Opening address at the Family and Relationship Services Australia National Conference
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Thank you Michael for that warm welcome and for the all the work you do chairing FRSA’s board. It’s a pleasure to be here in Adelaide and to be here at your national conference.
May I also congratulate FRSA and MAREAA for conducting integrated conferences which enable family practitioners opportunities for a wide selection of papers and workshops.
I am particularly delighted to be on the program with Professor Bill Doherty, whose work in engaging the community is at the cutting edge of current research and practice.
Of all the challenges that confront us in today’s fast changing world, few, if any are more important than the need to promote the wellbeing, safety and resilience of families, children and communities.
FRSA plays an important role supporting front-line services working in the field to meet this challenge.
You are at the coalface of assisting Australian families; your work is vital and often taken for granted by both the community and by government.
The family, built on stable marriage, is central in our society and it is the first and most important building block in a child’s life.
Happy, healthy families are the essential component of happy and healthy communities.
And happy, healthy communities are the basis of a prosperous and stable nation.
Martin Luther King most eloquently summed up the pivotal role of the family in civilised society: “the whole of society rests on this foundation for stability, understanding and social peace.”
The need to support this pivotal role of the family is shared in many places. Just last week, the UK government introduced a new family test.
From now on, every domestic policy that is introduced will be assessed for its impact on families – making sure policies strengthen family relationships, rather than undermining them through unintended knock-on effects.
The Secretary for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, who is responsible for the test, observed:
“Evidence tells us that any Government serious about promoting a strong society must strengthen and support families – and marriage.
“Too many children suffer poor outcomes due to the instability of their families. Problems with mental health, alcohol, and lower attainment at school are all linked to negative experiences of family relationships.
“It is not only children who feel the impact. Family breakdown comes at a huge cost to taxpayers, with the Relationship Alliance estimating that picking up the pieces costs the [UK] Government around ?46 billion a year.”
Across the Atlantic, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced new measures to strengthen families last Friday, including income splitting, an increased baby bonus and an expansion of claims for child care expenses.
At this conference last year, I noted the observations of the Brookings scholar, Isabel Sawhill that if people did just three things – finish school, work full time, and marry before having children – poverty would fall from 15 per cent to just two per cent.
Our task is two-fold. It is to promote the factors which enhance marriage and family life; and to recognise that these arrangements do not always work, and to encourage programs of amelioration and support. In both cases, prevention and early intervention are critical.
Enhancing the work of the sector
When I addressed your national conference twelve months ago I spoke of the need for Governments to ensure organisations such as FRSA had the flexibility to get on with their valuable work free of government over-reach.
I explained that the Government would develop a more effective way of working with community organizations; an approach that focused on supporting civil society to do its business rather than telling you what to do.
I am pleased now to have the opportunity to update you on this and other areas of reform.
First, we are removing the onerous and counterproductive constraints of over-regulation on community organisations such as FRSA.
We are also well on the way towards developing strategies of prevention and early intervention for all our policies and programmes.
And we are progressing our civil society agenda, building a focus on the carrot not the stick.
On red tape, we moved soon after the May Budget to announce that the Department of Social Services’ new way of working for grants, which has seen the consolidation of 18 social services programmes into seven.
This new approach to grants will reduce duplication, streamline existing services and reduce red tape for funded civil society organisations.
The assessment of over 5500 applications for activities within these programmes is underway and outcomes will be announced later this year, after extensions were granted to current service providers to ensure continuity of services, especially over Christmas, staff certainty and a smooth transition during such a major reform.
This includes a large number of funding rounds for grants under the new Families and Communities Programme.
In July, five year funding agreements were offered to most Family and Relationship Services, Family Law Services and Communities for Children Facilitating Partner Services.
This first installment of grant reform delivers on the Coalition’s election commitment – my commitment – to your sector; to your agencies – to you.
Our changes deliver certainty; for the community; for the sector; for your clients; for your staff – indeed, for your organisations as a whole.
