We ignored the evidence and the nation is aflame. Let’s not do the same with our kids.
15 January 2020 at 5:10 pm
As Australians face unprecedented threats from bushfires, we are seeing the results of evidence ignored. A potential social and economic firestorm awaits many Australian children unless we take evidence off the shelf and turn it into action, writes Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) CEO Penny Dakin.
In 2008, respected economist Ross Garnaut delivered a review of climate change evidence and made recommendations to the Commonwealth on mitigation.
The report famously (at least as of the past few days) contained the following dire prediction: “Fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense”. It went on: “This effect increases over time but should be directly observable by 2020.”
Professor Garnaut made this prediction based on a mountain of scientific evidence. Based on the same evidence, he recommended a number of actions, including the introduction of an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).
The ETS was introduced by the government of the day, but fell victim to “politics”. Additionally, given the complexity of issues such as international relations, and the workforce and economic implications of moving from coal to renewables, the “how” in delivering preventative environmental policies has, perhaps understandably, eluded our policy makers.
The complexities of preventive policy aside, there has been a clear failure to act on Garnaut’s report. In summary, the evidence has been ignored and Australians are now at the mercy of the worst bushfire season on record.
This is a salutary tale about the effects of ignoring evidence. I truly hope we learn from it, in the field of climate change and bushfire preparedness, and in national policy more broadly, particularly when it comes to our children and young people.
Unfortunately, without a national, cross-sector effort, a change in the way we do things does not look likely. For example, late last year two philosophically opposed think tanks, the left leaning Per Capita and the right leaning Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) were commissioned by the newDemocracy Foundation to separately analyse 20 federal and state government policies against 10 attributes of good decision making. Both think tanks found that state and federal governments are failing to apply best practice in developing public policy.
It’s clear we need to change the way policy is designed and delivered. Beginning this year, ARACY will lead a national, ongoing effort to ensure evidence informs all policy, especially for babies, toddlers and their families.
This is because the evidence tells us that in terms of both improving the quality of life for the child, and bang for taxpayer buck, it’s hard to find a better time, and that while it‘s never too late to help a child or a family, the earlier this happens the better.
Analysis of global evidence in which we have been involved found that changes or adaptations made during a child’s first 1,000 days can have lifelong effects. Adult conditions such as coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer are now being linked to pathways that originated prior to or during the first 1,000 days.
We have worked with PwC Australia to demonstrate the type of pay-off that can be expected from acting early. For example, PwC modeling found a potential growth of $4 billion in annual GDP from Australian children spending their first three years in stable housing and from helping all pregnant women to cease smoking.
Conversely, we know the economic costs in not acting early. A recent report, by CoLab and their partners reveals that “Australian governments are spending $15.2 billion each year on high-intensity and crisis services for problems that may have been prevented had we invested earlier and more wisely”. To put this in perspective, this is almost three times the value of Australia’s annual wheat exports.
However, a costing of $15.2 billion is conservative. The report doesn’t cost the wider social and economic impacts of the issues experienced by children and young people, nor does it include lifetime costs resulting from a lack of early intervention.
In short, where are we? Currently in Australia one in five children start school ill-equipped to succeed. One in six live in poverty. The evidence makes it clear that these and other hardships can have lifelong negative impacts on the child and their family, with massive costs to the community. And we have a clear record of governments failing to take heed of evidence.
It looks grim, but we can decide that history shall not repeat, and we can act to help families and children who find themselves in rough waters. It requires us to take this evidence and ask ourselves how we maximise what’s working, how we stop the waste of what’s not, how we change the system and how, to paraphrase PM Morrison, we “keep the promise of Australia to Australia’s kids”?
Through our National Early Years Summit to be held in March, ARACY is issuing a call to all those who are (or should be) in the business of helping Australia’s children. We are calling on all sectors and players, government, non-government, philanthropic and corporate, to be part of the national effort to get evidence-based action and investment happening sooner in the lives of Australia’s kids, for their benefit and the benefit of the whole community.
When it comes to the wellbeing of too many Australian children the evidence is as clear as that in the Garnaut report, but it is useless unless we act on it. We have the opportunity to do so. Let’s not squander it.