Unlocking Our Outrage - Dr Brian Babington AM*

November 24, 2022 in Articles

Image credit: weeklytimesnow.com.au

I have never met anyone who is opposed to the idea of greater child safety and wellbeing. I think I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t publicly support the notion.

But, if such a broad theoretical consensus exists, it is worth asking the question: Why do so many children in Australia, and internationally, fail to thrive, suffer violence, abuse and institutionalisation? If children and young people are so important, why don’t these challenges cause outrage that drives urgent and sustained political action for change?

"If children and young people are so important, why don’t these challenges cause outrage that drives urgent and sustained political action for change?"

I want to suggest three key factors that block our outrage and hinder action, and I want to propose ways to overcome them.

Challenges: fragmentation, funding, attitudes

First, the task of improving child wellbeing requires responses that our systems and institutions are poorly equipped to handle. Many of our community-serving institutions, including NGOs, governments and universities, work in isolation from each other, seldom coming together in deliberate and sustained acts of collaboration to advance a shared agenda for social change.

Second, while there is political consensus that children’s needs are important, that consensus is clearly not compelling enough to drive political and consequent budgetary and program action compared with many other matters of social policy.

As CEO of Families Australia, I worked with many others on the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, our nation’s first-ever plan to tackle the national crisis of child abuse and neglect. Many of us held high hopes at the beginning for a truly transformative, paradigm-changing piece of national social policy that prioritised prevention and early intervention.

However, the harsh reality is that, after more than a decade, the National Framework remains woefully stunted in terms of governmental priority and funding. In my opinion, this is because of the crowding-out effect of other policy issues and the low priority that political leaders place on children’s issues despite countless revelations and Royal Commissions that show an abundance of past mistakes and human tragedies.

It is also because our increasingly expensive State and Territory child protection systems remain disproportionately oriented to providing tertiary responses, such as out-of-home care, rather than also addressing the causes of abuse and neglect. Simply put, we need to overhaul systems that do not move the dial for children.

Third, and perhaps more controversially, I argue that many of us passively accept the ‘threshold of discomfort’. I am confident that most people would be appalled to learn that one in six Australian children live in poverty, but I wonder if we also tend to accept that a certain degree of harm, disadvantage and hurt (to others) is the way things have always been and is probably unchangeable?

Making change happen

So, how can we turn these things around?

First, I believe that we should make greater effort to join up our efforts to improve child wellbeing. The innovation underpinning the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children was the idea that government, NGOs, academia, and community advocates should come together as equal partners to tackle child abuse and neglect. This was manifested in the multi-sectoral National Forum for Protecting Australia’s Children. As a co-chair of the National Forum for many years, my key observation was that this mechanism was helpful in building understanding between players from diverse backgrounds. Although tangible progress has been frustratingly slow, it served as a platform for the generation of consensus about policy and program directions and avoiding overlap and duplication of efforts.

I argue that we need many more of these sorts of cross-sectoral collaborations and partnerships in the cause of child wellbeing and safety in Australia. However, let there be no doubt: these collaborations are difficult and time-consuming. They tend to work against the grain in the sense that each partner is required to give up or suspend something of their self-interest in favour of a common, negotiated goal. They require us to do better at understanding and navigating power. And they need champions who stand for a vitally important common cause, not to preserve the insularity of our institutions.

Second, we need to believe that change is possible and is not beyond our reach. We need to break through the threshold of discomfort. This is where I see imaginative campaigns such as the Valuing Children Initiative as critically important. Strong proponents who stand for the bold vision, as VCI states, of ‘creating greater societal awareness of children and their needs’ are essential in encouraging others to recognise that the future can and must be different from the past and that we all have a leadership role to play wherever we are in society.

Finally, we can act locally to great effect. We should keep reminding our leaders that children deserve higher priority and that more resources need to be allocated. Recent nationwide vigils to mourn the tragic loss of 15-year-old Noongar Yamatji schoolboy Cassius Turvey clearly demonstrate outrage at violence and that ‘Kids Matter’. Yet, our politicians aren’t keeping up with public concern in terms of delivering well-funded, prevention-oriented responses. Letters urging politicians to do more are important, especially around election time. Joining local groups and volunteering at schools can support practical action that can inspire others to take a stand. Talking to our friends and family about the vital importance of children and childhood can spark action.

"Our politicians aren’t keeping up with public concern in terms of delivering well-funded, prevention-oriented responses"

One wish

Reflecting on a career that has encompassed government, non-government, business, and academic sectors, I have one wish: in an era where many of us feel increasingly disconnected, that we forge stronger ‘partnerships of purpose’ between concerned, even outraged, people, communities, and organisations to exert irresistible pressure on politicians to catch up with community attitudes and ensure the wellbeing and safety of all our children and young people.

* Dr Brian Babington AM is a social affairs author and advocate and a Valuing Children Initiative Ambassador. He is a Visiting Fellow at The Australian National University. He was CEO of Families Australia and Convenor of the National Coalition on Child Safety and Wellbeing. He was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for service to child safety and wellbeing initiatives.