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National Child Protection Week launch, Canberra

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I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal People, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present, emerging leaders and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders gathered here today.

It's a great delight for Linda and me to be here at the start of a very important week in our national life.

Over the last month, we have been in a virtual world, like many, as we have contacted the Mayors and Lord Mayors in the Greater Melbourne Metropolitan Area and in Local Government Areas adjacent to Melbourne, and also the Mayors of the LGAs that have been affected by bushfire and are still in recovery. We have a rolling program of contact with them.

It's been an important thing to do. We spend about half an hour to 40 minutes with the Mayor and CEO or General Manager equivalent discussing what's occurring in their particular area, either as a direct result of the health impact of the pandemic or the second-order economic effects that are affecting their particular area. Throughout those conversations you are always very mindful that this is where the face-to-face contact with the community happens. Federal and State governments are the big muscle movers with policy and funding but looking people in the eye, delivering services, checking that people have food and so on is down at that level. One of the constants in those conversations is the impact of the current environment on children of all ages. High School kids wondering what's going to happen to their time. Children who don’t do well with remote learning at home and then don't come back to school. We have a cohort out there who may not finish formal education. And then families who are struggling with young children confined in smaller apartments finding that difficult.

It creates enormous pressure. It gives us an issue that we need to address in the next two years or so as the economic impact of the pandemic plays out on families. We have a real short-term emphasis on putting children first in our community at the moment. But you who have been involved with looking after our children, protecting our children, for a generation, 30 years, know that there is a another aspect to this.

In my former role as a Governor of New South Wales, Linda and I developed an association with the Allowah Children’s Hospital in Sydney. Allowah caters for severely disabled young children, most of whom were born with disability. But unfortunately and regrettably, there are some who are there because they were physically abused as children, as babies. When you confront that sight you realise that the real difficulties we sometimes have in our community are a lack of knowledge about parenting or that there are people who use their position to empower themselves to abuse children. You could not walk out of that hospital not being committed to ensuring that all our children grow up in a safe and secure environment, nurtured and loved. We have an eight-month-old grandson, our first grandson, Charlie. If the love that was poured into Charlie in the first six months of his life could be poured into every child, our country would not have any issues with its future.

We are a country of good people and we see that here today. Putting children first, deciding that your priority is our future not your today is very important. So I thank all the organisations that are represented in the room here today and online, large and small, for your commitment over 30 years to put our children first.

The statistics, as we know, are not good. In some areas in Australia, 1 in 4 children are at risk of abuse. We should be shocked by that. So this is a call to arms this week. Three words: putting children first. A call to action; a call to arms. We’ve been doing this for 30 years. There has been improvement but it needs to be done better.

People ask, 'What are the practical things I can do?' There are a few.

  • Taking time out to listen to what children and young people have to say.
  • Being kind and supportive to parents and to those caring for children.
  • Being friendly and helping to create strong communities where everyone has a sense of belonging. I think one of the things we discovered through the bushfire period and the pandemic is what it really means to be a neighbour. How to look out for each other. How to be a good neighbour. It is very important when we are looking at children.
  • And, most importantly, speaking up if you see something that isn’t safe. That can put children first and can be done very practically.

We have a way to go. We have more work to do. But, again, after being a Governor of a State for four-and-a-half years and now the Governor-General of this country for 13 months, I see, every day, the goodness in the Australian community. I see, every day, great people working for very noble ends in our country.

Now people can say I’ve mellowed in my old age or I’m seeing Australia through rose-coloured glasses, but I’m not. Linda and I see it. I don’t have a survey. It’s empirical evidence, every day. I am optimistic about us. We are good people. And we have a very important cause here with NAPCAN and with all the organisations supporting National Child Protection Week. Thank you for what you do. It’s critical work and it’s important work. The lives of children depend on it.

I look forward to continuing to work with NAPCAN — I am proud to be Patron — and other organisations to ensure every child has the best opportunity for a happy and a fulfilling life. It is a great pleasure for me to open National Child Protection Week for 2020. A 30-year anniversary, but more work to be done.

Thank you. [Ends]