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LL S2 Episode 4 – Investing in early childhood Full episode transcript



Glyn Davis: G’day and welcome again to Life’s Lottery – a podcast from the Paul Ramsay Foundation, produced on Gadigal lands. I’m Glyn Davis.


Jeni Whalan: And I’m Jeni Whalan. In this series we’re talking about how we could better invest in our kids.


Ebony Curtis: I always knew that I was going to be a mum, but not quite as soon as when it happened. I was 15 when I fell pregnant, and obviously that was a huge, huge shock.


Glyn Davis: Ebony is speaking today from her home in Hobart, Tasmania.


Ebony Curtis: I was lucky to have the support of my family, I will say eventually, because, you know, falling pregnant at 15 is shocking. I was at a Catholic school in year nine, like that was not a part of the plan at all.


Glyn Davis: There’s no doubt that young people having babies face greater challenges than a lot of other new parents. And Ebony Curtis has a unique perspective to share.  She’s mum to four kids, and a board member of The Brave Foundation. Brave supports expecting and parenting teenagers throughout pregnancy and the first years of their child’s life, connecting young parents with education pathways, mentoring and parenting support.


Ebony Curtis: Mum had a hard time coming to terms with that and really wanted to try and just quickly fix the situation in whatever way she could. Offering me all kinds of options. That was hard, but by 20 weeks pregnant I had the support of everyone around me and, you know, started to celebrate that there was going to be a new little life. Lovely. So I enrolled her in daycare full time at six weeks old, and I was able to continue to stay at my Catholic school, thankfully. I remember expressing breastmilk in the sick bay. I lost a lot of friends and had to find myself again because all of a sudden I didn’t have anything in common with my peers. I was going home to parent a child after finishing school at 3:00. I wasn’t going shopping or, you know, partying or anything like that at all. So I had more in common with my mum’s friends than I did with my peers at the time.


Jeni Whalan: The first five years of a child’s life are crucial to their long-term development and wellbeing. And children’s progress is a key measure of how well a society is doing. But early childhood is no one government’s responsibility in Australia


Glyn Davis: That’s what the Thrive by Five campaign wants to change. In this episode we’re talking to Jay Weatherill, the CEO of Thrive by Five. He’s working to build support for a national, universal, early learning childcare system – just a ‘pram walk’ from every home.


Jeni Whalan: Jay is a former South Australian government minister and Premier – and he’s advocated for better early childhood for many years



Glyn Davis: Jay, this has been very much a personal journey as well as an area of passion for you. You’ve spoken often about as a member of the South Australian Parliament, becoming a minister in March 2004 with responsibility for Australian families. And just two months later, your first daughter, Lucinda, was born. Can you tell us why these two things coming together have been so profoundly important for you in putting children at so centrally in your career?


Jay Weatherill: It was a very big moment. It was a massive portfolio to be given and then a few months later to have our first child, and that the two things really resonated with each other. I was learning so much about children and also children in very difficult circumstances, children with disabilities, children in the child protection system and then to have my own child. And you know, I was very much concerned about her development and the more I learnt about the way in which a child’s brain develops in the first five years, the more it made me reflect on this, this little life that we were nurturing at home. So yeah, it was. It was a very powerful period. And I suppose for me, it shaped really that the rest of my political career, I sort of became a bit of a believer that those first five years was really the shape of everything that was to come. And a lot of the things that I got involved in politics to actually try and address, you know, disadvantage, you can trace back a lot of the answers to the questions in the first five years and what we do and don’t get right in those first five years. So yeah, it was a it was a big moment for me, both personally and politically.


Jeni Whalan: What is it that shifts the dial on reform? What is it that takes an area of passion and great ideas and actually translates it into meaningful, lasting reform?


