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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 3093

Ms O'BYRNE (12:13 PM) —Approaching nine years in government, what can the Prime Minister and those on the opposite side claim as anything like a national strategy for early childhood? Labor quite rightly places the early years of every life on the first rung of the ladder of opportunity. A working partnership between the Commonwealth and the states and territories on the vast array of issues which affect the early years must be a priority of the highest order. When the member for Werriwa became the Leader of the Opposition he demonstrated most emphatically Labor's commitment to proper and adequate support for a national strategy for early childhood development. His first question in the House as leader was about just that. He asked why the government had no early childhood strategy. We failed to get an answer then and we have seen virtually nothing of substance since.

It took until earlier this month—almost nine long years after Howard and his ministers took office—for something to appear, and then the best they could manage was a dollar-free draft national agenda for early childhood. On the other hand, it is not a theme that we have forgotten. Once again it is Labor with the ideas, Labor creating the agenda, Labor showing that it understands what Australians need. Read Aloud Australia, an assault on childhood obesity, support for community playgroups, acceptance of the recommendations of the experts on infant vaccinations, and a commissioner for children and young people form the beginning of Labor's plan for early childhood development. While the government muddles and engages in the odd bit of rhetoric, we on this side of the House are listening and responding to the needs of the parents of the youngest Australians. The recent framework announced by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is the government's first attempt, despite being in power since 1996, to engage the states and territories on childhood issues.

One of my organisations, the Child Health Association, recently wrote to the Minister for Family and Community Services about the lack in many parts of the country of parenting facilities—clean and easy-to-access feeding and changing areas for babies and accessible toilets for young children, regardless of the gender of the parent or carer with them at the time. What became of the letter? It was referred to the department, who said, `No, it's not our problem; it is all to do with the state department.' Why? Because this government has no strategy for dealing with the issues—no compact with states and territories, no plan to ensure that the role of families is well regarded in the community. Labor do have a plan, and we will work with the states to ensure that we develop good strategies for children and families.

The first five years of a child's life are absolutely critical to development. Learning does not begin when a child first enters school; it starts on the first day of life. All governments must be receptive to the needs of parents and be prepared to partner them in ensuring that children have the best possible start in life. Community playgroups, mostly run by voluntary committees of parents and grandparents, play a valuable role in this regard, and we believe they deserve more support. We believe that the government ought to partner these groups through targeted provision of additional resources. The Leader of the Opposition in a recent speech drew attention to international studies which have shown that it is possible to predict a child's opportunities in life by the age of five. This demonstrates the absolute importance of a real and working Australian agenda for early childhood development. Every Australian child deserves the opportunity of a fair go in life. If, as has been indicated, those first five years are so critical then they need a range of supportive and supported environments in their own homes, at child care centres, in playgroups and at preschool.

Australia's younger citizens deserve to be supported, engaged and challenged in appropriate ways. They need opportunities to interact with other children and adults in friendly circumstances. For too long the ideologies of those opposite have left all of these issues to look after themselves, but the reality is that failure to invest in the earliest years is a recipe for lower education, fewer social opportunities and lower standards for those who miss out. The words of the Treasurer urging Australians to populate have a hollow ring when one takes time to reflect on what the government has planned for each newborn's first five years—essentially nothing.

The other area that I wish to discuss is to do with the ABC's commercial arm, ABC Enterprises. While I am fully aware that it is not parliament's role to determine what the ABC should broadcast and the nature of ABC programming, I am particularly concerned that ABC Enterprises may have been handed the power and authority to make the judgment on what Australian children will see on television. The ABC children's television department has quite rightly been feted over time for its knowledge and expertise. It has made a substantial contribution to the education and enjoyment of countless young Australians. It is therefore very disappointing that the ABC now appears to have become beholden to the commercial dollar.

Sadly this is even evident in the area of children's television. It seems that the programs our children will in future see on ABC television will be determined by the marketability and profitability of spin-off products such as videos, DVDs, books, toys and other merchandise. Marketing should not become the primary consideration of an organisation such as the ABC. The recent advertisement by ABC Enterprises for expressions of interest in developing a program for toddlers or slightly older girls was accompanied by the rider that the program should be commercially saleable intellectual property for the ABC. The advertisement further required the program to have broad international potential in respect of both TV program sales and ancillary rights exploitation. These outcomes are fine as flow-on benefits but, as I have said before, they should not be the primary consideration. The development of children's minds and thoughts are too important for that. The ABC, as an independent broadcaster, has a terribly important role in children's television. One key aspect has been its ability and capacity to place other issues ahead of commercial considerations. This ought not change.