Moreover, these longer funding agreements will allow for more strategic planning and certainty as you go about your work.
We are also introducing new reporting arrangements.
From now on, every piece of information we ask of you will have a clear purpose.
And it will be easier for you to share this data with us, and access collated data from us, via the DSS Data Exchange.
Most importantly, these advances will enable us all to begin to measure outcomes to see what is working, and what is not, for the focus of our work, the family.
Many of these reforms – especially getting rid of red tape and understanding outcomes – are based on what community organisations have been telling governments for some years and I am very pleased that we are able to deliver them to you.
Prevention and early intervention
The Government’s reforms are geared also to encourage prevention and early intervention. The research is clear.
If we are serious about tackling problems facing children and families, and particularly when intergenerational issues are involved, then evidence based prevention and early intervention are essential.
Families and children expert panel
This is why we are investing $5 million to establish a Families and Children Expert Panel to support Families and Children service providers to deliver robust evidence based practices focussing on prevention and early intervention.
Families and Children services provide support, counselling, education and a range of other services to families at critical times of their lives.
This Panel – of research, practice and evaluation experts – will help ensure that families receive the very best assistance on offer.
Service providers will be able to engage experts on the panel for advice in developing and delivering the latest innovations and tools in evidence based practices.
They will be encouraged also to use outcomes measurement and evaluation to improve services for children and families.
Agencies will know how well they are helping families and will be better able to meet the needs of local communities.
I expect the Panel will be up and running early next year.
It will be established and managed by the Australian Institute of Family Studies through their Child Family Community Australia Information Exchange, which is of course well known to many of you.
Panel members who choose to can be part of a Sector List maintained by AIFS.
Service providers will be able to access their preferred sector List member directly, using their existing funding.
As part of this initiative, AIFS will host a landmark national conference on prevention and early intervention next year and I encourage you all to participate.
The Expert Panel steering committee comprises prominent specialists from the service provision and academic sectors whose expertise covers the work of Families and Children.
It is a stellar line up and I would like to thank them all for being part of the steering committee.
Under the chairmanship of Professor Patrick Parkinson, the members are:
- Associate Professor Jane Burns;
- Professor Kim Halford;
- Professor Ross Homel AO;
- Emeritus Professor Dorothy Scott OAM;
- Ms Sue Holmes;
- Professor Steve Zubrick; and
- Professor Muriel Bamblett.
Professor Parkinson’s 2011 report For Kids’ Sake was a stark reminder of the challenges facing Family and Children’s services.
His analysis of state child health and welfare reports included:
- A tripling in the number of children notified for abuse or neglect since 1998
- A doubling of the number of children in out of home care in 12 years
- A 66 per cent increase in the rate of hospitalisation for self-harm among 12 to 14 year olds
- An increase from 28 per cent to 38 per cent in female school students experiencing unwanted sex between 2002 and 2008
- A doubling in the rate of hospitalisation for alcohol intoxication for women aged 15 to 24.
Noting there may be a number of explanations behind these concerning developments, Professor Parkinson observed that the links between adverse consequences for children and family breakup could not be ignored.
Parental break up does not automatically spell adversity for children.
But we do know that the risk is greater and that an intact family is the best environment in which to nurture children.
We also know that early intervention and prevention – in the form of relationship education and counselling – can help couples work through their problems.
Stronger Relationships Trial
I spoke at the conference last year of our plans to introduce a Stronger Relationships trial that would offer couples a $200 subsidy for and education, parenting and counselling sessions.
The Government has delivered on its election commitment and the Stronger Relationships Trial is now well under way; and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many FRSA members who have supported this initiative.
Currently, services are being delivered by around 90 organisations at more than 500 locations around the country.
More than 5,000 couples have registered to participate, and we expect these numbers to grow in coming months.
The Institute of Social Science Research at the University of Queensland will evaluate the trial and I look forward to the lessons we learn from it.
Strong familial relationships have a critical place on the early intervention and prevention spectrum.
