Peter Costello


Opening Address at the Ninth World Congress for Infant Mental Health





Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen

It is a great pleasure to be opening the 9th World Congress of the World Association for Infant Mental Health here in Melbourne.

I pass on the greetings of the Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Kay Patterson and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Larry Anthony.

I welcome such a distinguished group of confreres.

The theme of this conference is “The Baby’s Place in the World” and issues to be discussed include the baby’s internal world, the baby in his or her family, and the baby in the protective and legal systems.

I would like to take the focus a little wider and direct some thoughts to the kind of world today’s babies will find themselves working in, living in, and contributing towards.

I expect that today’s infants will be the beneficiaries of continuing scientific advance. I expect that in those countries which can stay free from war, corruption, ethnic and religious conflict, and avoid economic mismanagement, that material standards of living will be higher, nutrition better, health treatment more sophisticated for today’s infants than their parents or forbears experienced.

The life expectancy of a boy born in Australia today is 77.4 years and the life expectancy of a girl born today is 82.6 years. In 1901 in Australia the life expectancy at birth for men was 55.2 years and for women was 58.8 years.

But paradoxically, although the living conditions and the care available for children will be better than ever in the advanced industrial societies the number of children as a proportion of the population will decline. In many advanced societies the number of children is declining absolutely.

Intergenerational Changes

Two years ago I released an Australian study of the long term population trends and their implication for policy making now and over the next couple of decades.

I wanted to focus public attention at how Australia was going to handle the next 40 years. What sort of Australia will our children face? Where will the pressures come in the National budget? Is our current pattern of government services sustainable in the long-term? What should we be doing now to avert the risk of long-term crises?

We called it the Inter-generational Report, because it spans the generations and identifies issues of intergenerational equity – how the different generations are treating each other and how they are providing for each other.

In Australia fertility peaked in the post WWII baby boom in 1961 when it reached 3.5 births per woman. That has declined gradually to the current level of around 1.75. We project the fertility rate to further decline to 1.6 over the next forty years.

Our fertility rate is below replacement level and has been since 1970. Australia’s population is still increasing however but only as a result of net immigration.

But our population is ageing. In the future we will have a greater proportion of old people to younger people. We will have fewer people in the paid workforce supporting a greater number of retired people. Our report calculated the cost pressures over the next forty years are not sustainable in coping with the demographic change and its interaction with medical advances. We need to make policy changes in the retirement area, in welfare policy, pharmaceutical policy if the services our public wants and expects are to be sustainable in the future.

We are not yet at the stage of Japan or Italy, where fertility rates are now around 1.3, but low birth rates mean more smaller families and more one child families. It means fewer brothers or sisters and eventually a society with fewer aunts and uncles. The extended family will narrow.

But the increase in life expectancy might mean there are more families with living grandparents, and even great grandparents. The family will not be as wide but it might span more generations. Grandparents might once again become very important in the raising and socialisation of children.

Today’s babies are a smaller proportion of our society than before – but they are a very precious group of people. If they grow up to be healthy, living productive lives, our society will be richer for it. If they don’t then their own lives will be unhappy and our precious resource will be wasted. What is the loss of a preventative illness that stops a baby from living a productive life, secure in work, contributing to others and, in turn, creating their own family? How are we doing at nurturing these precious infants?

I think most parents raising children feel that they stumble through a half dark room lit partly by instinct, partly by advice from grandparents and friends, partly by folk wisdom and old wives tales, and partly by bits of information gleaned from books, TV and magazines.

Parenting requires no professional training, no licence, no ‘fit and proper’ person test. Nor should it.

It is the most awesome of responsibilities but the least supervised.

The cynics say that parents have no one to blame but themselves – that they have chosen this awesome responsibility. And they have. But we should be very thankful that they have. If they had not, then all of us would be diminished as the fewer babies eventually means there are fewer people to provide the services and the taxes to support the larger proportion of our society in the older age brackets.

What is the best way of raising children is a question that can be met with a bewildering array of advice. But I think that the traditional arrangements that have prevailed over centuries are not to be swept away lightly - not when the consequences of failure are so high. Two parents, a mother and a father, in a stable environment is the best condition for raising children. Less than optimum conditions occur in the real world, of course, and children deserve love and support regardless of their arrangements, but we should be clear about encouraging better arrangements where they are possible, whilst preparing for the situation where they are not.

It is a fantasy to think that the State can replace the family. It is a fantasy to think the Government or its agencies should replace the family but where the family is failing intervention is needed to provide assistance.

National Agenda for Early Childhood

In partnership with other arms of government, the Commonwealth is developing Australia’s first National Agenda for Early Childhood, with input from academics and childhood experts, peak bodies and service providers, Indigenous groups, and parents themselves.

In late October a document called Towards a National Agenda – What you Told Us was released.

We found strong support for four priority areas needing immediate attention.

These are: - healthy young families; early learning and care; child-friendly communities; and supporting parents.

Early intervention where the family is failing is the most effective way of assisting children and it offers a better chance of achieving good outcomes.

While we may not agree on all the same policy prescriptions, I believe we share a common goal at this conference:- that ‘The Baby’s Place in the World’ should be foremost in all our minds when it comes to shaping and guiding the precious infants who hold the future – their own and ours.

Your research is invaluable in providing parents, Governments, professionals with better knowledge, and assistance in discharging their respective roles.

I hope you have a productive and constructive time at this Conference.

It gives me great pleasure now to declare the ninth World Congress for Infant Mental Health officially open.

14 Jan 2004

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