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Address to the Coalition of organisations committed to the safety and wellbeing of children, Melbourne

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26 July 2013



Nelson Mandela once remarked "Safety and security don't just happen, they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear."

Let me therefore start today by thanking you for what you do. All too often child safety and child wellbeing is something we as a community, take for granted.

Advocating for the interests of children, promoting policies that seek to establish, enhance and enshrine their safety and wellbeing is just so important.

And your work is what has helped ensure that our approach is a model to the world of how, when we work together, we really can ensure the safety and wellbeing of Australian children.

The national framework

The Coalition supports approaches that promote and enhance the wellbeing and safety of children in Australia and that is why we support the philosophical underpinnings and broad policy objectives of the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, which was born out of COAG in April 2009.

The key underlying objective of promoting active policy responses designed to deliver a substantial and sustained reduction in the levels of child abuse and neglect is, quite simply, an area of public policy that is rightfully beyond politics. Indeed, long term thinking and planning enables the federal government to work in partnership with both state and territory governments and organisations such as those you all represent, to effect long-term change and to achieve real solutions in this important area.

All Australian children deserve to live in a safe, secure environment and the National Framework seeks to advance and promote this fundamental notion.

The National Framework is broken down into a series of three-year action plans, collectively designed to achieve the six Supporting Outcomes which are at the core of the Framework.

Ensuring the wellbeing and safety of Australia’s children is protected remains a responsibility that belongs to the community as a whole. While parents and families play a central role, not all children are so fortunate as to be able to rely on a parent or family to fulfil that role. That is why all Australian governments have endorsed the National Framework and are committed to its outcomes.

The first implementation plan, which covered the period of 2009 to 2012, outlined how government, non-government organisations and the wider community will achieve national priority goals and how the progress of these goals will be measured.

The second implementation plan entitled Protecting Children is Everyone’s Business: National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children: Implementing the second three-year action plan 2012 - 2015 outlined the priorities for that reporting period.

These include a renewed focus on the collaboration between various levels of government and the non-government sector to improve the safety and wellbeing of Australia’s children.

Time and experience has taught governments - federal, state and territory - that “one size does not fit all.” Increased emphasis on local partnerships are preferable; what works in Melbourne might not work in Mackay; what works in Geelong might not work in Geraldton - but what we do know is those people on the ground in Geraldton, on the ground in Mackay, know what will work. Our emphasis must be to empower these people and to drive decision-making at this grass roots level.

And whilst the Coalition remains cognisant of the preservation of areas of state responsibility, such as the work states and territories do in the area of child protection, we remain philosophically supportive of local people making local decisions.

That is why promoting more local decision making is at the heart of our philosophical approach to empowering civil society and many of you here would be familiar with the Coalition’s policy in that space that I launched here in Melbourne last year.

Let me for a moment turn then to what the Coalition’s approach to civil society is.

The Coalition’s approach to civil society

Indeed, I prefer to use the term “civil society” rather than the common name “not-for-profit” because the latter immediately connotes an economic framework, although it is in fact not-for-profit, is still referred to in an economic sphere. The notion of civil society on the other hand is a much broader concept which strikes at the heart of the relationship between individuals and the organisations, not just the economic, not-for-profit aspect of it.

The Coalition’s believes that Civil Society, or community sector, is something that is fundamentally distinct from the sphere of government. For too long governments have treated the sector as an extension of it, seeking to exercise control over it and seeking to grow the influence it has over it.

An example is the growth in recent years of community organisations being contracted by the Commonwealth to deliver government programmes. Instead of government maintaining an arm’s length relationship based on trust with the sector, what has transpired, through onerous contractual arrangements, is increased reporting-for-reporting’s sake, increased oversight, increased compliance requirements and, as a consequence of these, in-effect, increased control.

The government’s Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission has increased the red-tape on civil society and it will make life harder, not easier for the sector. That is why we opposed the establishment of the ACNC and that is why we have pledged that, should we be elected, we would abolish it.

Today organisations are spending more time and committing more of their scarce resources filling in forms, often duplicated for the same organisation, to satisfy the regulatory requirements of government. Every minute, hour and day spent by not-for-profits on paperwork is time not spent working in, and working for, the community. We want to empower civil society to transition more resources away from the back room and on to the front line.

