Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Keynote speech to the Jesuit Social Services Dinner

Location: Jesuit Social Services Dinner

Check Against Delivery

It’s been said of the Jesuit order that you are men IN the world but not OF the world.

Active, driven, accomplished.

Loyal to your own values and spirituality – engaged with the needs of others.

That’s what I admire about the Society, from what I have seen of your work in Australia and what I know of your work through history.

Beginning with St Ignatius, and then through St Francis Xavier, right through to our own time, to the missionaries, teachers, and advocates among you today.

And when I look at your order’s work and achievements in Australia – in education, in social activism, in Indigenous disadvantage and achieving reconciliation – I have nothing but admiration for you and what you have done.

There are many differences between the work you do as a Society and the work I do in company with my colleagues.

But as I reflect on the story of the Society of Jesus, I recognise similarities between us too – and that includes your tough, principled, practical, pragmatic, problem-solving approach.

And while I haven’t made a study of the life of your founder – you all know far more about St Ignatius than I do – I have read of him leaving Jerusalem, in the dark, and asking himself, as he went: “Quid Agendum”.

It’s a question which, as the Minister making decisions that influence the lives of families, communities and Indigenous Australians – I too am frequently asking myself.

“What is to be done?”

I know it’s a question that Jesuit Social Services continually asks itself, especially now in your 31st year – as you continue your mission to help and support the poorest, the most disadvantaged; those often dismissed as beyond both help and hope.

It has long been your commitment to focus on those no one else wanted and those most likely to fall.

It’s an ethos that had its beginnings in Power Street, Hawthorn when the doors opened at Four Flats – a hostel for young offenders, released from correctional institutions with nowhere to go and no one to help them.

Over the years your work with the marginalised, the deserted and the destitute has continued – supporting offenders with intellectual disability; young Vietnamese caught in the criminal justices system and abandoned for cultural reasons by their families; vulnerable, isolated young parents.

It has been thirty years of care founded in the unswerving principle that: “it is in the shelter of each other, that people live.”

I think it’s fair to say that along the way Jesuit Social Services has proved itself a welcoming and abiding shelter – combining social action and advocacy with practical, grass roots ministry.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated that in the Gateway Kitchen where disadvantaged young people have the chance to work with well-known Melbourne chefs in a cooking school and commercial catering operation.

(It’s also, I’m told, where the famous Abbotsford biscuits are baked.)

Gateway chef, Loretta Sartori describes the kitchen as much more than just learning new skills, she calls it a recipe for changing lives.

She describes the fun they have measuring ingredients, mixing and shaping the dough and putting the biscuit trays in the oven; the excitement when the biscuits emerge aromatic from the hot oven.

She says, and this is what is so poignant, that the childhood experiences we take for granted – being part of a family, stirring the mixture, joyfully licking the bowl – are something these kids have simply never known.

Through neglect, abuse, poverty and disadvantage, they never got to have a childhood.

The statistics are grim. The number of substantiated cases of child abuse has risen from well over 24,000 in 1999-2000 to more than 58,000 in 2006-2007.

Every year, nearly 60,000 children are being harmed, abused or neglected.

If they’re lucky these young victims, deprived of a loving, safe childhood, may end up with organisations like yours receiving the protection and care they have never known.

Sexualisation of children

All of us here know only too well the tragedy of children who miss out on the childhood they deserve through neglect and abuse.

Whose experience of home and family is bound up in fear and violence.

Where the years that should pass in wonder and innocence thrust them too soon into adult conflict and despair.

Where their right to be safe and loved is under assault.

This is one extreme.

But there are other more insidious threats to our children.

Just this week we have seen the unfolding controversy over the Sydney photographic exhibition portraying 12 and 13 year old girls in a sexual context.

The ensuing debate has been pitched at one level as a contest between those arguing for freedom of artistic expression and those who oppose the sexualisation of children – conservatives often dismissed as prudes.

This only serves to trivialise and polarise the issue.

