Speech by Hon Kevin Andrews MP

Address to the FRSA Senior Executives Forum

Location: Hyatt Hotel, Canberra


Thank you very much Michael, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a great pleasure to be here this morning and I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners on the land on which we meet.

Leo Tolstoy famously began his novel Anna Karenina with the words:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The UCLA psychologists Tom Bradbury and Ben Karney have suggested Tolstoy was mistaken; I’ve long been concerned about the problem of family breakdown in Australia.

The collapse of the family structure can be particularly devastating as you all know when children are involved.

The trauma of divorce or separation can blight young and old lives, setting in train patterns of anti-social behaviour and poor individual choices that have lasting consequences.

And I would argue this creates a moral obligation for Government to do what it can to help families stay together wherever possible.

And that’s of course where you come in.

You’re the ones with the professional expertise in service delivery who work at the pointy end of this business.

Here in Canberra we can make plans and draw up programmes.

We can theorise.

But you’re the ones who do the actual work – one-on-one, family-by-family, community-by-community.

And do it very well, I might add.

I’m aware, as Michael alluded to in his opening remarks, that there’s concern in the sector about the Government’s intention to reshape the Family Support Programme.

So let me do what I can this morning to allay as much of that anxiety as possible.

I’ll begin with a simple declaratory sentence – this Government remains committed to the FSP.

Any reforms will be undertaken with the goal of helping you to help Australian families in the most effective and efficient way.

At your National Conference last November I spoke about my preference for a transition to five-year funding agreements for FSP service providers.

I think this is a good idea for both you and for the Government.

Providers will benefit from a greater sense of security that facilitates their ability to innovate and even experiment with modes of service provision.

It will also help reduce staff turnover, something I’m aware is a constant bane of your existence.

And with you better able to concentrate on what you do best – helping others – the entire Australian community will benefit.

As we speak, the transition to a five-year funding framework is still working its way through the processes of Government.

As you know this not only involves my Department of Social Services but the Attorney-General’s Department as well.

I will reiterate that a transition to five-year contracts remains my strong preference and I hope to be able to announce an outcome in that regard sooner rather than later.

So I’ll ask you to have a little bit more forbearance at this time.

And let me echo the Prime Minister’s words uttered a few days ago to the homeless sector: “we aren’t going to let the people down.”

I’m optimistic that your patience will be rewarded.

It’s the desire of this Government to strengthen the FSP by focusing on intervention at the earliest possible point after relationship problems might surface.

This means discerning risk factors that may arise from the multitude of challenges facing families today.

And once those problems are identified, it means bringing effective services to bear as rapidly as possible to prevent further harm.

So we’ll be steering clear of faddish knee-jerk policies in favour of evidence-based strategies that reap positive results over time.

To identify these best practices I’ve given initial approval to the establishment of an expert panel.

Composed of experts in research, evaluation and practice, this panel will work with you the providers to identify optimal methods of effective service delivery.

We’re still working through the details, but I am in a position to tell you this:

The panel will seek out empirically proven early intervention strategies that provide the best outcome to families and the best value to taxpayers.

It will work through multiple channels that include web-based information, the development of practice communities and the mentoring of individual agencies.

It will work to break down organisational siloing because holistic, co-operative and multi-disciplinary services are often required to address the needs of families struggling with multiple social or economic challenges.

We see collaboration as key because the success of any early intervention strategy is reliant on ‘intelligence data’ gleaned from local entities at the community level.

After all it’s the whole variety of organisations and individuals including GPs, schools and other local services that are best positioned to flag incipient problems before they fester into full-blown crises.

The information collected by these grass roots institutions is invaluable and indispensable.

And we must find effective means of transmitting this data so that brewing problems can be quickly identified and rapidly addressed.

Ladies and gentlemen the emotional benefits of preventing family breakdown are obvious.

But there’s also an element of fiscal self-interest that adheres to Government policy.

A Committee of the Australian Parliament estimated that divorce and separation has a direct cost of roughly $3 billion a year and that was 15 years ago.

And when indirect costs are added to the calculation, the total is doubled to an estimated $6 billion per year and maybe even more now.

Britain’s Welfare Minister, Lord Freud, wrote earlier this month that family breakdown was costing the United Kingdom up to ?46 billion per year.

And given that he’s the great-grandson of Sigmund Freud – who are we to argue?

This ?46 billion yearly figure was derived from analysis carried out by the Relationships Foundation, a British think tank that worked to quantify the aggregate impact of family collapse.

The Foundation looked at the full panoply of economic consequences that flow from family breakdown.

These range from the cost of keeping children in care, to the cost of keeping prisoners in the criminal justice system.

In one particularly chilling finding, the Foundations’ researchers noted that a 16-year-old child in Britain today has merely a 50:50 chance of living with both parents.

And with around 50,000 divorces per year in Australia – and with half of those cases involving children – we’re not immune from similar trends in this country.

This is the reason why the Government will be implementing a one-year trial of a new relationship voucher programme.

This programme will provide 100,000 vouchers worth $200 each – a total of $20 million – to help couples access relationship counselling and education services.

