I would like to thank Associate Professor Ted Wilkes for his heartfelt welcome to country. It is particularly meaningful on this occasion, because he is one of the Commissioner for Children and Young People’s Ambassadors.
And I would also like to welcome everyone to the official launch of the Valuing Children Initiative today.
Since then Emma King, the Deputy Convenor and I, have been working to develop its ambitious vision. That vision is to inspire Australians to value all children, promote understanding that a child’s wellbeing is the shared responsibility of the entire community, and ensure children are at the forefront of our considerations.
It is a vision shared by hundreds of organisations, thousands of individuals and all levels of government in Australia who are committed to the wellbeing of children.
Yet despite that commitment, and what we know makes for a healthy, safe and supportive childhood, far too many children, on a diverse range of indicators, are not faring as well as they should be.
Across Australia efforts are ongoing to do better. They include data collection, linking and research, and accelerating its translation into best practice, policy and decision making. Refining service delivery, and using new models such as collective impact. And finding ways to overcome fragmentation and better coordinate state and federal responsibilities.
But running parallel and underpinning this, is also the need to constantly encourage and create the social conditions that best support and nurture all children.
Societal attitudes and the culture of a society, although sometimes forgotten, play a pivotal role in a child’s wellbeing.
This is because attitudes to children, how we value them individually and as a section of society, directly impacts on how we treat them, and the priority we give their needs and rights. This in turn impacts on policy, programs and resources.
Societal attitudes drive change, and expectations about what is acceptable. This is obvious when you reflect on how attitudes have changed to the participation of women in public life, the protection of the environment; and how for example we view children born to single mothers, and smoking today.
That is why the Valuing Children Initiative believes, that in looking for better outcomes for children, more attention must be given to our attitudes and how we value them. Children themselves, identify being valued as one of the most important aspects of wellbeing. And in countries such as Sweden, that measure strongly on child wellbeing indicators, a strong culture of valuing children is an important factor.
There is no doubt attitudes to children have changed enormously over the years, and so correspondingly has our care and treatment of them.
Until the 19th Century children, like women, were the property of husbands and fathers, and not even recognised as a separate legal person. Slowly, over the next century there was growing acceptance of the need for the state to protect children from abuse, neglect and exploitation. By the mid-20th century laws to protect them were becoming commonplace. In the last 50 years the role of the state in protecting children, providing services and acting in their best interests, has been embedded in legislation and policy. Today, not even a parent has the right to beat or abuse a child. And international conventions, most recently the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, have changed the way children are viewed. It is has led to growing acceptance of children as citizens from birth, with individual rights of their own, including the right to be heard, listened to, and have what they want, acted upon.
But legislation, policy and international conventions have never been enough on their own. Societal attitudes are powerful.
Nothing has provided a starker example of this, than the shocking revelations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The truth was that children, the adults who spoke out on their behalf, and even the laws, were no match for the prevailing culture and attitudes of those in positions of power, who chose generally not to believe a child, and put the protection of institutions and adults first. The result was that for decades both institutions, and perpetrators were able to avoid scrutiny.
It is no coincidence then, that the Prime Minister spoke about the need to look at the culture, and prevailing attitudes as part of trying to explain what has happened at the Don Dale Juvenile Justice Centre. And not just in the horrifying treatment of those children, but also the lack of a more urgent response despite the previous reports, media coverage and the many who knew what was occurring.
This should raise uncomfortable questions for everyone, both as individuals and as a society. It is an Australia that we don’t recognise, and yet this has occurred on our watch. It makes it more urgent than ever, to ask how we value all children, not just our own.
Fortunately though, just as prevailing attitudes can be detrimental to children, they can also be beneficial, and demand change as history has shown.
A recent example, has been the decision in the United Kingdom to introduce a sugar levy on soft drinks. At the time the then Chancellor of the Exchequer said;
‘I am not prepared to look back at my time here in this Parliament, doing this job and say to my children’s generation… I’m sorry. We knew there was a problem with sugary drinks. We knew it caused disease. But we ducked the difficult decisions and we did nothing.’
This marks a significant change not only in what constitutes tax reform, but explicitly prioritises the health and wellbeing of children, before commercial interests. And would know there is now discussion in Australia about the introduction of something comparable.
So what do we know about Australians attitudes to children?
