Opening of the Country Children’s Services Association of NSW Annual Conference
Invited guests, ladies and gentlemen
Thank you Rosie (Sinclair, Patron, CCSA) for your introduction.
It’s great to see Rosie Sinclair again.
As most of you know, Rosie was Chair of the Australian Council of Children and Parenting for 2 years.
She was a great source of advice and inspiration during this time and I know she is thrilled that Professor Allan Hayes succeeds her.
I look forward to continuing the good rapport with the Council but I doubt Professor Hayes will wear out the carpet to my office as much Rosie did during her time in the Chair.
I’m very pleased to be here to open this year’s Country Children’s Services Association of New South Wales Annual Conference.
Last time I spoke to you was in 2001 at your conference at Potts Point.
Since then there have been a number of developments, one of which saw me appointed the first ever Commonwealth Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.
It has only taken 101 years for a federal government to recognize the necessity of such a portfolio and I am mindful of the growing importance of early childhood issues.
Right from the start, as 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 Australian child get the best possible start in life.
So, I was very pleased to announce, officially, late last year that the Commonwealth Government would develop a National Agenda for Early Childhood.
In February this year I released a consultation paper, which outlined what a National Agenda for Early Childhood might include.
The idea behind the agenda is to get a whole-of-government approach for future investment in early childhood.
This is strongly supported by the Prime Minister himself and it has bi-partisan support across the political spectrum.
From my point of view, it was very encouraging that this paper was endorsed by several of my Ministerial colleagues, who in some way or another have responsibilities for issues that affect childrenfor instance in the areas of health, sport, education, employment and so on.
So, having this joint approach from the start is a significant first step in driving a cross-government effort on children’s issues.
There’s a big chance that we can agree to work on breaking down the complex divisions and structures that make it so difficult for parents to find and use the existing patchwork of services.
Why do we need an agenda for early childhood?
Most Australian children are doing well and get off to a good start in life.
The benefits of our national wealth are evident in health indicators such as increases in life expectancy, declines in perinatal and infant death rates, lowered incidence of maternal deaths in childbirth and reductions in the reported rates of infectious diseases.
However, there are some emerging areas of concern for all children, for example related to sedentary lifestyles.
There are also some groups of children who are not doing as well, particularly Indigenous children, children subjected to high levels of family conflict, family violence, abuse or neglect and those living in low socio-economic circumstances.
Some of the more worrying issues are the increasing rates of childhood obesity and diabetes as well as behavioral and mental health problems.
Children at risk have poor literacy rates, assault rates are increasing as is the incidence of child abuse and youth suicide.
Social factors aside, from a purely economic viewpoint, we know that investment in children provides a high rate of return in the future.
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, juvenile justice, health and welfare payments in the future.
From a Government perspective, it therefore makes good economic sense, to respond to the evidence by ‘investing’ in early childhood.
Child care is obviously one of the critical components of any childhood agenda.
It is also one of the biggest areas of early years investment that the Commonwealth makes.
We know that quality early learning and care experiences in the years before school lay the foundation for a smooth transition to school, later school success and life chances more generally.
So, we need to understand more about how child care and early learning contributes to children’s development.
As professionals who work with children and their families across country New South Wales, I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of evidence about what positive childhood experiences can mean for young children.
On the other hand, you’d be well aware of the lasting impacts that negative experiences can have on their chances of reaching their full potential over the course of their lives.
Our support systems have largely evolved to serve the needs of families as they were 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.
It is time to rethink how we respond to early childhood issues.
There is a significant investment by Commonwealth, State and Local governments now.
However services are diverse and often disconnected. To put it in the popular language, everyone is working in their own “silos” – an you as country residents would know what that means.
A concerted and cooperative approach would be more efficient and effective.
A ‘road map’ detailing what is already available would enable us to see better where the gaps and overlaps are, to set priorities from an evidence base, see what works and learn where we can do better.
To make sure we had input from experts in the field, from March until 10 days ago, we held nation-wide consultations on the early childhood paper, with state and territory governments, peak bodies and professionals from the child care sector.
We made a point of making sure we covered country areas in the consultations.
They’ve been held as far afield as Katherine in the Northern Territory, Broome in Western Australian and Burnie in Tasmania.
In New South Wales, they were held in Wagga Wagga, Dubbo, Broken Hill and Lismore.
