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Keynote address to the International Year of the Family National Conference

Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Howe the Premier Dean Brown, Minister Wotton, distinguished guests, members of the IYF council, ladies and gentlemen.

It is my great pleasure to be here today to give the key note address to this conference.

And how appropriate it is to have this conference here in Adelaide in the centenary of suffrage. One hundred years ago those women were campaigning for families. They wanted equal pay, they wanted improved occupational health and safety, better health and education for their children, and they wanted an 8 hour day.

This conference brings together a very wide range of people spanning many sections of the community.

As we approach the end of the year, it is a great opportunity to reflect on what we have learnt during the International Year of the Family and on what we want for our families in the future.

When the United Nations declared 1994 the International Year of the Family, it gave some clear directions for what might could come out of the year.

The UN said it was a time to reflect on the close connections between the private responsibilities of family members to each other, and the social responsibilities of governments and communities to families.

Firstly, the UN wanted Government to recognise that families don't exist in splendid isolation - it wanted governments to recognise that their decisions and actions influence how families are formed, how they grow and how well they function as nurturers and providers.

Secondly, the UN wanted to ensure that all nations had in place policies that help families in the vital work they do - that is, to give the emotional and material support essential to the development and well being of family members, especially children and young people.

As the Deputy Prime Minister Mr Howe just told you, the Federal Labor Government has an impressive record on families which illustrates its longstanding commitment to these principles. (Indeed, when I addressed the UN last month, other countries were impressed by this Government's family policies and with the seriousness with which we have approached IYF.)

To build upon this record in IYF, the Australian Government aimed for an increased understanding within Government of these two propositions. That is: a commitment that all govemment policies and programs will be truly 'family-friendly'.

The Federal Govemment has used the year to further our understanding of these two principles. That will be at the heart of the Australian Govemment Agenda for Families which we will release early next year.

If the International Year of the Family has taught us anything, it is that families matter.

The family is not in crisis.

The family is not finished.

The family is not at risk of extinction. It is here to stay.

This year confirmed that the family remains of upmost importance to all Australians. The year's consultations bore out Federal Government's research which found that 91 per cent of Australians believed the family to be the most important thing in their lives. And 92 per cent said their families provided them with support. To quote "We have our ups and downs but overall my family provides me with a great deal of emotional support."

That doesn't mean to say we should be complacent about our families. That doesn't mean to say that Government can't do more for families. It can and it will.

And that doesn't mean all is right in our families. It isn't. There is an unacceptable level of violence, too many families face continuing unemployment, and many families are struggling daily to balance the competing demands of their work and family lives.

But we do have much to celebrate. Our families make an enormous contribution to our society.

They are the keepers of our society's culture and values.

They are the ones who breed and feed the next generation.

It is within our family units that we learn to care for each other, learn to walk, talk, get along with others. Families are where we go for warmth and trust. It is the family that cares for the frail aged, the young and the ill. It is where we turn when things go wrong. It is also where turn to celebrate the good times.

Our families are rich in diversity and background. Australia has been home to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families for thousands of years and today Australian families also include people from over 130 ethnic backgrounds and 220 nationalities. For the most part, these families live happily and in peace together in multicultural Australia.

If we are to successfully frame family policies for the future we need to look at the facts, and not stay bogged down in myths.

So, one of the Federal Govemment's most important tasks this year has been to establish the facts about families. We have played the role of"myth buster".

Conservative critics have claimed this year that the family is breaking down, that the nuclear family is disintegrating.

But the statistics show this is just not true.

More than 82 per cent of children under 20 grow up in families with their two natural parents. 65 per cent of marriages will last a lifetime. Couple families make up 86 of all families and 88 per cent of all Australians live with another family member. Only three per cent of sole parent families are teenagers.

While there are now more blended families, more sole parents, and more defacto relationships, in fact the biggest changes to effect families is how they live their lives. For example, many more women are in the workforce and many Australians are living to an older age - to name just two of the very important social changes to have occurred.

The Govemment has through the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian Institute of Family Studies, and other research, has established the facts about families. This will let us frame family policy based on facts, not prejudice.

And in this way, IYF has laid some of the foundation for next year's celebration of the International Year of Tolerance.

We have also seized the opportunity presented by IYF to look afresh at Govemment policies and how they affect families.

Our task, as the Prime Minister put it so succinctly when the Year began, has been to make things better for families.

The way we have approached this task is to listen to what families say.

Some people have said the year has been nothing but a talkfest. It has been much more than that.

To consult with the community, I appointed a National Council for the International Year of the Family chaired by Professor Bettina Cass. The Council produced a document called the Heart of the Matter. This formed the basis of wide community consultations.

These consultations took council members all over the country, from Alice Springs, to Melbourne, Adelaide to Port Augusta, Canberra to Hobart - all over Australia. The Council held over 70 days of consultations, and received more than 500 submissions. This is a splendid response by any standard and one which demonstrates the Govemment's commitment to community participation in this year.

