Speech by The Hon Larry Anthony MP

Opening of the Fifth ‘Helping Families Change’ Conference

Location: Manly Pacific Parkroyal Hotel, Sydney



Thank you Professor Sanders (Matthew Sanders, University of Queensland) for your introduction.

And thank you to Phyllis (Orcher) for welcoming us on behalf of the Manly Indigenous community.

I am delighted to be here this morning to open this Fifth Helping Families Change Conference.

Congratulations to the host organisations from the University of Queensland—the Parenting and Family Support Centre and Triple P International—for putting together such a comprehensive conference agenda.

It covers many of the key areas that affect families and children in such a fast-changing world.

I take every chance I can to participate in occasions like this.

Because as the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I share a common goal with most of you here today – to improve outcomes for Australian children.

Events like these give us the chance to come together and reflect on the cutting edge of research and contemporary thinking about children’s issues, both in Australia and overseas.

Importantly, as researchers, practitioners, educators, therapists, scientists, community workers, students, and as parents, you’ll also be looking at what this means for you, in your work and in the care and protection you give to children.

I strongly believe that in any discussion about children, we need to draw on the growing body of evidence that shows how powerful early intervention can be in building positive futures for them.

This is something you’ll be looking at over the next three days.

National Agenda for Early Childhood

Soon after becoming the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I spoke about the need for a national vision for children and an agreed agenda for action, to help every child get the best possible start in life.

I am proud to stand here today and tell you that, tomorrow (20th) I will be launching a major, first step in developing the childhood agenda by releasing an official Consultation Paper.

The paper will start the formal process of looking at what a national agenda might include.

The paper has been endorsed by many of my Ministerial colleagues, and this is an important first step in driving a cross-government effort on children’s issues.

Copies of the Consultation paper will be able to be downloaded from my department’s website from tomorrow afternoon. [We are in the process of organizing this]

I want the agenda consultations to culminate in a national vision, that underpins every activity in the area of early childhood.

It’s not going to be easy, but I believe it’s achievable if we work hard on it together.

The idea is to tap into the vast resources and expertise available across the country, so we can get a coordinated view on national priorities for action—priorities based on sound evidence and focused on real outcomes.

I’ll talk more about the agenda shortly, and about the ways in which people like yourselves can have your say.

First though, I want to tell you why the Coalition Government sees the welfare of children as one of the key priorities for our third term.

Children and structural ageing

Too often, in my view, policy-makers and opinion leaders forget that today’s children are vital to the future of our nation.

They do not always consider what is in the best interests of children.

Ensuring that children are well placed to reach their potential as caring and contributing members of society must be a priority for everyone.

One very good reason for this is to look at our national population profile.

Like in many other developed countries, Australia’s population is ageing.

This is partly a consequence of the ageing of the population group known as the ‘baby boomers’.

But it is also because national fertility is dropping.

Fewer people are having children, and when they do, they are having them later in life, and are having fewer children.

In fact, the total fertility rate is at an historic low. In 2001, it was 1.73 babies per woman.

Over the next decade, it’s possible it may fall to around 1.6 babies per woman.

In combination, this means that a relatively smaller future workforce will have to support a large number of older Australians.

Within 20 years we’ll see workforce growth will have slowed because of a decrease in the number of people reaching working age.

Workers will have to be resilient, educated, flexible, mature and adaptable.

Today’s children are tomorrow’s workers, and our national wellbeing will depend on their resourcefulness and competency as adults.

This, alone, signals the importance of investing wisely now in children’s early years, to equip them with the confidence, skills and knowledge to meet future challenges head-on.

Whilst the Australian population as a whole may be ageing, the opposite is true for the Indigenous population.

The fertility rates for Indigenous women are higher.

In 2001, Indigenous women in the Northern Territory had the highest fertility rate of any State or Territory, with 2.98 babies per woman.

At the end of June 2000, Indigenous children accounted for 39% of the total estimated Indigenous population, almost double the proportion of children in the total Australian population.

