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Address to research symposium and official launch of the Australian Young Pregnant and Parenting Network, Canberra

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Senator the Hon Jacinta Collins

Parliamentary Secretary for School Education and Workplace Relations 25 October, 2010


Address to Research Symposium and official launch of the Australian Young Pregnant and Parenting Network (AYPPN). Centre for Teaching and Learning, Canberra


I am pleased to join you today to give the opening address at your research symposium and the launch of the Australian Young Pregnant and Parenting Network (AYPPN).

As the Parliamentary Secretary for School Education, it gives me great pleasure, on behalf of the Gillard government, to recognise the work you do in educating and supporting young pregnant women and mothers, and some fathers too.

The Federal Government recognised your “remarkable” program in 2008, with an “Excellence in School Improvement” Award, and I also congratulate you for winning a $750,000 grant from the NAB last year, which I know has helped significantly in setting up the network.

What you do is important work. It is tremendous work.

On a personal note, as the mother of three children, and having been involved with an organisation that supports young mothers, I want to endorse your achievements and assure you of my keen interest in the network.

Some of you may be aware that I was on the Board of the Caroline Chisholm Society, in Melbourne, for several years. The society provides practical support to young mothers, such as helping with accommodation, equipment and access to support services.

If we, as a society, are genuinely focussed on the needs of children and putting their welfare first, our top priority should be supporting their parents to develop their potential and reach their goals, not discriminating against them because of their age.

Community attitudes

As a community, I believe we need to rethink how we treat young mothers.

It is interesting that, on the one hand, we have increasing numbers of middle aged women who regret they did not try to have children, and yet, on the other hand, we demonise and chastise young women because they become pregnant and decide to keep their babies.

Young mothers are champions.

And schools like Canberra College, and Corio Bay Senior College in Victoria, where I understand one young mum was school captain a few years ago, are champions as well.

Community, education and workplace champions.

These young women have the toughest job of all, raising children, but it is even harder for them because society punishes them, whether it be through scornful looks, abusive remarks or simply shutting them off.

Why is it that a young mother feels she has to do her supermarket shopping with her baby at night to avoid judgemental looks from other shoppers?

Why does a young Mum feels she has to spend all her income on buying the latest pram and trendy baby clothes, to ‘prove’ she is a good mother, so much so that she has little cash left for food and to pay the bills?

What does that say about us, as a society, that we scorn and victimise young women for having children. For trying to do the best they can for themselves and their families.

We need to support and nurture young parents to overcome barriers to achieve better educational, health and employment outcomes which will clearly provide a better life for their children.

That is not to say that the Federal Government is not concerned about the rate of teenage pregnancies and wants it to decrease, because of course we do.

In 2008, for every 1,000 births in Australia, 17 babies had teenage mothers. Although this represents a dramatic fall over the last 40 years, the teenage birth rate is still the sixth highest in the developed world, which is a concern.

I am aware of the argument that supporting young mothers, with dedicated school programs, encourages or endorses teenage sexual activity.

But it is interesting to note the experiences of the schools involved, which say that ,in fact, the reverse is true, as fellow students see the struggles these mothers face, and realise that the reality of raising children is far different to the romantic notions of motherhood some may have had.

We are talking about one of the most vulnerable groups in our society and, for that reason, this group deserves as much support and encouragement as we can give them, not to be abandoned to a life on welfare, a life of social isolation and entrenched disadvantage.

That would be the absolute worst outcome, for mother and child. And for our society.

If it takes a community to raise a child, it certainly takes a mature, sympathetic, generous and nurturing community to support children whose courageous mothers are really up against the odds.

Supporting women’s choices

It is always instructive to see how far we have come, while not losing sight of how far we still have to go.

In 1995, when I was elected to the Federal Parliament, I was the only woman from Victoria for the Labor Party.

Society was just beginning to understand that families could make non-traditional arrangements. It was almost a case of people acclimatising to the fact that pregnant women were in the workplace, that you weren’t going to collapse because at eight months you were still working, and that pregnancy wasn’t an illness.

