Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Child Protection Framework

Program: Sunday


LAURIE OAKES “SUNDAY” INTERVIEW WITH JENNY MACKLIN MP, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs

LO: Minister, welcome.

JM: Thanks, Laurie.

LO: Today you’re launching a Government discussion paper on a national child protection framework. Tell us about that.

J.M: This is a really major piece of work and a new direction for the Government. Never before has the national Government embarked on a national child protection framework. We said we’d do this before the election, and we’ve decided to go down this path because the figures on child abuse and neglect in Australia are so bad. There’s now just under 60,000 children either being abused or neglected, and the numbers just keep growing. They’ve grown by about 45% over the last few years, so it is a national issue.

LO: Why is that?

JM: It’s I think one of the difficult questions that nobody has really got the answer to. It’s associated very much with alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness, poverty, neglect, of course coming from those forces, along with abuse, that’s really one of the reasons why we need to embark on a national framework to understand better why the numbers are growing so rapidly and what it is that, as a nation, we can do. The national Government working with the States and Territories, but also with the non-government sector that deliver so many of the services to children and to families in these shocking situations.

LO: At the moment child protection is obviously a State Government responsibility, are they letting the side down, not doing the job?

JM: I think one of the things that this paper shows is that the child protection authorities in the States and Territories are under enormous pressure. With such a significant number of children being abused and neglected, we need all of us, the States and Territories, the national Government, the non-government sector, and families, working together to improve the outlook for children because the situation is so bad. There are about 28,000 children who are living out of their own homes, so they’re in foster care or other similar arrangements. We’ve got a serious shortage of foster carers and concerns that not always are the children being properly or well cared for in foster care. So this is a big issue. The Commonwealth has agencies like Centrelink which is not really used to the extent that it could be to deliver improved services to families and care for children. We also know that the systems across Australia don’t necessarily deliver the same standard of protection to our children, so we have a big task in front of us, and that’s why we’re releasing this paper today and encouraging people to put their views to us. We don’t claim to have the answer to every problem of child abuse. It is a very, very serious problem, but we intend to do everything we can to address it.

LO: While we’re talking about child abuse, let me ask you about the controversy of Bill Henson’s photographs of naked teenagers. Is that child abuse?

JM: I think one of the things that we all have to do as parents and as policy-makers is figure out where the line in the sand is, and I think this sexualisation of children is wrong. I don’t agree with the photographs, but I also don’t agree with the way in which children are being bombarded in many other places, whether it’s billboards, whether it’s on children’s television – I don’t – I’m sure many of your viewers, if they’re parents, would know that children these days are just getting bombarded with sexualised images all the time, and it’s that sexualisation of children that I think is wrong…

LO: Is there anything the Government can do about that?

JM: I think that’s one of the things we have to pursue in our national child protection framework. This is about making sure we do everything we can to guarantee that children can have a childhood, that they can enjoy the wonders and excitement about being kids, not being forced to confront the things that adults have to confront. Let’s try, through this national framework, to address some of these very, very difficult issues. I think now with the Internet, with multi-media, these images that some people see as art can now be displayed all over the world in a flash, and used for purposes for which they certainly were not intended, and I think a lot of parents are very, very worried about these issues.

LO: Well, among other things, you’re Minister for Families, do you agree with your Prime Minister there’s nothing more the Government can do to help families deal with rising petrol prices and grocery prices?

JM: What we know is that – and what the Prime Minister is saying, is that we did everything that we could, that was economically responsible in this Budget. We had to make sure that we delivered a budget that dealt with inflation. That was the number one issue we had in our minds when we were developing the Budget. That’s really the number one enemy of families, inflation. Driving up prices which, of course, is what happened under the previous government, had to be addressed, and that’s why we’ve taken the responsible attitude we have. But what we did deliver in this Budget was a package for families and for other people under very serious financial pressure. So, of course, the very significant tax cuts, about $1,000 for families on low to middle incomes, the education tax refund, the childcare rebate, of course, which will pay half of families’ out-of-pocket costs. These are very significant changes.

LO: But all of that has now been eaten up by the petrol price rises and the rise in food and grocery costs, hasn’t it?