We are seeing an Indigenous “baby boom” and in order to ensure good outcomes for this growing population, we need to invest now.

Research evidence about the importance of the early years

As well, there is now strong evidence that points to the early years as the best time to build a foundation for children’s later competence and physical wellbeing.

This new evidence expands our understanding of:

  • the interplay between nature and nurture in brain development;
  • the extent of brain development in utero and in the early years of life;
  • how nutrition, care and nurturing directly affect the wiring of the brain pathways in the early period;
  • how nurturing by parents in the early years has a decisive and long-lasting impact on how people develop, their capacity to learn, their behaviour and ability to regulate their emotions and their risks for disease in later life; and
  • how negative experiences in the early years, including severe neglect or absence of appropriate stimulation, are likely to have decisive and sustained effects over the longer term.

We also know that investment in children provides a high rate of future return.

Studies in the United States have shown that each dollar invested in supporting families up-front has the potential to save up to seven dollars on policing, health and welfare in the future.

From a Government perspective, it therefore makes good sense to respond to the evidence by ‘investing’ in early childhood.

Like many of our social policies we want to do more to prevent problems happening in the first place.

Health and wellbeing of Australian children

Looking at the overall health and wellbeing of Australian children, we have seen many improvements over the last 30 years.

For example, immunisation rates have gone up.

By 30 June 2002, 91 percent of children aged 12 to 15 months were fully immunised, compared to only 53 per cent in 1995.

We have also experienced increases in life expectancy, declines in peri-natal and infant death rates, less incidence of maternal deaths in childbirth and reductions in reported rates of infectious disease.

Sadly, not every child is doing well.

I am extremely concerned that Indigenous children are much worse off than the rest of the population – the statistics across a range of areas are alarming.

For example:

  • Infant mortality for Indigenous babies is three times that of non-Indigenous babies;
  • The proportion of babies in Indigenous mothers with low birth rate was double that of all births in 2000;
  • In 1999-00, the hospitalisation rate for asthma was higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children than for other children; and
  • In 2002, there were nearly 19,000 children in some form of out-of-home care placement. Over a quarter of these were Indigenous children.

There are also some areas where the health and wellbeing status of the general population of children is also failing to improve, or is declining.

Children subject to high levels of family conflict, family violence or abuse are known to have a higher risk of poor outcomes.

There is no sign that we are eliminating these problems.

There are disturbing rises in complex health conditions, including asthma, insulin dependent diabetes and eating disorders.

Lifestyle conditions, especially childhood obesity and poor physical fitness, are now at significant levels and will inevitably lead to costly health problems in the years to come.

There are also signs of decline in social and emotional health and wellbeing.

Like other countries, we are dealing with high levels of youth suicide, homelessness, depression and other forms of mental illness.

I am horrified when I read information that indicates that around 15 per cent of Australian children aged 4 to 12 have an identifiable mental health problem.

And the level of violence, drug taking and crime among our young people is not diminishing, despite our high standard of living.

Putting early childhood on the Government’s agenda

It was Professor Fiona Stanley who, in June 2001 presented to the Prime Minister and his Science, Engineering and Innovations’ Council and made the case for investment in the early years.

Professor Stanley deserves our congratulations as this year’s ‘Australian of the Year’.

This recognises her longstanding commitment and dedication to Australian children, especially her leading role in the fields of research, childhood development and early intervention strategies.

She is certainly a great advocate for this important issue.

I’m pleased the Government listened to Professor Stanley and quickly acted on her advice.

Early childhood—a shared responsibility

Facing the early childhood development challenge is a responsibility shared among governments, employers, communities and families alike.

In most cases, of course, it is families who are the best at providing loving and caring relationships and safe and nurturing environments in which children thrive.

Communities provide networks and support for families through voluntary organisations and other local networks.

Increasingly, workplaces are becoming more family-friendly, many offering flexible working hours and other conditions specifically for workers with children.

