Address to the Family and Relationship Services Australia National Conference
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Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your warm welcome and for the opportunity to speak at this National Conference of Family and Relationship Services Australia.
This is an important gathering, bringing together so many key stakeholders, leading providers and practitioners.
I have a strong interest in family and relationship services and many of you will know of my over thirty years of personal involvement in your sector. I have spoken and researched extensively on a broad range of family and relationship issues both as a member of the previous Coalition Government and during my time in Opposition.
And I am very enthusiastic at the prospect of now working with you to improve outcomes for all Australian families.
Early intervention and prevention
In my experience as a Minister, Parliamentarian, volunteer, employee, and a board member of various associations, as well as in my research, I have found that when it comes to civil society one theme recurs with unfailing reliability.
It is that intervening early and helping to prevent people from going down paths that lead to poverty and dysfunction should be the foundation of social policy.
In his report for the UK Government on early intervention, Graham Allen highlighted that as well as the benefits for individuals, programs that involve prevention and early intervention have the potential to deliver strong economic benefits.
For example, the Nurse Family Partnership program generated savings five times greater than the cost of the program while early education programs for low-income three and four year old children generated an economic benefit of around two and a half times the initial investment.
Many of you may recall that in my speech to this conference in Darwin last year I referred to the Brookings Institute scholar, Isabel Sawhill, and her work on reducing poverty and creating opportunity.
She found that if individuals do just three things – finish high school, work full time, and marry before they have children – their chance of being poor drops from 15 per cent to just two per cent.
Although these findings are based on United States data, the common sense idea that encouraging young people to finish school, get a job and commit to a relationship will be best for them and their children is equally applicable in Australia.
I think about these goals as the sides of a pyramid that, in simple terms, take people from poverty to prosperity.
Sawhill and others talk about “the success sequence”, referring to both what people need to do to be successful and the order they need to do it.
The first stage is educational achievement, particularly finishing secondary school.
This is followed by stable employment…
…and the third stage is a stable relationship and family formation.
These three goals reinforce the importance of prevention and early intervention services as they are only achievable if the right building blocks are in place.
As we know, the ability to complete secondary school or vocational training at the age of 17 or 18 is shaped by experiences in the earliest years.
Children who are already behind their peers when they start school, can find the going harder.
Exposure to early learning, including through preschool and through parents’ support for early development, plays a key role in children being ready for school.
The Government’s commitment to a Productivity Commission inquiry that will look at ways to make child care more flexible, accessible and affordable will assist with this.
Gaining skills and knowledge through school – especially building literacy and numeracy – is essential for children and young people to achieve a Year 12 qualification and take advantage of learning opportunities beyond secondary school.
In turn, education and training are the foundation for getting a stable job. Combined with additional services for those who need support to find employment, and having the right income support settings to move people from welfare into work, they provide the building blocks that are essential for people to gain paid work.
And finally, and particularly relevant to us today, is the need for committed relationships.
I’ve previously suggested that relationship education should begin with young people and then be available at key stages in a relationship.
The evidence shows that strong relationships between parents make a substantial difference to a child. There is ever growing appreciation of the need to strengthen couple relationships and of how these relationships affect wellbeing and foster effective parenting.
As part of our commitment to supporting stable relationships, I will be trialling a scheme to expand marriage and relationship education, marriage and relationship counselling, parenting education, conflict resolution and financial management education to 100,000 couples.
The aim is to increase the number of couples who participate in education or counselling in order to strengthen their marriage or relationship, improve their parenting, or build their conflict resolution or financial management skills.
By strengthening relationships at the outset, and curbing family breakdown, I hope such a program will help couples achieve a greater degree of happiness and stability and thereby a better environment for their children.
I will be consulting closely with the sector and professionals who are working on the ground with couples and families to develop the trial.
As well as making new targeted investments, we also need to ensure that our existing investments are focused on prevention and early intervention.
This Government is firmly committed to supporting you, the professionals of the family services sector, to detect and deal with family problems as early as possible so that we can give children the best possible chance at a stable and happy upbringing, and one that leads to a prosperous adulthood.
I believe that family services and child wellbeing are areas which are better served when the strengths of government are combined with the wisdom of civil society.
We need the insight of local communities and civil society if we are going to create innovative, flexible and responsive programs that work.
