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‘We got child protection wrong. But it’s still not right’

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Former Premier Jay Weatherill says his government “poorly executed” a failed plan to improve the state’s child protection regime but believes the current system perpetuates an “absurd model” that requires a fresh approach.

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Weatherill – who now heads mining magnate Andrew Forrest’s WA-based Minderoo Foundation project Thrive By Five – is seeking to build national consensus on a new approach to early years education, telling InDaily his time in Government taught him the limits to which the leader “of a small state” can galvanise broader reform.

The former Labor leader was installed as SA Premier ten years ago this week, and spoke to InDaily about his strategy for winning national support for an overhaul of early learning, in a wide-ranging interview that also shed new light on his dramatic elevation to the top job when he replaced Mike Rann.

Weatherill’s post-politics pursuit of his early childhood learning passion follows, ironically, a stint as Premier bedevilled by child protection scandals.

Successive failures – the botched handling of a child sexual assault at a western suburbs school, the death of Chloe Valentine and the revelation that serial pedophile Shannon McCoole had been working at then Government’s then-child protection agency Families SA – prompted successive reviews, but the problems persisted.

In the end, Weatherill was forced to separate Families SA from the Department of Education – a union he had controversially instigated – after a recommendation by the Nyland Royal Commission to establish a standalone Child Protection Department.

But he suggests now the political criticism was unfair.

“I think that there’s always an opportunity to make political mileage out of awful things that go wrong in families, and try to sheet that home to the government of the day,” he said.

“I think this [current Marshall Liberal] Government has found to its discomfort that the same awful things that happen inside families continue to occur under their watch…

“They had a merry old time embarrassing us – and, of course, it is embarrassing when the system lets families down… it couldn’t be more awful for the families concerned, and embarrassing for the governments in government at the time – but that fact is bad things happen in the child protection system.

“There isn’t a child protection system anywhere in the world that’s going to stop bad things happening.”

Weatherill – who previously held both the Education and Families and Communities portfolios, overseeing Families SA – cited a mantra that “the aim in child protection is not to stay out of trouble but to learn to live in trouble”.

“You make decisions about leaving children in families or removing them, and the challenge is to make sure you make conscientious judgments and keep learning,” he said.

“But there’s always going to be an opportunity to criticise the government of the day.”

He said he always “defended the workers attempting to support these families”, who “are usually the last people that are involved with a family before something goes wrong, and they’re the ones that get blamed”.

“There are examples of predators that slip into the system, but by and large [child protection workers] are doing it because of their desire to look after little children, parents and families,” he said.

“But with the best will in the world, sometimes bad things will still happen.”

I think it was poorly executed, and took responsibility for that

Weatherill rails against the notion that governments should be preventing incidents by increasingly removing children from prospective harm in adverse family situations.

“There’s almost an inevitability to saying ‘if you’d done something different this wouldn’t have happened’ – but the consequences of the alternative plan would require you to remove 10 times as many children as you remove at the moment,” he said.

“The whole investigation/removal paradigm is what’s wrong with the system.”

He says the state of child protection is “one of my regrets, I suppose… that the way we go about things is not the right model”.

“I tried to do that with the creation of the new agency – which didn’t work – putting child protection within education,” he said.

“I think it was poorly executed, and took responsibility for that, but what we need is an early childhood development system that strengthens families [and] the idea of removing children should be a last resort.

“It’s expensive and not a very good way of looking after families – we’ve got to find a better way of supporting families.”

This is an absurd child protection model

He said the child protection experiment was an attempt to create “a superior model to the investigation/removal paradigm” which left “thousands of kids being cared for by the state”.

“I tried that model – it failed… but I still think it’s the right model,” he said.

When Weatherill entered Government – 10 years ago this week – he spoke passionately about a new approach to early years care and education – an area he now concedes required a broader remit than a state-based response.

In the end, though, “the politics of child protection just took over everything else”.

“You can’t divorce it – the child protection agency had its challenges at that time, and whenever there was a crisis it completely demoralised the agency involved.

“What we tried to do failed, but the vision was the right vision – how do you construct an agency that supports families instead of one that just runs the ruler over them and removes children from them? That’s the last resort, and we should have an agency dedicated to avoiding that statutory intervention – there’s no doubt in my mind.”

At the end, he says, “we had one in four children with a child protection notification in SA”.

“This is an absurd model.”

Weatherill’s passion for the sector is now harnessed in his push for reform of early years care and learning models, which through Thrive By Five he places at the centre of a revolution in broader economic and societal change – arguing the current system disincentivises career advancement for mothers, perpetuating income inequality.

He argues supporting families in the “birth to five” period is problematic for states because of the governance and funding model.

“The missing bit was childcare but we didn’t control that – that was Commonwealth,” he said.

I feel like I’ve learned the limits of reform capabilities of a Premier of a small state

Weatherill insists “early years was one of our priorities” in Government – but says such long-term reform ambitions frequently get lost in the churn of politics.

“I had the job as Premier to try and get this on the national cabinet [COAG] agenda – but like a lot of things, the urgent issues that take up priority tend to take over… whether the close of Holdens, the River Murray, the future submarines project, the statewide blackout,” he said.

“There are always events that tend to displace things… I suppose one of the things I’ve come to realise is that while politicians, even Premiers, can try to put things on the national cabinet agenda you really need a groundswell of support to sustain them – a groundswell of grassroots support that puts things on the national agenda.”

He says the current political climate, for example, is “entirely consumed by COVID” – leaving other sectors to take a policy lead in other areas.

“I’ve seen the process of trying to push reform from within Government,” said Weatherill, who in office declared himself “not a free market guy”.

“Government is essential, but it’s not the whole act,” he says now.

“There can be a powerful role for outside forces…

“I suppose that’s where I now see what I’m trying to do as creating that movement for change using this foundation.

“I feel like I’ve learned the limits of reform capabilities of a Premier of a small state.”

That limit, he says, is the capacity to enact change within your own jurisdiction.

But “the big missing piece is the Commonwealth-funded element of childcare”.

“That’s a pretty big deal – it represents the touchpoint for lots of families [but] it’s always difficult to mobilise a conversation about commonwealth/state financial reform.”

It’s a conversation Weatherill tried to kickstart as Premier in 2015, when he backed a rise in the GST from 10 to 15 per cent, and proposed the Commonwealth take the extra 5 per cent to compensate low income earners and use any remaining funds at its discretion – while the states would receive a fixed share of personal income tax receipts to replace non-GST Commonwealth grants, excluding infrastructure and on-passed grants.

“I tried to put the idea of a new set of arrangements between the Commonwealth and the states,” he said.

He says the way the federal and state governments manage early learning needs similar reform.

“In respect of child care and the early years, we can put it on the agenda – but to keep it there and get momentum for change is a different matter,” he said.

“The sector by itself not strong enough to win this argument by itself… we want to build a coalition of working families and women to highlight the unfair distribution of unpaid work… tying it into the broader pandemic recovery – what do we do to grow our economy post pandemic?”

He believes a newfound focus on people in insecure and underpaid work “demonstrates a consensus that this issue is resonating”.

After two pandemic-affected years in his current role, does he believe that momentum is shifting?

“I think it’s beginning to,” he said.

“It’s not there yet – but that’s our task, leading up to the federal election.”

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