ACOSS National Congress
First of all let me Congratulate ACOSS on the occasion of your 50th Anniversary.
Thank you for the invitation to speak with you today.
It is timely that I can share my thoughts with you and the Government’s intention in relation to today’s topic: A fair start for all children – who is responsible for protecting our children.
As parents, Sue and I see the responsibility for the protection of our children as our first and most important responsibility in life.
Giving them the best start in life was and continues to be our highest priority.
I believe that most parents feel exactly the same way. Of course most of us look for advice and assistance from a range of sources as we negotiate the obstacle course of parenthood.
Sadly not all children are fortunate enough to be part of a loving nurturing and caring family. It is these families that you, as members of ACOSS, and we, as Government, seek to assist in a range of ways from direct financial support to counselling. The Government provides substantial financial assistance to Australian families. The Commonwealth will spend nearly $28 billion on family assistance payments in 2006-07. This includes Family Tax benefit, Child care Benefit and Parenting payment.
We also help reinforce social cohesion and support communities to address local problems through a variety of programs like our Stronger Families and Communities strategy.
I believe that most parents use the benefits paid by the Federal Government to their families wisely. The majority of Australian families have strong values and use the money for the purpose it is intended for – to help raise their children.
But the fact remains that some do not.
Over the 5 years between 1999-00 and 2004-05 the number of child protection notifications in Australia has more than doubled from around 107,000 to 253,000. Perhaps more importantly, the number of substantiations has nearly doubled to 46,154 over the same period.
It is the human face of the parents and the children behind these figures that State Child Protection Agencies and welfare workers come in contact with every day.
These are difficult, confronting and often complex situations that the State agencies attempt to deal with in the best interest of the children.
I acknowledge that this is a very difficult area of public policy and it is not a criticism to acknowledge that the State systems have been struggling.
The media is replete with examples of children being failed by these systems.
Can I change those systems, No I can’t. Only the States can. My role today is to simply acknowledge that there is a problem and to suggest some help.
Suffice to say, it is a reality that there are often few policy options between removing a child OR leaving a child at risk with the very parents who are struggling to provide appropriate care.
Much recent media has surrounded the States efforts to bridge these two extremes or define the boundaries. For example NSW recently introduced legislation to remove new born children when there is a history of neglect and abuse in the family. In my home state of Queensland, recent media attention has focussed on the fact that the number of outstanding investigations into child abuse is continuing to rise despite there being fewer reports being made.
In Tasmania the review of child protection services was released earlier this month with the Government there endorsing a 12 point Way Forward document including 20 new case workers to reduce the ‘unallocated” list. This was following the politically courageous admission that the State system was not coping.
I know there are no easy fixes here – it is a difficult area.
I am concerned, however, that despite the considerable financial and practical support from both the Australian and State Governments, we all know there is a small minority of our children who do not receive the basic support they need.
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Some of our children are not receiving the nutrition, secure housing, clothing and education that we would all consider a child’s basic right.
The reality is, these children are often in families where drug and alcohol abuse is occurring or where gambling addictions have stripped the family of the cash required to support their children.
These concerns are not a reflection on the quantum of family payments it is about what that assistance is being used for.
Welfare is not for drugs, alcohol or gambling – but whatever the level of welfare, we will continue to have to confront what to do when that welfare doesn’t go where intended – that is, to the very children it is provided to support.
Only this week a Doctor at the Royal Hobart Hospital called for further changes to the $4000 baby bonus to protect children of drug addicted women. He pointed out that in cases of physical addiction their life revolves around the addiction not the child, and that paying large sums of money to these women is not a responsible action on behalf of society.
He wasn’t demonising the parents – it’s a simple statement of reality that their dysfunctions are also robbing their children of much deserved support.
I think his criticism is valid well beyond the Baby Bonus. It applies to all welfare delivered via parents for children, but where there is a risk the child will not get the benefit.
There is a view that if such high risk factors exist there is a need to remove the children to a safer place.
However, even if there are different views on where the line should be drawn for when a child should be removed, we all have to accept that for any number of practical reasons many kids at risk will be left with their parents by the state.
