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A new agency or a new sign on the door?

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“A brand new agency”. That’s what Acting Premier John Rau says recently-hired child protection CEO Cathy Taylor will find when she jets in from Queensland and finally gets her feet under her new desk at the end of next month.

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But where exactly will that desk be located?

And how new, indeed, will this agency really be?

It’s a question it appears the administration has not even answered internally as yet but, from the answers provided by Rau and Susan Close, the continuing minister for Education and Child Development, the most significant change at a casual glance could be little more than new signage.

“There are Families SA people who are centred in various places around South Australia,” Rau explained.

“They are dedicated places which are populated not by people from the education department. These places are populated by people who do a particular function, which is child safety. Those places are going to obviously continue to operate.”

Well, obviously. As Rau went on, it would be “foolish to terminate a lease and then move across the road to take out a new lease just for the sake of having a different building”.

But that’s not to say there won’t be evidence of a new broom.

For instance: “There obviously will be a change in the badging of the premises.”

“And so these people will be working, as they have been working, out in the field, so to speak, operating out of appropriate premises,” Rau explained.

Which begs the question as to how formal this much-hyped “split” from Education will really be?

Premier Jay Weatherill signalled last week that Susan Close would continue to wield ministerial oversight of the portfolio, in addition to her primary responsibility for Education.

“The royal commission report was very clearly silent on the question of ministerial responsibility,” Close told parliament yesterday.

“Had the royal commissioner wished to make a recommendation on ministerial allocation, she undoubtedly would have. What she talked about was the creation of a department and the appointment of a chief executive.”

The second of those aspirations having already been dutifully ticked off, all the Government needs to do now is fulfil the simple task of creating a brand new department to oversee its most fraught area of public policy.

New Child Protection CEO Cathy Taylor at the press conference announcing her appointment

New child protection department CEO Cathy Taylor at last week’s media conference announcing her appointment. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

In case anyone was in any doubt, Close went to great pains to articulate that this task was Not Easy, describing it in terms akin to splitting an atom.

“The idea that creating a new department is simply moving people from one office to another office is quite ludicrous,” she said.

“It is an immensely complex process; and I understand that people on the other side have never experienced government and so are unclear about the details.”

It was, perhaps, an unfortunately political turn by a minister of little more than two years’ standing; particularly since so many in the broader SA community – almost all of whom have never experienced government firsthand and have arguably not experienced it very well secondhand in recent times – may be similarly scratching their heads at the machinations involved in the establishment of this fledgling agency.

But she persevered, repeating the point that this is an “immensely complex process” and helpfully pointing out that child protection has never before been a stand alone agency in SA.

“Now, for the first time, it is going to be on its own,” she enthused.

“What we need to do in creating this department is identify exactly what pertains to the matter of child protection, as opposed to other activities in the old iteration associated with housing and disability, in the current iteration dealing with young people and children in general, but not necessarily under the protection of the minister or in need of the protection of the minister.”

Close, it must be said, was refreshingly candid about her own views on one or two of Margaret Nyland’s multifarious recommendations, with one in particular appearing to have been accepted through gritted teeth.

“We did immediately accept the recommendation, somewhat to my chagrin, that we not have non-social work qualified people answering the calls [to the child abuse report line],” she conceded.

“I was pretty keen on doing a trial of non-social workers answering calls in order to see if we could get the wait time down. However, there was an explicit recommendation that we not proceed with that and so we accepted that immediately… we can’t just pull people off work that they are doing that is important, but we are working through the staffing profile at present.”

She also implied that certain recommendations were more easily honoured in the breach than the observance.

“While I absolutely support Justice Nyland’s view that residential care facilities for children under 10… are undesirable, I am not sure where people think we might put children immediately overnight if we are to move too quickly,” she said.

“That is why Justice Nyland was so thoughtful in her report, in making sure that we knew that we should take time to do this – and that we should do it with the non-government organisations and the members of the community who are intimately involved in the delivery of the services – because if we push one button in one part of the system we risk causing chaos in others.

“We cannot remove children summarily from houses where they are being fed and where they are sleeping and put them on the streets because there is a recommendation that we not have children under 10 in residential care facilities.

“Naturally, what we need to do at the initial end is get much better at prevention.”

Which brings us back to the new, as yet unnamed, agency for child protection and its role in the broader bureaucracy.

“To work through all of that, including the implications for health, the implications for existing services within education and what will sit in this stand-alone department takes time to do properly,” Close warned.

“We needed to make sure that we got the recommendations from the Nyland report to understand whether that put any different spin on which part of government activities were going to this independent agency.”

It’s arguable that the word “spin” is one that should be avoided in this context.

Particularly since, as Vickie Chapman pointed out from the Opposition benches, the primary planned change to this point appears to be a new sign on the door.

“It does require rebranding,” Close conceded.

“It is very important that people understand that this department is not the same as Families SA and that this department is doing what overlaps with Families SA’s current business but is not identical.

“But to say that this is about where someone’s desk sits in the central office completely misses the point about how profound a change this is.”

Which is undoubtedly true. But it’s also undoubtedly true that the general public may question the profundity of the change if all it outwardly entails is a new CEO, a new logo and the same people inhabiting the same digs and doing the same job.

It’s understood questions about the central office remaining at its current Flinders St location remain unresolved.

The city headquarters of the Department for Education and Child Development, which includes Families SA.

The current city headquarters of the Department for Education and Child Development, which includes Families SA.

It’s also understood that, amid legalese about exactly what the new agency will have primary responsibility for, the most fundamental anticipated change will be one of culture and morale.

But there remain significant decisions to be made, and little more than a month in which to make them.

The physical location of staff may appear a cosmetic consideration, or a purely symbolic one, but so too is coming up with a new moniker and slapping on a new lick of paint.

“To the extent that there is any co-location of these [child protection] people and education people, that will be sorted out once the new arrangements are in place,” Rau assured parliament.

“I can tell members, so they can be comforted in this, that many of the child functions we are talking about occur already in dedicated offices which are split all around the place. There is no reason to close those places just because that particular function is moving into a different department. That function will continue to have to be done, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be done from where it presently is being done.”

The same people doing the same things in the same place.

No wonder splitting these two agencies is such an immensely complex process.

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