Productivity Commission finds half a billion in spending on NT child protection 'inefficient'

Draft findings released by the Productivity Commission have detailed an uncoordinated and scattergun approach to spending in the Northern Territory's child protection sector.

Key points:

  • The Productivity Commission says $538 million in annual government funding is failing to best address needs of children and families
  • The commissioner urges better use of existing funding rather than policy overhaul
  • An audit finds a stark lack of coordination between the NT and Commonwealth governments


The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory laid bare the problems in the sector and called for an audit of all monies being directly spent on the statutory protection of children.

In the first financial audit ever to be undertaken of the sector, the Productivity Commission found $538 million is being spent annually by the Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments combined on child protection service delivery.

"Despite these significant resources, governments are making short-term funding decisions in relative isolation, without a good understanding of the needs and priorities of communities [or] existing services funded by other government agencies," the report said.

"This is a barrier to understanding where money is being spent and to governments making informed and coordinated funding decisions for individual towns or communities."

Funding is currently channelled through nine government agencies, via more than 700 grants, to around 500 service providers.


Problems are complex but 'surmountable'

Productivity Commissioner Michael Brennan said the purpose of the audit was to map out how much was being spent, why it wasn't hitting the mark, and how the coordination of resources could be improved.

"When the royal commission into the [youth justice] system met, they found there were considerable sums being spent, but not necessarily spent to good effect," Mr Brennan said.

"There are a lot of programs operated by both tiers of government that are actually quite similar in practice."

The report found that while the challenges around poor coordination of resources were complex, they were surmountable if tackled incrementally.

"Importantly, our proposals are about better use of existing funding, rather than changes in the overall level of funding," the report said.

Children's commissioner's role pivotal

A key recommendation from the report is that there should be an "explicit commitment" by both governments to transparently report on the progress of reforms, and that the NT Children's Commissioner should take on the role of an oversight authority.

The minister responsible for child protection services in the Northern Territory, Dale Wakefield, questioned whether the Children's Commissioner was well placed to perform such a role.

"We absolutely agree that there's been a long-term problem with coordination between all levels of government in the Northern Territory," Ms Wakefield said.

"My biggest question on that particular recommendation is that the Northern Territory Children's Commissioner has no powers over the Commonwealth Government.

"Without them it's obviously a very one-sided oversight."

Ms Wakefield said that while the overall spend seemed significant, she was not surprised by the figure.

"There is an additional layer of expense when you're talking about services to remote communities, however it does indicate that there are ways we can look at making sure each dollar is spent very carefully," she said.


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