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Speech by Senator the Hon Kay Patterson

Families Australia Conference Opening Address

Location: Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, Brisbane

E&OE

Ladies and gentlemen

Thank you Sandie (de Wolf, Chair, Families Australia) for your introduction.

And thanks also to Auntie Ella Gordon,

– representing the Brisbane Council of Elders, for welcoming us to this land.

I’m honoured to be here in Brisbane to open this important conference.

This conference represents a first for Families Australia

– and I am sure you will all enjoy the program of speakers they have organised for the next two days.

The concept of what a family is has evolved substantially over recent decades.

No longer is a family the traditional nuclear family.

This has created challenges for the Government that go beyond assisting families

– and has created numerous debates about subjects such as birthrates, marriage, divorce and the best form of care for our children.

As a psychologist I have watched many of these debates,

– and read the conflicting research with interest.

As a politician I grapple with issues of policy and budgets

– and how best to use the tools at my disposal to assist families in achieving their goals.

The Australian Government believes in choice.

The choice to stay at home, or to return to work full time or part time;

The choice to send children to public or private schools;

The choice to take out private health insurance.

To provide more choice for families, the Government has introduced major changes to family payments and workplace relations systems,

– to promote flexibility and family-friendly practices,

– giving families choice and flexibility to reflect the diversity of parenting arrangements.

The Howard Government provides generous assistance for families, but it cannot do it alone.

I strongly believe in what the Prime Minister calls the ‘social coalition’,

– in which everyone has a vested interest

– governments, business, communities and citizens alike

– in helping to strengthen Australian families and communities.

The Government can drive this coalition but it needs support from within the community.

I am determined to maintain the Government’s strong record on consultation

– and our many valuable relationships with the other levels of government, the community and business sectors, peak organisations

– like Families Australia

with service providers, and with families themselves.

We can only develop effective responses to families’ needs

– by looking at the inter-connected and complex social issues that impact on families and communities. That is why the Government seeks advice from groups and organisations working in the field.

Including:

  • the Australian Council of Children and Parenting
  • the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect
  • Early Childhood Australia
  • The Australian Federation of Homelessness Organisations
  • Volunteering Australia
  • and, of course, Families Australia.

While we don’t always agree on the best way forward,

– input from peak organisations like Families Australia help us to keep our finger on the pulse of contemporary family needs.

You all have the opportunity to use this conference to explore a number of issues and solutions

– and develop options which can be put forward to the Government, to employers and to communities for consideration.

The Government has provided more than $150,000 in funding towards the costs of convening this conference

– and I am looking forward to receiving feedback from Families Australia.

Turning now to some of the issues you’ll cover today and tomorrow

– I would like to talk about these from my perspective as the Minister responsible for family policies at the national level.

The Australian Government will continue to fulfill our responsibilities

– and look for practical measures to assist individual families in making the choices that are right for them.

As a Government we are committed to supporting families financially when they need it and helping them through difficult times.

This Government provides record assistance for families and they are able to keep more of each dollar they earn.

The Howard Government has supported and strengthened families with a record $19 billion of annual assistance.

– Assistance to help families with the cost of raising their children and to give them choices to balance their work and family lives.

The Howard Government provides nearly $6,000 on average a year in Family Tax Benefit payments to two million Australian families.

The Government spends about $2 billion more a year on family assistance than under the previous tax system.

The Howard Government has substantially reduced effective marginal tax rates.

A study by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling found that only 8 per cent of people faced an effective marginal tax rate of more than 60 per cent .

The vast majority

– that is more than seven out of 10 people

– faced an effective marginal tax rate of less than 40 per cent .

Almost a quarter of all people faced an effective marginal tax rate of zero.

We have improved access to child-care and significantly improved its affordability for Australian families.

The Government has spent more than $8 billion on child care in the past six years

– that is more than double Labor’s spending in the last six years of its term.

The latest figures show that families receive an average childcare benefit payment of more than $2,000 a year.

The Government has improved families’ access to childcare,

– introducing 211,000 additional Commonwealth-funded places since 1996,

– taking the total to 530,000.

