Howard ignores the children

The federal cuts
Carmel Tebbutt

Recently the prime minister made one of his rare forays into child and family policy to urge "parents to take more responsibility for their children rather than expecting governments to provide all the answers". His comments were particularly in the context of young people who were troublesome or difficult.

On the face of it, a view hard to disagree with. In many ways a classic Howard approach - to make seemingly inoffensive comments that actually are all about presenting a view of the world that is totally at odds with the reality of many peoples lives. At the same time, shifting blame back on to the victim and seeking to absolve the government of any responsibility to actually provide the services and facilitate the type of communities that make it easier for parents to take responsibility.

It's particularly galling when considered in light of the fact that the federal government underspent its families tax benefit and child care benefit budget by $1billion last financial year. But then again this federal government has never worried too much about the gap between rhetoric and reality as long as fits with their goal of dividing the community in this case between the "good" parents and the "bad" parents.

Don't get me wrong, as the person responsible for Community Services, I fervently believe in importance of effective parenting and the difference it makes to a child's life. It is just that I also see on a daily basis the adversity in some people's lives and their lack of capacity to provide the time, attention and patience that children need to thrive. Lecturing a teenage mother living on the outskirts of Sydney with poor community support, a background of living in care herself, and often a violent partner on the need to take responsibility, is likely to do little to improve her capacity to raise her child.

And yet there is so much that the federal government could practically do to better support families particularly those vulnerable and living on the edge. And this brings to me the real point of my comments tonight.

We are increasingly seeing in Australia the growth in a section of society that is marginalised from the mainstream and that has no hope of sharing in the benefits of our so called booming economy - the common hallmarks are second or third generation unemployment, family violence, drug and/or alcohol abuse, poverty and a sense of hopelessness.

The work of Tony Vinson over 25 years has highlighted that the most disadvantaged people in our societies are concentrated in defined neighbourhoods. He found that in NSW the 5.5 peer cent of most disadvantaged postcodes accounted for over half of the incidents of long term unemployment, lowest incomes, child abuse, court convictions etc. Through the Premier's Department in NSW the state government funded the $50 million Community Solutions and Crime Prevention initiative, that is working in 26 such identified communities across NSW, to tackle some of the problems that have become entrenched through sustained disadvantage over many years.

The fortunes of these communities can be linked to improvements in employment and income - something that cannot be done without commitment from the federal government. Children growing up in these circumstances start life way behind the eight ball. There is no doubt that, against extraordinary odds, some children make it through. And we need to do more to understand what contributes to these children's resilience. However, with the growing research about the importance of the early years of a child's life, and the impact of experiences in those early years in how a child's brain is hard-wired, it's not surprising that many children who start life this way struggle to meet developmental milestones that we take for granted for children.

Their poor start in life influences behaviour, conduct, capacity to learn, to form relationships, to have empathy. All the things you need to make a success of your life.

We have seen in the last five years a massive increase in reports of concern to the Department of Community Services (DoCS) about children and young people at risk - in fact, a 436 per cent increase. This is not a trend isolated to Australia, it is being experienced worldwide.

There is no doubt the rise in inequality and the disintegration of community capacity has contributed to the increase in the number of children who are vulnerable or at risk. A recent US study found that children living in families with annual incomes below US$15000 were 22 times more likely to experience maltreatment than children whose families incomes were over US$30 000.

And yet the Prime Minister is notably silent on this aspect of child and family policy. In Australia poverty is more widespread than ever before:

  • more than 2 million Australians currently live in poverty - being indigenous, unemployed, part of a sole parent family, young or in receipt of social security means that you are at greatest risk of poverty;
  • 15 per cent of children in Australia live in jobless households;
  • half of all Australian households live on less than $30,000 per year;
  • 17 per cent of children in Australia live in poverty - the fifth highest in the top 25 industrialised nations;
  • less than 20 per cent of workers earn more than $60,000 and only 25 per cent of families have incomes higher than this.

For all the criticism of Bob Hawke's commitment to no child living in poverty, the Hawke/Keating government actually reduced child poverty by one third. In the UK, the Blair Labour government has set itself a target of the eradication of child poverty by 2020 - and it is not just child poverty that has been targeted: the Blair government has introduced indicators of poverty and social exclusion for children and young people, working age people, older people and communities. Progress against these policies is reported annually. And in the UK poverty is falling. Child poverty has fallen to 30 per cent and is at its lowest since 1991. There has been 10 per cent drop since Blair came to government.

Yet on 3 key issues that can help alleviate poverty - affordable housing, employment and education - we have seen little progress by the Howard government in assisting those most in need.

The ACOSS congress this week demonstrated that behind headline unemployment figures of 5.6 per cent lies 716,000 hidden unemployed people. People who work for as little as one hour per week, people who are so discouraged they had given up looking and people who want a job but can't take up a job immediately are not counted in the official unemployment figures. ACOSS estimates that 1.3 million Australians can be could be considered job deprived. Since Howard came to government the number of long term unemployed has doubled to 280,000. And if that's not enough, Howard has cut funding to employment assistance and labour market programs in half, and walked away from the provision of direct assistance to the unemployed with the winding up of the CES/Employment National.

