ADDRESS TO THE AUSTRALIAN INSTITUTE OF FAMILY STUDIES (AIFS) CONFERENCE
Thank you Aunty Di for the Welcome to Country.
And thank you Alan for the kind introduction and for your leadership of the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
I would also like to acknowledge:
Mr Trevor Huddleston from the United Kingdom;
Professor Paul Amato from the United States,
Professor Dorothy Scott,
Reverend the Honourable Brian Howe;
Mr Brian Babington; and
Other distinguished guests
Ladies and gentlemen.
I am delighted to be with you at the 13th AIFS conference. And to all our visitors, welcome to the world’s most liveable city!
It is very pleasing to see so many researchers, practitioners and policy-makers together to discuss, learn and explore emerging research about the topic that is close to my heart, and of course yours: – families.
Aristotle wrote that the family is nature’s established association for the supply of humankind’s everyday wants.
His view may have been more patriarchal than we would allow, but he was right in seeing the family as the basic building block of a civilised society.
Putting this age-old truth in contemporary terms, Michael Novak described the family as the original and most effective Department of Health, Education and Welfare. 1
And this, of course, is why family wellbeing is such an imperative.
AIFS is the Australian Government’s key research body in the area of family wellbeing and has done exceptional work since their beginning in 1980 – under a previous Coalition Government – to help to build our understanding and knowledge of families in Australia.
As many of you will know, the Institute was born of a political compromise to achieve the passage of the no-fault Family Law Bill through the national Parliament in 1975.
With many Parliamentarians concerned about the future of the family, the bill was amended at the last moment to create the Institute with the function:
“To promote . . . the identification of, and development of understanding of, the factors affecting marital and family stability in Australia, with the object of promoting the protection of the family as the natural and fundamental group unit of society” – an expression taken directly from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.2
Because the amendment had been hastily drafted and considered, it was not until 1980 that the Institute was finally established.
In the three and a half decades since, marital and family stability has declined. Consider the broad trends:3
Marriage rates have fallen;
Divorce and separation has increased;
Cohabitation has increased in both prevalence and its dissociation from marriage; 4
Remarriage rates have declined; and
Sole parent families and children born out of wedlock have increased significantly.
But trends and data do not tell the full story. At best they reflect the impact these issues have on individuals and families, many of whom I have seen in my Electorate Office over 20 years – and many more of whom that those of you who work in these fields observe regularly:
The single mother struggling to raise children on welfare;
The father who has lost all contact with his kids;
The young women suffering the emotional wallop of a long-term relationship ending;
The teenagers struggling to understand their own relationships following the separation of their parents;
The couple confronting unresolved, chronic conflict; and
The new parents adjusting to the challenges of a newborn child.
This is why the central task of the Institute remains significant.
The Institute’s work provides an evidence base for developing policy and practice related to family wellbeing.
And meetings such as the biennial conference are an important means of disseminating this research.
The 2014 conference coincides with the 20th anniversary of the International Year of the Family.
Appropriately, you have chosen to address the theme Families in a rapidly changing world.
We all know that families today face many challenges and can be profoundly affected by the pace of social and economic change.
Your eminent speakers – Mr Trevor Huddleston, Professor Paul Amato and Emeritus Professor Dorothy Scott – have each already made an enormous contribution to our understanding of the modern family.
But having the evidence is one thing.
Putting it into policy and practice is another.
A strong bridge between evidence, policy and practice is crucial if we are to achieve our priorities.
It is against this background that I wish to outline our approach to the continuing challenges we face to strengthen marital and family relationships.
Two years ago, the prominent Brookings scholar, Isabel Sawhill, noted that if individuals do just three things – finish High School, work full-time, and marry before they have children – their chances of being poor drop from 15 per cent to just two per cent.5
As William Galston wrote earlier this year, we need to tackle all three issues:
“We can do more to ensure that children do not grow up in poverty and that they receive effective preparation for formal schooling. And we can do more to encourage a culture of work and marriage while acknowledging for the foreseeable future, a large percentage of children will grow-up in single parent households whose mothers and fathers will need help to become more effective parents.”
These observations, which reflect the social science research of the past few decades, led me to consider our approach to the issues. In particular, it underlies the attitude that we are taking to the ongoing challenges of marital and family life in Australia.
Isabel Sawhill’s three factors – education, work and relationships – can been seen as the base of a pyramid which marks the difference between poverty and prosperity.
In turn each side of the pyramid can represent the building blocks of success.
Each of these blocks is an investment in the future of the individual, their family and community. Hence, a social investment approach has an important focus on prevention and early intervention.
It has enabled us to identify key phases of the life cycle, and key investment points for individuals and families.
These points relate to the readiness of individuals and families for the various phases of their life: Relationships, Children, School, Life generally, Work and Post-work, Retirement and Ageing.
Many people progress through these phases within the usual frameworks of family, school, and community, but for a growing number, additional assistance is necessary if their pathway is to prosperity rather than poverty.
