physical well-being of their children.

We are also using income management in some cases as a tool for families to stabilise their finances, by making sure that 50 per cent of welfare payments is spent on the things children need – a safe, secure place to live, healthy food, clothes, school books and uniforms.  In cases of child neglect, the percentage of payments income managed can be up to 70 per cent.

We are in no doubt that this is not an easy policy area and we are in no doubt of the controversies around this but we will always err on the side on the welfare of children.

This initiative is all about helping people learn how to manage their incomes themselves, which is why we are also rolling out financial counselling and money management services.

Evaluations of income management trials in suburban Perth and in the Kimberley show more money is being spent on food, clothing and school expenses and less on alcohol, cigarettes, gambling and drugs.


To ensure children get the best start in life we need to ensure parents are supported and encouraged to enter the workforce, that children attend school and that families are properly housed.

We can make a difference by ensuring our services are joined up across jurisdictions and sectors, our evidence is accessible, and that our knowledge is shared in such forums as this.

The welfare and safety of our fellow Australians matters. This is a great and prosperous country but I believe the real mark of a great country is how it treats and assists its most vulnerable.

The Gillard Government is determined to do all that it can to assist our most vulnerable.

On that note, it is my pleasure to officially open Day One of the 12th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference.

Thank you.