Jay Weatherill: Yeah, well, that’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? And I think you need more than a good argument because if good arguments carried the day, we would have been doing a lot more on the early years than we have to this point because the arguments are impeccable. You need to create a movement for change. And really even that isn’t sufficient. You can you can shift the political process and create some momentum for change, but then you actually need something practical that can be consumed because there’s also another power that exists in civil society, which is the the public service, the bureaucracy and ultimately a minister who wanders in to see a public servant and says, Look, I’m getting a lot of heat from about doing something on this question. Can we do something? And it’s at that point, you want a public servant to say, Well, yes, minister, we’ve been doing a bit of thinking about this and this is what you do first, and this is how much it’s going to cost and this is what the benefits are going to be. So there are lots of different things that are necessary. You need more than just a quality idea. You also need a bit of luck as well. Sometimes not every good idea finds its time. And you know, in that respect, I think we’re at a bit of a moment in history in terms of the early years where I think we are seeing an above average amount of attention being paid just through circumstance.


Glyn Davis: So I’d like to follow that role of a minister slightly. You started as minister with responsibility for families. This became the role of Minister for Early Childhood Development. Can you say a bit about that transition? How childhood development came into the picture and in the sense, how that changed your priorities?


Jay Weatherill: We were really assisted by some really amazing thinkers. The former premier, Mike Rann, instituted this programme called Thinkers in Residence, which is a great idea. You bring, you know, talented thinkers from around the world. We had two magnificent speakers. One was Fraser Mustard, who was a neuroscientist thinker from Canada, and we also had the benefit of a woman called Carla Rinaldi, who was president of Reggio Emilia a little town in northern Italy, which is pioneered for the last 60 years leading pedagogy in early childhood. And those two thinkers really from very different perspectives, Fraser from a neuroscientific perspective and just switching us on to this extraordinary development that occurs in the first five years, you know, the idea that you’ll have every brain cell you’ll ever have in your life you’re born with and the real question is how they’re connected and switched on through experience. And then, of course, Reggio Emilia that out of the ashes of World War Two rebuilt a society based on essentially these early learning schools that they developed, which have become, you know, really exemplars and really inform a lot of practice now around the world in terms of the early years.  But philosophically, they said that children can learn right from the start and that it’s about this reciprocity between children, their natural environment, their teachers, their parents, which is the way in which they construct futures for themselves. But we now know that that’s backed up by the neuroscience, that it’s these experiences that actually do make the connections that are so profound for future capability. So for me, my agenda became how do we create an early childhood development system? And so the first step in doing that was to create a minister for early childhood development, which we did, and I was very pleased to be able to be in that role.


Glyn Davis: And you went on as premier to support more than 100 centres for early childhood development and parenting across the state. So can you tell us how that programme grew out of your experience as the early childhood development minister and your assessment in retrospect of that programme and its impact?


Jay Weatherill: Yeah. So they very much emerged out of Fraser Mustard’s reports – one of his recommendations to create these children’s centres. It wasn’t just about, you know, providing a service to the child, it was also about engaging the family. And the idea was a one stop shop that was connected to ideally to the education system. So on school sites typically, and the aim was to try and integrate a whole range of service systems that involve themselves in the lives of children in those first five years. So you could identify at least five service systems – infant maternal health, pre-school childcare, community and family support services, which are typically for the adults and some of their issues in relation to parenting and child protection, and to try and have a place at the level of the neighbourhood, which was welcoming where parents felt that they could have all of their needs met. And so we sought to construct these.


The missing piece in the puzzle was childcare because we didn’t have a partnership with the Commonwealth. So it was a little bit of occasional childcare, but not a fully integrated childcare system. But we certainly made a start on that. And that was the intention was to have something which was accessible, high quality, accountable and was easy for parents to navigate and non stigmatising because it was sitting on a sort of a universal platform. It meant that the children from any family were welcome there, and it wasn’t like we were trying to target services at a particular group of families that might have been classified bureaucratically as disadvantaged.


Jeni Whalan: So I’d really like to come back to that issue of universal versus targeted systems and reforms in a moment, Jay. But what you’re describing in the South Australian state was a way of coordinating services and policies that in other jurisdictions in this country and we’ve heard around the world are often fragmented. And part of the step towards that was having a minister specifically responsible. Is that the kind of reform that you would advocate in other jurisdictions in Australia and even at the national level? We have heard calls for a children’s minister federally – is putting a minister responsible enough to drive that or does it take some other conditions to be right as well?


