ADDRESS BY HIS EXCELLENCY MAJOR GENERAL MICHAEL JEFFERY AC CVO MC GOVERNOR-GENERAL OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA ON THE OCCASION OF THE OPENING OF THE 2006 NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF THE NATIONAL INVESTMENT FOR THE EARLY YEARS UNIVERSITY OF NEW SOUTH WALES, KENSINGTON, SYDNEY 8 FEBRUARY 2006 · Professor Graham Vimpani, Clinical Chair, Kaleidoscope, Hunter Children's Health Network· Ms Barbara Wellesley, National Director, Good Beginnings· Aunty Ally Golden, Elder, Nura Gili Centre· Professor James Heckman· Professor Mick Dodson· Ladies and gentlemen Good morning. What a great pleasure it is to be here at this significant national conference. I acknowledge the traditional custodians and local elders of the land on which we gather today. I acknowledge their traditional wisdom and living culture. For many years as Governor of Western Australia in the 1990s I spoke of the functional family as the core building block of a cohesive society and during that time linked into and supported programs with that great Australian of the year, Doctor Fiona Stanley, because I could see the wisdom in her priority of "getting in early" to support children and thus help to create strong families. We used to talk of the period 0-3 years being critical to a young child's development, but I now prefer to think of the period minus nine months to three years as a core time frame; on the basis that the environment in which a woman goes through pregnancy and birth is also very important to a child's early development. You would not be here were you not already convinced of the role early intervention can play in helping our very young Australians achieve their full potential, by preparing them for emotional and physical maturity, study, work, citizenship and parenthood. Eight years ago, Marlena and I were privileged to attend one of the most beautiful and moving occasions of our lives; the birth of the first of our five grandchildren, a wonderful boy called Max. As he entered this world in a caring, loving family and hospital environment, and took his first deep breath of air, I felt absolutely, that his arrival was a special, quite remarkable event, as indeed it should be for every birth. But for Max to reach his full potential as a human being, citizen and probable future parent, would depend to a large degree on what he would see, hear and feel in the years ahead and on the influence of the people about him in developing his sense of values. And the most important nurturing influence of all, particularly in his early life, would be ideally,his mum and dad happily together, and I emphasise together, to love and look after him and to take a real interest in all that he would say and do. Happily his parents do just that and I am sure, all things being equal, young Max will develop into a caring, informed and well balanced young man. And I have noticed the same phenomena with our other grandchildren who all come from caring, attentive but sensibly disciplined home environments where good manners are taught, where daily routines are established, where discussion is encouraged, where humour abounds, and where each child has his own daily chores to perform. And both parents in each family share the child rearing responsibilities. Research studies support one's own personal observation that the home environment is the most important influence on a child's social and intellectual development. We know that it has a most significant effect on the child's early learning, school achievement and overall sense of self worth and identity. In that context, I was interested to read research on early brain development which suggests that a newborn child can be regarded as a "scientist in the crib", possessed of an innate ability and drive to learn through interactions with their environment. Research shows that the brain grows at an amazing rate during development. At times, 250,000 neurons are added every minute! At birth, almost all the neurons that the brain will ever have are present. However, the brain continues to grow for a few years after birth, but by age two, it is about 80% of the adult size. In the past, researchers believed that our genes were the main determinants of brain development. Now an increasing number of studies show that conditions in our surroundings can influence our internal brain plan during early life and in later years. As a researcher put it: "If your physical activity centres on typing, then your leg muscles will never rival Arnold Schwarzenegger's. Likewise, if your mental exercise is radically low, then your brain will probably be on the scrawny side." Babies' brains are more open to the shaping hand of experience than at any other time in their lives. In response to the demands of the world, the baby's brain sculpts itself. American neurologist Carla Shatz says, "Our memories and our hopes and our aspirations and who we love; all of that is in there encoded in the circuits." At the White House Conference on Early Childhood in 1997, First Lady Hillary Clinton noted what "many parents have instinctively known all along, that the song a father sings to his child in the morning, or a story that a mother reads to her child before bed help lay the foundation for a child's life, and in turn, for our nation's future." It seems to me that here we have the intersection between complex neuroscience and established commonsense. According to the Rand Corporation, early childhood "furnishes a window of opportunity for enriching input, and a window of vulnerability to poverty and dysfunctional home environments". What else do we know? A child learns by imitation and example. This is obvious to anyone who has any regular contact with children - and Marlena and I have learnt even more the second time around with our grandchildren. Children look up to those bigger than themselves, watching with eagle eyes to learn what might be termed 'acceptable' behaviour, including trying to imitate their peers. They do this in their efforts to establish some kind of identity and win approval in their interactions with others around them. Ladies and gentlemen. We must not lose sight of the key foundation stones of a system of parenting and education