The Howard Government has committed more than $200 million under the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy to help local communities to find local solutions to their problems.

This program encourages communities to find new ways to strengthen families

– and focuses on early childhood development and effective parenting.

With funding for projects that build family and community capacity,

– the Strategy is supporting hundreds of grass roots’ initiatives across the country.

Around Kalgoorlie, for instance, a project is under way to help men and their families in mining communities deal with issues like social isolation,

– to raise awareness among miners and the mining industry about work and family issues,

– and to promote more family-friendly work practices.

Not only have we delivered record assistance for families,

– this Government has provided opportunities for families to work and earn more through good economic management.

We have achieved the lowest unemployment rate in 22 years,

– created almost 1.3 million new jobs

– and seen real incomes boosted by 10 per cent since we were elected.

This is a long way from the days when unemployment reached crisis levels.

In ‘the recession we had to have’ there were nearly one million Australians unemployed.

Australian families – a snapshot

These days, we all accept that Australian society is dynamic.

One of the best ways to highlight what this means for future policy settings is to take a snapshot of families in 2004.

In 2004, Australian families are more diverse than ever before,

– with the fastest population growth in families with non-Anglo Saxon ancestry.

People are having fewer children and having them when they’re older.

Families are more likely to go through relationship breakdown.

And families’ interaction with the workforce has become much more complex.

I hope, though, that we can take a balanced view.

Families still make up the majority of Australian households.

And despite reports that would have you believe otherwise, the majority of Australian children spend their entire childhood with both parents.

The ageing population

Today’s children are growing up in a changing Australia that faces the challenges of an ageing population.

On a national scale, I think population ageing has to be one of the most important social and economic issues facing our country.

It has profound implications for families, for services, and for health, aged care, and social security spending.

The scope of the challenges hit the media spotlight recently, first with Peter Costello’s Intergenerational Report,

– then with his papers on retirement and demographics.

We, as a Government,

– and indeed, all the ‘social coalition’ partners,

– need to come to terms with what this phenomena means for the next generation.

We have to ask what are the best ways to respond to the needs of older workers,

– the growing pressure on pensions and other government assistance,

– superannuation arrangements, and caring responsibilities.

The major policy challenge is to deal with effects of the ageing population at a time when families are having fewer children.

In Australia, 44 per cent of families are couples without dependent children.

Fewer people marry, they are older when they first marry, and more marriages end in divorce.

At the same time, women continue to do the majority of care and family work.

Despite this, men are spending more time caring for their children than there were 15 years ago.

Women’s labour force participation has risen strongly,

– with growth in part-time employment stronger than full-time employment.

Women with dependent children are less likely to participate in the labour force

– and more likely to work part-time than full-time.

I see our job as setting priorities to meet families’ needs,

– and being flexible enough to recognise and respond to changes in family dynamics and social structures.

The role of research

Research and robust discussion and debate

– something you’ll hear about and experience in the next two days

– make a valuable contribution to the policy-making process.

In shaping our social policies, we draw heavily on current research and evidence.

And we use a range of sources to build our evidence base.

Each year my department spends about $16 million on social policy research. Recent research into families, and the interaction of families and work, has provided more information to help us understand how work affects Australian families.

Tomorrow, you’ll hear about some of the findings of the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey

– or HILDA as we affectionately call it.

My department has examined a wide range of other research relating to family and work issues.

What it shows is that for the vast majority of women, combining work and parenting has positive effects on their lives.

But we also know that for some women, work detracts from the enjoyment and quality of parenting.

Others struggle to find a balance between work and family.

The challenge for government is to provide appropriate support that meets the needs and preferences of such a diverse society.

The Government is already assisting families in making these choices with products

– such as the Family Tax Benefit B for families where one partner is working,

– Family Tax Benefit A and the Baby Bonus.

Some studies show that,

– while attitudes to maternal employment are mostly positive,

– there are mixed opinions about using formal childcare.

There are mixed views, as well, about the effects of long working hours on families and parenting.

