Opening remarks at OECD Meeting of Social Policy Ministers – Building a Fairer Future: the role for social policy
Session Two – Doing Better for Families
*** Check Against Delivery ***
Welcome to this breakout group on integrating service delivery for vulnerable families.
I particularly wanted to chair this session because doing better for vulnerable families has been a driving force behind significant family policy reform we have undertaken over the last three years in Australia.
We enjoy effective healthcare and education systems, along with a comprehensive suite of family payments – including tax benefits, child care assistance, parental leave, a ‘baby bonus’, and support for sole parents.
Income assistance is available to most families, and most particularly low-income families. Research shows that Australia has one of the most redistributive tax-transfer systems in the OECD.
However, although Australia has a strong universal support system, for a prosperous nation, we have too many vulnerable families.
Improving the lives of these families is driving our welfare reform agenda.
Because we recognise that we must use all levers at our disposal if we are to truly provide integrated support for vulnerable families.
Our reforms are guided by three overarching goals.
One, to enable every child to have the best possible start in life.
Two, to ensure all school aged children participate in education, and training, to the best of their ability.
And, three, to support more Australians to move from welfare to work.
I think we all recognise that passive welfare is corrosive and damaging. The imperative is to support vulnerable families in times of need, and then, to help them win back control over their lives.
In Australia, we are modernising welfare and income support programs to give all families the opportunity of financial stability, independence and clear, established, social norms.
We are creating a new welfare equation.
On one side of the equation – the expectation that people should take personal responsibility for themselves and their children. Making sure children go to school, creating a secure and caring home, planning for the future.
On the other side of the equation – the expectation that government must be there to deliver the conditions, practical support and opportunities that foster personal responsibility.
We recognise that government cannot deliver personal responsibility.
But as policy makers, we can create many incentives to shape personal behaviour, and provide many opportunities to support individual decisions.
This is the challenge for those of us who see the welfare system not as a way of life but as a means of changing lives for the better.
Those who argue for unfettered rights to welfare have missed the point – and this is not the view of the majority of the Australian people.
We have an opportunity to make significant inroads into entrenched disadvantage and welfare dependency.
We are reforming our system of cash transfers to strengthen the links with positive behaviours that will benefit children.
For example, we have linked family assistance payments with requirements for teenage children to be in school or working part time.
And we are instituting requirements for families on income support payments with young children to have them undergo comprehensive health checks in the year before they commence school. These linkages build on family assistance and immunisation linkages which have driven immunisation rates for young children to 92 per cent.
We are also strengthening the connections between payments and services and we have some key partners in this process.
State and Territory governments control many of the critical levers aimed at driving behaviour change, including responsibility for provision of public and community housing, management of the statutory child protection system and justice systems, and the provision of schooling.
Non-government organisations deliver many ‘on the ground’ services, including parenting and family support services, employment services, mental health and disability services
We have reshaped funding arrangements with the States and Territories and non-government organisations to put more focus on providing early support for vulnerable families entrenched in the welfare . And we are pairing financial management and intensive support services to stabilise families and prevent children from being removed by child protection agencies.
One example of this new approach is income management.
Under our model, welfare recipients must spend 50 per cent of their payments on essential needs, such as food, clothing and school-related expenses. This limits the amount of money available for spending excessively on alcohol and similar goods that are harmful to vulnerable children and families.
Income management is being complemented by the roll out of other services, such as financial counselling and money management to help people manage their budgets and develop financial literacy skills.
The welfare reform program in Cape York, in the far north in the state of Queensland, is an example of integrated service delivery.
This is a strongly community-driven initiative which aims to change behaviours in response to chronic levels of welfare dependency, social dysfunction and economic exclusion.
Alcohol treatment, improved educational opportunities, better health services, economic development and income management are part of an integrated support system.
This includes voluntary and targeted compulsory money management to ensure that welfare payments are spent on essentials.
Welfare payments are also conditional on families sending their children to school for those families where it is identified this would be helpful.
This holistic and coordinated service provision involves individual plans to address underlying issues, such as health and community safety.
Most importantly, these initiatives involve the very strong participation of local leaders.
Similar schemes are being instituted across the country.
On the other side of Australia in the state of Western Australia, for example, independent evaluation shows that income management is having a positive effect.
More welfare money is being spent on food, clothing and school-related expenses.
Less is being spent on alcohol, gambling, cigarettes and drugs.
This evaluation showed that 65 per cent of people on compulsory income management, and 82 per cent on voluntary income management, have recommended income management to others.
Critical to our success is early intervention.
We give additional payments to families who immunise their children, and are introducing a condition on a $700 payment (Family Tax Benefit Part A supplement) that parents take their four year old for a health assessment before they start school.
This is to ensure that Australian children growing up in families who rely on income support have a basic health assessment to see if they are healthy, fit and ready to learn when they start school, and to assist them if they are not.
If parents of older children are to qualify for family payments, their children must stay at school or participate in recognised vocational training.
I think one of the failings of past service delivery has been the failure to recognise the complexity of the needs of our most vulnerable people.
Coordinated, co-located and integrated services are critical to successful reform, and especially in the particular places where we have a concentration of disadvantage.
Fundamental to achieving this is service delivery reform.
In all of this it is absolutely essential that we do not forget our service providers. They are the people on the ground. They are backbone of reform.
Therefore, a fundamental part of our reform program is to strengthen their role.
To do this, our Government has introduced a new Family Support Program, bringing together a range of family, parenting and children’s services into one program that provides more flexible, responsive and coordinated support.
Crucially, services will be required to share information to help ensure vulnerable children and families are kept safe and their needs are met – to ensure no one falls through the cracks.
We want service providers to be able to identify risk early, and to ensure at-risk families have access to a complete range of services.
This new approach encourages service providers to give specific help tailored to their family’s own needs.
This is about responsible government.
It is about helping families help themselves.
And when necessary, it is about governments taking hard decisions.
Because as all of us here know, the collective strength of our nations, depends on the strength and wellbeing of our families.