Family and Relationships Services Australia – Senior Executives Forum
This is an important national forum for Senior Executives of Family and Relationship Services. I want to acknowledge the outstanding work done by you and all of the various organisations which is about delivering frontline services to Australian families right across the country.
I particularly want to acknowledge the great work that FRSA does in providing national leadership in this area and membership support and that is why you are here over the next couple of days.
As the Minister for Social Services I share and as a father myself and as a son and a brother, as an uncle, all of these things, of course we can do nothing but understand the importance of families in our national and social life but most importantly in our own personal lives as well because it is the family that enriches us all. It enriches our communities, enriches our nation. It is the family that sits at the very heart of our modern developed society – a society that is extraordinarily successful. Australia is the most successful multicultural country on earth. It is the most successful immigrant society on earth. It is a country that has a high level of social cohesion and in my view the thing that probably is most responsible for that is the strength of the Australian family within our society. If we want to see that continue, if we want our nation to be stronger, if we want our society to be more cohesive then families themselves must be successful.
So your focus for this year’s forum – ‘Families Worth The Investment’ – I think is very well chosen. It is worth the investment and this government is certainly backing this up by a strong sense of priority and focus we have put on families and particularly this year as we lead into the next budget. Of the almost nine million households in Australia, just under three quarters of those are families. I don’t have to remind this audience of the significance of the issues and challenges confronting families. At the Press Club recently I talked about a statistics which is one I reflect on, on an almost daily basis. Twelve per cent of Australian children aged under 14 are growing up in jobless families. Even more concerning is that almost 40% of children who grow up in a jobless family become welfare dependent by the time they are twenty. The detrimental effect on families and children of circumstances like these cascade around our communities from generation to generation. The work you are involved in is about turning the tide on those statistics. It is about being the game changer, about being the circuit breaker on what at times I know can look like an overwhelming challenge as we see these issues roll from generation to generation. It is our job together, ourselves as a government and you as service providers on the front line and communities more broadly but at the end of the day mums and dads and uncles and aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers and others to ensure that we try and change that situation in the future.
That is why we will offer the best support we can give to Australian families. That is why particularly at this time my very strong focus is on the workforce participation of families. A families package which we will be releasing before the budget in relation to childcare will increase opportunities for parents to get a job and stay in a job, particularly those on middle to lower incomes. Our focus on childcare in the families package doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is already significant support provided to families and particularly the support that was first delivered by the Howard Government through the Family Tax Benefit programme. That programme now is worth around $20 billion. It supports some 1.6 million families around the country. That is the primary line of support together with other things like parenting payments and other things of that nature that is there already on the ground supporting families of all sorts of constructions – single parent families, two income families, single income families, jobless families. That level of support is there to support Australian families today. So what we do is build on the platform of that. While neither ruling anything in or anything out of the specific recommendations the Productivity Commission has put forward, and an excellent report it has been to help guide the discussion and community socialisation of the sorts of issues that we need to address in childcare, what I do want to do is make a couple of comments on the area. We want a policy that ensures that families who are facing challenges are able to maintain their quality of life they want for themselves and their children and to be in the best possible position to stay in a job or get a job. Sixty two per cent or thereabouts of two parent families are now double income families. This has been one of the big social changes of our generation. I am the son of a two income family. In my own family situation my father was a policeman and my mother went back to work after they had kids because we had to. That was a choice that they had to make for my brother and I to ensure we could have the best opportunities in life. That is the choice that so many Australian families are having to make. I am sure if they have the opportunity they might consider other arrangements. They may like to have one parent stay at home and look after the children but too often it is the case these days that most families just don’t have that choice. The cost of living and the pressures that are on families are requiring both parents to work so that they can provide the sort of quality of life for their children that they would like to have. This is just an economic reality. It is something that is confronting families around the country.
