As Kiwis, we often talk about what a great place New Zealand is to raise children. With lots of wide open spaces and safe streets and parks, our kids have the room to move and grow. But are we doing all that we can to ensure that they actually get the best possible start in life? I hope that answering that question is going to be a major focus of attention during this year’s general election campaign.
At the annual Labour Party conference in October last year, our Deputy Leader Annette King announced a six-year agenda for change that will put children firmly at the centre of investment in social service delivery. We’re going to pick up the best ideas from here at home and around the world and turn them into an action plan to give all Kiwi children the best possible start in life.
We’re going to be paying particularly close attention to supporting children in the first six years of their life because we know that’s where some of the biggest differences can be made. Children are at their most vulnerable in those early years. Their brains are developing rapidly and the amount of love, support and nurturing they receive during that time has a big impact on their later lives.
We’ve got too many government agencies working in silos, tripping over each other, and letting things fall through the cracks. We’ve got to make sure the left hand knows what the right hand is doing, and we’ve got to take a coordinated approach to breaking the poverty cycle. It’s important to stress that this isn’t about the government bringing up children. It’s about supporting families and whanau who work through the stresses and challenges of modern daily life.
The last Labour government made a lot of progress, but there is so much more to be done. While Working for Families lifted thousands of children out of poverty, too many of our children still lack access to some of life’s most basic necessities. 20 hours free early childhood education has provided welcome financial relief for many families and it also allowed our early childhood centres to improve the quality of their programmes. Sadly, much of that progress is now being undone because of National’s short-sighted funding cuts.
I believe that when we look back in several decades time, the introduction of paid parental leave will be viewed as one of the greatest advances in support for parents we’ve seen in this generation, but with our cousins across the ditch in Australia introducing an even more generous scheme, we need to work even harder to ensure that our newest parents can spend as much time as possible with their little ones in those crucial early weeks and months.
The next Labour government will pass legislation setting out targets for the elimination of child poverty. We’ll establish clear lines of responsibility and accountability amongst government agencies so that we guarantee kids don’t fall through the cracks, and regular and reliable reporting requirements will be put in place so that we can measure our progress. All of this work will be overseen by a new Minister of Social Policy, who will oversee the work being done in health, education, housing, social welfare, and all of the other portfolios that impact on kids.
We’re going to focus a lot more effort on ensuring that parents have more time to spend with their kids, and that more positive parenting programmes are available for those that need them. We’re going to restore the focus on quality early childhood education that National has been eroding, and we’ll break the poverty cycle so that no Kiwi kid grows up deprived of opportunity and hope.
We cannot waste another day. Our kids are our future; we’ve got a lot of work to do.