Jay Weatherill: I think it’s necessary, but not sufficient. I think having a minister to coordinate all of these things is important, but it depends what sort of weight that minister has around the cabinet. it really needs the buy in from first ministers. I think it needs the imprimatur of premiers and chief ministers and prime ministers. And it does also raise the question of whether there’s some functional and financial reform that needs to occur to actually aggregate some of these things, maybe at one level of government. In the past, I’ve advocated for the states to be responsible for birth to the end of school and to actually be able to be the accountable institution there. I think there’s inevitability about the states being joined at the hip with the Commonwealth. In some of these areas, there are, you know, the family payment system, the childcare system. But I’m sure there is a better way of actually integrating those systems of payments and supports so that you can get a rational integrated service system at the lowest level, which is consistent with the appropriate levels of quality and accountability. So I think yes to to a children’s minister, yes to a policy framework, but it probably is going to need, you know, a much heavier buy in from somebody that’s able to actually, you know, 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.



Ebony Curtis: I’ve known that I wanted to be a lawyer since I was in grade two. So I went to year 11 and 12 and graduated. I graduated with the intention to apply to do a law degree. In between year 12 and uni, I fell pregnant again and so I was 18. I just turned 19 when I had my second baby with my now husband. So I had a year off. I deferred uni for a year. My partner was a baker when I was at uni and so he would go to work in the early hours of the morning and come home and then take on a double shift essentially of taking on the parenting shift so that I could go to uni because day-care fees, although the government subsidises some of it, when you have two children who require day-care, you know, and you’re basically a one income family. I mean, he was on an apprenticeship, so it just made things even tighter. And I wasn’t working because I was studying full time. It just was like not happening. A lot happened in between those few years. And I finally graduated at 25, 36 weeks pregnant (laughs).


Jeni Whalan: So I wanted to pick up that idea of universal platforms for service provision versus those that can target very specific need, particularly those experiencing the most acute end of disadvantage. And we know the power of universal platforms. We also know about their advantages in macro policy terms. But we also have some universal platforms out there that are not addressing the issues of disadvantage. And here I’m thinking, particularly of school education, we’ve had universal schooling for a long time. And yet educational disadvantage is as entrenched as it’s ever been, if not more so. What is it about the advocacy of universal platforms in early childhood compared to targeted platforms that you think makes the difference?


Jay Weatherill: Yeah, I suppose the first thing is it’s really not an either or. There’s an element in which even with the universal platform, there’ll be a need to identify children and families that have special needs. So that’s the first question. I think most people would accept that if you could have both, you get a universal system and more targeted services to those with extra needs, that that would be ideal. Where people tend to get driven is to say, Well, look, if we only have a limited amount of resources, how do we target our support? That becomes the chain of reasoning. And one of I think, the advantages that we’ve seen in the campaign that we’re seeking to to run in relation to early childhood reform is by scoping in, you know, essentially a universal platform. You can build a much broader coalition for change, which can then generate the necessary political moment and the movement for change, which is essential. If you talk about disadvantage, you can often see the public debate swing in some pretty unfortunate ways about characterising the families that are disadvantaged as being the authors of their own misfortune. Whereas most people accept the idea that you know, all children need some degree of support, some children need more. So gifted children are as difficult to deal with in a system as children with disadvantages. They present different difficulties or challenges and and indeed, the same child might be both gifted and also face challenges. So I think this idea that every child needs to have a universal offering but some children need more is a powerful political platform. The other sort of challenge is a practical one. You know, who are these disadvantaged children and how do you find them when we sort of know that once you put a spotlight on families through the lens of disadvantage, some families will run away from that spotlight for natural fears about child protection responses and other or just the stigma associated with the notion of being labelled so. And you know, then there’s another practical problem in that some of these challenges don’t manifest themselves until much later in a child’s development. Or at least they don’t manifest themselves in a way which is readily obvious to parents.

