The Commonwealth Government's approach to family policy


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Content type
Family Matters article

September 1999


This article outlines the government's objectives and achievements in family policy and reveals that future directions for family policy will focus on prevention and early intervention with a view to strengthening families. The aims of the National Families Strategy are discussed. The article is followed by an outline of significant new developments in welfare policy since the article was written. Principles which have been identified to guide welfare reform are outlined, and brief information is provided about the Reference Group on Welfare Reform which has been formed.

This article outlines the Government's objectives and achievements in family policy and reveals that future directions for family policy will focus on prevention and early intervention with a view to strengthening families. The aims of the recently introduced National Families Strategy are discussed.

The Commonwealth Government's approach to family policy is multi faceted but has one primary objective - to develop and implement policies that strengthen families. We want to help people become better parents, enable parents to balance their work and family commitments, enhance the quality and stability of couples' relationships, give children the best start in life, and steer children through the teenage years to adulthood. Before explaining how we intend to do this through developing a National Families Strategy, I'll outline what I see as our achievements so far.

More financial support for families with children

We came to office in March 1996, elected on a platform of introducing the family tax initiative. This was the first plank in developing new policies for families. We were re-elected in October 1998, on a promise of extending this initiative.

This initiative responds to the needs of families with children for extra financial support to meet the high costs of raising those children. Our policies have delivered more adequate financial support to families. They have also simplified an extremely complex system of support. But we want to achieve more than financial security for families.

Our tax reform package builds on our belief that the tax system and Social Security payments for families need to be integrated so that families have a choice about how and when financial support is delivered to them. Through
the introduction of the family tax initiative this Government has restored equity to assistance for families. Families with children are at least $7.70 a fortnight better off. This is the amount paid for each child, so families with three children are more than $23 a fortnight better off.

The family tax regime recognises that in many families one parent remains at home until all the children are at school. Many families struggle financially during this period of their lives. Therefore, a higher level of assistance is available for single income families with children under five. These families are at least $27 a fortnight better off. Lone-parent families benefit from the family tax initiative because we treat them like other single income families.

Simplifying assistance for families

The tax and family assistance reforms happening in July 2000 are more sweeping. We have had time now to examine both systems and we've come up with a simple system that replaces a complex array of 12 types of assistance for families with just three types. Tax rebates such as the dependent spouse rebate and the sole parent rebate, and cash assistance, such as family allowance and basic parenting payment will be replaced by Family Tax Benefit - parts A and B. There will also be one Childcare Benefit, with one set of rules, for families paying for either formal or informal child care.

Family Tax Benefit Part A will recognise the costs of raising children for almost all families (with income up to $73,000 a year for one child, plus $3,000 a year for each extra child). Part B will be a universal payment for one income families. The lowest income lone-parent families will receive $38 more a fortnight in family assistance.

Incentives and rewards for working families

Improving work incentives and returns from working are integral to the Government's family policy. Family Tax Benefit will be withdrawn at a lower rate than current forms of assistance. This means that as families earn more (from working overtime, for example, or being promoted, or moving from part-time to full-time work, or a partner taking on a job) they will not lose as much Government assistance as they do now. Work will be more rewarding financially. Families won't be trapped in poverty.

Under Family Tax Benefit Part B, where the partner who is primarily engaged in parenting has some earnings, s/he will still retain some benefit until her or his own income is over $10,500 a year. This will enable parents who do stay home to care for their children to also retain some attachment to the workforce, making it easier to return gradually.

Valuing parenting

In my portfolios of Social Security, the Status of Women, and now Family and Community Services, I have endeavoured to restore the value placed on parenting. Replacing sole parent pension and parenting allowance with Parenting Payment not only simplified the structure of payments, it also recognises that parenting is intrinsically valuable, whether the parents are together or apart. It takes away the stigma that many lone parents experienced.

I know that there are arrangements for caring for children other than one parent doing it on a full-time basis and I have made other changes to Parenting Payment to accommodate these circumstances. For example, there are orphaned children who are best cared for by a relative. If this relative, say an aunt, happens to be single then she had to wait 12 months before she could be paid Parenting Payment. From September this year, she could be paid immediately. This change also makes it easier for Indigenous children to be cared for by their kin and to remain in a familiar environment, without becoming entangled in legalities. People who volunteer to be foster parents can also now get Parenting Payment without waiting. This is a small but important change that enables children to be cared for by family, other than their parents, and prevents them from being institutionalised.

