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Wednesday, 17 June 2009
Page: 6335

Mr ABBOTT (3:47 PM) —I thank the minister for the opportunity to respond to her statement. I acknowledge, as I so often do in this place, the abundant goodwill and decency which the minister brings to these very difficult issues. The minister’s statement demonstrates that the Rudd government is concerned that some Australian children, too many Australian children, are in dysfunctional or disadvantaged families and can suffer as a result. There are too many, and one child in danger is one too many. But I should say that the government’s compassion credentials are not in question here. I am not the government’s greatest admirer, as you would expect, but I would not for a moment suggest that the government lacked goodwill or common decency.

My problem with the minister’s statement is not the undeniable worthiness of the cause; it is the apparent assumption that government run or government funded services can eliminate the consequences of human frailty or cure its roots. Government services are important and necessary, but as long as there are parents with substance abuse or mental health problems or prone to certain sorts of criminal conduct there will be children at risk. This is always a tragedy. It is sometimes a crime. But let us not pretend that it is easy to fix. Government services can try to tackle problems but what is necessary, all too often, in the first instance is law enforcement and what is often needed is individual personal transformation—the kind of spiritual rebirth or moral rearmament that is not normally the field of government.

Then there is the fact that government services in this area are mostly the principal responsibility of the states. To the extent that the plight of some Australian children is the result of inadequate services, that is the fault of the state governments. To the extent that the Commonwealth is proposing to help improve state government services, it is yet again the federal Labor government bailing out state Labor governments. If the states’ failures are sufficiently monumental then of course the Commonwealth should act. But let us be open about the failures that are being addressed. Plainly, there are various state government services in this area which are not working well. The New South Wales Department of Community Services, for instance, is a disaster area. The papers are full of terrible instances of avoidable neglect. But none of this has been covered in the statement that we have heard today.

If I may say so—and I say it with respect—the minister’s statement would have been more valuable if it had detailed how the existing services would be improved by the new Commonwealth initiatives that she went through today. For instance, how many extra staff will be deployed as a result of the various measures that she outlined? How many additional troubled families and their children will have how many additional contacts from offices of various services as a result of the measures outlined today? How many troubled children will be at school, for instance, rather than truanting as a result of these changes?

The minister’s statement referred to the Western Australian trial of quarantining welfare payments for the families of children at risk. It would have helped the statement, I suggest, if the minister had told the House in how many instances family income management has been imposed; how many truancy prosecutions have been launched by the states since the Rudd government’s drive to improve the welfare of children; and what states are now providing truancy information to Centrelink for the purposes of family income management quarantine as a result of the Rudd government’s efforts. The minister may have that information; I hope she does. It should be provided to the House, but I suspect it will not be because governments have a tendency not to want their goodwill to be judged by objective standards. I fear, in short, that the measures announced today will turn out to be less than they sound, less than they seem.

The minister talked about a new national framework for protecting children, and as part of that there are millions to be spent here, millions to be spent there. There are new programs, there are new partnerships, there are new trials—all extremely worthy. But, as someone who has been in government and has heard the language of public servants dealing as best they can with these problems, it sounded to me more like a charter for bureaucracy than for children. If I may say so, respectfully, Madam Deputy Speaker, notwithstanding the abundant concern of the minister and, I am sure, her officials to make a better world, I suspect that a young person in trouble or a parent grieving for a young person in trouble and hoping to find better services for such a young person would have got a sense of ministerial and governmental goodwill from this statement but not necessarily much sense of a change in the offing.

I am not saying that any of the measures that the minister outlined should not be taken and I am not saying that they will not help, but I fear that the next time the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare produces another of its excellent reports it will show much the same problems to much the same extent, because human nature, sadly, is very hard to change, and government often finds it much easier to do things than to really change things.