I remember, 15 years ago, when I was due to give birth to my son James and the Parliament was planning to move a motion to approve my leave. The Parliament wanted to say that my leave was due to ill health!

I objected, because that is certainly not the way it should be framed.

A lot has changed since then, but we still have our first female Prime Minister acknowledging that, if she had made different choices, she wouldn’t be PM. And I suspect if Tony Abbott were the primary carer of his three daughters, he wouldn’t be Opposition leader either.

So how should we frame the debate? How should we think of young pregnant women, and young mothers?

What this government is about is giving young women choices; choices they might otherwise feel they do not have. And that is what the schools that run these important programs provide.

Integration in communities

What I think we need is a debate about how best we integrate young mothers into communities.

The Gillard Government wants to help and support young women with their children and we want to help integrate them into their communities.

That is why the work at Canberra College, and the handful of other unique schools around the country, is so important.

Not just because you are educating these young mothers, which is itself such a worthy goal, but because you have brought these women back into a community environment where they can feel valued and have self respect.

I was interested to learn from Jan Marshall last week that Canberra College has some mothers returning to school just two days after leaving hospital with their newborns, sadly because they have nowhere else to go.

These women - like 18-year-old Stevie-Lea Pedemont, single mother of two and a half year old Charlie, who will graduate from Year 12 this year and start architecture at university next year, and who is already working two days a week at an architect firm - these women should feel as proud as any other mother, not discriminated against because of their age.

Canberra College; model corporate citizen

What a success story is Canberra College; four young Mums in 2004 to about 100 today, including some fathers, and up to 15 indigenous students. Although I must say the thought of having potentially 100 children at your childcare centre on any given day is not something I would relish, but then again, I would not be surprised if your children were better behaved than my colleagues during parliamentary question time.

Given you have had I think about 10 babies born in the last five weeks or so, I am surprised that a labour ward hasn’t been added to the range of services you provide.

What we have at Canberra College is what one would describe as community minded behaviour; helping people with a genuine need.

To use the jargon, Canberra College has demonstrated what being a good corporate citizen is all about.

Without relying on government, this school has identified a community need and, rather than say ‘it’s too hard, it’s not my problem’, have made it their problem and found a solution.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is the sort of community minded attitude that needs to be encouraged.

May I take this opportunity to publicly acknowledge, and praise, Peter Clayden and his team for the CCCares’s program. What a credit to you that, each morning, three buses drive around Canberra, picking up these Mums and their bubs, and delivering them to school. What a lifeline for these women, to literally be transported to a place of welcome and support.

What you provide, in so many different ways, primarily through education, but also through access to vital health, housing and community services, is a real opportunity for these women to develop a better life for themselves and, of course, their children.

You act as a real community hub for these women and you provide them with the knowledge and skills to go on to become active participants, and productive members, of our society, particularly through the work of your employment consultant in helping these women transition to further education and training as well as work experience and jobs.

Canberra College basically provides what a mainstream family provides; the love, support and encouragement that these vulnerable young mothers need, but sadly often lack.

We all know how important family support is, particularly when a new baby arrives, so we cannot underestimate the importance of the work that Canberra College, and others like it, does.

The many and varied partnerships that Canberra College has established with government, with academia, and with the community and corporate sector, is something the Gillard Government supports.

As a government, we want to help schools extend into their local communities and become more involved with community networks.

One of the longer term objectives of the Building the Education Revolution, for example, is the opening up of schools and school facilities to community organisations and members.


As well as being an advocacy group, conducting research and promoting best practice, one of the goals of the new Australian Young Pregnant and Parenting Network is to raise community awareness, and stimulate public debate, about the needs of young pregnant women and mothers.

The Gillard Government supports you in your endeavours.

What we need to do now is start the process of changing community attitudes so that these women are not ostracised and scorned but embraced as valued members of our community, and their children too.

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