Episode 7 – Evidence is not enough: A review of Backing Kids

In this bonus episode, hosts Jeni Whalan and Glyn Davis examine the insights gained across this season of conversations about putting children at the centre of good public policy. They discuss the frustrating gap between knowledge and action when it comes to shifting the dial towards more positive outcomes for all kids. Without political leadership, meaningful consultation and targeted, place-based responses, many well-intentioned measures fail to make an impact. So is there now enough momentum to bring about real change?

We also hear from young people from the Northern Rivers region of NSW who, on top of pandemic disruptions, have also had to cope with devastating floods. Mullumbimby’s Spaghetti Circus, an arts and community engagement organisation, was inundated with water and mud. Members of the Circus community lost their homes, schools and businesses. Performers, Ellen, Maxine, Malaika and Laima share their hopes and fears for the future.

Episode 7 Transcript

Jeni Whalan: Hello and welcome back to a bonus episode of Season Two of Life’s Lottery: Backing Kids. I’m Jeni Whalan.

Glyn Davis: And I’m Glyn Davis. And let’s acknowledge that we’re recording this on Gadigal Land.

Jeni Whalan: Today, we’re looking back over our second season to really pull out what we heard about putting kids at the centre of good public policy. We heard from diverse voices with deep and wide ranging insights.

Glyn Davis: And across six episodes, some really interesting common ideas began to emerge. I think the first of those was the real sense of frustration at the gap between what we know and what we see in policy terms.

Jeni Whalan: It’s really pervasive, isn’t it?

Glyn Davis: Absolutely.

Anne Hollonds: There is actually no evidence that locking up ten year olds will stop crime when they come out and they say we’re building new detention centres, you know, we’re locking up kids, that this will stop crime and actually doesn’t.

Jeni Whalan: So we heard that again and again from our guests, Glyn, about that knowledge action gap, about how important evidence is. But as just the first step or the first necessary but not sufficient condition of change.

Glyn Davis: And I guess we also heard that evidence isn’t enough, it doesn’t change behaviour. Even knowing that a programme won’t work isn’t enough to persuade government necessarily not to persevere with that approach.

Jeni Whalan: Or conversely, where the evidence of an existing programme is telling us that it’s not working is also not enough to change it. I think Anne Hollonds is is bang on about the lack of evidence for locking up small kids and that challenge of cutting into political and politicised debates with evidence is a big one.

Glyn Davis: And we have examples such as out of home care programmes where report after report says these are not effective. And yet every day, every day across Australia, 30 children are taken from their families into out-of-home care programmes, despite everything we know about the likely outcomes.

Jeni Whalan: So if evidence isn’t enough, there are times clearly we need that sort of political will and political leadership. And I think I’ve always found it frustrating the resort to if only we had political will or a political leader to get something through 

Sharon Goldfeld: It’s not a can and can’t narrative. It’s actually a will and won’t narrative. Will you or won’t you do that is different to can you or can’t you do that? What we thought was impossible is now possible. And I think the limitations to what we do next, yes, it will be partly political and policy because that’s always been there, but it’s probably as limited by our sense of imagination and what we could do than anything else.

Jeni Whalan: What Sharon was talking about – Sharon Goldfield – then was the remarkable turnaround on telehealth. She calls it a ten year agenda that they achieved in two weeks. Surely we don’t have to wait for a global pandemic to get that level of dramatic change in some of these broken, dysfunctional systems. But what do you do if the answer is just political will?

Glyn Davis: So what you do is campaign, I suspect. And Jay Weatherill in his discussion with us outlined the Thrive by Five campaign for universal childcare and his argument is that good early programmes will make a huge difference not just to the education outcomes of the children, but to the other problems that we’ve been talking about or the other challenges we’ve been talking about. And he’s willing to spend years trying to build a coalition together to make this change.

Jay Weatherill: So I think, yes, to a children’s minister, yes to a policy framework, but it probably is going to need a much heavier buy-in from somebody that’s able to actually crack a whole lot of ministers’ heads together, get the health minister talking to the education minister, talking to the child protection minister to make this system work.

Jeni Whalan: A kind of grand coalition. It marshals evidence, it marshals the political incentives. It marshals the efforts of families and parents and communities outside it all behind that common purpose of thriving by five.

