Making Family Bonds Stronger

The Brookings Institution economist, Isabel Sawhill, wrote this year that if individuals do just three things—finish High School, work full time and marry before they have children—their chances of being poor drop from fifteen per cent to two per cent.

The respected scholar of child poverty went on the say that “unless the media, parents and other influential leaders celebrate marriage as the best environment for raising children, the new trend—bringing up baby alone—may be irreversible.”

Sawhill is not alone in her observations.

Across the Atlantic, the UK Centre for Social Justice concluded in its report, Broken Britain, that the fabric of society was crumbling, leaving at its margins an underclass, where life is characterised by dependency, addiction, debt and family breakdown. It is an underclass where a child born into poverty today is more likely to remain in poverty than any time since the late 1960s. The Centre identified five key paths to poverty: family breakdown, serious personal debt, drug and alcohol addiction, failed education, worklessness and dependency.

In Australia, demographers at Monash University were some of the first in the western world to observe a growing gap between the educated, employed, well-off and married; and those who are less educated, in marginal or no employment, and are unpartnered. It is a trend that has since been recognised in the US, the UK and elsewhere.

Hundreds of social science studies across the western world now point to one clear conclusion: that the incidence of family breakdown and unpartnered parenthood is having a significant impact, especially on children, but also on adults and society. This is something which many of you witness every day in your work.

This trend was borne out by data released by ACOSS recently, which revealed that 25 per cent of lone parents in Australia live below the poverty line (defined as fifty per cent of median income). Similarly, 52 per cent of the unemployed and 43 per cent of parenting payment recipients are below the fifty per cent of median income line, suggesting that Isabel Sawhill’s observation is as true for Australia as it is for the US.

As I point out in my recent book, Maybe ‘I do’ — Modern Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness, the studies report problematic outcomes for the health, education and well-being of the young people affected by the changes. Where children experience more than one family transition, the risks compound.

This is not to say that all the effects apply to each child whose parents’ divorce, or who is raised by a single parent. There is no way to predict how any particular child will be affected, nor to what extent. But it is clear that there are widespread ramifications for this cohort of children as a whole.

Nor is it to suggest that many single parents are not doing a good job, often in very difficult circumstances.

The renowned sociologist, Professor Andrew Cherlin, notes, even if a minority of the affected children have their lives altered, it is still a lot of children.

This has been reinforced for me over the past few weeks. A school principal related how an increasing number of kids come to school without having had breakfast and are often unable to settle into class. A welfare group informed me about the new poor fifty-something women whose marriages have ended, and who have neither a job nor adequate retirement savings. A homeless shelter told me that almost every young person there had come from a dysfunctional family and many had been abused.

If we are concerned about poverty and social justice, we must be concerned about what is happening to marriage and family in our society.

Increasingly, social scientists argue that we must do something about the issue.

The alternative is to treat the negative consequences as the unavoidable flotsam of modern relations. This is a counsel of despair.

Isabel Sawhill’s observation, based on over forty years of research, seems like common sense. Encouraging young people to finish school, get a job and make a commitment before having children should be the foundation of social policy.

In Maybe ‘I do’ — Modern Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness, proposals are outlined about how we might attempt some of these things. Importantly, it involves a new emphasis on prevention and early intervention.

Previously, it has been suggested that government should cut the red tape and burdensome reporting requirements on family service providers.

Since then, many opportunities have presented themselves to discuss those proposals with many service providers across the nation.

Family service agencies provide valuable services to the community. Many have been working with the poor, the marginalised, and the vulnerable for decades.

Services have arisen from perceived needs in the community. Programs, ranging from parenting skills training, through marriage and family education and counselling, to divorce mediation, drug and alcohol assistance, and family violence programs, provide information and support to hundreds of thousands of Australians annually. Many agencies are motivated by charitable intentions. They are professionally conducted, and often utilise the valuable contributions of volunteers.

Government has increasingly reached into the affairs of these agencies over the past two decades, imposing more and more burdensome contractual and reporting requirements. For example:

  • separate audited financial statements are often required for each funded program, even though the agencies’ annual financial returns are audited for annual registration purposes;
  • serial audits are conducted, often for different programs and within different time frames;
  • different quality assurance measures are required of the same agencies; and
  • masses of data are collected at considerable cost to the agency about each client, but much of this is not retrievable by the agency and is not collated by the Department.

Government contractual and reporting requirements cost family service agencies significant sums of money to administer. Much data is collected, but little of it is ever used. Many agencies have multiple contracts with governments, with different requirements, different obligations, and different reporting. Agencies continue to expend valuable resources on meeting these requirements that could better be spent on providing services and funding innovation.

The Coalition supports transparency and accountability in the use of taxpayer’s funds. It also supports simplicity and efficiency. The civil sector has a long history of responsible governance and management. The Coalition will respect and trust this.

In 2010 the Coalition announced that in government it would simplify the relationship between government and family service providers.

The Coalition believes in working with the sector, not directing the sector and treating it as an extension of the state.