The special needs of parents of children with disabilities have been recognised through the extension of Carer Payment to those caring for a child with a profound disability, and through increasing the amount of time carers can have respite and still qualify for payments. Additional funding of $20 million over the next four years is being put into the national network of Carer Respite Centres to improve access to urgent or short-term respite care for those caring for young people with disabilities.

The Government's Good Beginnings pilot project supports new parents by linking them with a volunteer 'community parent' who visits them at home for the first twelve months after the birth of a child.

Parenting options after separation will soon be better. Many fathers desire greater involvement in their children's lives and they need financial support to achieve this. Instead of paying Parenting Payment to only one separated parent, as is the case now, from January 2001 both parents will be able to receive the same income support payment, Newstart Allowance, and both can look for suitable work that fits in with their parenting responsibilities. This change supports the family law reforms of 1996.

Responding to men's needs

We have responded to the concerns of men that counselling and relationship support services often don't cater well for them. Following the national men's forum in Canberra in 1998, an extra $6 million was allocated to trialing marriage and relationship education and counselling services for men. A further $9 million was allocated in the last Budget to fund pilot services to assist men, both in improving their relationship skills to prevent family breakdown and support for those whose relationships have already broken down.

Protecting families from violence

I am deeply concerned about the incidence of domestic violence. The Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments' Partnerships Against Domestic Violence provides substantial funds for projects that protect women and children at risk, educate the community about violence, and help adults to stop behaving violently. These projects cover a wide range of groups including men, women, children and adolescents, people living in rural and remote areas, people with disabilities, Indigenous communities, and culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

Since July 1999, a crisis payment has been available from Centrelink. This will make it easier for victims of domestic violence to leave a violent relationship.

Keeping young people at home and in education

We have introduced a single Youth Allowance to replace Austudy and a raft of other income support payments for young people. Young students can now receive help with their rent payments. This puts students on an equal footing with young jobseekers, helping young people to stay at school or return to study after a period of unemployment.

To ease the financial burden on families with children aged 16 - 24 who do not qualify for Youth Allowance, the Government has recently extended the payment of Family Allowance.

We have begun to tackle the problems experienced by families with teenagers by going beyond their need for income support. The 26 pilot services that we funded to intervene early in cases where there are problems between teenage children and their parents have been successful in finding new ways of resolving conflict and strengthening these relationships. These pilots were
about preventing young people from getting caught in a downward spiral of homelessness and detachment from family, community, education, and work, by intervening early and attempting reconciliation with the family. We have now committed $60 million in funding over the next four years and $20 million ongoing for a Youth Homelessness Early Intervention Program.

I announced in the last Budget that some funds would be available for communities and community groups to support families of illicit drug users.

A one-stop shop for families

Making it easier for families to obtain the help they need is another of the Government's objectives in family policy. We created Centrelink for this purpose. Centrelink is developing a new service delivery model that will be responsive to people's real life situations. This model will make it easier for families to obtain the help they need.

Families with children, whether young or teenaged, no longer need to shop around to get the assistance they're eligible for. Centrelink delivers all of a family's payments in a much more integrated way than was previously the case.

New Family Assistance Offices will be set up and located in all Tax, CentreLink and Medicare Offices. These offices will open around the country in July next year and will expand families' choices about how to receive financial assistance from the Government. Families will be able to plan and consider options for their future by discussing 'what if' scenarios and the impact these scenarios would have on their eligibility for family assistance. For example, a customer might ask: 'What if I took a job for one day a week and earned $150? How would that affect my Family Tax Benefit and would I be eligible for Child Care Benefit?'


A National Families Strategy

The Government is ready to tackle the fundamental contemporary social problems we face as a society. The rate of marriage breakdown, youth suicide, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, unemployment, and school drop-out are all too high.

The Federal Government alone cannot reverse all these disturbing trends. We need to act in partnership with State and Local governments, and business and community sectors, in a concerted effort to enhance the wellbeing of children, give children and young people opportunities for full participation in society, and give marriages the best chance of succeeding.

