Protecting our children in chaotic times? We need more than a national framework.
23 March 2022 at 4:42 pm
Deb Tsorbaris argues that a new child protection framework has admiral intentions, but falls short in addressing Australia’s post-pandemic economic reality.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced earlier this month that Australia’s economy had bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, allaying fears of a prolonged, draining period of economic stagnation. The nation breathed a small sigh of relief at avoiding inevitable financial difficulties for some Australians – and hardship for others.
Yet, we should view Frydenberg’s economic optimism cautiously.
During the pandemic, the generous and much-needed coronavirus supplement and JobKeeper payments shielded people experiencing vulnerability from its impact. A perhaps unforeseen consequence of such extensive government support was a levelling effect on the economy; one that saw the greatest progress in balancing out society since the Keating government of the early ’90s.
Unexpectedly, and almost uniquely on a global scale, the pandemic resulted in a fairer, more equitable society, where people could care for themselves and their dependents, above the poverty line. Praise received by the government for these immediate, proactive measures was justified – they directly and positively impacted the lives of many.
Sadly, this moment of progress was short-lived. In April 2021, a year after introduction, the government ended the coronavirus supplement that had kept so many afloat. Since then, the number of those in poverty has risen by approximately twenty per cent to levels that exceed those seen pre-pandemic, undoing the progress of 2020. Income inequality is also thought to have risen.
In addition to rising poverty and income inequality, Frydenberg’s economic assertions have whitewashed the way that poverty, however it is framed, affects struggling children and families.
Safe and Supported: The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2021-2031 was released in December 2021 with no fanfare. In May 2022, the first of two five-year action plans designed to detail how the goals of Safe and Supported will be achieved, will be released.
The framework rightly acknowledges income support as key to supporting child safety.
Income support is the responsibility of the Australian government – a key area where significant, immediate improvements could be made. These cannot be duplicated in other areas of the service system. In order to uphold children’s right to material basics, we want to see the government commit to improvements to the social security system in the first action plan.
The framework of the mission is admirable, but it falls short in harnessing our children’s potential, and fails to consider the structural disadvantages many face. Instead, it reveals gaps in our understanding as a nation about the nature of poverty, how it is experienced, and how crises can exacerbate it.
We live in a tumultuous age – COVID-19, political instability and climate change will all continue to impact our lives for many years to come. The impact will be more cataclysmic for some than others.
Australians are known for our larrikinism – our unabashed warmth, no-frills affability, and our strong sense of community. Mateship has defined the nation. But in times of crises, rather than coming together, we are now drifting apart.
Australia needs a contemporary and unifying approach, that harnesses our children’s strengths and potential, to protect them effectively. Contemporary, in the sense that any framework must evolve with the times and swiftly respond to need when appropriate. Unifying, in that it must listen to and incorporate the voices and wisdom of divergent groups that converge on the shared goal of improving child safety and wellbeing.
We’re calling on our federal colleagues to work with the child and family sector, and service providers, to elevate the framework to better protect children. We have boots on the ground, granting us unparalleled access to data and knowledge that, if used optimally, could elevate outcomes for children to unprecedented levels.
In addition to the effective implementation of the framework, we need supplementary interventions that address the crises of our time – climate change, COVID-19, and income inequality.
Now more than ever, we need strong leadership that moves forward – not back. Anne Holland, the national children’s commissioner, is a fantastic example of such leadership, and others would be wise to take note of her approach.
Our thinking needs to look ahead, to build upon proven strategies. We’re asking the government to listen to the sector, and to redouble efforts to ensure effective, thorough implementation of the framework, to ensure it’s fit-for-purpose in the coming decade.
Protecting and supporting children is the bread and butter of our sector – our raison d’etre, our motivation, our mission. We know what changes are needed, and how these changes could be implemented effectively.
The child and family services sector stands unified in our commitment to the protection, support and nurture of Victorian children, setting an example of unity to benefit others who follow it.