So childcare is moving from what has already been an important social policy in terms of support particularly for families with disadvantage and an important education policy to ensure that early childhood learning is there for young children. The statistics and the research is clear about the benefits of early childhood learning but it is becoming a more important economic policy objective because for families to participate in the workforce there must be access to affordable and quality childcare. It is not an indulgence, it is not a welfare payment, it is not an income support payment, it is not a supplement, it is none of those things, it is an important investment in Australian families so they can take the opportunities before them to provide for their families. The Australian government already pays for two thirds, two thirds of the childcare bill in this country. Every dollar that is paid to a childcare centre, two thirds of it is paid for by the government. We already spend almost $7 billion a year in providing that service. It is an area that needs change, it needs to be reframed, it needs to have better focus, it needs to ensure that it is addressing the very real equation which families look at as they sit around the kitchen table and they work out – how are we going to stay at work, how are we going to look after the kids and make sure that we feel comfortable about the quality of care our children are receiving but also paying the mortgage or paying the rent or paying for the excursions and medical bills and the other things that families wrestle with every day. I want to make that equation easier for those families particularly on low to middle incomes. They are the families who particularly need a better equation when it comes to quality and affordable childcare.
Now it is quality in the childcare reform area have been addressed now over some years and there is no plan by the government to change anything in relation to that quality agenda. There is an ongoing dialogue with the States, it could seek to make those recommendations at the State level more practical with the benefit of experience as we work through the implementation of the National Quality Framework. So that is not the debate that is before us anymore on the issue of childcare. The issue of debate before us on childcare now is how we make it more affordable for the families who depend on it and how do we have a better return for the taxpayer who is paying for it. Eight out of ten income taxpayers in this country go to work every single day and the proceeds of their tax payments go to pay our $150 billion welfare system which includes payments in support for childcare. It includes Family Tax Benefits, it includes the pension, it includes carers payments and Australians are generous and Australians I don’t think begrudge supporting a welfare safety net and a payment system that adds value and helps those who need it most and encourages those who are able to help themselves to do just that. So in the area of childcare we have a keen and sharp focus on ensuring that we address the economic needs and the kitchen table conversation that is being had by families, particularly on low to middle incomes, so they can make decisions that empower their families.
A family that is dependent on welfare has fewer choices, a family that has control of its own economic future through working has choices. They can decide where they are taking their family in the future, they can decide where hopefully they want to go on the vacation with their kids, whether it is in a caravan park, in a tent or somewhere else, maybe in a tent in the backyard on occasion but nevertheless we want families to decide these things. We don’t want the government to be involved and in the middle trying to direct families with personal choices that they have to make. I assume many of us in the room are parents, there is nothing more personal, there is nothing more sacred than the choices you make as a parent about your own family and how you seek to raise your children and how you seek to educate your children, how you seek to bring them up in the society in a way which you can be full and happy and positive individuals who can make a contribution and realise all the great potential. We want to let them make those decisions and the help them make those decisions then childcare has to become a very big part of the equation and reflects on the changing nature of our society. The government clearly acknowledges that, this is an area which has had strong support across the Chamber and as we work through this passage the government is working with the Opposition to ensure that we can bring measures that hopefully will have agreement. I don’t think this is an area where people want to see disagreement, they want to see the Parliament coming together and I want to thank the Opposition for their continued involvement in those discussions.
A mention was made of Patrick McClure’s report and it is a fine report, it puts out a very good vision of the future welfare safety net and it talks about the need to strengthen individual and family capability and it makes reference to a model known as the New Zealand investment approach. This is an area that I have made comment on before and I think the wisdom and the insight that sits behind this approach is very helpful in guiding how we make estimates in the family and the future. Basically the principle is you invest in things that work and you have a rigorous actuarial method for determining what works and what doesn’t. This is a rigour that I think will add great benefit to the way we make significant decisions on the basis of families and where those investments can best be made.