All of these problems need to be addressed in a coherent set of family policies. It is for this reason that I announced in the last Budget that my Department, the newly created Family and Community Services, would be developing a National Families Strategy. The aim of this Strategy is to strengthen families and make them more resilient when they're faced with hard times (see also Family Matters, no. 52, pp. 3 - 4).

There are many critical points in families' lives that place extra stresses on people and their relationships - for example, the birth of a child, the death of a family member, children starting or finishing school, growing up and becoming more independent, parents leaving or re-entering paid work, unemployment of parents or young people, the need to care for elderly, ill or disabled family members. These transitions need not become crises if families are strong enough to cope. It is no good simply responding to families' needs in a crisis. Of course, this is essential, but we need to work out ways of strengthening families so that crises are averted if possible. To the extent that crises cannot be averted, families need to be better equipped to deal with them. The National Families Strategy will focus strongly on prevention and early intervention.

The importance of the early years of children's lives in determining their future life chances and the importance of the teenage years in carving out a positive future for young adults cannot be underestimated.

My department has recently been conducting workshops on strengthening families with parents across Australia. I attended the one held in my hometown, Launceston. In these workshops, parents expressed a strong desire for their families to be self-sufficient. They don't want government interference in their lives. They want to be able to help themselves. They like the idea of couples attaining skills before they experience problems in their relationship, and they like the idea of acquiring parenting skills before difficulties arise in bringing up children. At the same time, they do value the contribution government can make to their financial security.

Many of these parents have a vision of a strong family as one in which people are committed to caring for one another, sharing good times and bad, listening and talking with one another, and spending time together. Our policies should support this vision. Family bonds are worth making and keeping strong.

Linking families and communities

Reciprocity is at the heart of strong families. It is also at the heart of strong communities. Much reciprocity occurs without people being conscious of it. Grandparents take care of children while their parents are at work or having some 'time off' together, children do their chores around the house in exchange for pocket money, neighbours collect mail and water each others' gardens while they're away on holidays.

Where families are apart or divided, for whatever reason, community support becomes even more important. Linking families and communities is integral to strengthening both. Building community spirit and community capacity is important. Many country towns, regional centres and suburban neighbourhoods have a strong sense of community spirit, but facilities, services and community resources are sometimes inadequate to meet needs. Investment in these areas is necessary if we want stronger communities across the whole of Australia, rather than pockets that are doing well and pockets that are doing badly. Over the next 12 months I will be consulting with communities, particularly rural, regional and disadvantaged urban communities, to identify new initiatives which strengthen their social fabric. I believe the most effective approach is developing local solutions to local problems.

Preventing marriage breakdown

I believe we should be trying to enhance the quality of marriage, so that marriage is a desirable aspiration for couples and that they enter into marriage with their eyes open.

One of the first things the Government did after being elected in 1996, was to set up a parliamentary inquiry into marriage and relationship breakdown. This Committee was chaired by Kevin Andrews, and among other things it examined the range of views on factors contributing to family breakdown. In June this year, the Government responded to the Committee's report, To Have and To Hold. Part of that response was the Prime Minister's announcement that pre-marriage education vouchers would be issued in certain areas for a year from November 1999. As reported elsewhere in this issue of Family Matters, the voucher trials are being held in Perth and Launceston. The trials will be evaluated to see what impact they have on couples planning to marry.

The Prime Minister also announced that a Marriage and Family Council would be set up. Members of the Council will advise me on ways of enhancing marriage and family relationships and improving the effectiveness of relationships education, as well as oversighting the trial of pre-marriage education vouchers. I look forward to the Council being announced shortly.

Couples need preparation for marriage. The Government already funds many organisations nationwide to provide marriage and relationship education and we need to know more about what approaches work and whether skills acquired are sustainable over the long term.

The extent of family breakdown and its deleterious effects on both parents and children concerns me. I realise that there are cases where the breakdown of a relationship is irretrievable. However, we need to know more about why so many marriages don't last. We know that marriage breakdown is usually precipitated by a combination of factors rather than a single factor or incident. The longitudinal Family Panel Survey to be done by the Australian Institute of Family Studies should be very illuminating on this subject.