Today I am releasing a new report into men’s uptake of family-friendly employment provisions.

Commissioned by my department,

– Associate Professor Michael Bittman from the Social Policy Research Centre

– examined whether fathers take advantage of family-friendly provisions in their workplaces.

Involving case studies and interviews with fathers,

– he found that even when workplaces were family-friendly,

– men still had problems fitting family around the demands of work.

In his paper Michael says that most interviewed agreed they didn’t find enough time for their families. And he says that employees, supervisors and some senior managers thought that breaks or reductions in working hours could irreversibly damage men’s careers.

Michael concluded that family-friendly provisions may not be enough.

To help them better balance their work and family responsibilities,

– maybe we have to encourage workplace cultures that actually support men to take advantage of the provisions.

This research adds to our knowledge of parenting and throws us all a new challenge.

The challenge of changing perceptions,

– of creating workplace cultures where men who put their family first are not seen as disloyal or unambitious.

None of us can do this alone, we need to work together.

Men have unique issues about families and relationships and to address some of these the Government has funded the Men and Family Relationships program.

The total funding over the life of this program is $41 million (1998-99 to 2006-07).

The Men and Family Relationships Program includes 44 community organisations operating men’s services in more than 80 locations in rural, regional and metropolitan Australia.

These men’s services work alongside men to improve individual and family outcomes.

They provide a constructive setting for men and fathers so that they can reflect,

articulate and act on their aspirations as husbands and fathers.

An independent evaluation of the Men and Family Relationships Program demonstrated that it was a highly successful response by Government to the needs of men in the community,

– with 95 per cent of surveyed clients rating the services as good or very good

– but there is always more we can do.

National Agenda for Early Childhood

The importance of early childhood development features strongly in our research and policy agenda.

With new evidence about the importance of the early years and growing concern about issues such as childhood obesity,
– the Government is committed to helping our children get the best possible start in life.

That is why we are developing Australia’s first National Agenda for Early Childhood.

It’s imperative we get it right.

We are talking about our country’s most important future resource.

Today’s children are our future parents, workers, consumers, carers and taxpayers.

We need to build the Agenda, now and in future years, on a solid evidence base.

Our landmark, $20 million longitudinal study called Growing Up in Australia,

– is the most important piece of research ever undertaken into Australian children.

The study is gathering Australia-wide data on all the components of a child’s life

– their experiences within their families and communities and at childcare, their health, and in their early years of education. Establishing what goes right and what goes wrong for children as they develop,

– will make an enormous difference in making sure our future policies are more targeted,

– effective and practical.

All the research I’ve mentioned, and future research, is absolutely crucial to shaping the gamut of family policies and programs.

To gauge our success with children’s development during their first few years of life, we need a way of measuring their how well they are doing. We are investing in the Early Development Index to do just that.

Already used in Canada, this will be a simple questionnaire that teachers can complete during the child’s first year at school.

It will give us a report on children’s overall developmental status in a given community.

In Canada this Index has proven invaluable in helping communities understand and make changes to the way they support children in the years before school.

I am sure we will find it equally helpful here.

Another recent initiative is the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children (LSIC), which we announced in the 2003 -04 Budget.

The study will help us understand the links between early childhood experiences and later life outcomes for Indigenous children.

It will help us develop policies and services to address the hardships faced by Indigenous children, their families and communities.

It will be tracking over 4,000 Indigenous children living in urban, rural, remote and very remote locations in Australia.

Conclusion

Turning back to the big picture.

I believe the Government’s job is to give Australian families a system and framework

– that gives them choices about their family life and their family and work mix.

It is government’s role to support families in the choices they make,

– not to make those choices for them.

All families are different,

– and as I have said before, no one policy meets everyone’s needs.

A range of policies is needed.

I do not believe in knee-jerk, populist solutions to complex social issues.

That’s not what Australian families want,

– nor what will help them.

And it’s not the way this Government is meeting the work and family policy challenges that lie ahead.

I hope you have a stimulating and productive two days here in Brisbane.

It gives me great pleasure now to declare this Families Australia conference officially open.

Thank you.