To advance, Australia must think of the children
Anne Hollonds, who became National Children’s Commissioner in 2020, says Australia is failing to create the conditions to enable all our children to live well. The 2021 census showed those aged under 19 years make up nearly a quarter of the population, but Hollonds says that cohort is rarely central to policy considerations.
“We need to elevate child health, development and wellbeing to being a national priority because children are not a national priority,” she says. “I’ve observed that policy is designed for the concerns of adults.”
If we had a more child-centred approach to public policy, past decisions on infrastructure, environmental protection and tackling climate change might have been quite different.
Debate about childcare illustrates how adult-focused policy discussion can be even when children are directly affected. Promises at the federal and state levels to deliver cheaper, more accessible childcare have been framed primarily as a way to allow women to work more (an adult need) and to assist with cost of living pressures (also an adult need).
The issue of high-quality early learning, which is crucial for the long-term wellbeing of children, has received much less attention. A more child-centred policy approach would focus more on ensuring childcare providers have well-trained, adequately paid staff to support high-quality education and care.
There is now compelling evidence that investing in early childhood education and care delivers substantial long-term economic gains and is especially beneficial for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Dr Alicia Mollaun, a policy analyst at the consultancy Equity Economics and Development Partners, says one way to improve outcomes for children is to follow the money. “Governments often spruik their budgets as having something for everyone,” she says. “However, it is rare that Australian budgets pay specific attention to children.”
Mollaun points out that when the previous treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, gave the most recent budget speech in March, he only used the word “children” three times and two of those were in the context of announcements on women’s safety. She argues the way to address this policy gap is through child-responsive budgeting.
A detailed assessment of how budget decisions will affect children would be a good first step. This should begin with the Albanese government’s budget due in October and in subsequent state budgets. But simply issuing a list of child-related budget measures or a children’s budget statement will not be enough. The needs of children must be factored in at the earliest stages of all policy development.
Hollonds says governments in Australia must find better ways to hear directly from children and respond in a meaningful way to their concerns.
“What I’m trying to build is systematic ways to listen to kids and to give their views due weight” she said.
Mollaun suggests a Commonwealth Office for Children be established to oversee a more child-centred policy approach, similar to the Office for Women. The federal government could even create a “Minister for the Future” with the task of carefully assessing how policies implemented today will affect people in 10, 20 or 30 years. “Once we see children as central to policymaking, the way we see the future is different,” Mollaun says.
Given its vast wealth, Australia should be one of the best countries in the world to be a child. Putting children front and centre in policymaking will help ensure we translate that wealth into wellbeing for all the nation’s kids.
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