Glyn Davis: And has at its head someone who understands the political process and what you have to do to get attention and brings all of that together. 

Jeni Whalan: And I guess that long term coalition building process is one of the privileges that we get from a philanthropic role in that change is to take the long term view is to be able to step back and not have to work to very short term cycles, but to work across them to very gently and gradually nudge open those windows of change.

Glyn Davis: Absolutely. And in season one of Life’s Lottery, we talked with the Pew Foundation and they made that point about prison reform in the United States, that they could go into this deeply unpopular area with a deeply unpopular proposal that made sense but didn’t fit the political moment and spend ten years arguing for it because they don’t have shareholders and they don’t have people who can shut them down, and they’ve achieved remarkable change across the United States. Let’s hope we see similar outcomes for early childhood education and support here in Australia.

Anne Hollonds: I think we do need a Cabinet Minister for children, but as well as that, we need to also have all of the ministers responsible for portfolios that affect the lives of children in their families to be working together. So I have been also calling for a Child and Family Wellbeing Taskforce.

Glyn Davis: So a really clear theme that came through, Jeni, of our conversations I felt was this despair about coordination. And it isn’t just within government, it’s across levels of government, and it’s with the not-for-profit sector. The sense that there’s all of these people of goodwill trying to do something, but it doesn’t cohere into a programme or into an organisation or into a local place that brings this together.

Jeni Whalan: And it strikes me that putting children at the centre of this discussion highlights one of the most damaging silos of public policy and public authority we have, where the lives of kids as they interact with governments and policy and budgets are so clearly split into education and health and early childcare and family and perhaps criminal justice without those approaches cohering around the holistic life of a child. We heard it internationally as well, how difficult that coordination challenge is.

Jay Weatherill: I mean, one of the great paradoxes of our current system of child care is that the children of the families that would most benefit from it don’t use it. And that’s because it’s the world. The world of work defines the entry points into this system. So if you have a chaotic relationship with the world of work, you don’t get into the child care system yet. That would be a protective environment in which children could be kept safe.

Glyn Davis: A number of our guests, Jeni, reflected on the neuroscience of early childhood development and how profoundly important it is and how much we’re just learning about what happens if the full opportunities aren’t there. In the first thousand days of life, you’re actually experiencing this moment with a small and beautiful daughter. Tell us about what it’s like to watch your daughter engage with the world.

Jeni Whalan: Well, there’s nothing like it, is there? As as anyone who’s ever spent time with a small baby will know. She’s nine weeks as we record now. And at that stage of life where almost every hour you can see those neurones firing, you can see the brain development happening. You can see the reach from just one toy to the next one and the toy bar in front of her. And what an incredible time, what a privilege to be able to to be there through it. But I must say, I also reflect regularly on just how tough it is when the circumstances don’t let you do that. Don’t let you have the privilege of spending uninterrupted time with a tiny baby. And I don’t think that we support parents and mothers and babies well enough at that absolutely critical stage.

Glyn Davis: Also fascinating was to hear Leila Smith’s interviews with Indigenous organisations that are producing very place-based approaches not at the macro task force level but in place in a single community, single group of people.

Charmaine Councillor: Our people were forbidden to speak their language and there was policies put in place many years ago that prevented our people from practising our culture, our dances, and particularly passing on the language to the next generation. And the language held stories. It held stories on country. It gave us our identity.

Jeni: Charmaine Councillor and the Ngallang Morrt singers

Glyn Davis: It’s such a profoundly sad quote isn’t it? Because it’s somebody mourning what was lost and mourning what was lost in childhood and for children, because that can’t be recovered. And I’m reminded of Louise Gluck, the poet and Nobel laureate, who said, ‘We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.’

Jeni Whalan: It’s so profound. And it does go to the value of childhood, a value that we’re not very good at counting. We’re reminded of that in our bonus episode after the budget this year of looking at children’s budgeting and whether that’s a way of getting to that value. But we’re reminded about just that incredibly special part of life that actually government and policy and budgets are really clunky interlocutors in.

Glyn Davis: The disconnect exactly between the mechanical instruments by which we allocate resources and what we actually value and what it means when it’s taken away, as we just heard so profound. And yet the gap is huge and hard to close. 

