Speech by Senator the Hon Kay Patterson

Address at the Lauch of the AIHW Report – ‘A Picture of Australia’s Children’


Ladies and gentleman,

Thank you for the opportunity to launch the Institute’s ‘A Picture of Australia’s Children’ report.

Unfortunately, for many, words like ‘key national indicators’ and ‘data sets’ aren’t all that exciting. And it’s hard to rev up interest in the media about things that can sometimes appear complicated and specialised.

But people involved in research, do understand how much influence their findings can have when it comes to crafting the Government’s social policies – policies which affect every Australian family and child, in one way or another.

In the past, some might call it the very distant past, when I was studying child development, what we knew about early childhood experiences, and their influence on people’s lives later on, came from international research – and that we had very little local research on this, and what interventions might work best, in the Australian context.

Well things have moved on, and thanks to reports like ‘A Picture of Australian Children’, the third in this series, we are starting to build a much clearer understanding of what is happening with our nation’s children against a set of key health and welfare indicators.

Let me give you just a few facts and figures from the report.

In 2003, there were around 3.9 million children in Australia, aged 0 to 14. At the moment, they make up a fifth of the country’s population.

The report notes that most Australian children are doing well, and it also points to some improvements, such as:

  • a significant decline in child mortality in the past two decades
  • decreasing instances of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS);
  • far better survival outcomes for children with leukaemia;
  • fewer children exposed to tobacco smoke at an early age;
  • more Australian children attending preschools;
  • fewer children living in families with no parent working;
  • fewer children in juvenile justice facilities; and
  • death rates from all types of injury on the decline.

However, there are also some areas of real concern:

  • A relatively high proportion of boys (18 per cent) and girls (22 per cent), aged 2 to 14, are overweight or obese;
  • As of 2001, more than 500 000 Australian children, aged 0 to 14, are suffering from asthma as a long-term condition.
  • Some 18 per cent of women are still smoking during pregnancy. For pregnant Indigenous women, the rate is 47 per cent .
  • Around 6 per cent of Australian babies are born weighing less than 2500 grams.
  • From 1997 to 2003, the rate of children on care and protection orders has increased by 47 per cent.
  • In 2003, police recorded over 12 000 children as victims of all types of assault.

While the report’s findings are overall very positive, they do reveal that there are groups of children whose health needs to be improved – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have poorer health and wellbeing on the whole.

While the death rate among Indigenous babies has fallen consistently in recent years, it remains far higher than among other Australian babies.

Other findings include –

  • The average life expectancy at birth for Indigenous Australian infants is about 20 years less than for non-Indigenous infants.
  • Indigenous children aged between 10 and 14 are detained by authorities at about 30 times the rate of non-Indigenous children.
  • The rate of Indigenous children on care and protection orders in 2002 was 23.5 per 1000, compared to 3.8 per 1000 for other Australian children.
  • As well, the rate of child protection substantiations for Indigenous children aged 0 to 14 in 2002–03 was 22.9 per 1000 children, compared to 6.5 per 1000 children for all other Australian children.

So while we’ve seen some great progress in many areas, the reality is that there is still a lot of work for everyone to do, to give Australian children the best possible start in life.

For its part, the Government has early childhood at the top of its policy agenda.

Since coming to office, we have:

  • continued to increase the rate of family payments
  • introduced a maternity allowance to help families with the cost of caring for a new-born child
  • increased child care places by more than 80 per cent and
  • announced the introduction of Family Impact Statements as part of the Cabinet process. This means that, in proposing new government policies, submissions will now formally need to have considered the economic and other impacts on families.

The Government has also committed another $490 million towards the renewed Stronger Families and Communities Strategy. Today I am pleased to announce that another 10 sites have been selected to be part of the Communities for Children initiative, which is a corner stone of the Strategy.

This follows the announcement, in September 2004, of additional funding of $30 million over four years for the Communities for Children initiative on top of the $110 million already committed, bringing the total number of sites to 45 in urban, rural and remote areas across the country.

The funding of community organisations to provide local services to local families is building the social infrastructure for our children and future generations to follow while improving the lives of children and families.

In recognising the disparities in outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, we have also, for example:

  • allocated $4 million to the Secretariat for National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care to develop a National Resource Service for Indigenous Families and Children
  • helped Indigenous communities and services develop their own early childhood and child and family support programs
  • provided $1.9 million each year for the Indigenous Parenting and Family Wellbeing initiative
  • provided funding from the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy for projects in Indigenous communities and
  • commenced the development of an Indigenous child care plan.

Our National Agenda for Early Childhood, currently being finalised with state and territory governments, – is a first for this country – and also reflects the Government’s focus on early childhood. In fact, both the A Picture of Australia’s Children report and the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy have been informed by the draft framework and consultations for the National Agenda.

Taking a whole-of-Government and early intervention and prevention focus, the National Agenda is designed to integrate better children and family support services – funded by all levels of government – including child care, pre-schools, relationship services, and public health.

I should mention that, in developing the National Agenda, we not only used existing research, but recognised the importance of building our evidence base.

‘A Picture of Australian Children’ also complements other government research initiatives currently under way, for example:

  • the $20 million longitudinal study of Australian children, called Growing up in Australia
  • the special longitudinal study of Indigenous children
  • funding for the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, headed by Professor Fiona Stanley, to pull together a national early childhood research agenda and create closer links between research policies and programs.
  • trials of the Australian Early Development Index in Australian communities across the country. Based on a Canadian model, the index, measures children’s early development using a teacher-completed checklist of over 100 questions.
  • Last week I announced an extension to this program to a further 125 schools involving 10,000 children.
  • the ongoing HILDA survey – which looks at the factors that determine whether a person is likely to need welfare assistance at certain points of their life.

Together with ‘A Picture of Australia’s children’, all this research and survey activity will continue to make an extremely valuable contribution to helping us understand what needs to be done, in future, to give Australian children the best possible start in life.

A Picture of Australia’s Children’ is an incredibly useful resource for everyone who has an interest in the health and wellbeing of children in contemporary Australia.

Please join me in acknowledging and congratulating everyone from the institute involved in producing this report.

It gives me great pleasure now to officially launch the ‘A Picture of Australia’s Children’ report.

Thank you.