Now let’s revisit that Parliamentary Committee’s estimate of $3 billion of direct cost per year cost for family breakdown.

This sum includes very expensive Family Court Proceedings, child support, welfare payments and other social services.

Now let’s divide that sum by the roughly 50,000 family breakdowns that occur each year in Australia and they’re just the official divorces because we know there’s a whole group of other separations that occur when people are not legally married to each other.

This simple calculation tells us that the Australian economy incurs an average of $60,000 per divorce or separation in direct costs, and up to twice that amount when the indirect costs are added in.

So for the Government’s relationship voucher programme to earn its keep – so to speak – it would only have to prevent 334 divorces or lead a similar number of couples to conclude before marriage that they weren’t really suited to each other.

334 out of 100,000, equals 1/3rd of one per cent.

So if this programme manages to be successful in at least 0.334 per cent of the time, it will pay for itself.

So I’m very optimistic about the new relationships vouchers trial.

Indeed a recent study commissioned by the British Department of Education showed that in that country, with very similar programmes being studied to those conducted in Australia, for each ?1 spent on marriage education and marriage counselling, taxpayers would reap ?11 in savings on services that they would otherwise have to pay for.

Ladies and gentlemen a few words on the Communities for Children programme.

As those of you who’ve been around for a while surely remember, the original Communities for Children was introduced by the Howard Government in 2005.

It was intended to set up a place-based early intervention programme to strengthen families and give children a leg-up in life.

I think this demonstrates that early intervention has long been a constant theme in the Coalition’s worldview on government social services.

The 2010 Access Economics Positive Family Functioning project found that effective intervention programming during childhood and adolescence can reap substantial economic benefits by reducing the likelihood of later adult anti-social behaviour.

This study concluded that the Communities for Children, Positive Parenting Programme and Reconnect provide a high rate of return on investment through improving parental well-being, family quality, childhood health and educational outcomes.

According to Access Economics, this return-on-investment for those three programmes ranged from 81 per cent to an astounding 1,283 per cent.

These benefits included higher workplace productivity levels, lower rates of addiction, anxiety or depression and reduced rates of criminal activity.

Similar studies in America and Great Britain have drawn similar conclusions about the benefits of effective early intervention.

Throughout the Anglo-sphere the story is the same – the longer you wait to address childhood neglect or abuse, the less effective and more expensive your remedial efforts will be.

But there’s always room for improvement, as many of you have told me over the years.

And as a result of my meeting with the sector, I’ve asked my Department to conduct a review of Communities for Children Facilitating Partners.

I have taken on board the suggestions made by some of you how the governance procedures for this programme could be improved.
This Review has already highlighted possible reforms that might provide better outcomes for families while ensuring better value for the taxpayers’ dollar.

We want to ensure that Communities for Children operates as originally intended – a community-driven, empirically proven programme.

Ladies and gentlemen when it comes to good work already done by private-sector organisations, our job should be to facilitate — not to duplicate.
And this Government is looking to make your lives easier by lightening the compliance burden inflicted by gratuitous regulation.

When it comes to red tape, we want to emulate Alexander the Great, whose solution to the challenge of the Gordian Knot was to slice it apart with his sword.

Metaphorically speaking – of course.

We want to take a proverbial knife to the red and green tape that is stifling creativity and initiative in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors.

Our aim is to reduce the cost of regulation by at least $1 billion a year, each and every year.

And for my part, DSS will move towards a single comprehensive contract model with each organisation that delivers services on its behalf – hopefully as I alluded to earlier with a five-year contract lifespan.

We’ll simplify the auditing process so that only one financial report will be required annually from each contracting organisation.

We’ll work to streamline reporting requirements by reducing the amount of data that must be provided to government.

And we’ll try to make the transmission of those data as easy as possible through automation.

Rather than a cumbersome ‘top-down’ ‘government-knows-best’ approach that smacks of patronising paternalism, we believe in bottom-up, grass roots enterprise.

We believe in adept and adroit not-for-profit organisations that can adapt to the changing circumstances and evolving needs.

We believe that no-one knows local communities better than local community members.

They have the best grasp on the problems in their backyard and how to best address them.

A one-size-fits-all attitude can never work because the needs of the tiny rural hamlet of Fitzroy Falls, New South Wales are vastly different from the needs in inner-urban Fitzroy, Victoria.

And the requirements of a human service agency will be light-years away from an arts centre or an educational institution.

It’s a fundamental tenet of the Abbott Government’s worldview that civil society should be neither instrument nor agent of the state.

You’ll always know your business better than we do and that’s why our ultimate aim is to transfer the new Centre for Excellence to the sector itself.

Government and the sector must work together to address the needs of Australian families.

And the Abbott Government is firmly committed to supporting the work which you do.

It’s only by detecting and dealing with family problems as early as possible that we can provide children with the best chance for a nurturing and happy upbringing.

I thank you for what you do, and what you’ll continue to do in the future.

And I’ll conclude with the words of John Ashcroft – the research director at the UK Relationships Foundation:

“When relationships go right society as a whole benefits.
But when they go wrong we all pay a price.

Thank you very much.