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Address to the opening of the International Family Life Conference, Sydney



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PARLIAMENT OF AUSTRALIA • THE SENATE

SENATOR JOCELYN NEWMAN SHADOW MINISTER FOR THE FAMILY AND HEALTH

Speech by Senator Jocelyn Newman

Shadow Minister for the Family

Opening the

International Family Life Conference

Manly Pacific Parkroyal Hotel

Sydney

Monday April 18, 1994

COMMONWEALTH PARLIAMENTARY LIBRARY MICAH

11 ELPHIN ROAD, LAUNCESTON, TAS. 7250 TELEPHONE (003) 341755 FACSIMILE (003) 341624

PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA, ACT. 2600 TELEPHONE (06) 2773660 • FACSIMILE (06) 2773449

Thank you for the welcome and the invitation to open your Family Conference.

The speakers who are to address the Conference, and the issues they will be raising, reflect many of the preoccupations I have had with family policy since assuming responsibility for the Family portfolio one year ago.

In opening the Conference today I want to briefly focus on the position and needs of the Australian families in the 1990s as I see them.

No one would dispute the fact that in the 1990s families are under unprecedented stress.

One does not need to look far for the manifestations of this stress.

In June 1992 for every 2 1/2 weddings there was one new divorce and nearly 46,000 children under 18 were involved in those new divorces.

Our youth suicide rate has now been described by the World Health Organisation as the highest in the industrialised world, at 20.7 in every 100,000 and it is particularly alarming in rural areas.

Day after day we learn of ghastly examples of domestic violence between spouses or against children. The situation is so serious that we have a National Strategy for the Prevention of Violence against Women which has received bi-partisan support.

In 1990/91 there were 50,000 cases of child abuse and neglect reported and of those 45% were substantiated.

Last year there were 24,500 adolescents receiving a homeless allowance, either through Abstudy, Austudy or the Department of Social Security. There are many more homeless young people not receiving the allowance.

The Burdekin Report on Mental Health has pointed out the severe mental health problems which result from the breakdown of marriages and families.

For instance, it states that family disharmony is a major contributor to child mental illness, with a great deal of evidence concerning the distressing and disturbing effect that parental arguments and domestic violence have on children.

The report states that not only is family breakdown distressing for children but it may also lead to mental illness problems such as depression.

Perhaps most importantly, the report concludes that poor parenting, lack of

involvement and supervision of children, household disorganisation and marital disharmony all increase the risk of mental illness.

Only last Thursday the Human Rights Commissioner lamented the breakdown of the family unit as jeopardising the future and, in some cases, the lives of hundreds of young people.

Mr Burdekin pointed out that we have over 700,000 children living in homes in which no one has an income, and that nine times out of ten the carer is a single mother. He expressed concern that if the mother collapsed under pressure, or, to use his words, "hit the bottle", or fell mentally ill, the children were left to their own

devices.

In my visits to Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities I have found the same problems. I'm particularly distressed by the number of older aboriginal women worried about the future of the children in their communities. They are concerned that young women are having babies at very young ages and on their own, resulting in the child either being neglected or thrown back to their grandmothers to be reared. The well-being of children is in jeopardy. Throughout pregnancy young women are ignoring their own health. They are drinking excessively, ignoring their

own health and nutrition, and later the health and nutrition of their babies.

If families are suffering in this way what should be the response?

It is my view that the response needs to be at two levels.

At the first level there are those wider factors which contribute to the well-being of families. Invariably these are economic factors, since the general health of the economy obviously has a direct impact on the welfare of all Australians.

I am speaking of broadly economic areas such as taxation, interest rates, industrial relations, and employment.

These have a critical influence on the well-being or otherwise of families. If policies are not working in these areas, families suffer.

For instance, it has been suggested that the taxation system discriminates against families with young children who wish to have one parent working full-time in the home.

The high interest rate policy of the 1980s led to the worst recession in sixty years

and had a devastating impact on families. Although interest rates have now fallen to quite low levels, the consequences of the 1980s policy are still being felt by many families today.

In the area of industrial relations, pressure for reform of the workplace continues. The reforms which have recently been introduced still fail to establish a genuine system of enterprise bargaining. Until this occurs workers will not have available to them all the benefits which flow from genuine enterprise agreements, including greater flexibility for those who have family responsibilities.