Jeni Whalan: And you can think of some of those international examples of countries that are large enough and small enough, places like New Zealand to have a single reform effort around children and families in Australia. You’ve got a larger population but spread across different state jurisdictions and all the dysfunction that brings as well as just the geographic differences in Australia. The geographic patterns of poverty in Australia are distinctive, perhaps even unique.

Glyn Davis: Absolutely. So you’ve got overlays here. We’ve got intergenerational poverty around particular families and communities and we’ve got place based issues and challenges. And then we’ve got levels of government that are disparate, sometimes distant, and we’re trying to make all of that work around the child. And it’s not surprising, that proves to be very difficult.

Jeni Whalan: Difficult. But the challenge before us in the next decade or so, do you think?

Glyn Davis: Absolutely, difficult but essential. And it’s why some of the interesting programmes like the Our Place programme, seeking to put a local institution, the primary school as the centre of a coordinated set of services, are very interestingly a very important experiment in whether we can create a coordination again at the local level rather than trying to achieve it nationally first.

JW: Looking to the future, paediatrician Sharon Goldfield imagined how we could transform primary schools into hubs for children’s wellbeing 

Sharon Goldfeld: In 2030, 2040. What could schools look like where we might move from schools in their current form to kind of these holistic platforms that that give as much sway to children’s health and wellbeing as they do to children’s learning. And and what would that look like? And I’m not 100% sure what they would look like, but I think there’s this extraordinary opportunity to explore that in a really meaningful way with different sectors sitting around the table.

Glyn Davis: So, Jeni, where does place fit in this equation?

Jeni Whalan: Well, Glyn, I think that’s a big question for the country’s policymakers over the next couple of years. I do think during the COVID pandemic, we’ve seen really big macro policy levers pulled in a way that, as so many of our guests have reminded us, we couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. As that subsides and we turn back to the priorities that are still there, that demand more localised and tailored solutions. The question of place. The question of how to do place based projects at scale. How to do place based policy at scale without replication. I think that’s going to be one of the dominant policy questions for our country in the next ten years.

Glyn Davis: And one we should return to because so many of the collective impact place based projects are really about early childhood. They all focus on very young people and they all make the judgement, I think accurately, that early intervention and early support has the biggest potential payoff for the society and community and for the individuals, of course. Let’s keep our eye on that one.

Jeni Whalan: So Glyn, we heard a lot during the season about the need for more voices from children, young people and their families 

Anne Hollonds: I mean it’s one thing to ask kids what they think or what they’ve experienced or what they hope would change. It’s another thing to translate that into policy.

Kirsten Gray: Our people are one of the most consulted groups of people on the planet and have that fatigue. And I think there’s that real tiredness even amongst our young people about the ongoing processes of enquiry without change.

Jeni Whalan: That was Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds, and Yuwaalaraay/Muruwari lawyer Kirsten Gray. 

Glyn Davis: Well, it’s interesting, isn’t it? We just heard both the need for consultation and the fact that certainly consultation that doesn’t produce results just leaves people tired and cynical. We heard a lot of discussion around different ways of hearing voice, measuring it, encouraging it, the youth forums, the online streams, the surveying of young people and so on. Less about how the data that is generated could inform or should inform policy. 

Jeni Whalan: And I wonder about it in the broader democratic context as well, because it strikes me that too often we’re having conversations about voice without accountability. So voice is one channel by which those in power are called to account. Quite literally, when voice becomes, as we heard from Kirsten Gray, just consultation, just those with power going out and asking questions of those who haven’t been heard from before. It’s such a thin dimension of voice. What does a thick dimension of voice look like? What does a really vibrant democracy need to hear from children and young people and their families, if policymakers are to be held to account? Not just aided in their in their job through co-design or consultation.

Glyn Davis: So I don’t think we heard a thoroughgoing proposal about how this can be done. But in the work that Anne Hollonds is doing, we’ve heard her speak in the episode we recorded, you can see her mulling the same question and trying to find both ways of connecting agencies and not-for-profits that work in the area, but connecting them with young people and a dialogue that we haven’t seen.

Kaytlyn Johnson: The most important voices, First Nations voices and young people who will have to feel these effects of climate change in the future. 

Jeni Whalan: Climate change came up in every conversation this season.  We spoke with Young Tasmanian of the Year, Kaytlyn Johnson, as well as Alicia Moullan from Equity Economics.

