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Child health checks and mental health

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia—Australian Greens Whip) (11:50):  The Greens have concerns with schedule 2 of this bill. This is the schedule that makes a payment for a child turning four contingent on that child having a health check, but the measure applies only to families where either parent has received income support for any part of that year. I have concerns about this part of the bill. 

As part of the government's mental health package there is funding for health checks—for social and emotional wellbeing—for children turning three. As I understand it, and after talking to various child development experts, this is a positive move. I have spoken to the government about this and about the fact that it is going to take a little while to implement—and I understand the arguments about that from the government. But now we have this legislation which ties health checks to children turning four, but only for those people who are on income support. I think that is quite discriminatory. It says, 'We think that only people on income support are not able to look after their children, so we are going to focus on them.' I also understand the government's argument that they believe, based on some of the evidence, that children from lower socioeconomic families may have more developmental problems or other health issues and that is why they are tying it to income support. However, I have spoken to child development experts, and they are saying health checks are important for all children, not just those of families on income support. So we believe that, in fact, what we should be doing if we are going to tie the supplement to family tax benefit part A is doing it for everybody so that everybody is required to have a child health check.
Not only have I been talking to child development and child health experts on that issue, I have also been looking at timing. They are saying that timing is better at three, because developmental issues are starting to develop and become manifest at that age and you are better off doing those checks earlier. What the government is doing with the social and emotional wellbeing checks would be better at three than to start at four. So here we have a piece of legislation that is getting it wrong in terms of the child health checks at four, or so the emerging evidence suggests, and ties it to those families on income support, further, in come community members' eyes, demonising those on income support and saying, 'You can't look after your children.'
We believe there is evidence to suggest that every family would benefit from having a child health check, so why not do so if the government has a mechanism where they can encourage—and what they are doing here is basically making it mandatory—having a child health check for those on income support? I know lots of families on income support who are looking after their children extremely well. They are the centre of their world. The centre of what they do is to look after the health and development of their child. What you are saying with this discriminatory mechanism is, 'We think only you people on income support may have children with development issues and are not accessing health checks for your children.'
We do not believe that is an appropriate way to look after the families of this nation. We believe that, if you are going to bring this in, you bring it in for everybody who is receiving family tax benefit part A supplement, not just those on income support. We recognise the importance of child health checks and understand that they should be when a child turns three, not when a child turns four. The government is very clear about the importance of health checks. The EM says:
… may detect developmental delays and conditions, such as problems affecting hearing and vision, which are problems that make it more difficult for children to learn when they start school. These checks will allow for early identification of health issues and intervention strategies before the child starts school.
We acknowledge that. When the Senate Community Affairs References Committee did its inquiry into hearing health in Australia, the evidence received from hearing health experts was that, although the newborn test has been introduced and is very strongly supported—I, along with many others, congratulated the government for bringing that newborn hearing test in—that does not catch all the hearing problems. There are a significant number that are not caught. So the advice that the committee received was that there should be another check of a child at some stage either before they go to school or as they start preschool. That was a recommendation that had unanimous support of the committee. There should be a preschool or second follow-up hearing test.
Let me tell you one thing. Hearing—there is an exception here which I will go into—loss and impairment does not just affect those on income support. So what are you going to do about all those other families who, for example, will not have a mandatory or compulsory child health check because they are not on income support? I know that many families do access health checks, but not all of them do. So what about those families? You are discriminating against those families because you are not then requiring it of their children, because they do not happen to be on income support. There are conditions that are not tied to those lower socioeconomic families where the government says that they have identified a larger number of developmental delays. That is another reason why we do not believe this is an appropriate approach. You can tie it to all families.
All children of Australia deserve equal treatment. The government is about identifying very early developmental delays and other conditions—as the government pointed out, hearing and vision, which are problems that make it difficult for children to learn. If the government and the state think that, as is recognised in this, it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that happens, why doesn't the government think it has responsibility for all children of all families who receive family tax benefit part A so that all children, if the parents have not been able to access or have not thought about accessing a health check, are also identified early so their developmental problems such as hearing or vision impairment or loss are identified as well?
I personally understand the importance of this. My vision problems were identified after I started school. So I do actually understand how, once you have your vision problems identified and addressed, you go from bottom of the class to significantly improved and near the top of the class. I get it. It happened to me, so I get the issue of child health checks. It is the discriminatory nature of this just applying to those on income support that we strongly object to. When you compare it to other measures this government is bringing in that we believe will have a detrimental impact on those on income support, you can see there is a pretty strong collective approach by this government to pick on and demonise those families. In the not too distant future, we will be debating in this chamber the family tax benefit supplement index freeze, which will adversely impact low-income families and those on income support. We will also be talking about the disability support pension and what you will be doing to people who apply for that that we believe discriminates against people on low incomes and income support.
We do not believe it is appropriate to focus this measure just on those on income support. All children in Australia should be the focus of the government's effort to improve the assessment of developmental delays and any conditions that may not have been picked up earlier. As I said, it is particularly important for conditions such as hearing and vision problems. We do not believe it is appropriate to make distinctions between which Australian families will be forced to get health checks and which will not.
We have concerns about the age at which this health check is being implemented. I have taken on board what the government said about that and the fact that it is going to be hard to correlate at this stage the three years and the four years because, as I understand it, the tests for social and emotional wellbeing have not been finalised and developed. Normally I would have suggested postponing the implementation of this particular schedule while you develop the coordination of these tests. However, I understand the importance of child health checks—but I understand the importance of child health checks for all Australian children and families. That is why the Greens are seeking to amend this schedule so as to delete the clauses that refer to those on income support and promote child health checks for all Australian children from families that receive the family tax benefit part A supplement.

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