And so the universal platform gives you the opportunity to see every child and essentially anybody that comes in contact with the child in the early years, whether it’s an early educator or an infant maternal nurse, I mean, they might not be a child psychiatrist, they might not be some other form of paediatric specialist, but they might be able to identify some of the early signs of the atypically developing child. And if the interventions can occur, then in that context of the universal platform, we’re more likely to get the changes that are necessary in partnership with parents. What we have to move away from is the notion of the diagnosis waiting list intervention model to a model which focuses on building the capacity of the system to identify early the support that’s necessary for families and children. I think there’s a big challenge in this, which is really the workforce and making sure that we have a workforce which is capable of engaging with children and families with that degree of sophistication. And of course, that’s one of the big challenges with our current service model. We pay very low wages and and we have quite poor working conditions for some of the people that work in areas which, you know, arguably are the most profound areas of public policy that we have.


Glyn Davis: Jay, can I take you to one of those areas and one I know caused you grief as premier and that’s child protection and more broadly, the question of how the state deals and intervenes when families become dysfunctional and children are at risk. How should we think about these problems, and I know that every state has grappled with them? Are there better ways than the sort of standard Australian approach?


Jay Weatherill: I think this child protection is one of the great failed public policies that we’ve engaged in the mandatory notification and the investigation removal paradigm. I think there’s strong evidence to suggest that it really doesn’t protect children in the way in which it should. And indeed, in some cases, you know, contributes to the traumatisation of those children. And I don’t think that’s got anything to do with the wonderful people that work in that system. I think child protection workers are some of the, you know, some of the saints and angels that exist in our community. And they just they put themselves in harm’s way because they’re usually the first people on the scene when something goes wrong and they’re also the first people that the finger of blame is pointed out when they can’t protect every single child. So I don’t want anything I say to be taken as a criticism of child protection workers because I think they struggle on in what is essentially a failed system. So I mean, you only need to think about the statistics like we were getting up to one in four children with a child protection notification in South Australia during the period when when I was involved in in this area, there’s a sort of basic absurdity about that scoping in one in four children into your child protection system.

That’s because the threshold for notification is so low. Yet the threshold for intervention is so high. So to remove a child from a family requires an extraordinary degree of substantiation, as it should. But the massive gap between those families that we scope into the child protection system and those that we have a tertiary intervention for means that there’s a whole range of families we run the ruler over but don’t really do anything for them. And that’s got its own consequences of actually now that those families that might have various challenges in terms of may simply be poverty, which is manifesting itself in in what’s perceived to be neglect or abuse might be witnessing, you know, domestic violence, it might be a whole range of other challenges that might be going on inside that family, that would be much better dealt with in a universal system of early childhood development, where children… I mean, one of the great paradoxes of our current system of childcare is that the 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. Parents could be engaged and some of these challenges that are occurring in the lives of the adults, which lead to the notifications could be more effectively dealt with. So I think and we spend so much money on child protection, it is, you know, an endless abyss. And the system, just every jurisdiction at any one point in time is going through some periodic crisis that exists in their child protection system that paralyses governments and ministers and sucks in an enormous amount of time and attention. So having been at the centre of one of these storms I’m sort of very familiar with it. But if you’re in government for long enough, unfortunately you’ll probably experience two or three of them, and they’re usually they threaten to be career ending. And they’re almost always because it’s such a temptation for an opposition to make to cause embarrassment. And they’re usually off the back of some awful tragedy that’s occurred to a child in a family. But you know, there is a massive systemic problem that we need to grapple with there.


Jeni Whalan: So you are now tackling one of those big, thorny, complex issues from outside government as CEO of Minderoo Thrive by Five. Tell us about the Thrive by Five agenda.


Jay Weatherill:  Well, simply to make sure that children are thriving by the time they reach five years of age. 21 years ago, Nicola and Andrew Forrest started up a philanthropy called the Australian Children’s Trust. And so initially they invested in disadvantaged children, and it was grants, and then they became much more strategic investors in the early childhood area. So they did things like thought leadership, publishing evidence papers.

