NICOLA FORREST AO
CO-CHAIR and CO-FOUNDER
NATIONAL PRESS CLUB
WEDNESDAY, 17 FEBRUARY 2021
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Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.
Today, I would like to speak to you about what I consider to be the greatest travesty, but also the greatest opportunity facing Australia – the happy and healthy development of our children.
Before I start, I would also like to acknowledge the Country we are gathered on today, the land of the Ngunnawal people.
I pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians here and to Elders past and present.
This isn’t the first time I have stood up in front of a room full of people and asked the Australian government to reform its policies on early childhood.
I’ve been doing it for years.
Twenty (20) years to be precise that’s how long ago my husband and I started the Australian Children’s Trust, now known as The Minderoo Foundation.
I haven’t been alone – I’ve been part of a growing chorus of public organisations concerned Mums and Dads and scientists.
But it’s hard not to feel utterly frustrated at the lack of progress and wonder why our politicians haven’t listened.
Perhaps I’ve been dismissed because I’m not to be taken seriously – a woman talking about children of course she cares!
Perhaps you think this is just a pet hobby for me, something I do to feel useful.
Or maybe you just don’t think there is a problem.
Why shouldn’t Mum stay at home and look after bub for a few years?
So what if one (1) in five (5) Australian kids turns up to their first day of school developmentally delayed  – at least the majority are doing fine!
Well, I’m here to say: we do have a problem, and it’s in all our interests to fix it.
Yes, I may be a mother of three – to Sydney, Sophia and Grace – and co-parent to a fourth, Violet and yes, I am motivated by the experiences I’ve had both raising – and losing – children.
But my dedication to ensuring that every single child born in Australia gets the best start in life is far more than just a personal quest.
It’s one based on overwhelming scientific evidence.
Every minute, two-hundred-and-fifty (250) babies are born across the world – girls and boys who will grow up to be the women and men who run our governments, our hospitals, our banks, our schools and our courts.
Here in Australia, one child is born every minute and 43 seconds .
Our future welfare prosperity and success as a nation, depends on our newborns – and ensuring that every single one of them grows up to be kind, capable, productive and resilient.
As the great philosopher Jerry Seinfeld said “Make no mistake about why these babies are here—they are here to replace us.”
The science clearly shows that we have to get it right in the first five years .
Five years to ensure that every child has the foundations to develop to the best of his or her potential.
You blink and those five, precious years are over – a fleeting window of time that the science says is pivotal to the emotional, cognitive and social development of your child.
But we aren’t getting it right. We’re not even close.
All children come into this world with so much enthusiasm for life, so much hope, joy and resilience. So much potential.
But not all of them go on to lead successful, happy, productive lives.
Why? Because we fail so many of them in their earliest years.
Currently, more than 20 per cent of our kids have health or developmental vulnerabilities when they start school.
For example, they may not able to concentrate, follow instructions, express themselves or interact with each other or with adults. Or they may be unusually withdrawn or anxious.
According to a national study published last year, children who start school with these developmental delays are a whole nine months behind their peers in reading and numeracy by the time they reach Year Three – and ultimately have fewer employment opportunities down the line .
The tragedy is that many of these problems are avoidable – they have arisen because we, as a nation, are not creating the stimulating environments that all under-5’s need to flourish.
Since we founded the Minderoo Foundation, almost six million children have been born in Australia.
That’s 1.2 million children who have failed to reach their full developmental potential due to the inadequacy of our current government policies.
In fact, over the last two decades levels of literacy and numeracy amongst Australian children have not risen, they have declined .
And to make matters worse, the steepest declines are happening in our poorest communities. We are becoming more unequal, not less .
It’s a disgrace that UNICEF ranks Australia’s education system among the most unequal of all the developed countries .
Now add to the mix that Australia’s expenditure on early childhood education, as a percentage of our GDP, is one of the lowest among OECD countries .