There’s also an argument that art is often about blurring lines, but one line that cannot be blurred is that the sexualisation of children is wrong.

It can never be acceptable for children to be treated as objects of sexual interest or attraction even when it is marketed as ‘art’.

While the debate on the censorship of art continues, children continue to be relentlessly bombarded by sexual imagery – on television, billboards and in the magazines they read.

Research shows that every month almost half all ten and eleven year olds read magazines which among other things show them how to dance in a sexually provocative way and idolise highly sexualised celebrities like Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson and encourage crushes on movie stars.

It’s been accurately labelled ‘corporate paedophilia’ and experts warn it threatens to damage a whole generation of children, particularly little girls.

The drive by advertisers to sexualise children now infiltrates all forms of advertising from Saturday morning kids’ television to fashion magazines and even the catwalk where the models not only get thinner and thinner they get younger and younger.

And just talk to any mother going clothes shopping for her daughter.

Clothes for little girls are no longer designed for the rough and tumble of playing in the backyard – they’re cut-down copies of the flimsy, skimpy numbers favoured by their big sisters.

As parents we know that childhood is precious and that it passes all too quickly. Time enough for children to grapple with the complexities of adulthood without pushing them prematurely into a grown-up, sexualised world.

National Child Protection Framework

As a Government, our greatest responsibility is to protect our children.

The Labor Party went to the election promising to develop and implement a National Child Protection Framework – harnessing the capacity of state and territory governments, service delivery organisations and child protection experts to keep children safe from abuse and neglect.

All of you here know only too well that the abuse of children is not confined to remote Indigenous communities. Children are at risk in our regions, cities, towns and suburbs.

This cannot go on. And although the states and territories are rightly responsible for protecting children, it’s time there was national leadership.

This is a national problem that demands a national response. We must have a determined, concerted effort. This abuse has to be stopped.

Our greatest national responsibility is to protect our children and the Australian Government will use every measure we can to keep children safe.

We know that state and territory child protection authorities are struggling under the increasing load of abuse notifications.

We also know that poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, mental health problems and social isolation are potent contributors to child abuse and neglect.

Identifying how these factors inter-relate and then developing connected, consistent solutions will take hard work and a truly co-operative effort.

All levels of government need to do much better to identify where there’s the potential for child abuse and take measures to prevent it.

Our responsibility is to stop neglect and abuse before it happens rather than belatedly try to rebuild the broken lives of children.

As part of the Government’s commitment to taking the lead, tomorrow I’m releasing a wide-ranging discussion paper to begin a national conversation on how we drive this national response.

Issues raised in the discussion paper include improving connection and coordination across child protection systems and across geographical borders.

We also need identify where a national approach can ensure better use of resources and where the Australian Government can make better use of its programs to make sure children are protected.

And I want to encourage an honest and open debate on the issue I mentioned earlier – the sexualisation of children – to hear both the views of experts and the concerns of parents.

We also need to look at how to recruit and retain high-quality foster carers because the sad fact is that over the last decade the number of children being placed in out of home care has increased by over 100 per cent.

And for the 28,000 children in foster care, the number of carers is falling.

These are complex issues that demand a concerted approach.

This discussion paper does not claim to have all the answers; but it recognises that existing systems are failing Australian children and must be fixed.

I understand you heard earlier this evening from Aaron Benson –
Four Flats – class of ’77.

And that he spoke of how his life changed on that day 31 years ago when he set foot inside the halfway house at Hawthorn.

Abused and neglected as a child, abandoned by his parents, it would have been so easy for Aaron to fall through the cracks.

Instead he found comfort and purpose along with guitar lessons from Alex Firmager which led to a successful career in music, including dinner with Carlos Santana!

I think it’s fair to say that Aaron was someone who the rest of the world had left behind but who you valued as a person.

Aaron is indeed a fine and inspiring example of your work and your unshakeable belief that: “it is in the shelter of each other, that people live.