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Speech by Senator the Hon Kay Patterson

Introductory Speech on the second day of the XXIV World Congress of OMEP

Location: Carlton Crest Hotel, Melbourne

E&OE

Introduction

Thank you Carleen (Bolden, the Australian Secretary of OMEP) for your introduction.

I welcome you all to the second day of the 24th OMEP World Congress.

As a Victorian, I’m especially pleased that this year’s congress is being held in marvelous Melbourne.

I hope that our interstate and international visitors attending this Congress are getting the chance to explore our beautiful city, and to see a bit of the countryside as well.

Influence of the early years on later life

In terms of today’s proceedings let me say that, as the Australian Government minister responsible for family issues and with a background in psychology, I have long been convinced that what happens in early childhood matters when it comes to what happens to children as they grow up, and to the quality of their lives later on.

No matter which part of the world you come from, I’m sure that every single person at this congress would agree with me on that.

I think we would also share a common view that problems for children cannot be addressed in isolation from their family, community and broader social environments.

But while some of us may differ on the ways forward in the field of early childhood development, I think Louis Pasteur had it fundamentally right when he said:

When I approach a child, he inspires in me two sentiments; tenderness for what he is, and respect for what he may become.

And it’s this tenderness, and respect for what they may become, that influences my approach and the approach of the Australian Government in responding to children’s needs.

Our approach has its foundation in a belief that prevention and early intervention during the important, formative years is the best way to deal with a range of complex social problems, and to get at the root cause of problems before they become entrenched.

As you heard yesterday, we now have a much better understanding about the interactions between early childhood experiences and child development, and about what interventions are most effective.

The Australian Government’s approach

This understanding underpins the Australian Government’s policies and programs which support children and families.

A key part of this support is help for our youngest citizens to get the best possible start in life.

This continues to be a very high priority for the Australian Government.

While children’s health and welfare has always been a major part of our social agenda, in the past few years we have put in a lot of hard work to push early childhood development on to the national stage.

As many of you would know our federal system in Australia means that responsibilities for children’s issues are shared between the Australian Government and the state and territory governments.

So it’s not always easy to achieve the sort of consistent, nationwide effort needed to tackle some of the problems head on.

Some children are not doing so well

I’m pleased to report, though, that the vast majority of Australian children are doing well by international standards. And we have strong and sustainable health, child care, and family support systems in our country.

Sadly, though, some groups of children are not doing so well. In particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have persistently poorer outcomes than non-Indigenous children.

I’m the first to admit that we are a long way off getting it right for our Indigenous children.

But I can say that as the Australian Government Minister for Family and Community Services, I am determined to do what I can to help bridge the gap.

Problems for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

Many of the problems for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have their origins in the early years.

For instance, there are proven links between chronic disease in adulthood and low birth weight and inadequate child nutrition, and high rates of chronic middle ear infections and later learning difficulties in school.

Over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system is also very worrying, as we know that children exposed to abuse and neglect, and those in foster care, are at much greater risk of a range of problems as adults.

At the same time, compared to the non-Indigenous population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are experiencing a baby boom.

And nearly 40 per cent of the Indigenous population is under 14 years of age.

For us, this presents a real opportunity to intervene early and make a difference, to overcome the disadvantage transferred across generations, and to turn around, for example, premature death of Indigenous people caused by chronic disease.

Their needs are enmeshed with the needs of their families and their communities, and they are compounded often by remoteness and socio-economic disadvantage.

There are no easy or quick fixes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

Improving the situation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children requires a concerted effort and cultural sensitivity over a long time.

Given all of this, it’s very appropriate that today’s first forum is looking closely at Indigenous Children’s Needs and Services.

And I’m sure you will learn a great deal from doctors Kaomea, Llanos, Goold and Irwin about some of the things that work well and about what doesn’t work, both in Australia and in other countries.

A growing interest in early childhood

In recent years there has been growing policy interest in early childhood, not only in Australia but across the globe.

In part this is because of new evidence about the importance of the early years. But there are other reasons as well.

In the past two or three decades, Australian families have changed significantly. We have more working mothers, a higher divorce rate, more sole parent, step and blended families, and a breakdown in extended family support networks.

Our population is ageing too, because of baby boomers growing older and declining fertility rates.