In education, the priority has been to open access to education for those able to pay for it. While 70 per cent of Australian children attend public schools, funding to public schools has increased in real terms by 12 per cent, or $168 million while funding to private and independent schools has increased by 80 per cent or $1.5 billion. Retention rates are on the decline for the first time in 20 years. In the last 7 years $5 billion has been taken from universities. There are 20,000 fewer fully funded university places than in 1996. Brendan Nelson, an education minister whose medical degree was fully paid for under the Whitlam government, now expects those who wish to study medicine to pay $100,000 for the privilege.

At a time when a booming housing market has seen the median house price in Sydney go from $193,000 to $460,000:

  • 350,000 families are struggling to pay private rents;
  • over 220,000 people are on public housing waiting lists;
  • the Affordable Housing Research Consortium estimates that the number of low incomes households facing difficulties meeting accommodation costs will grow to 1 million by 2020;
  • 3 per cent of low income households can not afford to rent an average 3 bedroom house in outer Western Sydney.

In the last seven years, the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement base funding of $1.02 billion has been cut down to $843 million this year. Forward estimates show a reduction to $716 million in 04/05. The last census estimated that 105,000 people are homeless with over 17,000 men women and children on any given day finding themselves without a roof over their heads.

The Howard government has governed for the few not the many and through this process marginalised many in the community, particularly the long term unemployed. They have started the process of dismantling universal social entitlements and reallocated significant public resources away from those in need.

This ideological agenda has reinforced, if not widened, social and economic inequities and today it's tentacles reach into every aspect of public policy - education, health, childcare, industrial relations, housing and of course employment. More than ever, the family you are born into or the neighbourhood in which you live determines your lot in life and the opportunities you enjoy. And for those families that start with very little, this does not offer much hope.

Of course, state governments are not immune from responsibility for supporting vulnerable families and children. Our role in delivering services - health, education, community services - means we have a critical role in making a difference in the lives of families. And effective family intervention can make a difference, but it can't address inadequate income, lack of employment and poor housing.

The dismantling of social infrastructure that is so important for disadvantaged families is having an impact on the demand for community services. But this is a spur for us to work harder at the state level. And with well thought out, strategic and responsive programs we can make a difference.

Only this week I attended the launch of research which demonstrates the impact of supporting vulnerable families leads to a reduction in the number of children entering the child protection system. This backs up the approach we are taking to community services in NSW.

As you may be aware, the government last year announced $1.2 billion in additional funding for DoCs over five years. This funding package is the biggest ever, but more importantly, it is strategic in the way it invests in the whole range of DoCS services and, in particular, early intervention. The aspect of the package which has grabbed most attention is the creation of an additional 875 caseworker positions over the next five years. This is important but only one element.

We do need more caseworker resources to investigate the most serious reports of concern, and 375 of those additional caseworkers will be dedicated to that role. Equally, we need additional caseworker resources to support foster children and their carers. There will be 150 additional caseworkers in this role. And they will be further supported by a $450 million boost to out of home care funding.

But we know that the key to actually reducing the number of serious reports of concern is in intervening early to prevent problems from escalating into crises. That is why 350 of the additional caseworkers will be quarantined to work on the less serious reports of concern coming to DoCS. They will be backed by an additional $150 million in funding for intensive support services.

Many of the most serious reports to DoCS may often be the culmination of a series of lower level reports which, for a range of reasons, have not received enough attention. The idea is to intervene with families as soon as they come into contact with the Department, linking them up to support services to try and prevent pressures and problems from escalating. There are families who live on the edge, with little outside support, little economic capacity, and the line between those families making it or falling over the edge is very fine. But support at the right time can make an enormous difference.

DoCS will also have an increased capacity, in co-operation with the Department of Health, to identify at risk families either prior to the birth of a child or immediately afterwards, and to put support services in place to prevent them from coming into contact with the statutory child protection system. This is all in addition to the excellent program under Families First, which has been funded for $117.5 million over 4 years. With all these programs, NSW has the best system of early intervention and family support in the country. Our planning draws on local knowledge and international research and experience. The focus is practical support.

This doesn't mean the solutions are easy. We are often dealing with chronically dysfunctional families with multiple problems: domestic or family violence, mental health problems, drug and alcohol misuse, social and economic insecurity from unemployment. The government does not seek to blame families for their circumstances, and does not put all responsibility back onto these vulnerable families. In NSW we seek to provide practical support that gives these families and their children the best chance to succeed.

The NSW government has taken it's responsibilities to disadvantaged families very seriously, and put money in where needed. However the systemic failures of the Howard government continue to have a direct impact on individuals and communities, placing a huge strain on human services in the states.

Peter Costello smirked this week over the anticipated record budget surplus of $7 billion surplus - five times the treasury estimates. The federal government has the money to support our most vulnerable citizens, but it appears they do not have the will.


Carmel Tebbutt is the NSW Minister for Community Services, Minister for Ageing, Minister for Disability Services, and Minister for Youth. This is the text of her address to the Evatt Foundation on Friday 14 November 2003.


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