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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18493


Mr DUTTON (11:24 AM) —There has been a great deal of debate in recent times concerning family law reform and indeed family policy. Part of my attraction to this parliament and to the Liberal Party was a cornerstone ideology emphasising the importance of the rights of individuals. It is an important position to bear in mind when we discuss these policies.

The bill before the House today, the Family Law Amendment Bill 2003, deals in part with parenting plans and an obligation to attend counselling, so we are talking about a considerable involvement of government in people's lives. These are important considerations and in today's society of increasing family breakdown there is a community expectation that government does need to play a role in family law and policy.

It is an irony in many ways because one of my core beliefs—and in fact my task as a Liberal member of parliament—is that the involvement of government in the lives of people should be reduced wherever possible. People should be rewarded handsomely for hard work and should be able to enjoy the spoils of their successes with as little intervention from the government as possible. My commitment to this ideology has only been strengthened during my short time as the federal member for Dickson.

However, the unspoken part of this ideology is the basic principle that with rights come responsibilities. So what has also been emphasised to me during this same period is the fact that an increasing number in our society, while happy to enjoy the rights, are even happier to abrogate their responsibilities—responsibilities that should go hand in hand with those rights. In my view, there is no greater demonstration in Australian society of this increasing problem than in the area of parental responsibility.

Where and why is it permissible for government to take a more active role? What areas of public policy should we as a government more actively participate in? My view is that parental responsibility is one such area. I believe our government and indeed the state and territory governments need to take a more active role in the issue of parental responsibility. At the same time, the ultimate aim, though, should be one of preserving individual parental rights. It is incredibly important to make that distinction.

Each year governments across Australia spend billions of taxpayers' dollars on child welfare, baby bonuses, health, education and other policies and on welfare payments. We must be accountable for the expenditure of this money and if we believe it could be better directed or more efficiently applied then we should not be afraid to say so.

The Aboriginal community in Cape York, under the leadership of Noel Pearson, is having the guts to address the afflictions on their people stemming from alcohol abuse. The domestic violence is horrific. Sexual abuse, particularly of young children by other family and community members, is rife and needless to say the resulting health and education achievements are appalling. The reason I make this point is that people like Noel Pearson and the Prime Minister have the strength to recognise a problem but, more importantly, the desire to address it.

Why do we as the broader Australian community refuse to recognise significant problems within our own society? Although not as systemic as or on the general scale of those problems facing Cape York and other communities, our own community faces increasing social problems that we need to have the guts to speak about today. We need to challenge the structure of the current system.

What makes this issue very difficult to talk about is the fact that the majority of Australian parents love and care for their children as they should. But please let me make it very clear that there is a culture in our society that crosses the bounds of poverty and wealth and is not dictated by education or social status. It is a culture in which parental responsibility is all but absent. Although not great in number the human cost, not just to those children but to the rest of our society, is incalculable. In Australia today we have households in which there is now a third generation of people who have never worked and in which children are subject to role models who have no work ethic at all. Indeed there is a welfare handout mentality, the expectations of which are growing out of control.

In Australia today we have households where parents are more concerned with spending money on home theatre systems than on their children's education. In Australia today we have children who are physically, mentally and/or sexually assaulted by other family members or friends, and their parents choose to take no action. In Australia today we have babies and young toddlers attending child care and children attending preschool and primary school who have not been fed or bathed before being placed in care. In Australia today we have children whose parents have no interest in their children's being other than what it means financially for them in the form of social welfare payments.

In my own electorate I can return home from a function at any hour of the night and see children as young as 10 or 11 years of age hanging around the local servo or convenience store. It could be 10 o'clock at night or one o'clock in the morning; it matters not. This is happening right across the country. Many people surely ask themselves the same question I ask: `Why the hell aren't these children at home in bed?' or perhaps more importantly, `Where the hell are their parents?' Incredibly, and to their credit, many of these children are able to achieve in these circumstances—certainly in spite of them. But the reality is that the majority will not. So we have a situation where, through no fault of their own, in their formative years, these children are developing lifelong traits that impact negatively upon not only their own lives but the lives of those around them in society.

In my electorate of Dickson there are in excess of 30 local schools. I play an active role in attending as many events as possible at these schools. Many of the teachers I speak with in both primary and secondary schools and indeed in preschools and child-care centres tell of their similar concerns and can relay instances of these very events. They too share a great frustration when they see many of these children. Many simply ask, `Why are children who come from the same street and whose parents have similar positions in life treated so differently by their parents?' The answer is that we can never solve all of these problems. The human nature of parents and children and their individual traits and respective abilities to deal with certain situations are not things that we could or would want to control or clone across society. But the fact remains that parents have responsibilities not just to themselves but primarily to their children. In a civilised society we must be responsible for decisions taken not only by ourselves but also by our children which affect those in society around us.

In my view one of the core problems seems to be the distinct lack of preparedness in becoming a parent despite, in many cases, every good intention. Many of the teachers, social workers and police that we speak to on a daily basis believe that the parents of many of the children they have contact with have a distinct lack of parenting skill or ability. Hence the seed of many of the problems that lay down the track for these children is sown very early in life.

In generations gone by, new parents had assistance from grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles and family and friends. Generally that was the nature of a traditional family unit. There was a wealth of information and parenting advice that was shared naturally. For many reasons and in many situations, that support network no longer operates. That advice and support simply do not exist. But perhaps for some, sadly, it has never existed. So the results mean that a percentage of new parents in our society are ill-prepared and have limited or no parenting skills at all. In fact it may be the case that in today's global environment they simply do not have family or friends close by who can offer genuine advice and assistance. Frankly, there are a myriad of reasons—too many to list—as to why some parents get it right with their children and others simply have no idea. The usual suspects, the politically correct, will attempt to scream me down for daring to discuss such issues. But my view is that we must look at what I believe is a core precursor to relationship breakdown itself—low self-esteem, drug use, juvenile crime and many other social cancers in today's society.