But then – what to do?
If it is agreed that a child should remain with a parent and if we do care about those children that are not being appropriately fed, clothed or housed; are we not obliged to do something to ensure the children at least receive the benefit of welfare already provided?
Surely it’s the least we can do.
Today I am announcing an Australian Government proposal to assist those families identified as failing to look after their children through better income management.
Its not rocket science and I pre-empted it with a speech to the Social Innovations conference earlier this year – but it deserves cooperative consideration.
I have already written to my state and territory colleagues proposing to open discussion about these proposals.
Keeping in mind that the number of reported cases of abuse or neglect has doubled and the number of substantiations has also doubled to around 46,000 a year, the Australian Government is proposing to introduce provisions, in consultation with our state colleagues, to allow for a proportion of welfare payments to be diverted to directly pay for children’s needs in certain cases.
Specifically, we are looking to work with State Child Protection to use this tool in those cases where there is an identified and substantiated risk to the child’s welfare, but not one that is sufficient to warrant that child’s removal from the family.
Let me emphasise – because the practical issue of identifying these families is often cited in opposition to my proposal – These children are already known to State systems.
After receiving an interdepartment taskforce report that examined this issue, Federal Cabinet has agreed to support the principle of quarantining a proportion of welfare payments that are intended to benefit children to ensure it is spent on the child’s welfare – and agreed this should be discussed in cooperation with the states and territories.
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We have done considerable work on practical issues – albeit there is more to be done. For example we know what low income and welfare families do spend their money on.
The ABS household expenditure survey tells us that on average, families with dependent children who rely on government transfers for 50 percent or more of their income incur 20 percent of their expenditure on housing; 20 percent on food; 11 percent on transport; 5 percent on clothing; 3 percent on utilities; 2 percent on health and 2 percent on education. That is, we can make a reasonable estimate of what proportion of payments would need to be quarantined where the need arises.
Technology currently exists to ensure that payments are directed to some basic needs – eg Centrelink’s Centrepay system allows for deductions to housing and utilities. That is, we already do it on a voluntary basis for housing and utilities.
To that end the very first step is to simply allow use of an existing tool mandatorily in certain cases – and share that tool with state authorities who can use the help.
It is worth noting that a number of indigenous communities are already trying to this on a voluntary basis.
Ultimately, it’s not the people prepared to do it voluntarily we have to worry about – it’s those with problems who can’t or won’t do anything about it.
This first step will be useful. However, in the Government’s view the current tool does not go far enough.
We also want to further develop the quarantine model to allow for a more sophisticated differentiation of a family’s needs. This might include quarantining funds for appropriate clothing and food. I am offering to work this option through with state authorities and external providers to develop these options – again this is a tool for people already identified as at risk.
This area of further refinement requires the active engagement of all concerned authorities and service providers – because there are any number of debit cards and other processes that can be applied, but there is no question this is a work in progress and I have determined that States and providers have to be involved.
IMPORTANTLY – AND LET ME MAKE THIS CRYSTAL CLEAR – THESE OPTIONS WOULD NOT REMOVE ONE CENT FROM THE FAMILIES INVOLVED.
Earlier this year I flagged that the proportion of quarantined payment might be around 30 percent. Based on our work, we could look at a minimum of 40 percent of the government transfer being directed to housing and food. This is an area that I wish to discuss with State authorities and the community sector.
I appreciate that many people don’t like these sorts of options – and I have considered some of the public comments. Let me address the main ones:
Are we punishing people? No.
I am not proposing to reduce funding levels, nor are we saying that they are not deserving of help. What I am proposing is rewarding the needs of children in cases where parents are struggling with their responsibilities.
Is this reducing the dignity of parents on welfare or demonising those with addictions? No.
Nonetheless, while the dignity of parents is important, it is worth noting there is very little dignity in addiction and in my view the dignity of the child takes precedence over other concerns about the parents.
Shouldn’t welfare be free of obligations? In short, no.
