Speech by The Hon Larry Anthony MP

Mackay Roundtable discussion


Thank-you, De-Anne for your introduction and thanks to you all for coming today.

This is the fourth of a series of metropolitan and regional roundtable discussions I am holding across the country to talk about the development of a National Agenda for Early Childhood.

Since releasing the consultation paper on the development of a National Agenda for Early Childhood, I have attended two of the Roundtable discussions, have spoken at conferences and have met with a number of people who have experience and ideas they want to contribute to the discussion.

I am very pleased with the progress we’re making in gathering views during this crucial discussion period, and I hope you’ll all share your views on this important issue over the course of the day.

I believe that gaining a regional perspective is extremely important for a number of reasons.

First, I know that many of the issues facing rural families with young children are exacerbated by distance and financial hardship due, for example, to drought and higher rates of unemployment.

There is also more limited access to services such as childcare and early learning programs than in cities; that service provision is more costly; and there are recruitment and retention issues, particularly in the more remote areas of Australia.

I also believe that because of these pressures, and smaller population numbers, rural communities have developed some innovative programs and have strong social supports for families in place. It seems to me that there is more of a culture of working together. The lessons learnt from your experience will therefore be invaluable.

The consultation paper you have before you is a discussion starter. These consultations will play a critical part in the development of a National Agenda for Early Childhood, and we are taking them very seriously.

There is already significant money being invested in early childhood by the Commonwealth government, states and territories, local government and by many non-government organisations.

What we need to do now is to get a fix on what is happening across the country and to make sure that the significant resources already out there are being used in the best way possible.

It is important, however to point out that families and children were not forgotten in the Federal Budget that we announced last week.

It includes:

  • $26.5million to allow 1,250 children with high support needs to access mainstream childcare;
  • $11.9 million to help newly separated unemployed parents improve their relationships and parenting skills; and
  • ongoing funding ($25 million) to support men in their family relationships and as parents.

As well, the Government has made a commitment of $8.6 million for a longitudinal study of Indigenous Children to help improve outcomes for these children.

We are continuing to invest in our children. We can see the benefits of our national wealth in many ways, for example, through increases in life expectancy, lowered incidence of maternal deaths in childbirth and reductions in the reported rates of infectious diseases.

But we know that not all our children are doing well.

I am concerned that the outcomes for Indigenous children are significantly worse than for other children. I am also concerned that there are a number of other groups of vulnerable children in our communities, who also experience poorer outcomes.

Children subjected to high levels of family violence or abuse and children whose parents are in the criminal justice system are just some of these groups. There are, of course, many others.

We want to do more to prevent problems happening in the first place. We need the fence at the top of the cliff, not the ambulance waiting at the bottom, after the accident has happened.

That is why since we have been funding initiatives that focus on prevention and early intervention. We want to prevent issues such as child abuse occurring in the first case.

I’m sure you are all aware of the recent media coverage and debate in Parliament about this issue.

Last Friday, the Prime Minister announced $10 million funding for a number of early childhood and early intervention and prevention programs.

Specifically, $8.8 million will be for the National Agenda for Early Childhood projects including $1 million to the Australian’s Against Child Abuse Campaign – Every Child is mportant.

The remaining $7.8 million will fund a range of early childhood projects focusing on the key areas as identified under the National Agenda. These are:-

  • Early child and maternal health – pilots to work out what information parents need at different times and how best to get it to them.
  • Early learning and care – projects supporting the professional development of child care and early childhood workers to improve their skills and ability to enhance children’s development. There will also be a focus on improved child care services for Indigenous communities.
  • Child friendly communities – will look at developing child care centres as ‘neighbourhood hubs’ for a number of early childhood, parenting and capacity building purposes.

Of course, there is always more that we can do. But governments can’t do it alone. We all have to work together to resolve these issues.

I’m delighted to be able to say the development of a National Agenda has bipartisan support at the federal level and I have been extremely pleased that the Shadow Minister for Children and Youth, Nicola Roxon has been able to participate in two of the metropolitan consultations with me.

Many people have commented on how unusual it is to see a Minister and Shadow Minister wanting to work together on an issue. While we probably won’t agree on all elements of a National Agenda, we do agree that it is an issue that is too important for politics.

This is really the point I want to emphasise to all of you. If we are going to make a real difference here, we are all going to have to move ‘outside the square.’

I want to emphasise that this is a very ambitious undertaking. There are many players involved. But I believe it’s achievable if we work hard on it together as a joint effort between governments, communities, business, professionals, teachers, early childhood professionals, academics, and, of course, parents themselves.

I am very interested in your views about how far it is sensible to try to take it. I don’t think it is necessary to get down to complete agreement on the details of what each of us needs to bring to the National Agenda, nor is that my intention. But I do want direction, some practical suggestions, and I would hope some broad agreement about how we could make our collective contributions more effective.

I wish you well in your discussions today and look forward to hearing about some of the issues you have raised.

I am sorry De-Anne and I are unable to stay for the entire session – unfortunately I have to head back to Sydney to put out some bushfires with a certain well-known talk back host. Wish me luck