I started by speaking about the role of government in this issue. Although I strongly believe that, in many of those areas, government can only assist those who are willing to help themselves, government could assist in a more practical and useful way than we are doing at the moment. In my view the majority of Australians believe in a fair go and support the concept of rights and believe strongly that they should go hand in hand with responsibilities. We see this concept working practically in other areas of welfare payments, and in my view the area of family payments should be no different.

I believe there is an incredible need and perhaps demand for proper parenting skills courses, and it is an area that we as policy makers need to further examine and discuss. I spoke before about teachers and welfare workers who express their frustration when they identify families or children at risk. Surely in these circumstances we should be acting proactively to address the problem before a course is set. On average, teachers have contact with children for one-third of the day. How can we realistically expect teachers to actively and positively engage children when they know that, for two-thirds of the day, many children are stuck in front of a video or television program, with family surrounds that include nothing that is conducive to their positive development?

We need to discuss the viability of parenting courses for particularly at-risk families. We need to investigate a regime that would allow teachers, social workers and police, for argument's sake, to refer these at-risk families to compulsory parenting education programs. We need to break this cycle, and we must break it early. Tragically, in many situations it is too late when that child is nine or 10—in some cases even six or seven—because the pattern has already been determined. Anyone involved in community groups or their school community will inform you that, if a drug education program or parent information night were held at the local school, the families who would turn up would be predictable. The same people who helped out with the fete or working bees or who participated in other school or community events would be the people who would attend. Sadly, those people who the teachers are able to identify as those at risk would be the ones who, despite the obvious need for their circumstances to be addressed, would be noticeably absent. If as a society we are serious about putting the interests of children first—and clearly and absolutely we should be—then this is a debate, however painful, that we must have. If we are interested in setting these children on a positive path in life, then we need to break the cycle as early as possible.

I spoke before about other welfare payments that we operate in today's society, and mentioned that we have a system of mutual obligation in some of those areas. This is an area that I believe needs to be discussed in relation to parenting plans because, if as a government we are providing payments on a regular basis to families who are not providing positive role models and indeed are providing negative ones to their children, then we need to reassess that as a community. We need as a community and as policy makers in this country to be able to say to those people that they are getting it wrong. We need to be able to say to those people that their children are embarking upon a path which will lead them to darker days—not just for themselves but for the community that surrounds them. We need to be able to say to those parents that the cycle needs to stop. We need to be able to say to those parents, through these courses that they attend, that they need to adopt positive roles and positive parenting skills that will aid their children for many years down the track.

That is a debate that we very genuinely need to undertake in our society. There are those critics in society who believe that everything is okay and that we should not be talking about these issues. But the fact is that, if we are looking at some of the problems and the precursors to the problems that exist in society, the core problems—such as those in my electorate of Dickson, including juvenile crime and, tragically, the sexual abuse of young children—are the sorts of issues that we need to be addressing. My background includes having spent nine years in the police force and about seven years in a part-time and full-time capacity in the child-care industry. I saw on a daily basis many families who came through the doors of our child-care centres. At that time, I saw hundreds of families who came from similar backgrounds as me, who came from the same suburbs and streets, who had the same starts in life and who had, I suppose, the same economic or social backgrounds. But some who turned up to the child-care centre each day had not fed or bathed their young children, and that would happen on a regular basis.

We need to ask ourselves as a society why those people get it wrong but others in identical circumstances get it right in relation to their children. Why is it that those people who work full time are able to find the time to provide these basic skills and beliefs and provide for their children, yet the people next door who are working full time are not able to do that? It does result in these children being put at risk. If you speak with teachers and those who have had constant contact with children, particularly in primary schools, you find that they can generally identify at the very early stages—this is not always the case and it is a generalisation that, perhaps, we should be careful in making—those children who will go on to commit crime, have the greatest problems with truancy down the track or not engage at all in the education system. They may have problems with numeracy or literacy early on. They are the ones who need to be identified. As a government and as a community, we need to have the guts to say to those people that what they are doing is not working and that what they are doing needs to be addressed. They need to be provided with and afforded every assistance possible by our society.

That is why I say that, in this day and age, I think we need to be able to link parenting payments to the attendance at those courses, because there are positive outcomes; firstly, for those children—and, as I say, that should be our primary focus—and, secondly, for the other members of that family unit and our broader community at large. They should be the objectives that we go forward with into the next decade. I think it is an issue that we need to discuss more broadly. Like the leaders in the Aboriginal community, we need to identify that these issues do exist. There is no sense in our society brushing them aside or feeling that they are too sensitive to talk about. If we are going to make a positive contribution in this parliament then I think we need to work with families, without being intrusive in their lives, and say that the actions they take affect the outcomes not only for their children but for the community at large. We need to work with those people, address the problems and arrive at positive outcomes.

I wanted to flag today what I think is a very serious issue. This is an issue that I intend to speak more on. I hope we are able to foster some debate in the broader community. Some people will agree with what I have said today and others will disagree adamantly. I think it is healthy for our society to debate these issues and find proper outcomes. It is something that we need to further research. I commit myself to doing that today, because it is important to young aspirational families; it is important to the people who live in suburbs right across Australia, certainly to those who live in my electorate of Dickson.