Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Red Cross National Conference

****Check Against Delivery****

The changing nature of vulnerability

First I want to acknowledge the Turrbal people on whose land we’re meeting.

Thanks very much for the invitation to speak here today.

We are meeting at time when our thoughts and efforts are very much focused on the people affected by the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

I know the Red Cross will be there as always with help and support.

It reminds us all of the great work you do around the world.

The Year in Review reminds us of the great work you do here at home.

It also shows the Red Cross is prepared to do things differently to respond to changing needs and new challenges

(Can I say here that Robert has a bit of form on doing things differently.

Some of you may remember his office in Parliament House when he was a minister. Visitors were met by a trail of Aboriginal-carved, wooden snakes and goannas slithering out of his office into the corridor.

Robert says he tried to get his colleagues to do the same – even going so far as to get Primary Industry Minister John Kerin a carved sheep and Defence Minister Kim Beazley a replica tank.

For some reason it just didn’t catch on).

I think all of us here would agree that recognising, understanding and adapting to change is essential in the development and delivery of effective social policy.

The Red Cross has responded to change through a comprehensive reform, building on your great history and remarkable contribution.

The Red Cross is an abiding national icon – it’s emblematic cross signifying help, compassion and justice.

This will never change. But the way you do things is changing.

You have moved from operating on a separate state and territory basis to a cohesive national organisation

You’ve also undertaken a comprehensive review of 130 of your services.

I’m told you “held up a mirror” to the organisation and asked the tough questions about how you were going and how you could do better.

As a result you have a new focus to work with the most disadvantaged people in the most disadvantaged communities and to be there for the long term

The reforms mean the Red Cross has gone from having limited presence in remote Indigenous communities three years ago to having programs operating in 60.

Working in and with communities with a focus on children’s nutrition including establishing 270 breakfast programs, most of them in remote communities.

With an annual breakfast output of 700,000 meals.

And, as you just heard from Robert, the Red Cross plans to work with Outback Stores to make sure Indigenous communities have reliable access to healthy, affordable food.

Food security is essential to the Government’s commitment to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

We won’t halve the gap in infant mortality rates or increase Indigenous life expectancy if people don’t have access to enough of the right food at reasonable prices.

Too many women are undernourished during pregnancy and too many young children are undernourished.

We will never make inroads into disadvantage if we don’t give Indigenous kids a decent start in life.

That’s why we’re working with the states, territories and Indigenous communities to implement the Indigenous Early Childhood Development Agenda.

We’re investing $564m in joint funding to open Indigenous Parenting Support Services and Children and Family Centres offering integrated services, maternal and child health, early learning, child care and family support.

The Government is also extending Playgroups for Indigenous Families with new specialised playgroups in regional and remote Indigenous communities.

This Government is taking a child centred approach to social policy.

There are also tough decisions to be made.

For example, I know that not everyone supports income management. Income management – and related measures to improve food security such as licensing community stores – have together had a substantial and positive impact on the welfare of remote communities in the NT.

Like you we have the help of Outback Stores.

The evidence convinces me that these measures are benefiting children.

The latest store survey of 41 remote community stores in the Northern Territory shows a significant increase in the sales of healthy food.

Children are getting the fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy products and meat they need to thrive.

Household money management patterns appear to be changing with more men becoming involved in family budgeting.

As one store operator describes it, “Because a family group knows their money is coming in on a particular day, they come in as a family and buy fruit, vegetables and meat at the start of the cycle.”

And another says, “It used to be that only the women used their money in stores on things like food and other essentials. Now the men are spending money on things other than cigarettes or a can of drink…in some cases the men have handed over some of their money to the women.”

Three quarters of all store operators report positively about income management. They say people are now allocating more of their income to buying necessities – some are saving for larger purchases including furniture and white goods.

One said, “kids are getting clothed; clothing sales have gone up more than ten times and this is largely because of the increased range and availability of clothing.”

I know there was some early mistrust about income management.

Some people were confused at the start. In those early days one community referred to it as ‘head shaking business.’

But I think there’s considerable head nodding now. That’s the message I get from women in remote communities.

They say they have more control over their money; they are less likely to be ‘humbugged’ and they can buy the things their children need.

Again the store operators agree.

One says, “the leading women of the community are mostly happy … some are ecstatic.”

Another says the elders are impressed by it but “younger ones don’t like it because it interferes with their lifestyle.”

And another: “some people really like income management – they say at least we know we’ve got money there on the card. People have now accepted the way it works.”

We have committed to legislating in the spring parliamentary session of 2009 to remove the current exemption of the existing measures from the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA).

In the meantime, we will be re-designing income management along with all other Emergency Response measures to ensure they conform to the RDA.

I know income management has its critics. While views within the Aboriginal community are strongly polarised, a Central Land Council survey of a number of communities finding 51 per cent of residents support it.

But I’m convinced it’s critical to tackling the shocking levels of child neglect in this country.

It’s central to our National Child Protection Framework.

It is the responsibility of all governments to use every possible measure to protect children.

This includes giving State and Territory child protection authorities the power to recommend that Centrelink quarantines family payments to make sure the money is spent in the interests of children.

We have just begun trialling this model in the Perth district of Cannington. Along with the other models operating in the NT and Cape York this will inform our broader welfare agenda.

For this Government, social policy is part of the currency of a strong, prosperous country.

Effective social policy which can respond to change is vital to prepare Australia for the many challenges ahead.

An ageing population means we need to build a sustainable retirement income framework.

This requires reform to tax and family payments – currently being examined by the Henry Review.

We need to deliver a modern set of family policies putting the best interests of children first.

We must develop new social inclusion strategies so that more Australians can work and participate in community life.

And we must continue sound, evidence-based policy to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

We must build the capacity of all Australians to provide for themselves and care for their families.

At the same time helping them manage change and upheaval in their lives – to support them through different and difficult periods.

But social policy is a two-way street. On the other side of the social policy equation there must be personal responsibility.

Meeting basic parental responsibilities is a reasonable expectation to place on families.

Welfare payments should serve the interests of children. If that’s not happening, the Government will drive reforms to make sure it does.

Measures of this kind are controversial but they are necessary for a very simple reason. Financial levers work.

We need only look at the huge increase in immunisation rates following the introduction of the Maternity Immunisation Allowance and the requirement that parents had their children immunised in order to receive the Child Care Benefit, to see how effective financial incentives are.

Immunisation coverage due at two years of age increased by almost 30 per cent in just under a decade.

In difficult economic times, it’s critical that government and the community sector adapt and respond to rapid and often unpredictable change.

We need a strong partnership between the not-for-profit sector and the government.

We need to take on the challenges together.

The Government values the enormous contribution made by the community sector.

You are a conduit to people’s lives. You know and see what they are experiencing first hard.

To build a stronger partnership between government and the community sector, we are working with you on a National Compact.

A National Compact to drive a co-ordinated, collaborative response to future challenges.

I look forward to working with you on this.

So we can continue to build a fair and caring Australia.