But I want to make it clear: it’s not just the kids we are failing, it’s also their parents.
Right now, child support services are a bureaucratic nightmare –inefficient hideously complex and inaccessible to those that need them most.
Let me give you an example.
Maybe your kid is in a state-run early learning centre but you get a childcare subsidy from the Federal government, and support from an NGO funded by both the state and federal government.
Good luck navigating that one if you’re a single mum who works full time.
In short, the system isn’t “broken.”
It simply doesn’t exist.
So what’s the solution?
We need an early childhood system that makes life easier for parents not harder.
A system that is accessible affordable and high-quality.
Not one or the other.
We need a trusted early learning centre in every community that fulfills any and every need a parent and their young child might have.
A place that allows kids to experience the interactions, stimulations and activities that science says are crucial for development.
A place that allows every child in the community to have a safe space in which to play – an activity so crucial to development that it is enshrined in the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child.
And lastly, these centres will be there for the parents.
They will be one-stop shops for all childcare services and they will provide parents with all the information they need to support their kids’ development, right from the moment the child is conceived.
Not just the easy stuff – how to get your kids to eat broccoli, for example – but also the harder stuff, like should I be worried that my child isn’t talking yet or doesn’t make eye contact with me?
In my view, these high-quality, early learning centres should be a basic human right for every single Australian kid no matter their postcode and regardless of whether both or neither parent works.
It’s about uniformity, consistency and equality of access.
I saw the power of such an approach on a visit to Challis primary school outside Perth a few years ago, which has implemented some of the ideas I am talking about here.
I watched as a six-year-old girl taught her young Mum how to read.
Some might only see injustice in this situation – a cruel turning of the tables, the child becoming teacher – but I found it inspiring.
It showed me how quickly we can break the intergenerational cycle of disadvantage – when we get our policies and our approach right.
All we want is for parents to have options – the option to access information the option to lean on a community network the option to be fast tracked through medical and child development services rather than waiting years or falling through the cracks.
What we are talking about here is an ecosystem where support can be found when and where it’s needed.
And before you say “ I don’t need help, not from the government, not from scientists, not from anyone ” my parents did it this way, and I turned out fine”
I want to share with you how much I have leaned on the support of specialists and scientists as a parent.
Our third daughter, Matilda, arrived full -term stillborn
It tore us apart as many other parents who have been through this will understand.
Because of this experience, I reached out to Professor John Newnham at the Women and Infant’s Research Foundation, joined their board and worked with them for years.
This relationship – and the research that I became immersed in – is the reason I am standing here today and, indeed, why we launched Minderoo Foundation twenty years ago.
It opened my eyes to the astonishingly simple fact. that from conception the first five years of life are crucial to human health and happiness.
Protect those years and you protect the future.
And it also helped me come to terms with the loss of our daughter, by giving me an understanding of what was in my control and what, tragically, wasn’t.
Every parent struggles, from time to time.
We often feel lost, or overwhelmed by expectations and information or nagged by self-doubt and guilt.
That’s why we need support – a system that backs us up, buffers our kids from the ups and downs of day-to-day life and catapults them towards success.
So how do we create this system?
This year, myself and Minderoo Foundation’s Thrive by Five launched our final campaign.
It’s the final one because we will not stop until we achieve our goal:
a high-quality early learning system – for all.
This doesn’t just make sense for our kids, for our parents, and for our society. It also makes financial sense.
In 2019, Minderoo Foundation published a major report showing that Australians foot a late intervention bill of $15.2 billion dollars annually.
The cost of our inaction is stained on the government’s budget papers – $5.9 billion dollars for child protection, $2.7 billion for youth crime, $1.3 billion for mental health – and that was before COVID.
But our failure to set our kids up for success has far more than an economic cost.
Suicide is the leading cause of death in our young people, kids as young as 10, 11 and 12 .
One third of Indigenous children who die take their own lives .