And while we have seen dramatic declines in infant mortality and vaccine preventable diseases – a number of new morbidities are emerging for our children.

Child obesity and diabetes, child mental health and youth suicide, and increased child abuse and neglect are serious areas of concern.

All this tells us that we must tailor our service and support systems to meet the needs of today’s families and to ensure that the next generation coming through is well prepared to meet the social and workforce challenges ahead.

I mentioned earlier that our federal system of government makes meeting these challenges more difficult because, historically, activities have been developed, funded and implemented in isolation, resulting in gaps, duplication and confusion for families.

National Agenda for Early Childhood

And these are some of the main reasons why the Government is developing Australia’s first-ever National Agenda for Early Childhood.

We are well down the track with this massive project, which is designed to develop an agreed framework. Using a solid evidence base, it will spell out aims, goals, principles and priorities for action.

The idea behind the Agenda is to:

  • improve collaboration at different levelswithin and across governments, and among the business and community sectors
  • ensure we are getting the most out of the existing and significant investments already made in early childhood
  • make it easier for families with young children to get the support, information and services they need; and
  • create a national ‘road map’ as a guide to future steps.

Having a National Agenda will also make a powerful statement about the value of young children in Australia and go a long way in raising public awareness about the needs of young children, their families and those who work in the early childhood field.

Recent Australian Government ‘investments’

At a practical level we are moving forward on elements of the National Agenda, with recent initiatives that clearly demonstrate the Government’s commitment to early childhood.

For instance:

  • $365 million towards the refocused, second phase of our Stronger Families and Communities Strategy, which includes $110 million funding for the “Communities for Children” initiative that will support up to 35 communities with special needs with funding of up to $4 million per community for local early childhood development initiatives. Under this initiative, a community organisation will be engaged to drive and manage a community development approach to improving outcomes for young children. This approach is recognition that local organisations are best placed to understand the local needs and facilitate partnerships and collaboration.
  • A further component of the refocused Stronger Families and Communities Strategy is the $70.5 million Early Childhood – Invest to Grow Initiative. The initiative will fund:
    • a range of early childhood programs,
    • the development of national tools and resources, including a Parenting Information website and a number of other measures that include
    • an Indigenous Family Resource Centre
  • funding for a national research agenda through the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youthheaded up by Professor Fiona Stanley, and bringing together the collective wisdom of a range academics and early childhood experts
  • working towards validating the Early Development Instrument for use in Australia the instrument is a Canadian tool which measures how well children are doing before they start school and identifies what support is needed for parents and families at the local level
  • supporting a national workshop, hosted by the Australian Council of Children and Parenting to look at how to improve monitoring and reporting on child outcomes. As a first step, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare will be producing ‘A Picture of Australia’s Children’ report next year, and
  • funding the Parenting Information Project which has identified what most needs to be done, and what improvements in parenting information would make the biggest difference for parents and their children, including a specific Indigenous report. Government is currently considering the extensive evidence outlined in the report – which will ultimately help shape future strategies for communicating with and supporting parents.

 

Financial support for families

Of course, financial support from the government is another key element in creating happy, healthy and safe environments for our children.

Our record on this is very strong, with around $20 billion going to families each year to help with the costs of raising children and for child care services.

This year’s Budget, in particular, builds on that strong record with:

  • an extra $19.2 billion over five years for the ‘More Help for Families’ package, including more generous family assistance and maternity payments
  • 40,000 more Outside School Hours Care places, 4,000 more Family Day care places, and 4,000 more playgroups, and
  • increases in funding for the Childcare Support Program, that covers child care training and advice services, quality assurance, inclusion support and help to establish new centres, especially in rural and remote areas.

 

Conclusions

These initiatives and our Early Childhood Agenda represent only a portion of what’s going on in Australia to build more effective approaches to early childhood.

I should say emphatically that the Government is not working on this alone. Because it is through the work of others, and many people at this congress, which is helping to make a positive difference.

I’m told yesterday was very successful and that the keynote addresses by professors Stanley and Otaala had everyone ‘sitting up and listening’.

I hope your time here today will be just as stimulating.

Once again, welcome to the second day of this important conference, and I wish you all the very best for the rest of the conference.