I will commend you to the report and to the New Zealand experience in the way that they have found how targeted measures are making transformational change for the long term liabilities of the New Zealand government in terms of how they are looking after their communities. In some ways being the Social Services Minister is a bit like being the Chief Executive Officer of an insurance company, they do similar things; they think about the investments they have to make and the incentives they have to give to try and ensure that down the track people won’t have to draw as heavily on the safety net that they provide. Being responsible for Australia’s social welfare system is very similar and there are things we have to do to invest in a way to ensure that down the track we are not confronted with diabolical costs. I think the Intergenerational Report sets out the risks that are there very, very clearly and the idea that if you adopt a status quo position on all of these things and move away from any sort of suggestion to reform in order to try and placate a public sentiment in any particular time. Well frankly you are not helping future generations of Australians. It’s fine for us to talk about welfare reform or who are the winners and the losers of a particular decision on any particular day but what I am very frustrated by is how narrow that debate is confined on just the current generations of Australians. We need to think about who is better and worse off in the next generation and for a group of people who are gathered together this morning who are focused on families well what could be more important than children who grow up in those families and the welfare system that they will inherent down the track?
If we keep going the way we are and if we keep growing payments the way we do then the children being born today and leaving school they cannot depend on a safety net like the one we have today. The generations that came before us gave us a safety net which is one if not the best in the world and I want to make sure that future generations of Australians have that same probable safety net and that it is not eroded by current populism which would seek important changes that are needed to be made to ensure the sustainability of our welfare system is there for future generations.
One project that you would be particularly familiar with is the families and children expert panel. The government is investing $5 million until 2019 to establish the panel and undertake projects to strengthen family and children activity and toady I am pleased to announce that the panel has been established and as soon as formalities are completed details of individual panel members will be listed on Austender, and AIFS Child Family Community Australia web pages. I want to pay credit to my predecessor Minister Andrews for the work he has done on this important initiative and the panel will help existing and future service providers to deliver high quality evidence based programs to children families and communities squarely focused on prevention and early intervention. Prevention and early intervention also will continue to be a focus of the national framework for protecting Australia’s children and we are now working together to develop a third action plan for 2015 until 2018 and we know we can make a big difference for children and families by reaching them before they slip through the cracks. We also continue to invest significantly in the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. We’ve committed more than $100 million dollars over the next four years to support those new and ongoing initiatives under the national plan and we will be seeking agreement from states and territories to prioritise implementation of a domestic violence order scheme. The Prime Minister has also recently announced an initiative to work with the states and territories to deliver a $30 million joint-funded national campaign to reduce violence against women and their children.
On Monday this week I announced that we will be extending in a new agreement the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, which was unfunded when we came to Government, with $230 million dollars over the next two years. But not just funding the program but giving the program the focus. This program needs direction, it needs focus and it needs greater accountability than it has had previously and the top priority I have given for that program is for the homelessness initiatives that support families affected by domestic violence and youth who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness, this is the national priority that this Government has set on that agreement. We extended the funding for the first year when we came to Government as I said after the funding had been cut and we are now extending that for a further two years in a tighter and more focused agreement. Earlier this month I also announced $1.3 million in funding to ensure family, relationship and counselling support remains available for families in drought affected areas of NSW and QLD. Today I am pleased to say the Government is supporting also the expansion of the Home Interaction Programme for Parents and Youngsters, better known as HIPPY from 75 to 100 communities around the country. This is a great example of how supporting parents in early learning and using the family environment can prepare kids for school.
We all share an important responsibility, whether we do that as parents or we do it in addition to your roles as frontline service providers for families, to help them to become stronger families. I want to thank you for your commitment on that. I want to thank you for the choice you have made to invest yourselves in that important role. Be encouraged by the fact the government is doing the same thing. We are investing in this role. We know and we understand that to have a stronger Australia, having stronger families is the bedrock of that, socially, economically and in all senses of the word.
So I look forward to continuing to work with you in the course of my experience in this portfolio. It is a great pleasure to be now serving in this portfolio. It is quite a change from the spaces I have been in over the past five years. I now have the great pleasure of visiting childcare centres and being taught how to do the ‘Wombat Wobble’ by kids and read stories and do all those sorts of things which as a dad I have always enjoyed doing in my private life now I get to do it in work time as well. So it has been a great thrill and privilege to step into a portfolio that has such a significant impact and where you can do so much to improve the daily lives of Australians but particularly Australian families. So thank you for your attendance here today, it is a great thrill and pleasure to be with you.