Drawing on these consultations, the Council has written an extensive and very lengthy report which will be released on Wednesday to mark the end of this very important conference. This has been a mammoth task by the Council. It reflects the variety of membership on that council who come from all over Australia and a wide range of backgrounds, And I think we should all join together in thanking Professor Cass and her council members for their contribution. Applause.

At these consultations some clear themes emerged. Some of which, I'd like to share with you now.

Most heartening for the Federal Government was - as I indicated earlier - the understanding by our community of the important role played by families in providing a caring intimate environment for all their members, including grandparents, siblings, children and other relatives.

And the acceptance that this role was central to the well being of the individual, and to our society as a whole.

Equally significant was the level of tolerance in our community.

The council found that our community acknowledges and embraces diversity - including diversity of cultural, linguistic and religious heritage and the different size and shape of families in contemporary Australia.

Indeed, it is a wonderful tribute to the success of our multicultural policies.

Another message to come through the consultations and in submissions was that the community recognises and values the role played by the Commonwealth in providing services for families and strongly supports a continuing Commonwealth role in service provision.

The council also found support for our current system of targeting payments - directed to those most in need - as the most appropriate and responsible way of providing Government income support.

There was also widespread support for the Parenting Allowance, the landmark payment to be introduced next July because it recognises family responsibilities. The community supported the shift in payments directed to the primary carer like HCCA, for example.

Targeting payments to those most in need has served the community well. Not only has our income support system ensured that assistance is directed to those most in need, it has allowed Government to increase the level of most payments.

However, not all Govemment policy is about payments to families. As the UN noted, Governments need to recognise that other policies impact on families.

This Government has recognised the need to balance its commitment to social justice with its commitment to maintaining and building upon our standard of living by developing a dynamic, competitive economy.

We need to bear this balance in mind as we consider where to go from here. In the same way that we need to get the economic settings right so that our economy is outward looking and competitive, the challenge is to get the settings right for other Govemment policies to create the social environment where families live healthy and happy lives. For example, health and education.

One way I'd like to illustrate this is by looking at our policies of pursuing equal opportunity for women.

The first major steps towards equal opportunity were taken right here in South Australia, one hundred years ago, when those brave suffragettes fought ridicule and opposition to win the right to vote and stand for Parliament.

The Federal Labor Government has made equal opportunity for women a priority - introducing the Sex Discrimination Act, the Affirmative Action Act, Equal Employment Opportunity Act, changes to the Family Law Act and the establishment of the Child Support Agency to name just a few. I note that the first Sex Discrimination Act was introduced in South Australia by the Don Dunstan Government following an initiative by David Tonkin.

Recognising the rights of women has been very important in strengthening Australian families. This way we can draw on the talents and skills of half the Australian population both in the home, in the community and in the workforce.

We have also seen a dramatic increase in the number of women entering the workforce. And to assist women and families balance their work and family lives, the Government has implemented a number of significant other policies.

For example, the Govemment now has an industrial relations policy which is designed to provide the flexibility in work hours and practices to better meet the needs of families. This point has been raised in every community consultation. Business is realising that family friendly policies make good business sense.

We have also established a national child care program, with nearly 250,000 places, costing nearly $1 billion in funding.

And we have extended superannuation to better provide for all members of families, both men and women.

It is important to remember the broader social environment when looking at developing family support programs. The provision of payments to families is not enough. We need broader policies.

The Federal Government's response to the Year- the Australian Government's Agenda for Families - will be a broad reaching document.

It will take into account the role for Government in pursuing policies which affect families from the introduction of new technology, to the environment, to social, economic and political polices affecting all levels of government, business, unions and community groups.

It is not always easy to see the impact of these policies on families. Take the example of new technology, the impact of CD Rom and the information superhighway. I was interested to read recently about the impact on families of computer use by teenagers. A recent report claimed more and more teenagers and young children were shutting themselves away in their bedroom logging on to their computer, playing games and talking to computer notice boards.

What does this do to family life? Does the computer replace the kitchen table? Will parents be excluded from this new culture? It is vital we consider the impact on families of this new technology.

As we look ahead, the challenge for the Federal Government is to determine whether we do need policies to address these kinds of issues.

It is my view that we must consider the impact on families of broader social change.

As I said earlier, the Council has made an enormous and valuable contribution which will be crucial to the development of the Australian Government Agenda of Families and I look forward to contributions coming from this conference and from the work of State, local and Territory Governments.

And it is true to say that the Australian Government Agenda for Families will be more than the sum of all its parts. It will be the Federal Govemment's vision for families in the future. A blueprint for policy well beyond 1994.

The Agenda vision will build on the Federal Labor Government's commitment to families.

It will build on our commitment to social justice.

One hundred years ago the suffragettes were fighting for better conditions for families. Our challenge is to continue the work they started.

In closing, I would like to thank the South Australian Government for hosting this conference jointly funded by the Commonwealth and the State. It is a fitting climax to the International Year of the Family.

I wish the conference well and I am confident the debate will be lively.

Thank you.