Just two days ago, I heard an advocate for a drug abuse program argue that there is a limit to the degree to which we should dictate the use of welfare. That’s a genuine debate in most cases – and the Government certainly took the view, in general, that Baby Bonus for those over 18 should not be limited to instalments albeit we restricted it for under 18s. However, there are some clear cut cases and when it comes to substance abuse it’s a “no-brainer” not only are illicit substances just that – illicit, welfare is not for drugs.
The additional criticism was, whether in practical terms it can be delivered and who will make the decisions about who is in or out?
The simple answer is yes it can be delivered, although I readily acknowledge that more work is still required – hence the need to consult. What I will not do, however, is to accept the view of some nay sayers who argue these sorts of things are too hard.
If it is going to help our nation’s most vulnerable children, and I believe it will, then it would be a cop-out to do nothing and leave these children to fend for themselves.
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The first step, through Centrepay, is already available today and the use of debit cards appear to be real alternatives. Many organisations represented here today already use similar products for Emergency Relief.
As to who makes the decision – we are not talking about an arbitrary process. The sorts of people who would become involved are already known to State systems.
However – I believe this aspect about how to trigger the provisions needs to be consultative – after all, I am simply offering another tool to the armoury of state protection authorities to do their difficult job.
Finally – there is the suggestion that this measure alone doesn’t tackle all the problems. For example your own President of ACOSS – Lin Hatfield Dodds – said when I first mooted this proposal, “although more needed to be done to help families in trouble, problems such as truancy, substance abuse and violence could not be treated solely as financial issues”
I couldn’t agree more. Today I am not suggesting this as a silver bullet or a fix-all– but rather another weapon in the armoury to protect our most vulnerable children.
I propose that this tool be used in conjunction with other interventions, not instead of other interventions.
And, who can deny the need for more options to tackle seemingly intractable problems?
I accept implicitly that we also need to reinforce longer term issues.
For example, school attendance and education is vital if we are to break cycles of poverty and welfare dependence.
At the most recent COAG meeting the Prime Minister, Premiers and Chief Ministers agreed in principle with the need to reinforce compulsory school attendance and States have already agreed to cooperate with the National Truancy Unit so we can better share information with a view to supporting improved school attendance.
I also note that a number of States have suggested “work or school” requirements – so, in principle, they agree with the need to keep kids at school or in employment.
Despite this good will and agreement; sadly, truancy remains a problem.
The children concerned might not recognise it, but ultimately they will pay the price so will the society in general. That’s why we need to consider all reasonable options to ensure children go to school and the Australian Government believes there is a fit between the quarantining proposals I have outlined and reinforcement of school attendance.
To that end the Australian Government propose to build on the agreement at COAG by making provision for quarantining of welfare payments where a child is a serial truant. That is, where a child is a persistent truant, a portion of welfare should be mandatorily quarantined for essential needs. It is an on-balance judgement but, given the synergy between welfare cycles and non school attendance, and the synergy between truancy and neglect, this tool can underpin other efforts to support school attendance.
We should never forget that parents are required by law to ensure their children go to school. Serial truancy is also likely to be a high indicator for neglect.
If a parent is not ensuring children are going to school, is this really a fair start to those children and who is protecting them.
Clearly this requires State involvement and this is another area I propose to work through with and seek cooperation from State authorities.
The best outcomes for the children involved will be achieved if the Commonwealth and state and territory governments work together.
I accept that the states and territories have responsibility in policing child protection provisions and I don’t propose to challenge that. But we know that these systems are under stress and “quarantining” provides these authorities with just one more tool to help with a very difficult task.
Today I am also offering representatives of the welfare sector a seat at the table along with State Authorities as we progress this measure.
In conclusion, this quarantining or income management initiative represents a new approach.
It recognises that parents should not be expected to stand alone to protect their children.
It recognises that we all have a role to play.
It recognises that what has occurred in the past has not been entirely successful.
We must do more than acknowledge that the welfare of the child should be of prime importance – it must be reflected in the policies we adopt. Through income management we will place the well-being of the child at the very pinnacle of our welfare policies.
It is a policy that deserves to be endorsed because it recognises the obligations our entire society has towards our children. With the co-operation of our state colleagues we look forward to taking this very important step along the path of protecting those who need our support the most.
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