ABC Radio National Life Matters with Natasha Mitchell – 21 July, 2014

NATASHA MITCHELL: First up this morning, a Federal Minister with a lot on his plate right now. The Minister for Social Services, Kevin, Andrews, has initiated a very substantial review of course of Australia’s welfare system. The interim report is open for comment for about three more weeks.

Now with all that going on why then does the Minister have the health of your most intimate relationship in his sights? If you’ve tried relationship counselling, you’ll know that it can be both painful and illuminating; it can also be very expensive. So as of this month the Federal Government is offering couples a $200 subsidy or voucher system for relationship counselling. The twelve month trial will cost taxpayers $20 million, that amounts to $200 for 100,000 couples and the Minister joins me now. Good morning Kevin Andrews.

MINISTER ANDREWS: Good morning Natasha.

NATASHA MITCHELL: Minister 100,000 couples is really barely a drop in the ocean when you look at the rate of divorce and separation amongst couples in Australia, why this trial and why just 100,000?

MINISTER ANDREWS: Well the trial I believe is important because as you say couples do attend marriage counselling when problems arise in their relationships. Many couples do pre-marriage education, but it’s not universal. Our best estimates are that probably only about one in three couples make use of those sorts of services and the idea of this is to try and encourage more couples to actually be aware that the services are available and then take them up. As for the $100,000 look we had to put a cap on it…

NATASHA MITCHELL: 100,000 couples.

MINISTER ANDREWS: Ah $20 million, 100,000 couples, that’s $200 per couple and the 100,000 has roughly come from the number of couples who get married each year, which is somewhere between 100,000 and 120,000.

NATASHA MITCHELL: Is this focusing on pre-marriage counselling or is it open to all couples?

MINISTER ANDREWS: It’s open to all couples. The focus is three-fold, pre-marriage education, post wedding counselling where problems arise in a relationship and also couples who might like to do a parenting program.

NATASHA MITCHELL: Okay so that raises another question, is this only open to those who are legally married or about to get married, or those couples who have children?

MINISTER ANDREWS: It’s open to any couples who want to register to do the program; it’s as wide as that. So obviously we expect that many of the couples who take up the program will be pre-marriage, will be looking for a marriage education program to help look at their relationships and how they might strengthen it but we also expect it will be couples who say have children who may be interested in doing a parenting program. And then there’ll be couples who are in a relationship whether married or de facto who have some problems arise and want to go along and see a counsellor.

NATASHA MITCHELL: So they don’t have to have children?

MINISTER ANDREWS: No they don’t, no, it’s a wide trial. Part of the reason for doing it is just to try and work out to see who is taking up these programs and who is not, perhaps more importantly. And then secondly can we evaluate from the trial any learnings in terms of what may be better for the future.

NATASHA MITCHELL: What about same-sex couples, are they eligible too?

MINISTER ANDREWS: They’re open, it’s open to any couple so it’s regardless of their sexual gender or orientation, it’s broadly based.

NATASHA MITCHELL: And how will you measure success, because at the end of twelve months, what indicators are you looking for that these 100,000 couples have benefited? Because of course relationship counselling doesn’t benefit all couples, there are a lot of variables that determine Minister whether it works or not.

MINISTER ANDREWS: That’s true; we will be employing some experts to do an ongoing evaluation. I hope to have that evaluation beginning within the next couple of months, and then that will continue throughout the course of the trial and indeed it’s possible for the evaluation to be much more long-term because we will have a database of those couples who agree to be part of the evaluation, which then the evaluators can go back to, you know, in a year’s time, two years’ time, even five years’ time.

NATASHA MITCHELL: What are you going to measure though, what you will be looking at? Do you want couples to stay together? What’s the end point that you’re aiming for here?

MINISTER ANDREWS: Well I’m not the expert in terms of designing the evaluation, but some of the things I’ve talked to my Department about are; first of all just looking at why people took up doing the program and that will give us some ideas about how we can encourage this more in the future but then, as I understand it, the evaluation will be looking at some sort of benchmark position in terms of happiness, in terms of comfort in the relationship, issues that might arise and then whether or not these have been addressed in either the education counselling or parenting program.

