Speech by The Hon Larry Anthony MP

Launch of Anglicare’s Break the Cycle Campaign

Location: Parliament House, Canberra


Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished guests.

Thank you Bishop Huggins (Philip Huggins, Chair of Anglicare Australia) for your kind introduction.

Whilst the Bishop is here today as Chair of Anglicare, I am fortunate to know him on a personal level as he was the Bishop of my local Diocese of Grafton.

He’s left God’s country and moved down to cold, wet Melbourne.

I am always happy to be associated with and promote the work of Anglicare, as I have done on numerous occasions in the past.

Anglicare are fearless advocates for the under-privileged.

It is important that Members of Parliament and indeed the Government take note of what organisations such as yourself have to say.

You are working at the coalface of disadvantage.

This makes your contribution to the national debate on these social issues important and worth taking note of.

I thank you for the opportunity today to add to the debate.

Today I am going to talk about:

  • The prevalence of child poverty in Australia today;
  • What steps the Australian Government is undertaking to give disadvantaged Australians more opportunities; and,
  • Ask you to broaden your focus of this campaign from the Australian Government alone.

Australia’s Strong Economy

It seems absurd that poverty can be such a critical issue while Australia is experiencing one of the strongest periods of economic growth for decades.

Many gains have been made in the labour market in recent years with 1.1 million jobs being created since 1996.

Full-time employment growth is strong and the average number of jobs created per month is currently more than double what it was under Labor.

Youth unemployment is at its lowest level since 1990 and the teenage full-time unemployment to population ratio is at the lowest level on record.

Real incomes have grown strongly by 13.5 per cent between May 1996 and February 2003.

Average real disposable income of ‘low income’ households grew by 8 per cent between 1996 and 2001.

Interest rates are at consistently low levels enabling more people to borrow for their own homes – a far cry from the days of 17 per cent.

While many developed economies have stalled, ours has continued to grow.

Clearly, not all members of our communities have benefited from these prosperous times.

Australia’s Disadvantaged

The Reference Group looking at Welfare Reform, under Patrick McClure told us that:

  • Between 1965 and 1998, the proportion of our population receiving income support increased enormously from 5 per cent to 22 per cent.
  • There are around 860,000 children, representing 17 per cent of dependent children in Australia, living in households where neither parent works.
  • Young people from income support recipient families are much more likely than other young people to become parents at an early age, leave school early, receive income support and be highly income support reliant themselves.

There is no doubt that joblessness, under-employment and reliance on income support is unacceptably high.

The phenomena of ‘jobless families’ and the disturbing prospect that significant concentrations of economic and social disadvantage will become entrenched and intergenerational is unacceptable.

This has required us to re-think and re-configure our approach to supporting vulnerable Australians.

Measuring Poverty

I am pleased that you recognise in your fact sheets that measuring poverty is a very complex and controversial issue.

It is an issue that has been the subject of many academic papers, conferences and currently a Senate inquiry.

Despite all of this, there is little agreement on best poverty measure as most measures deeply flawed.

As a result, no Australian Government has ever accepted a poverty line.

That is not to say that the Government has not acknowledged that there are many Australian’s who are falling behind and slipping through the cracks.

Government’s Commitment to Supporting Vulnerable Australians

It’s important to keep in mind the extent of Australian taxpayers commitment to supporting Australians through our social security system.

This financial year, the Department of Family and Community Services has been allocated almost $61 billion, or 35 per cent of total Australian Government expenditures.

Of this appropriation, about $55 billion goes directly to individuals and families as income support or family assistance payments.

To put it another way, our expenditure on 2 payments – Family Tax Benefit and Child Care Benefit – totals more than the entire allocation to the Department of Defence.

Welfare Reform

The Government has also attempted to bring to life some of the recommendations in the McClure Report, through legislative change to the social security system. However this has not been an easy process.

