Family and Relationship Services Australia Conference Keynote

22 November 2017

Good morning and welcome – it is a pleasure to be here with you.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Boon Warrung people of the Kulin nation.

Thank you to N’arweet Carolyn Briggs for welcoming us to your country.

I’d like to acknowledge Michael Austin, the Chair of Family and Relationship Services Australia; Jackie Brady, Executive Director of Family and Relationship Services Australia; and all of you here today – I know how hard it is for you to take time away from the vital work you do, but also how important it is for you to come together like this to set the agenda for your sector.

It is an honour to be the first keynote speaker of the Family and Relationship Services Australia Conference.

I am Senator Louise Pratt, Labor’s Shadow Assistant Minister for Families and Communities.

Today I am also representing the Hon Jenny Macklin MP, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services.

The theme of your conference this week, Connecting the Dots: Creating Wellbeing for All, is one that very much reflects the challenges that we all face – the Government, the families sector and, most importantly, the challenges faced by Australian families.

I agree with some of my conservative colleagues in the Parliament on at least one thing: that the family is the building block of our nation.

But where we disagree is that I believe that all families, in all shapes and sizes, are the foundation of our nation – not only those who fit the nuclear model.

It is my firm view that families in Australia will be strengthened by the postal survey result last week in support of Marriage Equality.

You are all too aware of the many pressures on families today.

Sadly, many LGBTI families have suffered in recent months as a result of the postal survey.

Recently I heard of a 5 year old boy, who came home two his two mums saying he needed a new family, that he needed a mum and a dad – after “a lady had said” something to him.

So, this time last week many LGBTI families breathed a sigh of relief, including my own.

I have been an advocate for equality for more than 20 years, and campaigned heavily for the Yes campaign.

Sadly this couldn’t be further apart from my counterpart in the Liberal party Assistant Minister Zed Seselja, who will be appearing on behalf of the Government later this week, who campaigned strongly against marriage equality.

It is incredibly disappointing that some conservative politicians still hold the view that families are only legitimate if they have one mother and one father.

This is nothing but wilfully ignorant about the vast array of families that exist right across the country – step families, single parent families, and of course, LGBTI families.

I spoke in the Parliament in 2012 on Marriage Equality – “We exist. We already exist... all we ask is that you stop pretending that we don't. All I ask is that you stop pretending that our relationships are not as real as yours, our love as true, our children as cherished and our families as precious - because they are.”

In my own community I have seen that too many face their battles alone because they are fearful of the stigma they may face in seeking help.

For too long, LGBTI couples have been excluded from the legal institution of marriage, but also from the social views that prevail about marriage and what it means: commitment. 

I hope that when Parliament at last legislates for marriage equality, all families feel that they can reach out for help what they need it, that all families feel that they are equal, regardless of the form they take.

You would all understand the sense of failure and shame that people experience when they reach out for help – but they shouldn’t.

Everyone needs a helping hand at times.

In August, Family and Relationship Services Australia called for more funding for LGBTI family services in light of the postal survey – and I thank you for that.

The family sector has been well ahead of Government in recognising LGBTI families and the commitment of our relationships.

I thank you for that.

Now to the purpose of your conference this week.

The families sector – you in this room – have also always been well ahead of government in recognising that supporting families is complex and that our responses must be coordinated.

This week you are seeking to find ways to strengthen wellbeing across the life course of families – and this is Labor’s core mission too.

Labor knows that family disadvantage is one of the primary reasons that families seek help from your services – this is an issue I’d like to talk about today.

It is an issue that we cannot solve without an approach that connect, as you say, all the dots.

Government cannot do it alone – we can pull levers – tax, housing, income support – but that’s not enough. 

We know that we need someone in the room – face to face, or rather standing together, with families giving them the support they need.

We know that you, the sector, cannot do it without adequate funding and support from the Government.

And that is support that you are simply not getting from the current government.

In 2014, we saw horrendous attacks on the community sector – with $240 million of funding ripped from frontline services.

I am appalled that you are still restricted by gag clauses in your contracts that mean you cannot advocate for the people who need it most – because I know that advocacy is vital in providing a mandate for change.

I also see every day that funding is still delivered in complicated and restrictive silos that make service management, coordination and reporting overly onerous and make your work harder than in needs to me.

Labor, on the other hand believes in working in partnership with you.

Government must work in partnership with the sector, just like Labor does in Opposition through our Community Sector Partnership, to tackle complex issues together.

We must also find a fairer way of funding the community sector – to undo the mess of the Liberal Government’s awful competitive tendering process.

And more than that, Governments should facilitate new ways of harnessing the resources of the sector to create real and positive community change and to encourage innovation in the sector.

We can do better. We must do better.

Over the last 15 months I have spoken to many organisations in the family sector – many of you here today.

You have told me that more must be done to help vulnerable families – and that this must go beyond funding for frontline services.

While you can work day in, day out, doing the hard yards for Australian families, you cannot do it alone.

The government must pull all the levers they can to support families.

Personally, I support a public health approach to family wellbeing.

I know this is something that the Family and Relationships Sector has been looking at too.

It is not enough to simply provide support when a family is in crisis.

This means providing support long before families ever reach that point – and it must continue so that they do not ever reach that point again.

Rising unemployment, reduced living standards, rising poverty are economic challenges.