Earlier this year, we commissioned a baseline survey by Essential Research, to get a better understanding of Australians attitudes to children.
This was made possible in part, by the generous contribution of the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Colin Petit. And I would like to thank him for his contribution, as well as his support since the Initiative was established.
Today we are releasing a snapshot of those results.
The survey has been revealing. Usually when Australians have been asked to rank issues of importance, children were not included as an option.
Needless to say we did include children. It was encouraging then, that 86% said looking after the interests of children was important to them. Yet, they still placed the interests of children only ninth out of a list of ten. By comparison looking after the interests of older people ranked 6th. More than 50% said that issues like jobs, and the economy were more important to them than the needs of children.
The survey also asked respondents to choose from 20 words to describe children today. The four most commonly chosen were spoilt, fortunate, lazy and selfish.
This rather harsh characterisation of children, I think, lends weight to the need to do more to portray children in a positive light. It is also very much at odds, with the fact, that more than 17% of all children live below the poverty line, despite Australia being ranked as the seventh wealthiest nation in the world on a GDP per capita basis. It suggests that many Australians, simply do not know the circumstances of a significant number of children in Australia today.
Respondents were also asked whether a child’s word, is less likely to be believed than an adults. It is concerning, that even today, 63% believed that a child’s word is less likely to be believed.
Shortly we will be releasing more results. We hope to undertake further, more comprehensive work to understand attitudes to children, and what drives them. We are hoping to collaborate with others to continue that work.
Many of you will have already received the Valuing Children Initiative Foundation Paper, that outlines the rationale and background to the Initiative. This has formed the basis for meetings and discussions with many people in WA, and with organisations across Australia. Already the language of ‘valuing children’ has begun to be used by organisations, and in public debate. We have also begun collaborating with others, to promote understanding, that how we value children is crucial to their wellbeing. Part of that work will be to engage with the community to encourage a positive focus on all children, and a wave of understanding, to create a compelling picture that a society that is good for children, is good for everyone.
To help ensure children are at the forefront of considerations, we called on political leaders during the federal election, to commit to a number of institutional innovations.
This included the creation of a Ministerial position for Children and Future Generations, as well as the implementation of a rigorous and transparent process to ensure policy, legislative and decision making processes, include the requirement to consider the impact on children today and in the future.
This is needed to ensure children’s needs are always considered, and to counter the tendency for reactive responses and the focus on the short term, which can be particularly damaging for children.
Shortly a letter will be going to all state MPs, asking them to make similar commitments. It would be wonderful to see Western Australia take the lead building in institutional innovation to promote the wellbeing of children.
So these are just some of the ways the VCI is developing its advocacy role, as it tackles its very broad brief.
The helpful and encouraging feedback and support we have received, has been very welcome. Many of you here today have been very generous with your time. I would like to acknowledge and particularly thank Professor Fiona Stanley for her support.
Developing an initiative that is focused on influencing attitudes is challenging. This type of work – work that cannot easily be measured and evaluated, risks being seen as less important. Yet throughout history, it is what we value and believe makes for a good society, that has played a critical role in driving change.
Children are by definition vulnerable. This is not only because of their size and lack of cognitive development, but the authority adults have, and their utter dependence on them.
Acceptance, and admission of past failures, to protect children can subtly suggest that these concerns, are now taken care of, or that better policy and legislation and more inquiries, important as they are, will be enough to bring about permanent change.
This would be a grave mistake. Getting it right for every child now, and in the future, will always depend on the attitudes of the adult world. There is no set and forget when it comes to ensuring the wellbeing of children, not your own child, or any other child.
Organisations such as Centrecare and Parkerville Children and Youth Care, that have for decades provided services for children and their families, report that the complexity and demand for services continues unabated.
Allocating the resources to focus on how we create the social climate that best supports, and nurtures all children, is difficult given the pressing immediate need to provide services, and tight budgets. For that reason I think that Tony and Basil, and their Boards, should be acknowledged for the leadership they have shown in establishing this Initiative.
In conclusion let me say, my hope is that the work of the Valuing Children Initiative, by encouraging the conversation about how we value children, as well as the specific action we are calling for, will complement and support the work of others committed to the wellbeing of all children.
Thank you for your attendance today and I hope you can stay longer to enjoy the refreshments.
10 August 2016