How on Earth can politicians in this country pretend there is no problem here?
How can we sit by and think we’re doing alright, when some of our children clearly lack that most basic of human rights – hope.
This is a problem that we – not our children – have created.
Today is our ‘line in the sand’ moment.
We need major political and economic reform.
We did it with Medicare, we did it with the GST, we did it with the NDIS.
Policy must keep up with science, with what society wants and needs – otherwise there will be no society left to govern.
Sure it will require some upfront investment to set up such a system, and a fresh look at how we use our current funding.
Of course, some of you listening may be thinking – hey, I chose not to have kids, or having children is a personal choice, so why are my taxes being used like this?
But let’s not forget that this is the way our society works.
We don’t all smoke, or drink, or get cancer, or have disabilities – but we live in an advanced society, where we care for everyone, equally – or at least aspire to.
Of course, there are countless different ways to raise a child and to raise a child well.
But if we can at least all agree that our policies are out of date that they do not serve the public interests that change is critical – we will make more progress this year alone than in the past twenty.
Many of you will have read Peter Pan when you were a kid – the story of the boy who never grows up whose childhood never ends.
Sometimes, watching toddlers at play – busily creating magnificent works of art, or as was the highlight of my day yesterday, sharing in a mud pie tea party at Goodstart here in Canberra, you think they will never grow up.
But our children do grow up.
Every morning, they wake up a day older.
And I can assure you, every one of those days counts.
We have one-thousand-eight-hundred-and-twenty-five (1,825) days – five years – to set our kids up for success.
Time is running out.
The government can’t guarantee health and happiness for all but at the very least it can maximise the chance that every Australian child grows up to be a healthy, happy adult.
Australia has the potential to create a system in which every family has access to the best parenting advice and the best early learning centres, staffed by friendly, highly-trained specialists who you know and trust.
A system that is available all the way from pregnancy through to your child’s first day at school.
That is what a future, world-class early childhood learning system in Australia could – and should – be.
But we must act now.
  Pendergast, D., & Garvis, S. (2014). The importance of health and wellbeing. In S. Garvis & D. Pendergast (Eds.), Health and wellbeing in childhood (pp. 3–18). Port Melbourne, VIC: Cambridge University Press.
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2012). Picture of Australia’s children 2012. Canberra, Australia.
 Moore, T. G., McDonald, M., Carlon, L., & O’Rourke, K. (2015). Early childhood development and the social determinants of health inequities. Health Promotion International, 30(S2), ii102- ii115. doi:10.1093/heapro/dav031
 The Conversation 13 February 2020 https://theconversation.com/1-in-5-kids-start-school-with-health-or-emotional-difficulties-that-challenge-their-learning-131134
 Australia drops in PISA rankings: Should we be worried? https://www.educationmattersmag.com.au/australia-drop-in-pisa-rankings-should-we-worried/
 SOS Australia: Australia’s Education System is Nearly the Most Unequal in the Developed World https://saveourschools.com.au/equity-in-education/nearly-the-most-unequal-in-the-developed-world/#:~:text=Australia%20is%20ranked%2036th%20out,in%20secondary%20school%20reading%20achievement.&text=In%20contrast%2C%20Australia’s%20participation%20rate%20is%2090.6%25
 An Unfair Start: Inequality in Children’s Education in Rich Countries https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/995-an-unfair-start-education-inequality-children.html
 OECD Starting Strong IV http://www.oecd.org/education/school/ECECDCN-Australia.pdf
 How Australia can invest in children and return more https://colab.telethonkids.org.au/siteassets/media-docs—colab/coli/how-australia-can-invest-in-children-and-return-more—-final-bn-not-embargoed.pdf
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare: Deaths by suicide among young people https://www.aihw.gov.au/suicide-self-harm-monitoring/data/populations-age-groups/suicide-among-young-people
 The Centre of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention https://www.cbpatsisp.com.au/resources/statistics/