AM Agenda – early education and care, protests

Monday, 08 June 2020

ANNELISE NIELSEN, HOST: Joining us live now is Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education Amanda Rishworth, Amanda thank you for your time. You’re concerned about the Government’s free child care package, we were supposed to have notice now of when it will end but we haven’t heard anything yet.

AMANDA RISHWORTH, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT: That’s right Annelise, the Government mooted that it would end by the 28 June with a possible extension, and they also promised providers and families four weeks’ notice. Obviously changing the system again to whatever comes next will have a big impact on providers and families alike. So we’ve now got three weeks until the end of this program and we’ve heard nothing from the Government.

What I’m hearing from families is they’re being told by their providers that they have to wait until there is some certainty about whether they can get a place. And for providers they say that they’re hanging on that an announcement will be made and there will be some certainty about their future, because what they’ve seen is an increase in demand but not an increase in revenue. So they’re struggling, many families are being turned away, and other families that are receiving free child care don’t know what to budget for in three weeks’ time. So there is a lot of uncertainty, the Government really needs to honour its promise to give four weeks’ notice to families right around the country.

NIELSEN: At this point when you say about maintaining a place though, most restrictions are easing around return to workplaces, there are plenty of people who can go back to work and it’s businesses that are still working out their implementation plans. So is the onus on them to get back to normal as opposed to the Government subsidising child care places?

RISHWORTH: Well at the moment the Government has told child care you cannot get back to normal, we are restricting your revenue to 50 per cent. So there are a lot of providers that want to know where it’s going and how things are going, especially when families are getting back to work. They aren’t able to accept new children, because they can’t employ anyone else, because they don’t have any new revenue coming in, any new funding from the Government.

So really both families and the sector have been put in limbo by this Government and deserve an answer about what’s happening next. Are we going back to the old system? Are we going to continue with this current system? Really there’s problems with both, but at the moment no one knows where they stand in terms of early childhood education. The Government hasn’t made its intentions clear.

NIELSEN: We saw major superfund HESTA over the weekend among many different organisations saying now should be the time to reassess the child care model in Australia, that it does have these really onerous costs for working  parents and it is unreasonably high. Do you think that’s correct, do you think now is the time to be reforming the child care model in Australia?

RISHWORTH: I think we need to have a serious look at it because snapping back to the old system comes with enormous cost for parents, it’s one of the most costly early education and care systems in the OECD and has real barriers. It was designed for a time when there wasn’t large unemployment, underemployment and indeed many people struggling with getting work. So I do think it is time to have a serious look at this, but we can’t stay as we are at the moment because there are families being told there is no child care place for them – despite having a job to go to, despite wanting to get back to work – because of the restriction on revenue the Government has made to early learning centres. So this is really scary for parents, imagine having to potentially give up your job, or place your children with grandparents at a time when you feel deeply uncomfortable about that because of the COVID crisis, yet have no other choice because the Government has been so flat footed in actually developing a child care system.

So we do need to look at it, we’ve seen fees go up 34 per cent under this Government so it’s an expensive model, and it’s stopping many women and men, but predominantly women, from going back to work. So I think we do need to seriously look at our system.

NIELSEN: The move to subsidise child care at the height of the pandemic was seen as one of the moves that was really against the traditional Liberal values, it was seen as being extraordinarily expensive but done during the height of this crisis to keep child care centres operating, to make sure parents didn’t lose their spots. What is your real issue with saying as you have in your statement it’s a poorly funded and poorly designed program?

RISHWORTH: Well actually the Government is spending less on the child care subsidy than they otherwise would have. In a normal time, the Government would have spent $2.1 billion in a quarter on the child care subsidy, they’re only spending $1.6 billion. So it’s a bit of spin from this Government to say they are overwhelmingly funding early education and care, in fact they’re spending less. Yes something had to be done, because enrolments and demand really disappeared from the system, but the Government only funded 50 per cent of the revenue for child care centres. Now that was fine if your enrolments were under or at your normal 50 per cent, but as we start to see many centres go back to 80, 90 per cent they’re still having their revenue restricted by the Government. So the Government effectively announced free child care, but only funded it at 50 per cent.

So we’ve got a real problem here where it’s the early learning providers who are trying to juggle this, and really the Government hasn’t responded quickly to the changing circumstances and that’s the problem. For those in the system who are getting free child care it is a really important benefit, but it’s limited the amount of places in this country and therefore women coming back to work, whether it’s getting jobs or coming back from maternity leave, are actually currently being turned away from getting a place in child care.

NIELSEN: Just finally we had these major rallies across the country at the weekend, thousands of people turning out in solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement. They clearly weren’t observing the physical distancing measures asked of them by health authorities to stop the spread of coronavirus. Do you think it was right that people went out to those protests when it was against the medical advice?

RISHWORTH: We’ve got to follow medical advice that is very important, but at the same time I can understand peoples frustration boiling over. I think it was probably pretty inappropriate of the Government to sort of, and especially the Finance Minister, to start name calling. I don’t think that is at all helpful in these circumstances. So while I think it is important that people do follow the medical advice, I think we’ve got to understand where this frustration is coming from. As politicians and the Parliament we have to make sure we’re responding to what is clearly a very difficult issue here in Australia. Indigenous incarceration, deaths in custody, poor life expectancy, all of these issues are really difficult for our First Nations people and we do need to pay more attention to it and resolve in a bipartisan way to actually fix this is a problem in our nation.

NIELSEN: Sorry how did the Finance Minister name call?

RISHWORTH: I think when you are divisive in calling people selfish, self-centred, those types of insinuations really are trying to be divisive and not demonstrating that you understand the frustration. And I think at a time like this we need to make sure we are listening and respond as a Parliament, and the Government should do the same.

NIELSEN: Amanda Rishworth thank you for your time.


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