However, individual and community action alone is not enough.

I am the first to say that federal and state and territory governments have a huge role to play.

And at the federal level, I take that role very seriously.

Let me give you a practical example of this.

Foster care

For me one of the most worrying trends is the unacceptably high level of children, especially Indigenous children, in foster care in Australia.

We are talking about 19 000 children who do not live with their parents, for a variety of, and often tragic, reasons.

I think governments can do much more to meet their responsibilities towards these children—who we know are more likely than other children to:

  • leave school early;
  • be out of work;
  • become homeless;
  • take their own lives;
  • have babies at a young age; and
  • enter the juvenile justice system.

I was so concerned about this, that late last year I held a Roundtable meeting with my State and Territory counterparts.

We agreed to work together on a National Plan for Foster Care.

This is the first time Ministers have met to discuss foster care and the development of a national approach.

All Ministers said they were committed to stronger collaboration, with a focus on training, research, uniform data collection and support. And we agreed we would work together to do more for the children and their carers.

National Agenda for Early Childhood

Like we did for foster care, I want the National Agenda for Early Childhood to bring a ‘whole-of-nation’ focus on early childhood, especially on three broad areas for action:

  • early child and maternal health;
  • early learning and care; and
  • child-friendly communities

These were chosen because we think it’s in these areas that we can make some early gains.

And the Consultation Paper, I mentioned earlier, suggests how a national agenda might go about achieving them.

The paper is not meant to be prescriptive.

Rather it sets out some goals, principles and priorities that could guide decision-makers.

Simply put, what we want out of the paper is reflected in its title.

It’s about consulting widely and getting input from all the stakeholders.

As part of the consultations, a series of roundtables is planned with representative bodies over the coming months.

A list of the organisations involved will go up on my department’s web site soon.

But we also want input from people like yourselves.

You can put your views forward through these organisations, or if you prefer, put in your own submissions, directly to my department.

You have my assurance that I will listen to everything that people have to say, as we start developing the agenda and considering new Government investments in early childhood.

The importance of research

Of course, Australia is not starting from a zero base in action on early childhood.

There is already a lot happening, at the federal level, in the states and territories and local government, and outside government as well.

In early childhood research, especially, I see the Federal Government taking the lead and we have some major research initiatives under way:

  • our $20 million, Longitudinal Study of Australian Children is going to give us the longer-term evidence base that we need to get a picture of what is happening to children in the Australian context; and
  • funding for the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, headed up by Professor Stanley, will look at how we can make the best use of all our existing data collections and see if we can close the gaps between research, policies and programs.

While this will give us new information about how well Australian children are faring, we already have extensive data collections that can tell us a lot about families and children.

For example, the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics Survey is collecting new information about Australian families.

We also collect a lot of national data on child health and well being through the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

As well, the Stronger Families Learning Exchange, operated by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, will contribute to more effective interventions for families.

I think we are in a good position to get much more from our evidence-base if we use it more strategically.

Perhaps you’ll form some ideas about this over the next three days.

I feel very privileged to be this country’s first Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

There is a lot to do. It will take time, but it’s worth it.

And while I have focussed today on the importance of an early childhood agenda, let me assure you assisting Australia’s youth is of equal importance.

I am pleased to see that Workshop 3, Models of working with young people and their families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, will showcase two very successful Coalition Government programs – Reconnect and JPET.

These two programs are great examples of what we call the social coalition.

It is about working together, government, community organisations, business and people on the ground who know how best to respond to community needs.

Reconnect and JPET are specifically designed to be responsive and flexible to individual community needs.

Most young Australians are doing fantastically well.

The young Australians I meet give me great hope for our future.

Unfortunately there are kids who fall through the cracks and JPET and Reconnect are two programs I believe help young people make a successful transition to independence.

Thank you for inviting me here today – you have certainly picked an excellent location.

It now gives me great pleasure to officially open the fifth Helping Families Change Conference.