Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Opening address to the 11th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference 2010, Sustaining Families in Challenging Times, Melbourne

Location: Melbourne

*** Check Against Delivery ***

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners and custodians of the land where we are meeting – and pay my respects to the elders past and present.

Thank you for inviting me here today to open your Biennial National Conference.

A conference where all of you – policy makers, service providers, practitioners, research and community organisations – will be discussing how we sustain families in challenging times.

Supporting Australian families – all of them different – and giving them choice to make decisions that work best for them, has been central to the Government’s first term reform agenda.

It shaped our response when the global economic downturn threatened the jobs, homes and businesses of Australian families.

We saw the human toll – jobs under threat, families under pressure to pay the bills, the rent and their mortgages; older people whose retirement savings plummeted and we responded to shield them from the immediate risk.

With economic stimulus tax bonuses for more than 8 million working Australians and economic stimulus payments for around 2 million families.

Doubling funding for emergency relief to meet people’s urgent needs; providing more than $80 million extra for more emergency relief and financial counselling over two years.

We needed to cushion Australians from the impact of the global financial crisis.

But we also got on with the hard policy work on reforms to prepare Australia for the challenges ahead.

Putting the best interests of children at the centre of policy making.

Protecting job security with the abolition of WorkChoices.

Helping people with the costs of living.

Increasing the Child Care Rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent.

Giving record pension increases to more than three million age and disability pensioners, carers and veterans so they now receive an extra $100 a fortnight for singles and $76 for couples.

Delivering a new, annual Carer Supplement of $600 to around 500,000 carers for each person they care for.

Delivering Australia’s first national paid parental leave scheme.

Providing more affordable housing and tackling homelessness.

Reforming education including, for the first time, an education tax refund.

Helping with health care costs including dental health checks for teenagers.

And, with unprecedented effort and investment, working to turn around decades of entrenched disadvantage among Indigenous Australians.

Throughout the reform process the Government has developed and drawn on a robust evidence base.

For three decades, the Australian Institute of Family Studies has contributed to this base through rigorous social policy research and analysis.

During the 1980’s work done by the Institute on the economic consequences of marriage breakdown demonstrated the need for a national child support scheme. In 2006, further AIFS research provided an evidence base for the changes to child support.

Today the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, in its sixth year, continues to provide a wealth of information as it follows the lives of 10,000 children and their families.

Through research like this, we are steadily piecing together a profile of family life in 21st century Australia with all its differences and complexities.

Another piece of the research jigsaw, published in the Australian Social Policy Journal that I am releasing today, gives us more food for policy thought.

Using data from the HILDA surveys, it goes beyond examining the general costs of raising children to the specific costs of newborn children.

It looks at how household expenditure changes with the arrival of baby number one, then baby number two and then a third child.

It provides a fascinating insight into what we would intuitively expect.

With the firstborn, there’s a significant increase in spending on clothes.

Clothes for mum – and tiny clothes for the new arrival.

By the time baby number two arrives, the spending on new clothes falls dramatically – presumably in favour of hand me downs.

Health costs rise with all new babies, spending on groceries remains stable for babies one, two and three – but after the second birth with time and sleep at a premium, mum and dad resort more to eating out and takeaways.

All of us who are parents know that the high standards we impose on ourselves when baby number one arrives, often go the way of a good night’s sleep with a second baby.

Things like a takeaway dinner can get you through the week.

What this research shows is that while babies bring great joy and excitement, they also bring new cost pressures at a time when families often drop from two incomes to one – with many of them having no access to paid parental leave.

We know from the Productivity Commission inquiry into paid parental leave that entitlement to paid parental leave has been skewed in favour of women in high-paid jobs.

Up until now, less that a quarter of women in low-paid, casual or part-time jobs have had paid parental leave compared with three quarters of women on higher wages.

Recently I met a young couple in Sydney where mum had gone back to work at a fast food restaurant after a couple of weeks, even though her newborn son was still in the hospital with health complications. She was struggling to continue breastfeeding but gave back.

Dad was also back at work.

For families like these there will finally be choice.

Australian families will get the national paid parental leave scheme they’ve been waiting decades for – a scheme funded by the Government which is fair for families and fair to business.

It will be paid to eligible primary carers at the Federal minimum wage, now just under $570 a week, for 18 weeks.

It will give parents relying on two incomes financial support to stay home with their babies in those important early months.

Giving them the time to establish and nurture the relationships and routines that will shape the development of their child.