By identifying the readiness factors and the investment points, we are able to more effectively determine the policies and programs that are more likely to be effective.
An example of our approach is the Stronger Relationships trial.
Stronger Relationships Trial
If research has proved anything, it is the importance of early intervention and prevention in developing strong foundations for family wellbeing.
This is why we introduced the Stronger Relationships Trial earlier this month.
We are providing up to 100,000 couples with $200 to take part in a marriage and relationship programme, a parenting skills programme or marriage counselling.
Stable and nurturing relationships are the essence of family wellbeing.
But each year in Australia more than 50,000 couples divorce and more than 50,000 children are affected, with some losing all contact with one parent.
When the separations of couples that do not marry is added, the numbers are even greater.
A welter of research indicates than an intact family is the best environment in which to nurture children.
As Professor Paul Amato said in 2004:
Studies consistently indicate that children raised by two happy and continuously married parents have the best chance of developing into competent and successful adults….7
This is not to say that every child whose parents separate is adversely affected but the reality is that this group of children face greater risks than others.
Research shows that relationship education and counselling can help couples improve their communication and conflict resolution skills and reduce family breakdown.
A research report by the UK’s Tavistock Institute of Human Relations released in January this year found that marriage and relationship education resulted in positive changes in people’s relationship quality, wellbeing and communication.8
The Tavistock research also found counselling to be cost effective, providing substantially greater savings to society than it cost to deliver.
Both education and counselling provided a ten-fold return on the investment involved.
This correlates with other Australian research that shows better family functioning can deliver the economy as much as $5.4 billion a year in increased productivity.
Access Economics found the boost is not just economic.
It reflects a society with less crime, fewer people struggling with drug and alcohol dependencies and fewer children living between two homes.9
Equally the Occasional Paper released by the Department of Social Services yesterday revealed that the family environment for children is a significant factor in their wellbeing;10 hence helping parents to adjust to a new parenting role is important.
The purpose of this Institute is to help us identify through research the factors that promote or detract from marital and family stability. This means not only good research, but the effective evaluation of outcomes.
For far too long, governments of both political persuasions have measured inputs rather than outcomes. Moreover, we have tended to treat the various organisations that provide a range of family and social services as agencies or instruments of government.
We are moving away from that approach. We recognise that the community and charitable organisations are best placed to identify and respond to local problems. The role of government is to support these activities, not control them.
As a consequence, the Department of Social Services is streamlining our programmes and processes to support children, families and communities.
The old Family Support Program will now be delivered within the new, streamlined, Families and Children Activity that forms part of a new Families and Communities Programme.
The Families and Children Activity will focus on providing support to families to enhance family and community functioning, based on evidence.
We are simplifying our agreements with the organisation, slashing reporting requirements and red tape, and beginning a process of moving to measuring outcomes.
To further strengthen evidence-based delivery, I am delighted to announce today the establishment of a Families and Children Expert Panel.
The Panel will comprise research, practice and evaluation experts.
They will advise, mentor and train service providers and help them deliver robust evidence-based practices with an emphasis on early intervention and prevention.
I have asked the Institute to set up and manage the Panel through their Child Family Community Australia Information Exchange.
The Institute will set up a high level steering committee to provide guidance and advice on the work of the panel, including identifying emerging issues or trends in service delivery.
CFCA has already played an important role in providing the service sector and the wider community with the latest research in family studies.
Practitioners, many of whom are here today, can access this information free of charge and use it to guide evidence-based service delivery.
But it has become clear that many service agencies need extra assistance to translate evidence into practice; hence the formation of the Expert Panel that I expect to be operational later this year.
The Government is making a significant investment of $5 million in the Panel over the next five years. It is a measure of our commitment to building the bridge between evidence, policy and practice in the interests of Australian families.
AIFS will begin the selection process to recommend the Families and Children Expert Panel members to the Government next month.
This first tranche will include organisations to train and support Communities for Children Facilitating Partner providers to implement evidence-based programmes.
We want children to have high quality, consistent services that have proven effectiveness.
We want to equip the sector with the latest innovations and tools in evidence-based practices, outcomes measurement and evaluation.
We also want to support organisations to trial and evaluate new approaches, particularly in early intervention and prevention.
As part of the work of the Panel, the Institute will host a one-off national Early Intervention and Prevention Conference in March next year.
The March conference will involve key-note presentations and practical workshops to help increase the capacity of providers within the families and communities sector and I very much look forward to it.
A renewed emphasis on prevention and early intervention is an example of a social investment approach to social services policy.
It is an approach that I wish to use throughout the portfolio. It already forms the basis of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, of which important trials are currently underway.
It is also an approach that we are examining in welfare reform, having witnessed its success in New Zealand. It involves the other two sides of the pyramid model – education and work.
While an increasing proportion of parents are enjoying the benefits that come with employment, there are still many families who suffer the consequences of joblessness.
The proportion of couple families who have children and are jobless is persistently around five per cent. 11
In an affluent country like ours, we surely can do better than this.
Australian research shows that jobless families suffer from long-term reliance on income support.
