The Smith Family 100th Anniversary

I start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, and I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. 

And commit the Government, that I am so proud to be a part of, to the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart – in full. 

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today on such a significant occasion. 

Can I particularly recognise: 

  • Chairman, Nicholas Moore,
  • CEO, Doug Taylor,
  • Board members, and
  • The Learning for Life parents, students and alumni I met today – Alison, Natalie and Catalina; Ahmed, Adrian and Indiana. 

On Christmas Eve in 1922, as parents around the country were wrapping presents and stuffing turkeys, a bunch of men arrived at Carlingford Home for Boys. 

Not three wise men, but pretty close. 

Five businessmen. Bearing gifts. Books, toys and treats. 

They wanted to remain anonymous. They told the Matron at the Home their name was Smith: “We’re all Smiths”. 

And so The Smith Family was born. 

That was a hundred years ago in a few weeks’ time. 

We were a very different country back then. 

Just after the horror of the Great War and just before the misery of the Great Depression. 

There was just over five million of us. 

Billy Hughes was still Prime Minister and Henry Lawson had just been laid to rest. 

There wasn’t much of a safety net. 

Very few of us finished school. Even fewer even dreamt of university. 

Now let’s jump in the time machine and fast forward 50 years to 1972. 

Whitlam is now Prime Minister, and I am in nappies. 

There are twice as many of us as there were in 1922, but we still look pretty much the same. 

The last awful remnants of the White Australia policy are being pulled down. 

The suburbs are stretching and don’t all have sewerage. Medicare is still not here. 

But the Smith Family is. It’s helping people right across in the country. 

And still very few of us are finishing school. Only 18 percent. Only 2 percent go to university. 

Now hop back into the time machine and come back to today. 

The population has doubled again. 

We have become one of the most successful multicultural nations in the world. 

Our Prime Minister can trace his heritage back to Italy. Our Foreign Minister back to Malaysia. 

And we stand on the precipice of finally recognising our Indigenous brothers and sisters in our founding document. 

We have come along way, and through it all the Smith Family has been there. 

A national treasure, helping the poor and the disadvantaged. 

An organisation that has always understood that education is the most powerful cause for good. 

That it is the real change agent in our society. 

The great equaliser in an unequal world. 

Today, 90 per cent of young Australians finish year 12 or its equivalent at TAFE. 

More than 44 per cent of young Australians have a university degree. 

I am one of those people that has lived that change. 

Changes Labor governments, more often than not, have made possible. 

I’m the first in my family to finish high school. The first to even finish year 10. 

For a working class kid from Cabramatta I have had chances in life that my parents could barely have imagined. 

And not just me. 

A lot of the kids in my classroom in the 70s barely spoke English. 

They were refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Others came from Chile, Uruguay and what was once Yugoslavia. 

Their parents packed them up, seeking safety and a better life. 

Today they are partners in law firms, pharmacists, multi-millionaire start up business owners. 

That’s the power of education. 

But it still hasn’t reached into every corner of the country. Into every home. 

I said a moment ago that about 44 percent of Australians in their twenties and thirties have a university degree. 

But only 20 percent of young people from poor families do. 

It’s the same for young people in the regions. It’s even worse for young Indigenous Australians. 

I want to change that. 

I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on who your parents are, where you live or the colour of your skin. But we are today. We still are. 

The fact is children from poor families are less likely to go to preschool, less likely to finish high school and less likely to go to university than children from wealthier families. 

Next year we will embark on three big pieces of work to help change that. 

The first is the Universities Accord. 

I announced the Terms of Reference and the team that will lead this work a few weeks ago. 

It’s the first big and broad review of our higher education system in almost 15 years. The first since Julia Gillard commissioned the Bradley Review. 

It will look at everything from quality and standards to international education and research. 

But what I really want them to zero in on is equity. 

As a first step two months ago, I allocated 20,000 extra places to universities. A half a billion-dollar investment. 

I have told the universities that every single one of those spots are for students from poor families. Students from the bush. Students with a disability. Indigenous students. Students who are the first in their family to ever set foot in a university. 

The second big piece of work is the next National School Reform Agreement. 

How we can work with States and Territories to put all schools on a path to full and fair funding. 

And how that funding is used. 

Last month the latest NAPLAN data came out, and it shows something pretty terrific. 

It shows the reading skills of primary school students today are about a year ahead of where primary school students were 14 years ago. 

A year ahead. 

But what it also shows is this: the gap between children from poor families and children from wealthy families is getting bigger. 

Fourteen years ago the gap in the reading skills of 8 year olds from wealthy families and 8 year olds from poor families was a bit over a year. 

Now it’s over two. 

And that gap grows with every year of school. By the time they get to year 9 that gap is over five years. 

Is it any wonder that young people from poor backgrounds are less likely to finish high school. 

We need to fix this. 

The third big piece of work is perhaps the most important of all. 

I think we all know now just how important the first five years are. 

Everything you see, everything you hear, everything you eat, every smile, every laugh, every friend, every book, every lesson in those first five years shapes the person you become.  

Two weeks ago, we passed laws that will cut the cost of early childhood education for more than one million families. 

And we also did something that will help some of the families that need early education the most. 

Childcare isn’t baby-sitting. It’s not even childcare. It’s early education. Every day there gets you ready for school. 

And one of the first things I was told when I got this job was that the percentage of Indigenous children developmentally ready to start school is going backwards. It’s getting worse, not better. 

That’s why I added to the legislation, 36 subsidised hours a fortnight of early education for all Indigenous children, whether their parents meet the activity test or not. 

Next year is the next step.  

A big and broad review of early education and care, done by the Productivity Commission. 

Just as universal Medicare gives Australians the health care they need and deserve, just as universal superannuation helps make sure Australians retire with the security they deserve, this review will advise on how to build a universal early education system that gives every Australian child the opportunity that they deserve. 

Three big pieces of work. The Universities Accord. The next National School Reform Agreement. And the Productivity Commission Review. 

Through them all, I hope you can see a common thread. 

I also hope that you can see that what drives you, also drives me. 

A country where every child has the opportunity to change their future. 

I know that’s what you do. 

I know it from the tens of thousands of lives you change every year. 

I can see it in the faces of Natalie and Catalina. 

If those five wise businessmen could jump in a time machine and just see what you have done they would be so proud. 

Thank you for the last 100 years and for every year to come. 

We are a better country because of you, and I know we can be better still. 

Happy Anniversary and Merry Christmas.