Each year we expect around148, 000 mums will be eligible.

They’re the everyday working women you see when you go to a suburban shopping centre or walk down the main street of a country town.

They’re working in the local newsagency, the caf’e, the doctor’s surgery, the chemist, the accountant’s office, the hairdresser’s, the convenience store, the bakery, behind the bar in the pub.

Casuals, part-timers, the self-employed and contractors who meet the work test – around a day a week for ten of the last 13 months – will now have the increased financial security of paid parental leave.

Most of them for the first time.

As well, under the Government’s scheme, parents will have the flexibility to transfer or share leave between them.

Our scheme lets parents choose how they share leave because we know that more and more dads want to be hands-on at home.

For example, if mum takes 14 weeks leave and then wants to go back to work, dad can take the remaining four weeks so they are both involved in the care of their new baby.

The benefits of getting dads more involved are well documented.

Additional new research, which I’m releasing today examines the impact of involved fatherhood on women’s workforce participation and their work-family balance.

It shows that when there is more equal sharing of unpaid and paid work, everyone is a winner.

Fathers benefit from hands-on relationships with their children, mothers have more opportunity to participate equally in the economy and children grow up in strong families.

Employers have welcomed our paid parental leave scheme and are taking the opportunity to work with the Government to give parents more work and family options.

Just yesterday I was at the Target store in Goonellabah in regional New South Wales.

The young women working there already have company-funded paid parental leave -12 weeks on half pay up to a maximum of $500 a week.

Now they will be able to complement this with Government’s scheme – opening up new options including taking 30 weeks’ paid leave.

In its new collective agreement, Westpac is increasing its own paid parental leave scheme to 13 weeks. This is in addition to the Government’s scheme meaning that Westpac employees will get up to 31 weeks of paid parental leave.

Employers like Target and Westpac are leading the way recognising it makes great business sense to retain staff through family-friendly workplaces.

Today I can also announce further details on the Government’s review of our paid parental leave scheme to begin two years after the scheme’s introduction in January next year.

Through the University of Queensland’s Institute of Social Science Research, a team of 19 leading academics will evaluate the scheme to assess whether it’s meeting our objectives.

To improve maternal and child health and child development; to increase workforce participation; to improve gender equality; and achieve better work-family balance.

This evaluation will be an important element of the Government’s review.

Choice is also central to the Government’s support for families where mums or dads decide to stay at home to care for their children.

We all know that all parents work, regardless of whether they are in paid employment or not.

And we understand the financial pressures on families as they balance their budgets.

This is why we support families through a range of family payments including the Baby Bonus, now totaling $5,294, paid in 13 fortnightly instalments.

And through Family Tax Benefit Part A and Part B to help families with the ongoing direct and indirect costs of children.

Three quarters of all Australian families who have dependent children – around 2.1 million families – receive family assistance through Family Tax Benefits.

Taking the Baby Bonus and these family assistance payments into account, in the year following the birth of a baby most stay at home mums receive more in family assistance than mothers who return to work after six months even after the benefits of paid parental leave.

Of course the early months after a baby’s birth are just the beginning.

It’s also our challenge to provide the ongoing support for families as their children grow and develop – in the critical areas of health, child care and education.

The Government’s agenda for early childhood education and child care focuses on providing Australian families with high-quality, accessible and affordable integrated early childhood education and child care.

To make child care more affordable for families – increasing the Child Care Rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent – and paying it more frequently.

To provide more individual care for children – improving staff to child ratios and giving children access to 15 hours a week, 40 weeks a year in the year before formal school.

And giving parents more accurate, up to date information about the quality of child care services.

Starting this month, we are progressively rolling out a new national standard for early childhood and care and care providers.

We’ve also removed TAFE fees for child care diplomas and advanced diplomas, increased early childhood education university places and provided incentives for teachers working in high disadvantage areas.

Under our Early Childhood Agenda we are establishing 38 Early Learning and Care Centres, including six Autism-Specific Centres.

And delivering of 50 new Indigenous Parenting Support Services – 32 service providers will be operating in communities across Australia by July 2010.

To accurately measure each child’s health and wellbeing, their social competency, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, as well as communication skills and general knowledge we have established the Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) as the benchmark for early childhood development.

Using this index we can track how children are doing by the time they make the big leap to school and better target our support services for kids and their families.

The Government is determined to put the safety, health and wellbeing of children and families at the centre of the reform agenda.