But they are also at their core issues that impact on family wellbeing and – issues that this Government is failing to address.

This Government continues to attack on families on welfare.

This Government continues to give tax cuts to big business while those on low incomes see rising costs.

This Government continues to attack the unemployed while providing no plan for jobs.

The capital and income required to live a good life in Australia leaves more and more people behind.

And so inequality continues to rise.

It is a reality that we cannot ignore.

It is unacceptable that after more than two decades of uninterrupted economic growth there are communities across Australia that have missed out on the benefits of our growing economy.

Your opportunity should not be limited by your postcode – but, sadly, it is.

And so I want to remind you today of Labor’s mission – my mission.

We know we need to support your services – but also understand that you will continue to swim against the tide unless government does its job.

Complex and entrenched disadvantage is experienced in a small but significant number of locations across the country.

Locations like Logan in Queensland, the Kimberly and the Goldfields in Western Australia and East Arnhem in the Northern Territory.

And, of course, our First Nation’s people still suffer entrenched disadvantage and this Government is not doing enough to close the gap. 

Family disadvantage, dislocation and stress is often the result of complex, intersecting issues – poverty, unemployment, homelessness, trauma, domestic violence, disability, mental health issues, and substance abuse.

But no parent should have to choose between taking their child to the doctor or putting fuel in the car.

No parent should have to choose between buying their child school uniforms or school books.

Inequality will continue to rise unless Government steps up to the challenge and supports economic growth that is fair and inclusive.

And Labor is ready to step up to the challenge.

Labor believes that it is our mission  is not only to support families through important services like yours – but also through family payments, income support, fair wages and conditions, sharing our nations productivity and wealth, the provision of quality public and community services, affordable healthcare and quality education, as well as creating employment opportunities.

We are committed to tackling these issues – addressing the social determinants of health and wellbeing.

Labor knows that must stop giving tax cuts to the big end of town – and instead make sure that they pay their fair share to lift all Australians up.

Labor knows that our social security system and social services – such as the family support you provide – to not only provide a safety net for people in times of hardship, but to also invest in their future – give them the support, the knowledge and the opportunities they need.

Labor knows that when families are excluded from work, and from the community, they not only suffer internal family pressure – but they also experience stigma which affects their wellbeing in a dramatic way.

And that is why Labor has a plan to tackle inequality – wherever we see it.

In wages and tax

In job security and workplace bargaining

In education and welfare

In housing affordability

For women – in pay, leadership, superannuation

And of course, tackling inequality for our first Australians in all measures

Labor will prioritise policy initiatives that target the First 1000 Days of a child’s life – which is also one of the topics you will be discussing here today.

We are committed to investing in the early years to ensure that kids are given the absolute best chance at succeeding, that families are given the tools and support they need to get through,  and that you as service providers are better able to make a difference for small children and their families.

And of course, we can’t talk about family disadvantage without talking about  perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face as a country, and indeed one of the biggest determinants of family crisis: family violence.

This is an area absolutely in need of Commonwealth leadership.

At the last election, Labor committed to investing $42.9 million in frontline legal services to ensure women threatened by violence are not battling the legal system alone. 

We committed to $4.5 million for Family Violence Prevention Legal Services to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children experiencing family violence.

We also committed to $15 million for a Safe at Home grants program and $8.4 million to improve perpetrator mapping – to provide practical support to victims and assist the front line work that many of you here do.

Critically, we also committed to holding a National Crisis Summit on Family Violence with State and Territory leaders and to openly engage with stakeholders and the sector to coordinate a national response to family violence.

I am pleased that we will have a long overdue review of the Family Law Act by the Australian Law Reform Commission, which will consider how the system can better protect children and vulnerable people; how the Commonwealth, States and Territories and family support services can better coordinate and collaborate and how to make the system more accessible and easier to navigate, with a particular focus on families with complex needs.

I know you will be interested in our position on this review. We are waiting to see what stakeholders like you say to ensure that our response reflects your needs – but I can tell you know though we won’t be listening to any Hanson-ite agendas.

We believe that Children have many rights under Part VII of the Family Law Act.  Parents have none.  Parents have duties and responsibilities – but not rights.

 I have the utmost respect for your focus as service providers - on helping parents to understand how much of an impact their behaviour has on their child’s wellbeing, while also recognising that to better the wellbeing of a child, we must also address the needs also of the  parent.

 I note that Professor Helen Rhoads the Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission is also speaking this week, and I am sure you will hear more about the review from her.

I encourage all of you to make submissions to the review – because you know better than anyone else in this country the best way to support families in times of crisis.

Labor is concerned that Family Court is in crisis, with people having to wait years for their cases to be heard.

The Attorney-General’s response has been in adequate.

But Labor knows that family law reform is crucial to address this pressing issue, and many more.

We very much understand that the crisis in family law is increasing pressure on your services.

And so, if we are to truly strengthen families then we must tackle all of these issues.

You know better than anyone else that these issues are complicated, interlinked and compounding and entrenched. 

You help families on the ground, every day.

And that is why I cannot overstate the importance of the work you do.

The support you provide families cannot be quantified.

I know that the sector cannot do it alone.

Government must also tackle these macro social issues to give families the best possible chance to thrive.

We also look forward as a future Labor Government to supporting you to design and deliver the services that Australian families need.

So my message to you today is this: we are with you.

Together, we can and will make a real difference to Australian families.