Address to Family Relationship Services Australia

4.00pm | November 23, 2018




I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and I pay my respect to elders past and present.

I’d like to congratulate Family and Relationship Services Australia for this terrific conference.

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak with you in my relatively new capacity as Shadow Assistant Minister for Families and Communities. That is a lot of words, but amongst other things it means I’m responsible on the Labor side for thinking about the work done by the part of the community sector that are funded by the Department of Social Services.

Essentially that’s all of you.

Since taking on this role some months ago, the sector has been incredibly generous with its time and expertise. I’ve met with many of you already, and I am keen to meet with more still.

Your sector has such a deep reservoir of hard won knowledge. I am grateful for your willingness to share that understanding with me.

This panel – like this conference – has been asked to consider what it takes to leave no one behind.

I think it is important to be frank about what it truly means to be left behind.

It means poverty, and the social exclusion that comes with it.

And there are people who have unequivocally been left behind here in Australia.

This year the Productivity Commission released a report into inequality in Australia. It is a complex piece of work.

What the report makes clear is that there is a hard kernel of extreme disadvantage in Australia. The bottom decile has more or less remained in poverty for decades. As the then chair of the Commission, Peter Harris, said at the report’s launch:

“For 2 million or so people, we are where we were thirty years ago.”

Their poverty expresses itself in housing insecurity. In job insecurity. In food insecurity.

Their poverty expresses itself through the children whose lives it touches.

You would know better than most what the literature says about the devastatingly effect poverty can have on young developing minds.

This is not just playing out at the margins. It is at also at the heart of our largest cities. If you can indulge me taking an example from my home state of NSW – around half the children in the Western Sydney suburbs of Bankstown, Liverpool and Fairfield are living in households with incomes below the poverty line. The pattern repeats itself across the country.

Our public discussion is still getting to grips with the implications of the Productivity Commission’s report into inequality. But I don’t think its core message is new to anyone in this room – it’s nothing you don’t already know from the work you do.

You and your organisations offer a range of different services to a range of different people, but a common theme cuts across some of the worst cases that come before you – poverty.

Poverty is amongst the causes – and the consequences – of many of the situations that you deal with.

You would know better than most how poverty can act as an amplifier for the existing problems faced by vulnerable families and individuals.

These cases are a clarion call for action.

I think we are in a unique position to act right now.

There is a growing public appetite for action to address poverty and inequality.

At the same time, there is growing awareness of intersecting factors.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has refocused attention onto the rights and agency of children.

The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence is likewise a monumental piece of work. I believe many policy makers are genuinely stunned by the extent of the problem.

The Royal Commission has elevated the issue of family violence over the past decade. It has placed a clear challenge on the record for government to answer.

Together these three movements present a real political opportunity.

I have been involved in organised politics in one form or another for more than two decades. This is the first time that I have seen this particular confluence of forces
So what are we to do with it?

Making the most of this moment is going to require a genuine partnership between government and the community sector.

The community sector is at the heart of how Australia has come to deliver social services. It is embedded in the service delivery in many communities, and operates as the reservoir for on the ground practical experience to drive advocacy.  

One of the key challenges for government is to create the conditions that are needed for the community sector to make an impact.

There are a number of discrete policy changes that would allow this. Broadly, however, what is needed is a relationship based on trust, reciprocity and shared objectives.

If we are to achieve this, the interactions between the community sector and government need to transcend a narrow focus on tendering and retendering.

Ministers have to allow their departments to embrace a role that is greater than just that of a contract manager whose job is to monitor compliance. Government will need to embrace the idea of a partnership based on a shared responsibility for service delivery.

Such a partnership is not easy – it will demand ongoing high performance from both government and the community sector.

As important as the community sector is, there are some things only government can do.

If we think about the tools and levers available for any Commonwealth government, what would a comprehensive response to poverty look like?

We need action to address income. The Commonwealth Government takes responsibility for ensuring every family has a basic level of income. When we were last in government we lifted the aged pension. This time we know we need to tackle Newstart.

This would not be complete without action on wages however – especially in low paid sectors.

I visited Foodbank’s warehouse in Sydney. They make the point that food assistance is not just for the unemployed or homeless. Their large scale survey work suggests 20% of people who are in part time or casual work experienced issues accessing food in the last year. This is not because people are failing to manage their budgets. There is a working poor in this country that can’t feed their families.

We need action to improve access to services

The primary intervention by federal governments into healthcare and education and other legal and counselling services for families like the ones you are all involved in – the “universal” piece – are incredibly important. That’s one of the reasons why Labor is planning very significant investments in public education, including into preschool education.

For families in deep, structural poverty though that won’t be enough. Some families face a kind of intergenerational disadvantage that means they won’t emerge without support that goes beyond financial support.

This is where the range of early intervention programs that many of you are involved in come in.

Finally, I think the commonwealth needs to look for opportunities to lead. The reality is that responsibility is very much distributed across our federation. The states do not always pull in the same direction.

While there is real merit in the experimentation that comes about from competitive federalism, the Federal government needs to look for opportunities to coordinate the actions and efforts across the Federation. We have enormous power to effect change through central coordination. 

I have been particularly keen to hear from practitioners about the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children- it successes and its shortcomings - to understand what the next stage of this national project should look like.

This is a big action list. And if we’re being honest, it’s only the start of what needs to be done. If we form a government after the next election, there is a great deal of work to do to clean up after a government that at best is uninterested in social services, and at worst, hostile.
I’m looking forward to the discussion this morning.