Research already conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies shows that divorced couples commonly report communication problems and incompatibility or drifting apart as the main reason for ending their marriage (Wolcott and Hughes 1999). This suggests that preventative measures may work for such couples. Although almost six out of ten women and five out of ten men in this survey apparently sought help for their marriage problems, it may be that counsellors are often called too late to help save a marriage. We need to find ways of encouraging couples to seek outside help when there are early warning signs that a relationship is going badly.

Research indicates that there are certain risk indicators for marriage breakdown, such as prior marriage, past or present psychological or psychiatric disorder, alcohol abuse, violence and being the adult offspring of divorced parents. There is a need to help couples identify whether they are at risk of marriage breakdown and strategies to prevent risk becoming reality.

We need to trial ways of strengthening marriages so that they are able to withstand the troubles that they encounter over a lifetime.

Effects of separation on children

Much research has been done already about the effects of separation and divorce on children. Outcomes such as school performance, behaviour, self concept, mental health and social adjustment are worse on average for children with divorced parents than for children with married parents. I am persuaded by the work of Paul Amato (1998), which followed children from the age of 11 to 23, and shows that parental separation is a risk factor for children, particularly if accompanied by a high level of acrimony.

While I believe we have to accept that a certain degree of marriage breakdown is inevitable, we can also encourage parents to behave responsibly towards their children when this happens. Paul Amato suggests several things may help ameliorate the effects of separation on children, including parents being cooperative with one another, maintaining close contact with the children, and being active parents. Greater emphasis on parenting after separation is very important in ensuring children's healthy adjustment. The Government is concerned to ensure that children of separated parents are not disadvantaged by this experience or at risk of repeating the same pattern as adults, and themselves becoming separated parents.

Inter-generational transmission of disadvantage

The inter-generational transmission of disadvantage perturbs me greatly. We need to act to prevent this. Inter-generational welfare dependency is one example. My department has done research tracking for three years the teenage children of those receiving Family Allowance (Pech and McCoull 1999). Because this payment is made to most Australian families, it is possible to compare the characteristics and outcomes of young people from low income families with those of young people from middle to high income families.

The findings of this analysis clearly show that disadvantage in one generation can be transmitted to the next. Young people whose parents are dependent on income support payments, either for a short while or over the long term, are more likely to leave school early, be out of work and be receiving income support themselves. Indigenous young people are much more likely than other young people to be highly dependent on income support between the ages of 16 and 18.

We need to develop positive steps to intervene so that children are able to overcome the economic and social disadvantages that encumber their parents.

Giving children the best start in life

It is vital that we give children the best start in life. The provision of child care that meets children's developmental needs - nutrition, health, preparation for education and social development - is a critical part of this. To this end, my department is reviewing the quality assurance systems for the long day care sector and establishing such systems for the first time, for family day care and out-of-school hours care. Ensuring that child care is high quality enables parents to be confident that their children benefit from child care. We need to invest more in children's early years to optimise their life chances.

Balancing work and family

The pressures on parents today are enormous. The changing nature of work has significant effects on families. Jobs for life don't exist any more. Insecurity about work prospects is a reality and periods out of work are the norm for many families. For those in paid work, many are working longer hours than ever before, making it difficult or impossible to achieve balance between work and family life. This can put a great strain on family relationships and can contribute to marriage breakdown.

A study of men's role in parenting, commissioned by my Department, shows that a significant number of fathers feel stressed and report that they don't spend enough time with their family, and that the major barrier to being an effective parent is paid work.

Some parents choose one to be the primary carer of children while the other goes out to do the paid work and support the family financially. However, many others want to combine parenting and paid work. They want to fulfil both their career aspirations and their parenting responsibilities.

Access to affordable, good quality child care is a vital support to work and family life. Families use a range of services from family day care to child care centres, vacation programs and informal care. We are working to make service delivery more flexible so that it meets families' and children's needs better in future. Provision for children who are sick and for children whose parents are working shifts or non-standard hours are to be extended through some demonstration projects. This will include more care in the child's own home by qualified and experienced childcare workers along with other flexible models.