NATASHA MITCHELL: This is very personal to you, isn’t it Minister, because people, some listeners may have read the feature article about you and your wife in the Weekend Australian Magazine a little while back and it seems that you together have undertaken a lot of relationships counselling, why? Not to get terribly personal about the dynamics of your relationship…

MINISTER ANDREWS: No, no that’s fine.

NATASHA MITCHELL: But this seems to be a very personal pet project for you.

MINISTER ANDREWS: I’ve discussed this before Natasha. My wife and I, soon after we got married, so this is over 30 years ago were invited to be part of a group of people conducting marriage education, this is pre-wedding education, and we’ve been involved in that. We finished up obviously when I became the Minister in this area, but we were involved for about 30 years and…

NATASHA MITCHELL: In running a service?

MINISTER ANDREWS: In running a service, yes. So on a regular occasions over the years we were involved in actually conducting programs, my wife was much more involved in the one-on-one pre-marriage inventory focus, was the one that she used. So I suppose over the years we’ve actually come in contact with thousands of couples, young couples, at that stage of their journey in life in the pre-marital stage, and we’ve seen the advantages that can be gained from programs like this. And I suppose that led me to looking at the policy side of it and why can’t we encourage more couples to actually take a bit of time out and think about their relationship and where they’re going and what their plans for the future are, in terms of the relationship itself not just in terms of you know buying the house or things like that.

NATASHA MITCHELL: But, you know, if you look at the age of divorce, it’s actually not young couples that are divorcing, it’s further down the track and I wonder what robust evidence there is, other than anecdotal evidence, that pre-marriage counselling actually prevents marriage breakdown because my understanding is even though it sounds like it might, the evidence is rather equivocal.

MINISTER ANDREWS: I think the best evidence is that courses like this have an inoculation effect on a relationship. That is they give a boost to communication patterns, dealing with conflict, sorting out finances, things like that for a period of time. I don’t think anybody has claimed that they are lasting for life but some of the evidence suggests there is a six, seven, eight year boost. So doing something regularly after a number of years can be quite helpful in terms of a relationship.

But we also know that for young couples the real crucial stage is in the first few years of marriage, I think about a third of the couples who divorce do so within the first five years of their marriage so something is happening early on, and if we can help to identify that and work out the patterns early in their relationship well then that could be to their advantage.

NATASHA MITCHELL: On Life Matters this morning the Minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews is with me and we’re discussing a twelve month trial that he’s put in place. $20 million, $200 for 100,000 couples to nominate themselves for relationships counselling. Kevin Andrews given the significant cuts, or certainly tightening up, of welfare payments slated to happen right across your portfolio, why prioritise money for couples counselling? Aren’t there more urgent needs, more appropriate expenditures that you could deliver that would make a difference to couples and families?

MINISTER ANDREWS: Well three things Natasha, the first is that the amount of money whilst I know $20 million is a lot of money, in the context of my social services portfolio budget which is about $140 billion, this is a small amount. Secondly I found the savings from other areas in order to fund this trial, so it’s not new money its money that I’ve saved from what I think was otherwise waste in the department. But thirdly the context is, I was just reading recently some comments by Isabel Sawhill, the Brookings Institution Scholar in the United States, who has studied poverty and child poverty for decades now and she says if people just do just three things in life, that is they finish school, they can work full-time and they have a solid, stable relationship then their chances of living in poverty are very small but their chances of living in relative prosperity are very good. So if you look at that as triangle around the base of which is employment, education and relationships, then this is an important component of people’s lives.

NATASHA MITCHELL: Some of the cuts though that you are making in other areas will bring stress, will perhaps bring trauma to relationships, to couples, to families.