Under the Australians Working Together package many initiatives are already in place such as:

  • The Personal Support Programme which is helping people with non-vocational barriers to employment receive the assistance they need.
  • Instituting an annual interview for parents receiving Parenting Payment when the youngest child is between 6-12 years to helping them prepare for a return to work as their children get older.
  • Giving more assistance to mature aged workers.

Many initiatives have also been knocked back by the Labor Party to the detriment of people languishing on welfare.

Despite this lack of support, the Government will continue with welfare reform to address the serious issue of intergenerational welfare dependency.

Family Assistance

Our support for families is at record levels with more than 90 per cent of Australian families receiving some form of family assistance from the Government.

This is a commitment that will continue to grow with expenditure on Family Tax Benefit expected to increase from $11 billion in 2001-02 to $12 billion in 2005-06.

We have also committed a record $8 billion to child care for the next 4 years.

National Agenda for Early Childhood

In conjunction with providing financial assistance, a key item on this Government’s third term agenda is ensuring that all Australian children get the best possible start in life.

There is no doubt that early childhood development and experiences have a direct impact on future educational, career and health outcomes.

There is also a strong case for getting it right in the early years to avoid reliance on welfare, substance misuse and becoming entangled in the criminal justice system.

To address these issues, the Government has committed to the development of a National Agenda for Early Childhood.

This Agenda, I believe, will set the guidelines to all future investment in early intervention and prevention approaches for early childhood development.

The focus is on children aged 0-5 years in the key areas of early child and maternal health, early learning and care, and child-friendly communities.

It is imperative we get this Agenda right for all Australian children, particularly those at risk, and I will have more to say about this in the future.

Anglicare’s Campaign to “Break the Cycle”

As I have outlined, the Government invests a lot in supporting Australian families, particularly low income families, as it should.

But this is not just an issue for the Federal Government to address, which this brings me to the campaign we are launching today.

The campaign to “Break the Cycle” sets an ambitious task of halving the number of children in jobless families by 2008.

This is to be achieved by asking people to contact their Federal Members of Parliament and raise awareness through writing to the newspaper and prayer.

However, let me say joblessness and poverty is not just the domain of the Federal Government. It requires a joint effort between Governments, the business sector, communities and most importantly individuals.

As one of your fact sheets we are launching today says:

Few would disagree: child poverty should be eliminated!

Who would disagree? No one wants any child to experience poverty and the long term effects it can have on a whole range of important life milestones.

However, poor outcomes are often the result of multiple disadvantages – including low education, health issues, unstable relationships and poor economic participation.

These cannot be addressed by simple changes in the rate of income support.

Successive Governments’ failure to fix the social problems in indigenous communities by throwing money at it is evidence that this approach does not work.

I also see it every day myself in my electorate of Richmond on the Far North Coast of New South Wales – I’m sure Bishop Huggins knows what I am talking about here.

These families are:

  • receiving Centrelink payments,
  • involved with State Government agencies like DOCS,
  • receiving help with their accommodation, food and clothing from organisations like Anglicare,
  • they have health concerns, and
  • probably having problems with domestic violence, drug or alcohol abuse.

Government are doing their bit – many argue they should do more – but we can’t do it alone. All Australians have to contribute.

Anglicare Should Broaden their Campaign

They need to be concerned because, while they might not realise it, it will one day affect them.

For the Federal Government it is the resources we will have to commit in the future to welfare payments because fewer people are working.

For State Governments it is the resources they will have to commit to policing, hospitals and community services.

For Churches, it is the increasing number of people who will turn to them for financial and spiritual help.

For businesses it is their future workforce and their future consumers who will not be spending as much as they might have if they were better off.

For communities it is the lack of social cohesion.

For individuals it is the impact of drug and alcohol dependency and crime on their lives.

We all have a stake in this.

So I call on Anglicare to broaden this campaign to involve all Australians.

Nelson Mandela said:

There can be no keener revelation of society’s soul than the way it treats its children

The goal of halving child poverty in the next five years is a very admirable one.

Achieving it will require the efforts of all Australians.

Thank you.