As children grow older, many parents wish to become more involved in the paid workforce, and it is important that assistance is provided to facilitate their participation. It is particularly important that those who have spent considerable periods out of the workforce have opportunities for full participation and, through paid work, are able to attain financial security for themselves and their family.

We need to generate new 'best practice' strategies to help parents attain balance between their family and work commitments. Employers need to play an active role in improving flexibility for workers with family responsibilities.

Holistic support for families

A holistic approach to supporting families will go a long way towards preventing the contemporary problems experienced by families.

From a consumer's point of view, services are fragmented and difficult to access. Linkages between the variety of services a family may need are often
poor or non-existent. It is often hard for consumers to have a say in how services are delivered, and many services do not have a charter of customer's rights and responsibilities or service standards.

I believe that families need to be more involved in determining how services for them are delivered. This is the only way of ensuring that services are responsive to their needs. Support services and information for families need to be accessible by being connected to the places that families' lives centre around, such as schools, child care centres, health centres and workplaces. Home visiting services are also important for reaching out to families that are isolated at home.


In conclusion, the Government has already done much to strengthen families. We have provided more adequate financial support, we have introduced practical measures that demonstrate the high value we place on parenting, we are setting up a tax and family assistance regime that rewards work, we have responded to the special needs of men, and we have taken steps to keep children at home and in education.

The National Families Strategy will build on these achievements, with a greater emphasis on building family capacity and resilience in the three priority areas of early childhood, youth, and marriage and family relationships.


  • Amato, P.R. (1998), 'Children and divorce: What Hurts? What Helps?', Paper presented at 'Family Separation: Addressing the Needs and Interests of Children' Conference, Canberra, 9 June.
  • Pech J. & McCoull, F. (1999), 'Transgenerational welfare dependence: myth or reality?', Paper presented to the National Social Policy Conference, Social Policy for the 21st Century: Justice and Responsibility, University of NSW, Sydney, 21-23 July.
  • Wolcott I. & Hughes J. (1999), Towards Understanding the Reasons for Divorce, Working Paper No. 20, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.

Senator Jocelyn Newman is the Minister for Family and Community Services, and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women. As Minister for Family and Community Services (which includes her former Social Security portfolio), Senator Newman is responsible for spending around 40 per cent of the federal budget. Added to her new department is responsibility for the Child Support Agency, child care, disability services, family services, youth homelessness, social housing and the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program.



Since this article by Senator Newman was written, there have been some significant developments in welfare policy.

Senator Jocelyn Newman, Minister for Family and Community Services, announced in a speech at the National Press Club on 29 September 1999 that social policy would be the next major reform priority of the Howard Government.

Senator Newman announced the formation of Reference Group on Welfare Reform to guide the development of a comprehensive Green Paper on welfare reform.

The Reference Group is to be chaired by Mr Patrick McClure of Mission Australia, and its deputy will be Mr Wayne Jackson, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Family and Community Services. The Reference Group comprises representatives from the community, government, academic and business sectors.

In framing its advice to the Government, the Reference Group will draw on community input including submissions from interest groups and the broader community.

Six principles have been identified to guide the reform process:

  • maintaining equity, simplicity, transparency and sustainability;
  • establishing better incentives for people receiving social security payments, so that work, education and training are rewarded;
  • creating greater opportunities for people to increase self-reliance and capacity-building, rather than merely providing a passive safety net;
  • expecting people on income support to help themselves and contribute to society through increased social and economic participation in a framework of mutual obligation;
  • providing choices and support for individuals and families with more tailored assistance that focuses on prevention and early intervention; and
  • maintaining the Government's disciplined approach to fiscal policy.

As part of the reform process, a Discussion Paper The Challenge of Welfare Dependency in the 21st Century has been prepared by the Department of Family and Community Services, and public submissions called for.

The Reference Group's Interim Report will be provided to the Minister for Family and Community Services early in the year 2000, with the final draft to be provided to the Minister by 30 June 2000.

Senator Newman's speech, the terms of reference and membership of the Reference Groups, the Department of Family and Community Services Discussion Paper, and a number of fact sheets on welfare dependency can be obtained from the Department of Family and Community Services Website at