Alicia Moullan: Children in Australia are really worried about climate change. In fact, 59% of young people consider climate change to be a threat to their safety and 71% name it as their biggest environmental concern.

Jeni Whalan: And Kevin Watkins, from the London School of Economics:

Kevin Watkins: We need to listen to children.  We’re learning to do that partly  because they’re banging down the door on climate change, which let’s face it, is the great injustice that our generation is passing on to future generations.

Jeni Whalan: For Australian children, the last few years have been unprecedented. The global pandemic has turned their school, home and social lives upside down and absolutely.

Glyn Davis: And on top of that they’ve watched distressing weather events and bushfires, floods and everything in between. And for many children, because they’re young, it’s the first time they’ve seen this. And what they’re hearing is this is the rest of their lives. This is going to become the new normal, which is less than thrilling. The impact of those changing weather patterns and the implications for children’s lives were really an underlying, consistent theme through this series.

Jeni Whalan: So we checked in with a local arts and community engagement organisation based in Mullumbimby, which is in northern New South Wales, called the Spaghetti Circus, to hear from the kids about what it’s been like.

LIVELY CIRCUS MUSIC

Ellen: I’m Ellen, and I’m 18. Probably my favourite things about circus is the community and the welcoming-ness and the feeling of home here. 

Ellen: Challenging yourself and testing your boundaries 

Maxine: There’s just such a big community that kind of supports you through your childhood. I’m Maxine, I’m 15.

Maleika: You’re just seeing water rise higher and higher and constantly moving things to like higher ground. And then we have the cats running around and we’re worried about them. 

My name’s Maleika and I’m 16 years old.  Looking up the balcony and it’s no longer the balcony off the second floor. It’s the balcony off the first floor because that’s where the water’s is at. And then it stunk.

Ellen: 30, 40 centimetres like is how high the water got. And then all of the mats got flooded and in the back shed the whole sprung floor got flooded and the wood was all mouldy and muddy and gross. So we had to rebuild that and then Gerni (pressure clean) everything and clean everything and dry everything while it was still raining

Maxine: It was like a completely different place. It was like a shed that was filled, like halfway with mud.

Lima: I’m Lima. I’m 14 years old. Having to spend a lot of your time just helping other people, it’s really nice to do that and it’s really exhausting as well. 

Ellen: I was just here all the time, like 24 seven basically. And then I got Covid in the midst of it.  

Lima: This whole scenario is really exhausting to just live in.

SOUND OF RAIN ON TIN ROOF

Ellen: I think everyone’s kind of got this as soon as it starts raining heavily, it’s like a bit emotional and, like, triggering almost  

Lima: We’ve got a tin roof, so it makes me go insane. I’m so sick of the sound of the rain. And I’m sick of getting infections from all the mud everywhere, it’s really gross.

Ellen: You didn’t realise the amount of rain could actually make it flood this much and it was like just so much water. So it is scary.

So it’s difficult to prepare for it but I think the stronger the community and the relationships between everything, the easier it is to handle really difficult situations and what the world is bringing for us, which is probably more challenges.

Maleika: I see climate change as the thing that will probably either kill me or my kids, in one way or another, be it not exactly from a natural disaster, but from something else, you know, like air pollution or it’s overfishing, like food shortages, because obviously the environment can’t sustain what we’re doing to it 

I feel like climate change means kind of accepting that there’s a problem and then doing something about it. 

I’m pretty angry about climate change and I don’t see politicians doing much about it. And I feel like by the time we’re old enough to be politicians, it’s going to be kind of too late.

Ellen: Our aim is to create strong, healthy, confident kids and who are creative, which is what the world needs, people who know what they want and how they can achieve it. And doing that through problem solving, figuring out all of the nitty gritty is like all of the stuff that needs to be done to actually create a sustainable future that’s like benefits everyone and not just the individuals. 

Lima: It’s been really fun to come back to circus.

Ellen:  And so I think even if it’s not related to climate change, but in circus, figuring out a routine that’s like helps fit everyone in with all of that different skills and not just the music and like use of the space well. And it’s like all of those things like to create a perfect act is like figuring out all of the small things that create the awesome big things. 

Lima: What the community needs and like what my family needs is just like everyone to support where you can support, like if you can support someone whose house got taken up by the floods by giving them a place to stay, you can do that. But if you can’t support with that, just do whatever you can to support everyone around you and take care of the people around you.