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with the Chair of the FRSA, Michael Austin and FRSA’s Executive Director, Steve Hackett, to discuss the future policy direction of the family services sector.
Let me today convey to you what I conveyed to them during that meeting.
The Abbott government remains firmly committed to the Family Support Program and to working with you to develop ways to ensure it delivers even better outcomes into the future.
Central to the Government’s vision for this program, as I foreshadowed in my opening remarks, is the need for a system based firmly on early intervention and prevention, as well as on evidence.
Importantly, I would like very much to see the sector freed from the weight of the resource-intensive and often counter-productive constraints of onerous reporting obligations.
For too long, civil sector organisations have been saddled with burdensome regulations and reporting requirements; requirements which suggest that community and charitable organisations – organisations set up solely to support community members – are at the service of Government.
That is why we are going to reduce red tape and free up organisations to invest their resources in delivering more services on the ground, rather than filling out forms for government in back offices.
Over time we will move towards implementing one contract with the Department for each organisation. There will be one Family Support Program contract from 1 July 2014, with other program agreements to be folded in after that.
We will require the Department to genuinely negotiate funding agreements with the agencies to ensure we are achieving the best outcomes for clients and not simply impose upon them.
We will simplify the auditing process to require only one financial report from each agency annually.
We will replace the current time-consuming and costly system of data collection with a simplified reporting arrangement which will ask organisations to report on a small number of key outcomes.
The reporting will be simple and as automated as possible and we will provide organisations with feedback from the reports.
We will also establish a new Centre for Excellence.
This centre will provide education, training and development opportunities to the sector. I see it becoming a leader in innovation as well as an advocate for the sector.
And ownership of this Centre, established to support the sector, would ultimately be transferred to the sector.
Changes such as these will ensure that service providers are able to focus their time and resources on delivering vital services to the community because we believe in working with the sector, not directing it or treating it as an extension of the State.
Our very strong philosophy is that Governments exist to serve the needs of the community, not the other way around.
Encouraging self-sufficiency and a reliance on philanthropy
We are committed to continuing the Family Support Program and this is why we want to facilitate the sector’s efforts to be a more empowered sector generally.
Philanthropic endeavours strengthen and empower communities, harness the inherent virtue of Australians and encourage a greater sense of purpose and belonging across communities and incomes.
We need to encourage a culture of philanthropy and giving in Australian life, and one way in which we want to do that by re-establishing the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership.
The Community Business Partnership will advise the Australian Government on community business collaboration, philanthropy and corporate social responsibility.
Again, its work will be undertaken without unnecessary red tape and costs.
Our nation’s many thousands of volunteer services, welfare, environmental, sporting and community groups bear witness to this nation’s belief in independent communities, who freely volunteer their time, resources and innovative skills.
This kind of activity must be facilitated, not stifled, by Government.
A community that freely gives of its time and its financial resources is a community with a stronger social fabric and more social capital.
Onerous reporting obligations, the rising cost of living and the impact of the GFC on investments, have all had an impact on the charitable and volunteer sector, with philanthropic contributions tapering off in recent years.
I look to a new Community Business Partnership to re-invigorate our culture of philanthropy and giving.
I believe the Partnership will encourage prominent Australians from the business and community sectors to work together for the benefit of the community.
Providing longer funding contracts
I know that, for many of you, the future funding of your organisations is always a concern, making forward planning and the future of services difficult to manage.
Because of this, I have instructed my Department to examine longer-term funding agreements which can deliver greater security and certainty to your organisations.
In particular, I would like to see five year funding agreements from June 2014.
Longer term agreements would give the sector much greater certainty into the future, as well as the freedom to explore and deliver better, more effective and more cost-efficient models for service delivery.
We want to ease your burden, to recognise the extraordinary value that you add to the community, and to invest in you the trust and independence you deserve as philanthropic, self-giving members of the community.
Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission
In closing, many of you have raised with me the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.
As the Minister responsible for charities and the not-for-profit sector, let me be clear – the government will abolish the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. And until legislation is passed to that effect, the government is assessing options for winding down the operations and work of the Commission.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have enormous respect for your work, your commitment and your cause.
I look forward to working closely with you to more effectively support Australian families, and in so doing, to better nurture our nation’s most valuable resources; our relationships and our children.