I went to several meetings.
It was really refreshing to hear about people’s experiences on the ground and to get their own ideas about how to shape the agenda.
Work and Family
To seriously consider children’s developmental health and well-being, we have to take account of what is happening in Australia’s families and in its workforce.
These days work and family is an extremely important policy issue.
The Prime Minister has identified work and family as a key third term agenda priority because, more and more, parents are having to find a balance between work and family life.
This is true of Australian families, wherever they live.
While both men and women are involved in the balancing act, women’s workforce participation is the area of greatest change.
Now, more women are in paid work than ever before, with around two-thirds of women between 15 and 64 in the workforce.
And women are delaying child-bearing and having fewer children.
So changes in the workforce have implications for the type of childrens’ services we need now and into the future.
Child care needs to be even more flexiblethis certainly came out in the consultations on the early childhood agenda.
I know many of you are involved in the early childhood education sector as opposed to the child care sector.
In the area child care, there is record spending by the Coalition Government – around $8 billion on child care over 4 years to 200506.
This means more money going to families and child care services as well.
However, in the area of early childhood education and the NSW preschool sector, I am aware that funding levels have not kept pace with spending in other sectors.
Your campaign “Who Sank the Boat” highlighted many of the issues of affordability, access and equity and the provision of quality services the child care sector also wrested with in the past.
I understand the NSW Minister responsible for these issues, Carmel Tebbutt, will be addressing you later in the day and I am sure you will be listening closely to her comments.
The Coalition Government’s goal has always been about providing a range of support, so that parents can weigh up the choices and make their own decisions.
Of course, there’s not one, simple answer to balancing work and family.
Turning now to Child Care Workforce Issues
And the vital role they play in fostering the early learning and development of our children and in ensuring that children have the best possible start in life.
Pay and conditions, attracting and retaining qualified staff—these are fundamental to the status of workers and the future of the child care profession.
As you know, most child care workforce issues are not the responsibility of the Commonwealth Government.
But I think they are so important that I am working with state and territory governments through the Community and Disability Services Ministers Advisory Council, to try and develop a consistent national approach.
The New South Wales Minister, Carmel Tebbutt is on this Council and I’m particularly grateful for her cooperation and contribution.
I want to emphasise that workforce issues require a cooperative approach from everyone involved.
There is little the Commonwealth, the states and territories, or the sector can do on their own.
We need to work together to develop strategies and solutions.
In Canberra, in April, I convened a ‘Think Tank’ involving many of the stakeholders.
The idea was to see if we could start developing concrete strategies for taking child care workforce issues forward.
Items discussed and work-shopped included pay and conditions, education and training, and community perceptions of those working with children.
The discussions were robust and a range of strategies and recommendations were developed.
All this valuable information will feed into discussions about workforce issues at the next Community Services Ministers’ meeting next month.
The other area we are working on is the Child Care Support Broadband funding
Apart from Child Care Benefit payments, the Commonwealth Government funds child care services and support services via a range of grants and subsidies which have accumulated over the years to form the Child Care Support Broadband.
But there are many demands on the Broadband, and I believe there is room for improvement.
There are gaps and there are changes needed, so that we do better with the resources we have.
We particularly need to better support services that are marginal, in rural and regional areas, or struggling to combine viability with flexible service delivery.
And we need to work together to make a quality, early learning and development experience available to children in every child care service.
Above all, we have to remember that children’s interests must come first.
We have to focus our efforts on what’s best for them.
Many of you would have been involved in the consultations we have had on this – I’m told plenty of people turned up for the New South Wales sessions and they went very well.
The next step is the ‘deliberative forum’ to be held in the first week of July.
Coming out of that will be some concrete recommendations for me to consider.
I should say I don’t have any preconceived ideas about how to restructure the Broadband, and I am looking forward to the recommendations.
I want to finish up by saying that I am very conscious of the special challenges and needs of the child care sector in regional and rural areas.
Coming from a rural electorate, I understand absolutely that what works well for child care in the cities, doesn’t necessarily translate to the country.
So, you have my assurance that I’ll work hard on your behalf at the Commonwealth level to get the best possible outcomes for your industry, and of course, for the families and children involved.
I hope that the 2003 Annual Conference of the Country Children’s Services Association of New South Wales is a resounding success.
I’m sure you’ll have two very productive and stimulating days.