Supporting all Australians through life’s predictable transitions – having children, raising them, navigating career changes and moving into retirement.

Providing a decent safety net of income support and services for the most vulnerable – those struggling with mental illness, people with disability and those who care for them, those who are homeless.

But it also our responsibility to take national leadership and use every appropriate measure to protect children who are at risk of abuse and neglect when families are not the safe havens they should be.

At the last election we committed to developing Australia’s first ever national framework to protect children.

The National Framework to Protect Australia’s Children was released last year to provide Commonwealth leadership in child protection.

Through the Framework, we are working with the states and territories to tackle the terrible levels of child abuse and neglect which last year saw 55,000 substantiated cases.

In 2008-09, the safety and welfare of 34,000 Australian children living in their own families was so severely compromised they had to be removed.

That’s an increase of 9.3 per cent on the previous year.

As a nation, it is our responsibility to make sure that all children grow up in a stable, safe and caring environment.

This is why have made the practical reforms so children at risk are identified and protected.

It’s why we have improved information sharing between agencies like Centrelink, Medicare and state protection authorities.

It is why we are trialling different models in the suburbs of Perth, across the Kimberley and on Cape York that link the income management of welfare payments with the protection and wellbeing of children and parents taking responsibility for their families.

It is also why we have driven the development of national standards to safeguard the health, welfare and safety of children who can no longer live with their families.

This is a key element of the Framework.

Today I am releasing a draft of these new national standards.

The standards provide a national benchmark in health, education and training and the requirement that children and young people are matched with the most appropriate and stable carers.

We want all carers to be regularly assessed and to be given better support and training.

We want all children and young people to have a comprehensive health assessment when they go into care, ongoing medical care and a written health record that moves with them if they change placements.

As well as individual education plans that are developed, implemented and regularly reviewed.

There has already been extensive national consultation on the development of the national standards and in the coming months we will work with state and territory governments and non-government organisations on their finalisation.

The final national standards and how they will be measured and monitored will be considered by Community Services Ministers late this year.

Implementation will start from July 2011 and states and territories will report on their progress under the standards.

As I have said, the Government will use every appropriate lever to give children a safe, healthy place to live – where they have the stability and care that gets them to school each day with no limits to their aspirations.

And instils in them the expectation that life has more to offer than the next welfare cheque.

At times this demands difficult decisions.

And robust policy measures that may not be popular.

But as a Minister, it is my responsibility to do all in my power to protect vulnerable children.

This has been an overriding concern in my policy decision making.

It is this obligation, this national responsibility that drives the Government’s welfare reforms to fight passive welfare and protect vulnerable people – especially children.

The reforms extend income management to all communities across the Northern Territory and, over time, to disadvantaged regions across the country.

We want welfare payments to be spent on life’s essentials like food and rent and provide strong incentives for people to train or study, send their children to school and have them immunised.

I know there are strong views about these reforms but at their core they are about human dignity and the most basic of human rights – the right of all people to a safe and healthy life.

We know that the majority of parents want the very best for their children.

We want to help parents under pressure by providing financial structure and support.

Using the capacity of income management to help people stabilise their family finances, restore order to their lives and establish a secure platform to take back responsibility for themselves and their families.

Under our reforms, income management will apply to the long-term and young unemployed, parents on income support referred by child protection authorities and people assessed as vulnerable by Centrelink.

There will be incentives for exemption for young and long-term unemployed as well as parents who demonstrate responsibility for their children like getting them to school and having health checks.

Along with financial counselling and money management services to help people manage their money and matched savings incentives to encourage people to save.

Age and disability pensioners will not be automatically income managed under our reforms.

There can be case-by-case income management of vulnerable people identified by Centrelink social workers to protect them from pressure or if recommended by child protection workers.

These reforms will help bring order and dignity to the lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians.

They reflect the Government’s commitment to a welfare system based on the principles of engagement, participation and responsibility.

At their core they aim to support and protect vulnerable people.

So that every child grows up expecting to have a job and a life of purpose – not a life on welfare.

In the last two and a half years the Government has delivered reforms driven by the abiding Labor values of fairness and compassion.

Restoring the dignity inherent in people taking responsibility for themselves and their families.

Supporting families through life’s predictable transitions and the events that we often can’t predict.

And the pressures that come with them.

Giving parents work and family choices.

Building a strong, skilled workforce to meet future challenges.

Looking ahead, we will continue to deliver reforms that understand the needs of families.

To make Australia a fairer and stronger place.