MINISTER ANDREWS: Look I don’t believe so Natasha, we can obviously have a political debate about that but, you know, if you look at the welfare changes there’s three fold. One is raising the pension age to 70 which is a reflection of the demographic changes and the ageing of the population, the fact that we are living what about 25 years longer on average than we did when the pension age was first set in the beginning of the last century. Then the changes to the under 30s which are really aimed at people who are capable of working full-time and are not in training to get them into training or education and then some other changes which are relatively minor in the terms of DSP at the moment. Now it’s true that we’ve got a welfare reform underway that will report back to us in September/October and we expect that they will make some recommendations about the future. But that’s about ensuring that people get the education and the employment so that they get the opportunities in life and I think personally that the third leg, if you like, the other side of the triangle that is stable, healthy relationships are also important for people’s wellbeing in life.

NATASHA MITCHELL: Counselling’s not cheap, you know that, a subsidy of $200 isn’t going to go very far, if it only covers a session or two with a counsellor, and we’ll get to which counsellors, is that really going to be enough to have a positive impact on a rocky relationship? That’s really only going to start to uncover the problems for a couple, it’s not going to allow them to put in place strategies and solutions and you’re asking for them to co-pay, if you like, for further sessions. Now many couples aren’t going to be able to afford that.

MINISTER ANDREWS: Well there’s three components, if you look at the marriage education and the parenting, most marriage education programs are in the order of about $200, maybe $250, so this will substantially cover the cost of a pre-marital program…

NATASHA MITCHELL: So that’s a training program, what about a counselling session though when a couple is in real trouble?

MINISTER ANDREWS: That’s true but its $200 towards it, and remembering that this is a trial to see what will work. So as I said I had to find the money and I had to cap it at a certain level. Ideally I would like to be able to find more money but we want to obtain some learnings from this trial, so that we can look at what will work best in the future and that may enable us to modify what we do, but it’s important that we have the trial to see what does work, as I said the learnings of what works and what doesn’t work so we can plan better in the future.

NATASHA MITCHELL: Would you see though rolling this out much more broadly, and with more funds allocated?

MINISTER ANDREWS: Look that will depend on the outcome of the trial obviously, and the budget decisions which the government can make, but if you look at this, we’ve looked at what’s the trigger point to actually encourage couples to do something and one of those trigger points we know is getting married. If you get married in a mainstream church in a Christian church, for example, then you’ll be encouraged to go along and do some form of pre-marital education. In fact it may not be compulsory but it’s certainly strongly encouraged. But we also know that now two thirds of couples get married in a civil ceremony in a registry office or by a civil celebrant so many of those couples, indeed the great majority don’t do anything, and this is partly trying to encourage them to do it. The other trigger point though is around having the birth of a child for couples who either get married or don’t get married, the birth of a child is another major occasion. And what I’d like to do is to be able to roll this out so we encourage people, not only to do the antenatal class which has become fairly common and universal, but to also do some relationship work at the same time.

NATASHA MITCHELL: So which counsellors will be eligible, because that’s another factor here. The success of counselling often depends on the therapist and we’ve been receiving comments on our facebook page overnight where couples have had a terrible time. Now that might be about the dynamics of their relationship, but it is as much about the skills of the therapist.

MINISTER ANDREWS: The counselling organisations will be those which have already been approved under the Family Law Act and the Marriage Act. So there’s dozens of organisations, so typically Relationships Australia in each state, Anglicare, Catholic Care, those sorts of organisations they’ve been approved in many cases for decades to provide these services. And then there will be some others provided they can demonstrate to my Department that they’ve been working in this area for five years, that they’ve seen a minimum number of couples and their professional workers are members of the relevant professional body.

NATASHA MITCHELL: Just briefly, registrations opened online for couples on July 1st?

MINISTER ANDREWS: Yes.

NATASHA MITCHELL: What’s been the response?

MINISTER ANDREWS: In the first three weeks we’ve had almost 2000 couples sign up so that’s, I think, a very good response because there wasn’t a great deal of publicity prior to the start of this trial so, you know, if we can get somewhere towards 100,000 over the year that would be very good.

NATASHA MITCHELL: Kevin Andrews thank you very much for joining us.

MINISTER ANDREWS: My pleasure Natasha.