But I think where they arrived is sort of similar to the journey to the one I was on, quite frustrated with the lack of with the pace of change and frustrated that you could keep putting this evidence in front of policy makers, and they’ll, you know, smile sweetly at you and then go on and, you know, do something else. So that’s when that’s when I arrived and I had a similar experience in government. I put this on the COAG agenda. We’d get a head of steam up and then something, the prime minister would change or some crisis. So what really was born out of that was this notion of a campaign. How do we campaign to actually put this on the agenda in a way which is unable for it to be shifted? And you know, that means putting pressure on the political process and making it essentially an issue that both major parties have to compete on and taking this wonderful content that exists in a whole range of research institutions and trying to bring it in to the public sphere and make it campaignable. We’re campaigning for a universal, high quality early learning system, which is, you know, shorthand for an early childhood development system. The arrowhead for the campaign is the childcare system, which is the touch point for many families. And one of the reasons why that idea works so well is it builds a coalition between, you know, the more highly educated women who the system doesn’t work for them because it makes it difficult for them to to deploy all of their talents and skills. But it also works for disadvantaged women, the women that aren’t connected to the world of work.


Glyn Davis: You touched on earlier, the complexity of Commonwealth state divisions of responsibilities and the difficulty of creating a universal platform when authority is shared? How does the Thrive by Five campaign address this fundamental constraint?


Jay Weatherill: The way the campaign has been constructed is first to ask that, you know, critical strategic communications question: what’s the problem, what’s broken, what needs to be fixed? And the solution, of course, falls out of the problem, which is that no level of government actually is responsible for birth to five. Everybody’s got a little bit of it, and there’s an enormous amount of duck shoving that goes on between each of the systems,


I mean, one simplistic approach is simply to transform all of the functions to one level of government. I think that has its challenges but I’m convinced there’s a mechanism by which we could have an integrated service delivery system, which I think has to be at the state level, address some of the, you know, the market failure issues which are inherent in the current system design. But at the same time, make sure that we’ve got, I think, a properly resourced system. So what would be a disaster is if the Commonwealth said, ‘Okay, you can have your child care’ and then the states and territories just had to just deal with it themselves. And you’d find the richest states would do a good job and some of the states with fewer resources would potentially retreat, especially under budget pressure.


Ebony Curtis: Being 15 and, being basically a child yourself, I mean you’re not regarded as an adult, navigating the system is a huge thing. I remember I couldn’t even open a bank account for my daughter that I could put savings into because I wasn’t 18. You know, I could open a bank account for myself, the youth say, but not one for her, because I wasn’t 18 and I couldn’t sign my own lease moving out of home at 17, my mum had to co-sign on my behalf and even though I was paying for these services, they had a $1,000 day care bill because no one explained to me how to get child subsidy, childcare subsidy from Centrelink. And another thing that comes to mind too was transport. You know, obviously if you’re 15 and pregnant, you don’t have your driver’s licence, you can’t… it’s not like you can take your child to school yourself. So yeah, for me, transport was a huge issue before I got my licence, you know, catching a bus with the child in a pram and trying to navigate how to get your child to childcare before you get yourself to school and all of those things. So I was very lucky to have the support of my mum.


Having someone who can help you navigate that system is extremely vital and that’s why I accepted a position as a director on the board of the Brave Foundation. The Brave Foundation have a programme supporting expecting and parenting teens. And basically there is a person called a mentor who accepts participants onto their programme, whether that be a teenage mum or dad, both are eligible. They set them up with goals, with a pathway. Could be as simple as getting a routine for your baby. Or it could be something as dramatic as applying for uni or finishing uni, or setting up a pathway to achieve goals for these young people to help them thrive. Help their children thrive. So now I’m having 12 months off at the moment because I’ve got a ten week old and yeah, going to go and do my prac next year back at UTAS and then I’ll be admitted to the bar officially as a Tasmanian lawyer. I’m just really trying to slow down and enjoy my children for these 12 months before I have to go and work for the rest of my life. But I love motherhood, you know, I think I am lucky. I do feel like it comes naturally to me. I don’t think I could imagine my life any other way. I didn’t expect to be 26 with four children, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.


Glyn Davis: That was Ebony Curtis, a board member of the BRAVE Foundation, and a mother of four kids, and we hope she has a great 12 months off work and study!


Jeni Whalan: One of the consequences of Australia’s response to the COVID pandemic was an experimentation with a different form of childcare provision, which for a short period of time made universal.