where high standards in each must shape social policy. The United States National Association of School Psychologists reminds us that: All children are born "ready to learn"; Early environments do matter; Nurturing relationships are essential; and Society is changing, but with that change the needs of young children are not always being fully addressed. And Australia has changed. Our community overall may be the wealthiest it has ever been but is perhaps more socially impoverished in particular areas. What do I mean? We have within our society, traditional family models of mother, father and children together, single parent families, defacto families, children brought up by grandparents, and separated families brought up in two different households. Sadly, one million of our children now live with a single parent, eighty-four per cent of whom is the mother. Half of all children with a parent living elsewhere see their non-resident parent (mostly fathers) fairly frequently, 24 per cent have less frequent contact, while 26 per cent appear to have little or no face-to-face contact with their non-resident parent. That is about half of the children rarely, if ever see their father. In short, the proportion of married natural parents raising children together as a family is now at the lowest level in our entire history; and in particular is having a considerable impact on the rearing, attitudes and suicide rates of young boys, brought about, at least in part I would suggest, by the lack of a regular, caring male role model. This is further exacerbated in our school system where over three quarters of our state primary school teachers are women. Further, many families are becoming increasingly isolated from traditional social support mechanisms, both physically and geographically, leaving them potentially vulnerable when hard times hit - as Mission Australia notes. Many single parents (primarily women) struggle. Often the greatest issues are economic, while the absence of a partner with whom to share problems can be a demanding burden - no one to share the joys or talk through the normal challenges within any family group - schooling, health issues, sport; whilst very likely working, running a household and with never enough time to properly deal with the demands imposed. And there are families who suffer the added complication of isolation; those living in rural and remote areas (especially indigenous families); families perhaps in which either the parent or child has a disability, and those from culturally diverse backgrounds. I note with interest and indeed some concern, that we train people to drive cars, to build bridges and to operate computers, yet do little to formally train or prepare young people for ultimately the most important role of all; the raising and nurturing of children within a stable, loving family environment. But there are some recent positive indications in terms of adult life relationships, in the Australian Government's decision to open sixty-five Family Relationship Centres over the next three years. These will provide support to people in all stages of a relationship, whether they are thinking about getting married, seeking parenting advice or need help in the difficult times around separation. What a boon it would be if through a properly coordinated national relationship preparation program, we could over time substantially reduce the separation rate from its present 45,000 per year? Clearly, the assistance measures provided by churches and other agencies including pre and post marriage counselling - many of which have been in place for years - remain important in better preparing young couples for marriage and in providing support when families are in difficulties. I have heard it quoted that a dollar spent in prevention can save seven or so in cure. This conference's eminent guest speaker Professor Heckman noted earlier in the week that every dollar spent on disadvantaged children in the critical preschool years, through enrichment programs, generates a 17 per cent annual return to the child and society. Hence the importance of encouraging generational change in community thinking through better preparation of our society for relationships across the board - brother to sister, boyfriend to girlfriend, husband to wife, defacto to a partner's children and so on. I see an urgent need for relationships preparation as an important and on-going educational requirement in the school system; the ultimate aim to create healthy relationships between future parents to better support, encourage and provide example to children in their formative years. Carl Jung took this view: "Children are educated by what the grown-up is and not by his talk." The ancient African proverb that "it takes a village to raise a child" is the ultimate wisdom. In this case I see the village as a suite of tools including effective parenting programs, better access to early education programs for children in rural and remote regions, literacy and numeracy mentoring programs and so on. Clearly the desire for early childhood intervention to be the norm needs more than a social marketing campaign. Indeed, there are some fundamental questions to answer: How can early interventions best be targeted to those who would benefit most; Will the model programs already evaluated, generate the same benefits and savings when implemented on a large scale; and What steps can be taken now to show the long-term financial savings to the national economy through early childhood intervention? Ladies and gentlemen. I wholeheartedly support your endeavours to give children the very best support that society can offer and that all children deserve. None of us would argue against the view that the ultimate goal of early intervention is to develop better adults. And a final word from Bertie Forbes, Founder of the famous Forbes Magazine in 1917, who knew a lot more than simply financial journalism: "Upon our children - and how they are taught rests the fate or fortune of tomorrow's world." You have a stimulating and constructive program for your national conference. Marlena and I wish you well in your deliberations. It is now my great pleasure to declare the NIFTEY 2006 Conference officially open.