Senator MOORE (Queensland) (18:18):
On the same report, I take up Senator Smith's statement about the response being an important first step. Indeed, it is just that: an important first step. Consistently through our inquiry we heard from grandparents across the country, and there is no specified area where this issue is most evident. Grandparents across this country are taking full-time care of their grandchildren. Too often people think that the issue of grandparent care is about grandparents helping out after school or in some way giving parents some immediate aid day to day. But, no, this particular inquiry was focused on the real issue of grandparents who are the sole guardians of children-many of whom have significant issues-from birth or from the time they are very small babies through until they are young people.
What came out in our inquiry was that the young people who are being cared for by their grandparents are often extraordinarily fragile and vulnerable. In fact, many have severe disabilities-and that is one of the ongoing pressures for the families. They are being forced together into a family circumstance for which there has been no planning. Indeed, some of the personal stories that came out in our inquiry were extraordinarily confronting. As always in our Senate inquiries, we were amazed and humbled by the openness with which people came and shared their lives with us and pointed out the problems that they are facing and by the great resilience that so many have.
I know that Senator Smith used the term 'a point of caution' in his contribution, and certainly there are several points of caution in the government's response. Senator Smith talked about the issue of increasing the current Centrelink grandparent carer program-and we had very, very positive responses about the way this service operated to allow grandparents to try to balance their Centrelink entitlements with their new-found responsibilities as carers and about the reference point that the service can provide to other services in the community-and we welcome that increase. The core point of caution that I want to bring to the attention of the Senate is that, whilst the government response has come up with some very welcome first steps, I would have liked a slightly greater increase-but any increase at this stage is welcome. Also welcome is the acknowledgement that that service will create a better database in terms of keeping information on the grandparents and their needs so that we can build up better knowledge and awareness within our system as well as in the wider community.
But my major point of caution about the response is the fact that, whilst the government has said that they do acknowledge that this is an issue which must have the engagement of ministers and governments at all levels of government, at no point in the response did the federal government say, 'We will lead on this issue. We will take this issue to our state counterparts so that we can ensure that the kinds of responsibilities which have been identified will be shared and will be planned. We, as the Commonwealth government, acknowledge that, whilst we may not have the primary responsibility for child care or for after-school care or any of those other elements in the system, it is such an important element in our community that we will take it to the COAG discussions, and we will ensure that the various ministers across all states and territories who look after issues around families will have this on the agenda.' I am sure we as a committee will be following up with the government to say that that is what we expect. In fact, if you go to the recommendations we put forward from the committee, you will see that that is what we asked for.
We want the federal government to identify the issues we had raised in terms of the particular needs of grandparents and the pressures that they have, often at a time when they are most vulnerable. We consistently heard stories of people in quite straitened financial circumstances and reliant almost exclusively on the pension who suddenly-and very often incredibly suddenly, like overnight-had the care of two or three children. This was often the result of tragedy in their own family. We identified that grandparents took over the care of their grandchildren often because there were significant issues of drug or alcohol dependence by their own children-the parents. So that is a double pressure on the grandparents. They had the stress of having to make decisions around their own circumstances in order to take on the care of these young people while at the same time there was quite overwhelming guilt about the fact that in many cases they had not been able to effectively parent their own children. They had an ongoing concern that their own parenting skills had been challenged by their own children and were now again going to be challenged by these very innocent young people, many of whom had seen things that were quite distressing in terms of family violence and dissolution of family.
We need to understand that there are significant psychological issues, often around mental health, that need to be identified in these cases. The kinds of services needed are not just financial. They are also things like access to trained personnel who can provide support around child mental health and developmental issues in schools. Many of the young people needing care have missed long periods of school and have fallen behind in their education. These are identified problems that needed a response. We should surround the grandparents with support when they take on their new roles.
Certainly we welcome the response from government. We welcome any response from government in community affairs. Sometimes we have to wait quite a long time to get responses, but to have one, we celebrate. In terms of this process, we acknowledge that the government has responded to a number of our recommendations. Whilst acknowledging that these people will need support from all three levels of government, particularly at the state and federal levels, I call on the federal government to take leadership, take the necessary direction and gather together the information resources from both state and federal levels so that this will be a priority when ministers meet. Then we will be able to use the valuable evidence that we gathered in our committee and we will be able to have the professionals who want to be involved in looking at the results of the work. We will be able to ensure that grandparents will not be as isolated as they felt when they came to our committee. I ask leave to continue my remarks later so that this issue can remain on the agenda.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.