Missing out on the advantages of participation in work, they are all too often beset by social isolation and mental health problems.
This can have serious problems for children.
Children in jobless families have poorer outcomes in relation to learning and cognition, social and emotional wellbeing and physical health. 12
And the longer the time spent in a jobless family, the worse the developmental outcomes.
The children of today are the parents of tomorrow.
So outcomes for families and particularly reducing intergenerational welfare dependency will be a very important focus of our welfare reforms.
We need a welfare payment system that encourages workforce participation and increases parental competence, whilst also providing a safety net for those most vulnerable.
As you know, I commissioned Patrick McClure to go back to the drawing board and cast fresh eyes over our welfare system, which, by general agreement is out-dated.
We are in urgent need of a new architecture both to ensure that support services are targeted to those most in need and that the system is achieving its intended outcomes.
The Reference Group on Welfare Reform, chaired by Patrick, analysed the evidence base and produced the Interim Report, A New System for Better Employment and Social Outcomes.
I released the report for consultation late last month.
The Reference Group analysed types of payments and who receives them; expectations of and services for people receiving payments; previous Australian reviews and reforms; and recent overseas welfare reforms, including those in the UK and New Zealand.
Their Report discusses, for example, the New Zealand investment-based approach which shifts the entire focus of welfare so that support is invested where it will make the biggest difference.
An actuarial valuation is used to understand where best to target support.
As the New Zealanders explain it, an investment-based approach takes a long term view of each individual given their needs, challenges and prospects of a quick return to work.13
It means intervening earlier, and actively targeting those who have some capacity to work but who risk being long term welfare dependent without adequate incentives and supports, to get back into the workforce.
All the research tells us that embracing reform like this is in the interest of both individual Australians and their families.
It is the Government’s firm belief that well-designed policy based on research, evaluation and data is critical to producing real benefits for people in our community.
To that end, we ourselves invest in research initiatives to inform our policies and guide our reforms.
And if successful a social investment approach can be applied to many other areas of social policy, for example; to housing and homelessness, to ageing and at the state level in Australia to incarceration of individuals.
DSS conference presentations
I am pleased some of the key longitudinal studies undertaken by my Department feature on the conference programme.
These studies provide a powerful resource for decision-makers by helping us understand the circumstances of families over time.
Cross-sectional data, which in effect is a snapshot at a point in time, cannot do this.
Two presentations are from Footprints in Time: the Australian Government’s landmark longitudinal study of Indigenous children.
They show the effect of positive partner relationships on better social and emotional wellbeing for primary carers and fewer social and emotional difficulties for their children.
Footprints in Time tells us that parents are more likely to have more confidence in their parenting if they have strong cultural, social and personal resilience and high levels of satisfaction with their relationships and feel part of their community.
And this has proven practical results.
Where parents and carers have strong social, personal and cultural resilience, for example, their children’s reading scores tend to be higher, promising better long term educational outcomes.
Many of you will be familiar with the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children that began in 2001 under the previous Coalition Government.
The study is ongoing, following the development of 10,000 children and their families.
This provides a comprehensive, national picture of Australian children and their families and is a major evidence base for government policy.
Other areas of research
The newly established Australian Gambling Research Centre within AIFS will also benefit families.
Problem gambling has a huge impact on families, and I am pleased to see there will be a number of presentations given at the conference on gambling issues.
Other research currently being undertaken by AIFS and commissioned by my Department includes the Family Focus Groups project.
This has involved holding focus groups and interviews around the nation to see how Australian families engage with services and programmes being funded by the Australian Government.
An important aim is to find how different services might interact with each other to meet the needs of low-income, single parent and recently separated families, and families who are currently engaged with a form of income management.
This kind of information is vital for ensuring our policies are meeting their goals, and if not, how we might further improve and enhance them.
One area of family policy that has been in dire need of closer scrutiny for some time relates to children when families fail them and they need out-of-home care.
Too often these children are being failed not only by families but by institutions as well.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare is carrying out a national survey on the views of children and young people in out-of-home-care.
This work is being done under the National Framework for the Protection of Australia’s Children and involves the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments.
It will provide critical information on the impact of out-of-home care on these children and young people and how we can shape policy to ensure the best possible outcomes for them.
These are just some of the research issues in which we are involved in the interests of ensuring family policy is based on rigorous research and evidence.
Families are at the centre of our neighbourhoods, our communities and our nation. The Government is committed to supporting families through policies that deliver a strong a prosperous economy and a safe and secure Australia.
I wish you well for this conference.
The knowledge you share; the knowledge you each impart; and the collaboration and debate in which you will engage is work that is so important to strengthening families – especially in changing times.
Every generation faces new challenges and new realities.
But as philosophers ancient and modern remind us, the one vital constant is the nurturing shelter of family, providing mutual support and protection, through loving relationships that endure.
Our task to protect this very precious foundation of our social and economic life is made lighter when we are informed by rigorous research and solid evidence.
I wish you well in your endeavours.