We presently have an unemployment rate greater than ten per cent, with 365,900 Australians unemployed for longer than twelve months. These sorts of outcomes have a long-term, devastating effect on families.

At another level families also need very direct support.

We see this expressed in payments such as Family Payment and the Home Child Care Allowance.

Often, if a family has broken down then some form of income support will be needed.

But I would pause here to make the point that this support must be carefully applied.

For example, I have made a number of comments in the last year about the young homeless allowance.

• I have serious concerns about whether some of the young people who receive this allowance are truly homeless.

In making this point it should not be forgotten that welfare organisations find many young people who truly need help are not receiving it. This should be even more of a concern than the fact that some of those who do receive the allowance are doing

so falsely.

The point is that while income support and shelter are needed for homeless youth, so too are efforts needed to try to restore the viability of their family unit.

This has not been happening and the allowance has been handed over with no

attempt to remedy the causes of the homelessness.

In such circumstances it must be said that government is acting to undermine the family. Unless a genuine effort is made to reconcile the family then it can be said that government is acting negligently and is, in effect, financing family breakdown.

That this is not intended is beside the point if it is occurring.

As an aside, this example highlights why it is important that all governments subject their decisions to Family Impact Statements.

The Coalition is committed at a Federal level to introducing Family Impact Statements when in government.

Such statements would ensure that before any formal Government decisions are taken, consideration has been given to the implications for families.

So rather than waiting until a policy is in place and discovering after the event that there are serious negative consequences for families, such policies would be filtered according to their impact on families before implementation and, if needed, be amended or rejected.

I believe such an approach would be a very positive development in enhancing the interests of families.

The other important area of support for families is in what I would call family education.

Family education is crucial if we wish to prevent family breakdown and strengthen families.

The financial cost of marriage breakdown has been estimated at approximately $3 billion - made up of the cost of the Family Court, Legal Aid, Family Services, Sole Parents pensions and allowances, lost production and wages, and solicitors fees.

To a large extent this can be attributed to a lack of understanding of what marriage involves.

If we could aim to encourage all those planning to marry to go through a pre-

marriage education course first, we might have a better chance of ensuring that the marriage will work. People need to learn about commitment, about sacrifice, about ways of coping with different attitudes on important issues, about better communication.

Only about 5% of those planning to marry attend pre-marriage education classes and of those, about 5% decide not to go ahead with the marriage.

But learning how to make a good marriage should first be taught at school - in teaching children to cope with disagreements. Too many little boys grow up thinking that they can solve their problems with their fists. Little girls don't always grow up understanding that women don't have to be patronised, ignored, abused or beaten.

These are important matters we should all be teaching Australia's children.

Parenting skills are also important.

These days many parents have grown up in very small families and know little about the developmental stages of children and about parenting skills. Nor have parents grown up with the values of their grandparents, for example, putting self last, making do with what they had, the concept of duty to one's parents and authorities.

For every Australian family with children the Federal Government currently provides merely $1.66 a year to help organisations provide family or adolescent mediation, family therapy or parenting skills programs - a miserable amount.

This is clearly not enough and must be increased if we are really committed to the concept that prevention is better than picking up the pieces.

In my view community organisations are best placed to provide these programs, preferably using trained volunteers. This is already working well with pre-marriage education and is the key to making sure that services are provided as widely as possible around the nation, and are readily accessible.

Currently we spend around $19 million a year on trying to prevent family breakdown - on marriage counselling, pre-marriage education, family mediation, family therapy and adolescent mediation, family skills training. Yet marriage breakdown alone costs around $3,000 million a year.

Clearly $19 million is a pitiful amount - much more needs to be invested in

education and prevention.

The Coalition is currently working on family policy, and on 15 May will be hosting a National Conference on Families. Ita Buttrose, Don Edgar and Charles Perkins, among others, will be speaking at the Conference on a range of important family issues.

We will use the Conference to help us develop policies which help families to help themselves and which help families to stay together and to be strong.

In order to overcome the problems of families individuals, organisations, communities and governments must grasp the nettle. We cannot allow those problems to be ignored.

The staging of this Conference shows that the Seventh-Day Adventist Church is seeking to play its part in addressing these important issues.

I wish the Church, and all those who attend, an engaging, productive and lively Conference.