And it was pleasing last week that even the ABC’s Fact Checker now stands by the important aspects that underpin the Stronger Relationships policy.
A virtuous cycle
In the UK researcher and MP Graham Allen has developed what he calls a ‘virtuous cycle’ – as opposed to a vicious cycle of disadvantage and despair – to replace reactive late intervention with early intervention at key points in the life course up to the age of 18.
Scholars like Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins have done similar work in the US.
Again, I discussed some of this work with you last year.
Now, I would like to take it further.
As a first step, I have asked my Department to develop a conceptual framework to help embed prevention and early intervention in our policies and programmes.
I believe the most effective assistance for families – and individuals – is to focus interventions on key transition or readiness points across the whole of life.
Maximising the capacity of people to deal with these life points can help improve the lifetime wellbeing of people and families.
The key transition or readiness points include:
- Relationship-ready – supporting people to have the social and emotional skills to form and maintain stable and respectful relationships;
- Child-ready – supporting parents with positive parenting and relationship skills for raising and nurturing children
- School-ready – helping all children to have the physical, social and emotional ability to learn and flourish at school
- Life-ready – helping teenagers and young adults to develop age-appropriate social, emotional and financial skills to support sound decision-making;
- Work-ready – assisting all people of working age to have the hard and soft skills to gain and maintain a job; and
- Ageing and retirement ready – ensuring that the foundations for a smooth transition to a productive retirement, maintaining meaningful life roles and maximising quality of life during ageing are in place.
By identifying the readiness factors and the investment points in the life cycle, we can more effectively determine the policies and programmes that are likely to be effective.
This is a view that I am sharing with expert academics and practitioners working across the whole of life to hear their views on how to build a bridge between prevention and early intervention evidence, policy and practice.
And as we implement our own ‘virtuous cycle’ we will need to adopt new approaches.
We know for instance that children in jobless families have poorer outcomes in relation to learning and cognition, social and emotional wellbeing and physical health. Here in Australia one in seven or 15 per cent of children live in families where neither parent has a job. These are persistent figures.
Obviously we need a new approach, one that encourages workforce participation and increased parental competence.
The New Zealand investment-based approach shifts the entire focus of welfare so that support is invested where it will make the biggest difference.
It means intervening earlier and actively targeting those who have some capacity to work but who risk being long term welfare dependent without adequate incentives and supports to get back into the workforce.
All the research tells us that embracing reform like this is in the interest of both individual Australians and their families.
It is an approach that can be applied to the range of social services policies, ranging from early childhood to older age.
I am also interested in the so-called collective impact approaches in which all participants have a shared vision for change.
Earlier this year I was privileged to launch a good example of this – The Opportunity Child project, a partnership between the ten20 Foundation and ARACY.
The Opportunity Child initiative is implementing a grassroots pilot programme designed to enhance child wellbeing in 20 vulnerable communities across Australia.
Significantly not a single cent of The Opportunity Child’s $10 million seed funding comes from the Government but from private philanthropy.
The challenge for us is to embed early intervention and prevention not only in our programmes and policies, but in our collective thinking.
This includes growing the philanthropic market for social service providers.
The new Community Business Partnership which the Prime Minister launched last month will take a lead here.
The Prime Minister will chair the Partnership, with me as his Deputy.
An eminent group of Australians are graciously giving their time to advise government on practical ways to strengthen the culture of philanthropy, community enterprise and volunteering.
The value of social investments initiated by civil society and philanthropy and supporting early intervention and prevention cannot be overestimated. A strong civil society where empowered communities tend their own is vital to the wellbeing of families and children.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Government has made significant progress in reducing red tape, embedding the concepts and practices of prevention and early intervention and strengthening civil society.
I would like to reiterate my belief as I expressed it to you last year, that family services and child wellbeing are better served when the strengths of Government are combined with the wisdom and experience of civil society.
I look forward to working with you over the coming and future years to reach our shared goal of improving and protecting the wellbeing of Australia’s most precious assets, our children and their families.