Compelling civil society to report more information to government effectively implies that these organisations and the people involved cannot be trusted. It ignores the fact that those very people and those very organisations are respected leaders and respected, well— established beacons of hope, service and support, on our rich community landscape.

Our approach is not to seek to manage the sector, nor is it to overburden the sector. We favour an approach of promoting education, innovation, training and advocacy. That’s why, if elected, a Coalition government would establish a Centre for Excellence and would eventually transition the ownership of such a centre to the sector itself.

Innovation and experience must continue to inform our approaches to both civil society and, in this context, more specifically to the wellbeing of children.

That is why the Coalition favours allowing organisations to spend part of their allocated funds for programme delivery to early intervention.

Early intervention

In his report to the British Government entitled “Early Intervention: The Next Steps”, UK Parliamentarian Graham Allen MP concludes: “The bleak truth is that decades of expensive late intervention have failed. Major social problems have got worse not better: despite heroic frontline efforts tackling the symptoms, their causes remain unaddressed.”

The consequence is the reduced likelihood of achieving a remedy, and expensive palliative measures that often fail to solve the problems that have arisen. Along with others in the UK, such as Frank Field and cabinet Minister Iain Duncan-Smith, Mr Allen has highlighted the critical importance of early intervention and prevention.

Across the Atlantic, the Brookings scholar, Isabel Sawhill, observed last year that if individuals do just three things - finish high school, work full time, and marry before they have children - their chance of being poor drop from 15 per cent to just two per cent. Each of these factors is, in turn, affected by what happens earlier in life.

The sense of security that a child experiences from his or her earliest days is critical to their psychological development. Beginning in the 1950s, the psychiatrist, John Bowlby, and the developmental psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, showed that one’s early experiences of attachment are critical for all subsequent relationships.

The interactions of children with their parents establish powerful dynamics of security and insecurity, with significant implications for subsequent adult relationships. The happiness of adults whose relationships in their early years were secure can differ greatly from those whose relationships were problematic and insecure. The latter are more likely to demonstrate either an avoidance of attachment in their later, adult relationships, or anxiety about their relationships, with corresponding behaviours.

Children who show signs of insecure attachment, such as avoidant or ambivalent behaviours, most often have parents who were unresponsive or inconsistent in their responses to the child. In a recent survey of 36 international studies, Abdul Khaleque and Ronald Rohner from the University of Connecticut concluded that children and adults everywhere - regardless of differences in race, culture, and gender - tend to respond in exactly the same way when they perceived themselves to be rejected by their caregivers and other attachment figures: In our half-century of international research, we’ve not found any other class of experience that has as strong and consistent effect on personality and personality development as does the experience of rejection, especially by parents in childhood.

The circumstances of a child’s early life are critical therefore for his or her future relationships and happiness. If those years are marked by insecurity and uncertainty, loss of contact with a parent, shifting ‘caregivers’ or inconsistent parenting, the child is likely to suffer the impact into his or her adult years. Professor Scott Stanley observes: Attachment is an unalterable, important human need and reality, and how attachment systems form in individuals really matters for everything else that really matters.

Amelioration is important, but it is insufficient. A renewed emphasis on prevention and early intervention is likely to be more successful than palliative measures. It is also cost-efficient as Australian research has shown. Accordingly, we need to place a renewed emphasis on prevention and early intervention.

Lip service is often paid to prevention and early intervention, but when you actually see where the majority of funding goes in practice, it is generally to tackling problem areas rather than the causes of the problems themselves.

It is important that we continue to provide solutions to immediate issues, but we must also look to take a medium to long-term view about how we resolve social issues, and I believe that emphasizing prevention and early intervention programs provides us with the best means of achieving the desired outcomes.


Promoting the wellbeing of children, ensuring their safety and advocating for their interests is of critical importance to our broader community. Indeed, it was Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the United States who famously said “Children are our most valuable resource."

And I know that you know that whilst the national framework can provide the guidance, the direction, the path - it is the collaboration of governments, non-government organisations and the community - that can achieve the objects that have been set down.

All too often governments become consumed with polls, with news headlines and with today’s story and tomorrow’s headline. This is an area that we simply cannot afford to neglect. It is an issue too important to stymie and it is a cause whose objects, whose philosophy, is most deserving of our support.

Let me therefore conclude where I began, drawing on the words of Nelson Mandela - "there can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children."