—–

Glyn Davis: Thanks to the kids of the Spaghetti Circus in Mullumbimby for sharing their thoughts and their fears so clearly, so articulately. And we spoke to them after the cleanup, after they’d been flooded for a second time.

Jeni Whalan: So, Glyn, we asked all of our guests this season about what it would look like if we got it right and put kids at the centre of policy and policy making in Australia. What about for you? What do you think it could look like?

Glyn Davis: So it’s interesting, isn’t it, that in the election we’ve just been through, perhaps for the first time, child care emerged as a major issue, debated not just by the major parties, but by many of the independent candidates as well. And I think that’s a harbinger of where public sentiment is. The sense that so many women expect to be able to participate in the same basis as men, and that childcare is absolutely central to that. It’s central to family finances, and it’s also central for the children to be part of something, a community wider than the family, as well as, of course, the family base. So I expect we might see really extended discussions about the future of childcare and continuing campaigns now that the election is over, about how this comes to the fore in public policy.

Jeni Whalan: And let’s face it, Glyn, you and I are policy junkies, as are many of our listeners out there. I think we’ve had to wait a couple of elections for the kind of appetite for real policy change that I think we’re seeing now in the aftermath of this election, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s childcare or a host of the other agendas that do seem to have the ascendancy. There is an appetite for a different kind of strategic policy making now, and a lot of it, as you say, does revolve around kids and families. One challenge I think, that lies ahead is, of course, we’re having those discussions a decade or so into real hollowing out of the capability of the public service about which you’ve written so eloquently and others too. I think it’ll be a big challenge for Australian Public Service and those in the states as well to work out how to respond, particularly to the appetite for putting kids and families at the centre of policy. And I think we can strap in for an interesting ride. 

Glyn Davis: Absolutely. It was fascinating to watch that the move on childcare was a campaign from below. It wasn’t necessarily politically led. It was led by interests and people and individuals and organisations sort of spent a long time trying to get this onto the agenda and it finally broken through. There’s an old school of thinking in public policy called the issue attention cycle that reflects on how long it takes to get an issue up and the fact that when it gets finally the attention you’re hoping for, you’ve got a very narrow window usually to get policy because attention becomes boredom very fast. So we get to see a really interesting moment here where there’s possibilities for change and that window doesn’t stay open long.

Jeni Whalan: Well, and let me do something that a good political scientist would never do, Glyn, and that’s make a prediction. I think if we’re right and we can see kids and families at the centre of policy and let’s say ten years, it will be because we’ve found a way of overcoming some of those really damaging silos that we’ve heard from again and again from our guests, that break kids up into their education needs, their health needs, their family needs, the employment needs of their parents and so on. That’s the challenge ahead.

Glyn Davis: And how can that not be an exciting moment?

Jeni Whalan: Thanks for joining us again for Life’s Lottery: Backing Kids.

That was our final episode with Paul Ramsay Foundation CEO Professor Glyn Davis, who is taking on a new role as Secretary for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in the Albanese government. Please join me in wishing him all the best in his new role.

And we have a new season in the works, so stay with us!

As always, keep the conversation going at lifeslottery.com.au

Season 2 Overview

Backing Kids, the second season of Life’s Lottery, explores how Australian society values children and childhood. Kids are our future, but they’re rarely at the centre when it comes to the decisions that really matter. What would it take to truly put kids at the heart of policy, of budgets, and broader public work? 

We’ll hear the voices of advocates, experts, children and their parents and caregivers with bright and practical ideas about how we can improve kids’ health and wellbeing. We’ll dive deep into the Federal Budget and explore how it does, and doesn’t, reflect the realisation of children’s rights. We’ll hear about how young First Nations voices have informed policy development to improve the lives of First Nations kids. We’ll consider how place-based, universally accessible services could better reach vulnerable families and improve the wellbeing of all children. 

Two years of the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted children’s education as well as physical and mental health and exacerbated the challenges faced by the most vulnerable. There has never been a better time to talk about how we could better back our kids and improve their odds in Life’s Lottery.  

 

We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas for future episodes.

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Life’s Lottery is produced in collaboration with UTS Impact Studios

Executive Producer: Olivia Rosenman

Audio Producer: Nicole Curby

Researcher/writer: Jackie May

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