And we believe that those working in the sector, not bureaucrats working in Canberra, are best placed to tell us how we can work together to ensure we are making life for institutions of the civil sector easier, not harder.

The Coalition will:

  • implement one contact with the Department for each agency, instead of multiple contracts;
  • require the Department to negotiate the content of the contracts with the agencies, instead of simply imposing it upon them;
  • simplify the auditing process to require only one financial report from each agency annually;
  • replace the current system of rolling audits with an initial benchmarking audit that has a period of five years, with spot audits to be undertaken if the Commonwealth is made aware of any adverse conduct on behalf of the agency;
  • simplify reporting requirements for governance arrangements, with registration as a company or unincorporated association sufficing as evidence of appropriate governance arrangements;
  • require all agencies to lodge a one-page ‘annual governance return’ by the chairperson of the board or governing body, indicating the agency is properly governed;
  • replace the current time-consuming and costly system of data collection with a requirement that each agency file a quarterly report indicating the number of clients seen by the agency, according to program area, and postcode of the client;
  • require each agency to publish on its website its annual financial return and an annual governance statement;
  • replace the current system of data collection with a series of cross-sector evaluations of the efficiency and effectiveness of various programs;
  • work with the sector to ensure adequate and known whistleblower provisions are in place.

These changes will ensure the agencies are able to focus their time and resources on delivering vital services to the community. They also make clear that the Government is supporting and empowering the valuable work of the agencies, not directing them as an arm of the State. Importantly, they clarify that the responsibility for the conduct of the services rests with the agencies themselves, not the Government. If an agency, or a person associated with it, acts improperly, they are subject to existing laws. In addition, Government may withdraw financial support if the public trust conferred upon them is broken.

These changes would save on expenditure for both the Department and the Agencies. In particular, it would obviate the need for the costly, time-consuming FRSP online (the Department’s data collection system).

The measures would reduce reporting requirements by a significant margin. The savings generated by agencies through the implementation of this measure will be retained by them for the provision of services.

These proposals stand in stark contrast to the government’s proposals. Even the recent Discussion Paper fails to fully appreciate the administrative burden on family service organisations.

Secondly, the Coalition will adopt a different approach to the Labor Party to the associations of civil society.

First, the Coalition recognises that there is a place for a national body to enhance the role of the institutions of civil society. Accordingly, the Coalition will repeal the Charities Commission, but support a small organisation as an educative and training body, a type of Centre for Excellence for the sector. The Coalition will work with the sector to ensure that it represents the sector. The Coalition will work with the sector to transfer responsibility and governance of the Commission to the sector over the next few years.

Under the Coalition, the independent body will:

  • provide education and support services to registered charities;
  • provide information to assist with the process of registration for new charities and not-for-profit agencies;
  • act as a ‘one-stop shop’ for information on charitable organisations and agencies operating within Australia;
  • advocate for the rights of charities and not-for-profit agencies;
  • represent the interests of charities and not-for-profit agencies to government;
  • help facilitate the interaction between government and the charitable and not-for-profit sector;
  • undertake research and cross-sector evaluations on issues of concern to the sector;
  • help foster innovation within the sector.

The Coalition will also ask the new body to co-ordinate with the sector, the Commonwealth, the States and Territories to propose a new, common financial and other reporting standard that will negate the practice of numerous reports being prepared each year for different funding and regulatory bodies.

The Coalition will retain the regulatory powers that already exist in the Australian Taxation Office, Australian Securities and Investments Commission and other similar bodies, and not transfer them to the new Commission.

Until and unless there is harmonisation of various Commonwealth, State and Territory laws, the proposed Commission simply adds yet another layer of regulation and bureaucracy on the sector. The Coalition will respect the role of the States, but work with them to achieve harmony in relation to fundraising codes and other regulations.

Secondly, the Coalition will retain the current Common Law definition of charity, and maintain the Public Benefit Test. This is consistent with the evidence based reviews of the 2001 Charities Definition Inquiry, the 2008 Henry Review, and the 2010 Productivity Commission report.

The Coalition will examine any particular issues that are the cause of concern. It has at times been suggested that the Charities Sector needs review and regulation because the sector receives substantial tax concessions. Arguments about tax concessions for charities and NFPs do not belong in the consultation and formulation of policy on the definition of charity, the ACNC, NFP governance arrangements and charitable fundraising. The issues should not be conflated.

The Coalition will work with the sector to address any particular issues that arise regarding the taxation treatment of charitable organisations. We will not use discrete taxation issues as a Trojan Horse to impose a burdensome new regulatory system on the sector.

There are two approaches to the central task of politics, which is to help determine how we can live together. One approach is summed up in the opening words of the Maiden Speech of the former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd: “Politics is about power. It is about the power of the State. It is about the power of the State as applied to individuals, the society in which they live and the economy in which they work.”

The other approach is about empowering people, not exercising power over them. It is the approach summed-up in Abraham Lincoln’s famous description of democracy as “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

The political community should be of service to civil society. That is what the Coalition will endeavour to achieve in government.

These are edited remarks of Kevin Andrews at the Family Relationship Services Australia Conference, November 2012.

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