Jay Weatherill: Yeah, I think we can. I mean, if you ask providers, they’ll tell you that a bunch of people turned up to their childcare centres that that didn’t usually come, which is fascinating in itself. So Aboriginal children, children from disadvantaged families. And that’s sort of interesting because what sometimes said is, well, those families actually could if they applied for the special benefits that exist for disadvantaged families still get there by paying quite a modest fee. But what was interesting is that it’s some of the non-financial barriers that that also are keeping them out, some of the tests and hoops they have to jump through. Also, remember that, you know, people in these disadvantaged families, you know, they read the papers, they watch the TV, they’ve seen the threats about people going to jail if they don’t get the numbers right on their Centrelink sort of forms. And so there are, you know, there’s some powerful disincentives for people to get engaged in some of these systems. So I think we did learn something about accessibility. And for that brief period, it was obviously not sustainable because while it was billed as free in inverted commas, it really meant that it was cross subsidised by the services who didn’t get the, they had to pick up the loss associated with that. So that was made up with JobKeeper for a little while. But the sums didn’t really balance for some services. So. But nevertheless, it gave us a bit of a glimpse about what the future could look like.


Jeni Whalan: If we turn Jay, to talk a bit about the role of philanthropy in Australia, so your foundation, Minderoo and ours, the Paul Ramsay Foundation are part of a new era of philanthropy in Australia that stands on the shoulders of the giants of all of those who’ve come before us, but take distinctive but complementary approaches to tackling some of these big, complex issues of public policy.  And I wonder if you might look into the future a bit, if philanthropies in Australia get it right, what do you think we should see in the role of philanthropy in 20 years in this country?


Jay Weatherill: I mentioned before this idea of just handing out grants to worthy causes. That’s one approach. There’s the more strategic philanthropy which is trying to invest in those things that government can’t or won’t to try and cause change, having regard to a very clear strategic vision. So not so much responding to unsolicited bids for support, but rather trying to drive something with a very clear change. And that’s sort of where I think, you know, we probably are at the moment. I think what’s emerging for us is a more activist philanthropy. I mean, one of our advantages is that we have live benefactors and so they’re actively involved. They’re actually participants in the dialogue and the debate, and they can make very quick decisions, which relieves us of some of the constraints about the processes that might be necessary for other philanthropies.


So that I think is interesting. But this idea of the activist philanthropy, which is campaigning for change is, you know, an interesting model, but also the way in which, you know, some of the deep long term research about impact, which can inform systems change, which I know Paul Ramsay is famously involved in supporting, I think is very powerful because, you know, ultimately, you know, people are going to want to see what the value is for return on taxpayers’ dollars. And this is notoriously an area where there’s quite a lot of imprecision about the measuring of outcomes. And because the outcomes are such long term outcomes, there does need to be significant longitudinal studies. But I think introducing that rigour into the social services system that we probably have seen in the health system in the past, but probably less so in some of the areas of social services, I think is a really powerful role for philanthropy.


Glyn Davis: What does success look like for Jay Weatherill and Thrive by Five?


Jay Weatherill: Well, universal high quality early learning system where you have essentially the level of the neighbourhood, a pram walk away from every home, there would be a place that would be a welcoming place for not just mothers with babies, but expectant mothers, be a source of information and support. And there’d be real capacity. The people that would be working there would love their jobs. They’d be well paid. And over time, they would build up such a knowledge base, not just about children generally, but about that community. You know, and you’d see children going back and maybe even bringing their children back. You see that a bit in schools, in local communities. But if there was a counterpart system of early childhood development, ideally on a school side, you know, if that could be everywhere. I mean, for me, that would be success.


Jeni Whalan: That’s Jay Weatherill, from the Thrive by Five campaign. You’ve been listening to Life’s Lottery – produced by the Paul Ramsay Foundation in partnership with UTS Impact studios.

Head to to find out more about this episode and to leave us your comments and feedback


Glyn Davis: Next week, a special episode. We hand over the host’s chair to Leila Smith, CEO of the Aurora Foundation, and a Wiradjuri woman with a background in Aboriginal health and education. She leads a conversation that focuses on what Indigenous kids need to reach their full potential.

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