JM: Which of course is why the Budget had to be so economically responsible. Why it was that we had to make sure that the Budget didn’t add to inflation, because that would have seen those prices go up even further. It was very important for us…

LO: How do you think working families feel though when they saw the Prime Minister and other Labor leading lights, all last year talking about the cost pressures on working families and how Labor would do something about it and now Kevin Rudd shrugs his shoulders and says, “Hard luck. That’s all I can do.”?

JM: What he’s saying is that we had to deliver an economically responsible budget that dealt with the number one enemy and that’s inflation because it’s that inflationary pressure that’s driving up grocery prices and, of course, what we can control in the Federal Government is the Budget process, is the Budget spend, and that’s why we had to really make sure that we took some tough decisions, tough decisions in my own portfolio and in other parts of the Government, but at the same time delivering that financial relief that we said we’d deliver, deliver the tax cuts, deliver the increased childcare support, deliver to pensioners, of course, that they, too, are doing it tough.

LO: Sure, but Brendan Nelson’s promising a 5 cent a litre cut in petrol excise. You won’t do that. But what about the suggestion this morning that the Labor Government will consider dropping the GST component that’s imposed on petrol above the excise, a tax on a tax? Are you serious about looking at that?

JM: Well, that’s one of the issues that we will address in this major tax inquiry that the Treasurer announced, and he has announced the detail of that inquiry, that we will look at the issues that you’ve just outline and a wide range of other critical matters that haven’t been looked at for such a long time. So it is very important that we do that. But honestly, you wouldn’t know what the Liberal Party believes. I see that Alexander Downer now is considering coming back onto the front bench of the Liberal Party. He wants to be the Shadow Treasurer. I understand he’s indicated to some in the Liberal Party that he doesn’t think that the fuel policy that Brendan Nelson’s put forward is economically responsible or sensible. So, if Alexander Downer wants to come back onto the front bench, he should renounce that economically irresponsible policy, totally uncosted. It would see the Budget surplus wrecked by the Liberal Party, and I think if Alexander Downer’s serious, he needs to come out and renounce that policy immediately.

LO: Well, I’m glad some of the newspapers have caught up with the news that Alexander Downer is considering come being back to the front bench, we reported that on Wednesday, but let me ask you about pensions. Did the pensioner anger over the Budget surprise you and can you now tell them they will get the relief in the next Budget, an increase in the base pension?

JM: I can really understand pressure that pensioners are under, and they’ve waited a very, very long time for some relief. At the football last night, I happened to run into a pensioner who came up to me and said that he did recognise that they were getting a bit of help from us in this Budget, but that the reason they’re so angry is that they got nothing out of Mr Howard for such a long time. That’s the way he put it to me last night. We are delivering some relief. We know that we have to do more. There’s $900 for pensioners for this year, and that’s going to be at a cost to the Budget of about $5.2 billion, if you add in the extra help for the new dental scheme that we’re delivering and a range of other issues as well.

LO: Sure, but what the pensioner groups want, I understand is that an extra – increasing the base rate single pension from $273 a week to $382. Is that totally impractical and is it true, as I understand, that it would add about $12 billion a year to the pension bill?

JM: Well, you’ve got your numbers right, but what we have said is that we will look at these issues as part of our major tax and welfare inquiry that the Treasurer has begun. We know that this question is critical, it hasn’t been looked at for a very long time, the adequacy of the single rate of the pension… It’s particularly pensioners who are on the single base rate of the pension and then, once again, especially those who are renting who are under the most significant financial pressure. We’ve have said we’d look at it and in fact, the major recommendation from the Senate inquiry into the cost of living pressures on pensioners was to ask the Federal Government to do exactly this, to look at the adequacy of the base rate of the pension – that’s what we’re doing.

LO: Final question. You get your report from that pension inquiry in February next year, which is perfectly timed for the next Budget, so do you guarantee pensioners will see a result in the next Budget?

JM: Well, what I’m certainly saying is we are going to do work that pensioners rightly expect us to do, to look at the adequacy of the base rate, but we understand this is a very complex task. There are lots of allowances and concessions that are built on the base rate of the pension. The pension is at the centre of our social security system, and the responsible thing to do is for us to have this proper investigation of the adequacy of the pension, and to look at the right way forward.

LO: Minister, we thank you.

JM: Thank you.