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Wednesday, 17 June 2009
Page: 6332

Ms MACKLIN (Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) (3:35 PM) —by leave—Today the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released its comprehensive report on children’s wellbeing, A Picture of Australia’s Children 2009. I congratulate the institute for the excellent work that they have done on this report and their other very high-quality research. The positive news is that there has been a decline in child mortality rates, mostly due to a fall in deaths through injury. There are also favourable trends in some risk and protective factors, such as an increase in immunisation coverage, decline in teenage births and a reduction in smoking rates among older children.

However, on a number of other fronts, the picture is sobering. The number of children subject to child abuse and neglect remains unacceptably high. Far too many children are homeless or at risk of homelessness, or are victims of assault. The report also shows that outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are far worse than for non-Indigenous children across a broad range of indicators. The mortality rate for Indigenous children is more than twice that of other Australian children. They are five times more likely to be born to teenage mothers and have low birth weight. As they grow up, they are 24 times more likely to be in juvenile justice supervision. It is the right of every Australian child to have a safe, healthy and happy childhood. This is what drives the Australian government’s child centred family policy. The best interests of children are a national priority—from the day they are born.

If children are to have the best start in life, they need the time and space to bond with their primary care giver. This is absolutely vital for their emotional, cognitive and physical development that is the foundation of lifelong resilience. And putting the best interests of Australian babies first, the Australian government has taken the landmark decision to commit $731 million over five years to Australia’s first comprehensive, statutory paid parental leave scheme. Paid parental leave will be available to some 148,000 mothers and primary carers each year so that they can spend time with their children in those critical early months.

To provide ongoing support for families, we have introduced significant reforms to keep our children safe and well. Working collaboratively with the states and territories, the Australian government has reached agreement on the development of a national framework to address child abuse and neglect. We are investing $63 million over four years to establish the first National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020. The national framework represents an unprecedented level of cooperation and commitment between all levels of government and non-government organisations to protect our children. This includes developing ambitious national standards for out-of-home care so children who cannot be cared for by their parents receive the quality care and support that they need.

As part of the national framework we are also:

  • implementing national workforce development projects to improve the skills and capability of services working with families and children;
  • improving information sharing and data consistency so that vulnerable children and their families do not fall between the cracks; and
  • establishing a national research agenda for child protection.

We are also establishing up to eight Communities for Children Plus sites across Australia. These will build on the successful Communities for Children model and they will provide intensive early intervention services to an additional 1,200 children and their families over four years.

We intend to work with the states and territories, the local communities and of course, most importantly, families to prevent child abuse and neglect. We are committed to making sure that income support provided to families is spent in the best interests of children. Working with the Western Australian government, the Australian government has initiated a trial using income management in child protection cases. In partnership with the state government, local child protection officers can now refer cases to Centrelink where parents and children would benefit from income management.

Voluntary income management is also operating for individuals and families in these trial locations and the early indicators are certainly positive. Families are purchasing more of the goods and services that are essential to improving their children’s health and wellbeing. These are being supported by money management services to help get them back on track.

In Cape York, under the Family Responsibilities Commission model, and also in prescribed communities in the Northern Territory, income management is also having positive results. The government does understand that non-government organisations working in the field are often best placed to build community resilience. Today I have announced 50 small-scale, innovative community based projects across each state and territory with an additional $3.1 million in Australian government funding.

We certainly know that supporting children in their early years can make a significant difference to their learning outcomes and can establish the foundation for social and emotional wellbeing. That is why, through our National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, we are providing $36.6 million over four years to give more vulnerable children access to quality child care through take-up of the special child care benefit. This special benefit covers the full cost of child care for children at serious risk of abuse or neglect, and enables these children to access care and development in a safe and supportive environment.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data released today also shows that the prevalence of severe disability in children has significantly increased from 1.6 per cent in 1981 to 4.3 per cent in 2003 and this obviously places great strain on family carers. Last night, legislation was passed in the Senate to deliver long overdue reforms to the complex and overly restrictive eligibility requirements for financial support for people caring for children with severe disability or medical conditions.

Over the years, the restrictive eligibility requirements for Carer Payment (child) meant carers were denied appropriate financial support; so restrictive that, when the review inquired into the effectiveness and fairness of the payment in 2007, only 3½ thousand families across Australia were benefiting. With these government reforms—which take into account the level of care required rather than a narrow set of medical and behavioural criteria—we now expect an additional 19,000 families will have access to Carer Payment (child) from 1 July 2009.

To better meet these needs of children and their parents in local communities, the government is bringing together our wide range of existing children’s, parenting and families programs into an integrated new Family Support Program. There will be three core service streams:

  • family and parenting services—and that will focus on early intervention and prevention services for families to strengthen relationships, develop skills and support parents and children, especially over important life transitions;
  • community and family partnerships—more intensive and coordinated support targeted at significantly disadvantaged communities and children at risk and their families; and
  • family law services—with assistance to families to manage the process and impacts of separation in the best interests of children.

Underpinning these is the government’s recognition that early intervention is essential to build long-term capacity and resilience in our children and families. We are committed to intervening to prevent a crisis before it happens rather than trying to rebuild broken lives after abuse neglect, family breakdown or learning and health problems have occurred.

The Australian government is determined to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian children. To meet our very ambitious close-the-gap targets, COAG has endorsed the National Partnership Agreement on Indigenous Early Childhood Development. Under this agreement, and with joint investment of $293 million, 36 child and family centres will be established. These child and family centres will co-locate the range of maternal and child health, parenting, child care, early learning and development services in the one location, making these important services easier for parents and their children to access. Many of the 36 children and family centres will be established in priority locations established under the government’s Remote Service Delivery National Partnership, including all four Northern Territory remote centres.

Over the last 18 months the government has made significant reforms to support children and families. Our continuing commitment to reform will focus on issues including the reduction of violence against women and children, housing and homelessness, disability and mental health. I will also work closely with my colleagues in the parliament in the crucial areas of health, early childhood care and education. The Australian government is committed to demonstrating national leadership on these vital issues putting the wellbeing and best interests of children at the heart of all we do.

I ask leave of the House to move a motion to enable the member for Warringah to speak for 11 minutes.

Leave granted.

Ms MACKLIN —I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the member for Warringah speaking for a period not exceeding 11 minutes.

Question agreed to.