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Thursday, 16 October 2003
Page: 21679

Mr SAWFORD (4:42 PM) —In a country like Australia, which prides itself on being civilised, it is hard to accept the endemic indifference to the needs of children that has developed over the last 30 years. Take child care as an example. The rationale for the introduction of child care in Australia had nothing whatsoever to do with the care of children. It had to do with parent respite and participation in the work force. Intrinsically, there is nothing wrong with that. It makes perfect economic sense. But, like everything else in this world, it comes at a cost—largely to children—and denial of those costs while advancing the benefits is simply delusional. Take schooling as a second example. Billions of dollars of taxpayers' funds are being shifted from the education of children in need to those children not in need. It is an absolute disgrace. As yet the federal government has not been fully held accountable, but as certain as night follows day that time is fast approaching.

One of the most clearheaded studies of children I have encountered in the last 30 years was published in the Times Educational Supplement in April 1986. It was commissioned by the Inner London Education Authority. It was an extensive, fouryear, longitudinal study to research the most powerful determinants of children's future success or failure, and its conclusion is worth noting. Quite categorically, it stated that the effect of schooling on children between the ages of seven and 11 can make a substantial difference to a child's future progress and development and that, more importantly, schooling is more significant than a child's race, sex, religion or socioeconomic background. In other words, schooling for children aged seven to 11 is the most significant determinant of future success, regardless of race, gender, culture or socioeconomic background.

Most Australians reject discrimination based on race or culture—and rightly so. In its inquiry into the education of boys, the policies of gender equity were, rightly, identified by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training as being totally wrong-headed for not only boys but also a significant group of girls. Socioeconomic status, the only neutral attribute, is an important factor. This is the factor to which affirmative action ought to be strongly applied, irrespective of race, culture, religion or gender.

But there are other factors which must be significantly inhibiting the potential of many Australian children. In the last three decades dramatic statistical variations have been noted in Australian families. They are either positive or negative, but neutral they are not. Children need dedicated mothers and fathers, but it is not always the case that they have them. The percentage of children born outside of marriage in 1977, according to the ABS, was 9.8 per cent; the latest available figure, from 2001, is 30.7 per cent. That is an increase of 319 per cent in 24 years, and overall it is not a good statistic for children. There were 24,088 teenage mothers in 1975—10.4 per cent of all mothers. In 2001 there were only 995 teenage mothers—less than 0.4 per cent of all mothers. That is probably a very good statistic for children as well as for female teenagers.

Census statistics in 1971 and 1976 about sole-parent families are not available, and that omission is interesting in itself. In August 2003 the ABS reported that 15.3 per cent of all families were sole-parent families. Further analysis of that 15.3 per cent and their incomes presents a bleak picture for many children. Sole parent families in receipt of welfare benefits as their main income totalled 26,300 in June 1974. In June 2002—on the latest available figures—the total is 427,800. That is an increase of 1,626 per cent. For couples with children, 7.4 per cent are earning less than $25,000. For sole parents, 45.l per cent are earning less than $25,000. Those kids are doing it tough, and so are their parents.

Many influential social commentators have no difficulty in declaring that the days of the nuclear family unit are gone. The propaganda says: `As long as love, discipline and sound nurturing are provided, everything else will be okay.' But is it okay? What about propaganda that invalidates relationships between men and women and between men and children, and deconstructs them? Is that a progressive public policy for children? Would it be better to have a progressive public policy which allows all citizens to make the choices that not only suit them but at least take into account the impact those choices have on children? Surely children are more important than an ideological stance—or are they? Whether it be policy, process or outcomes, the current picture concerning the state in which our children find themselves is pretty grim, is unacceptable and is not in this nation's future interest.