Who Should Oversee Children’s Services in Australia?

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There is now abundant evidence to indicate that positive early childhood experiences (including the prenatal period) confer long term benefits not only to the individual but to society at large. Conversely, it is also clear that adverse early childhood experiences cause long term harm to individuals, many of whom will be a burden to society either through health problems, substance abuse, welfare dependency, involvement in crime or combinations of the above.


We also know that there is a correlation between socio-economic circumstances and the quality of early childhood care and nurture. Furthermore, neuroscience tells us that the early years of life are the crucial period for brain development and thus optimal function throughout life.

There is of course an equity and social justice imperative that all children be given access to quality care in early childhood. But for society, there is also an economic imperative to provide quality care for all children and especially for those born in disadvantaged circumstances. The economic argument has been championed by James Heckman, the Nobel Laureate economist who has stated:

Once a child falls behind, he or she is likely to remain behind. Remediation for impoverished early environments becomes progressively more costly the later it is attempted in the life cycle of the child. The track record for criminal rehabilitation, adult literacy, and late teenage public job training programs is remarkably poor.

Heckman has also pointed out that in economic terms, return on investment on early intervention programs for disadvantaged children may be as high as 15-17 per cent.

Faced with all this information, why does an affluent country such as Australia, still have an alarmingly high incidence of child abuse and neglect, a rising incidence of children in out-of-home care, high levels of mental and behavioural disorders in young children, a substantial number of children with learning difficulties, high youth unemployment rates, a high teenage pregnancy rate and a high suicide rate in young males?

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Australian community, health and social planners and political parties of all persuasions have been slow to recognise that investment in young children is the best investment this country can make. The level of inertia has been staggering.

A study entitled “Health Goals and Targets for Australian Children and Youth”, was released in 1992, endorsed by the Australian health ministers and incorporated into a national health policy for children and young people in 1995 — and that policy promptly faded into oblivion. In 1999, the National Crime Prevention Section of the Commonwealth Attorney General’s Department released a report entitled “Pathways to Prevention — developmental and early intervention approaches to crime in Australia”.

This study confirmed the nexus between poor early childhood experiences, poor parenting, family break-up, educational failure, poor self-esteem, substance abuse and the transition to criminal behaviour. What was the community and political response to this important study?

The signs however are more promising in the last few years. The Federal Government has released a draft framework for a National Agenda for Early Childhood and is beginning to implement various strategies, a national public health action plan for children has been established through the child and youth health intergovernmental partnership, state jurisdictions have implemented a number of support programs for children and families, and various independent groups continue to lobby actively for improved opportunities for children.

Despite this recent flurry of activity, many problems remain in ensuring true integration of services between government departments. These include health, welfare, and education at both state and federal level and, given the economic imperative, the involvement of Treasury is also crucial.

Short electoral cycles are also counter productive to long-term investment — inevitably, political parties want returns in the current electoral cycle and it takes a leap of faith and real foresight to make major long-term investments for the future of our children, particularly when there are pressing political problems associated with an ageing population. Again, however, one comes back to Heckman’s proposition — invest now or pay (big dollars) later.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

Policy responses

A crucial issue is to ensure overall quality in the provision of childcare services and this must involve serious discussions about the necessary level of training for child care workers, their terms and conditions of service, child/staff ratios and the need for careful accreditation of childcare centres and workers (which must obviously involve much more than just police checks of staff).

The provision of government support for the costs of child care is also important and recent steps have been taken to provide such help though inevitably the method of government support provokes conflicting arguments. There is also a pressing requirement to provide extra support for stay-at-home parents through proper parenting allowances, leave provisions and taxation reform.

There is also a need to ensure not just child-friendly communities but child-friendly legislation; for example, was any consideration given to the impact of the new federal industrial relations laws on the care of children? If developers are required to produce an environmental impact statement relevant to their proposals, why are legislators (both federal and state) not required to include a consideration of the effect of proposed legislation on children?

Inevitably, one comes to the conclusion that someone must take overall responsibility for children’s services. Certainly inter-ministerial committees exist at state and federal level and they do their best to promote integration of services but is this is the most appropriate solution? The OECD in 2001 recommended that there should be a single ministry to take national responsibility for all services for children below school age.

Another option is to appoint a National Commissioner for Children and Youth and to give him/her real power to demand provision of optimal experiences and opportunities for all Australian children. The United Kingdom and New Zealand have both appointed children’s commissioners and it would certainly be appropriate to evaluate their experience.

We need an informed public debate about the best method of ensuring overall responsibility for children’s services in this country. To delay such a debate is to place many of our children at ongoing risk of failing to achieve their potential, which would indeed be a national tragedy.

The Centre for Policy Development asks readers to consider and respond to the ideas proposed in this article:

  1. that all new legislation be accompanied by statements addressing the impact on children
  2. that a single person be assigned responsibility for all children’s services (either a Minister or a National Commissioner for Children and Youth).
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