The Early Years: giving every child the best start in life


Anne Hollonds
National Children’s Commissioner

Samantha Page
Early Childhood Australia

Tarja Saastamoinen
Department of Social Services

Professor Ben Mathews
Queensland University of Technology

Professor Catherine Chamberlain
University of Melbourne

Annette Michaux
National Coalition on Child Safety and Wellbeing Steering Group

Tuesday 16 May 2023

Time: 11:00am – 12:30pm

Room: Room 5-7

Panel Discussion

The Early Years: giving every child the best start in life

“We want to ensure every child, no matter where they grow up, can grow up to reach their full potential.”
(Minister Rishworth, National Early Years Summit, 17 February 2023)

The Australian Government is developing an Early Years Strategy – ages pre-birth to five – to shape its vision for the future of Australia’s children and their families.

The early years are a critical time in child brain development, with the brain developing more rapidly in the first few years than at any other point. The physical and emotional care a child receives, their experiences – positive and negative, and the broader environment in which they grow all contribute to lifetime health, development and learning. Development of an Early Years Strategy is motivated by the premise that “a strong start in the early years will increase the likelihood of success that can carry children in good stead throughout life.”

The Government’s commitment to an Early Years Strategy sits, however, against a troubling backdrop. One in six Australian children are living in poverty. First Nations children are born in the shadow of intergenerational trauma and experience higher development vulnerability. The findings of Australia’s first nationally representative study of prevalence of all five forms of child maltreatment (physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and exposure to domestic violence) show alarming levels of maltreatment of Australia’s children.

This panel discussion will be chaired by Australia’s National Children’s Commissioner, Anne Hollonds, and brings together experts from early education, health, government and child maltreatment research to respond to the question: what will it take to ensure that every child born in Australia has the opportunity to reach their full potential?


Anne Hollonds is Australia’s National Children’s Commissioner. Formerly Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, for 23 years Anne was Chief Executive of government and non-government organisations focussed on research, policy and practice in child and family wellbeing. As a psychologist Anne worked extensively in frontline practice, including child protection, domestic and family violence, mental health, child and family counselling, parenting education, and family law counselling. Anne currently contributes to several expert advisory groups, including the Family Law Council, Australian Child Maltreatment Study, NSW Domestic and Family Violence and Sexual Assault Council, National Plan Advisory Group (NPAG), and Early Years Strategy Advisory Panel.

As the CEO of Early Childhood Australia, Sam (Samantha) Page advocates for policies and programs that will ensure that every young child has the opportunity to thrive and learn.  ECA is the national peak early childhood advocacy organisation, acting in the interests of young children, their families and those in the early childhood field. ECA advocates to promote the rights nd wellbeing of young children aged birth to eight years. ECA also delivers professional support to the early childhood sector through highly regarded publications, events and projects. 

Tarja Saastamoinen started her public service career in the Commonwealth Employment Service. She has managed social policy and programs across a range of Commonwealth departments, including training and employment initiatives for jobseekers, early childhood and parenting policies and programs, health workforce reforms, and strategies to address Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, community safety and Closing the Gap.

Tarja is currently the Group Manager, Families, in the Department of Social Services. In this role, she is responsible for policies, programs and services to strengthen families and maximise outcomes for children over their life course, working in partnership with government and non-government organisations. This includes developing and implementing strategies to reduce child abuse and neglect, developing the Australian Government’s Early Years Strategy, supporting the department’s work in Closing the Gap in outcomes for First Nations peoples, operating as the Australian Central Authority for intercountry adoption, and managing the Australian Government’s investment in the Families and Children Activity programs and services.

Ben Mathews is a Professor and Principal Research Fellow in the School of Law at Queensland University of Technology, and is an Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health.  He was a Professorial Fellow to the Australian Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and has served on two World Health Organization Guideline Development Groups on Health Sector Responses to Child Maltreatment.  He is an internationally renowned researcher on child maltreatment, and is the Lead Investigator of the Australian Child Maltreatment Study.

Professor Catherine Chamberlain is a descendant of the Trawlwoolway clan (Palawa, Tasmania), Director of Onemda Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health and Wellbeing at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, The University of Melbourne.  A Registered Midwife and Public Health researcher, her research aims to identify perinatal opportunities to improve health equity across the lifecourse, for which she has received the Lowitja Research leadership award (2019) and CATSINAM fellowship (2022). She is inaugural Editor-In-Chief of First Nations Health and Wellbeing Lowitja Journal and Principal Investigator for two large multi-disciplinary projects – Healing the Past by Nurturing the Future – which aims to co-design support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents experiencing complex trauma; and Replanting the Birthing Trees, which aims to transform intergenerational cycles of trauma to cycles of nurturing and recovery.

With qualifications in social work and adult education, Annette Michaux has been working in child and family services throughout her career. As a Director at the Parenting Research Centre, Annette oversees child and family practice improvement projects as well as research and evaluation. This involves working with government departments and agencies interested in how they can improve child and family outcomes.

She has previously served as General Manager, Social Policy and Research at The Benevolent Society; and as CEO of the NSW Child Protection Council. Annette was also a senior staff member at the NSW Commission for Children and Young People and has experience as a social worker in child welfare and community development in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Annette has been a Director on a number of boards and committees and has served as a member of the National Coalition for Child Safety’s Steering Group since 2017. In this role she is involved in discussions about the first two Action Plans for implementing Safe and Supported: The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2021-31.