AM Agenda – government’s child care snap back

Tuesday, 09 June 2020

TOM CONNELL, HOST: In the wake of the Government’s announcement yesterday on child care, joining me live is Amanda Rishworth Shadow Minister for early childhood education, thanks very much for your time. So free child care is coming to an end on July 12, plenty of time for parents and centres to adjust, and also a $700 million transition package to make sure those centres are okay. What’s your reaction to the announcement?

AMANDA RISHWORTH, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT: I have concerns that what the Government has chosen to do is snap back really to the old system, which had very, very high fees. So I think while as you point out there’s a month of transition, I don’t think any economist is saying that our economy is going to be back thriving in a months’ time. With very high fees, I am particularly worried that some families and women in particular will not be able to re-enter the workforce as more jobs become available because child care will just be too expensive.

CONNELL: So when you’re saying snap back isn’t possible, what’s the alternative? Heavily subsidised, I mean would you say just free child care until the end of the year for example, until January? It’s a pretty expensive policy isn’t it.

RISHWORTH: Well actually the Government was spending less money during this period than it otherwise would have in normal circumstances. But look there are a number of think tanks and policy institutes that have put different models out on the table, whether you would target that to those that are struggling to find work, those that are underemployed, those small business people that are working as hard as ever but have no revenue. There’s a range of options that have been put on the table – increasing subsidy percentages – but the Government chose to ignore all of these options.

And when you talk about the rescue package, yes on the one hand they are giving extra money to centres, but on the other hand they are taking Jobkeeper away from centres. So it’s taking with one hand while giving with the other, so it is pretty disingenuous. I am worried about the impact this is going to have on families when they are struggling and worrying about the costs coming in, that children may well be withdrawn from child care, stopping parents from going back to work and interrupting children’s early education.

CONNELL: But what’s Labor – you said there’s a range of options from think tanks, surely you’ve formed a view on what should happen. Would it be let’s make child care free until the end of the year and what would that cost?

RISHWORTH: I’m not in Government Tom, what I’m saying is the Government had a range of options on the table and they chose just to snap back to the old, expensive system. A system that in the last figures fees had increased by 7.2 per cent, that is three times more than CPI prior to this pandemic. So we know families were struggling under the cost then, we currently have a situation where centres need to remain viable but families need to also be able to afford child care. We’ve heard from some major providers that they are worried that demand will significantly go down as a result of re-introduction of fees and very high fees. So there is a number of options on the table but the Government chose none of them.

CONNELL: Longer term Labor of course took to the last election a policy that would make child care free for families earning up to $70,000 and bigger subsidies up to about $170 or $160,000 I think it is. Is that likely to survive in some form at the next election?

RISHWORTH: I’ll be working on our policy in deep consultation with the sector. We want to see a sector that has high quality, accessibility and affordability, that’s what we want to see. So I’ll be working with the sector, but we don’t know what the landscape is going to look like. The Government itself hasn’t done any modelling with all the resources of Government, about how they expect demand to decrease as a result of bringing back fees. There’s no information available, providers are worried about what might happen as a result, and the Government has had no answers. We don’t know what the impact will be of taking away Jobkeeper, now Tom remember that is a broken promise because the Prime Minister said only three or four days ago that he had no intention to stop Jobkeeper early, then four days later we see –

CONNELL: Well he said the scheme would keep in place for six months which could still be the case, albeit with some sectors not eligible. So he didn’t actually say for every sector on that particular element.

RISHWORTH: Well I think he’s being pretty tricky with those words.

CONNELL: Well look he was asked a question, call him tricky or otherwise he never said for every sector. I just wanted to ask you, you mentioned think tanks and different approaches, there’s been a suggestion that Australia should take the approach to child care that it’s about making sure you can maximise your workforce. It shouldn’t be seen first of all as a cost to the budget, and that could see something along the lines of for the vast majority of families, 95 per cent of costs are subsidised. Is that sort of proposal something Labor is looking at ahead of the next election?

RISHWORTH: We had a proposal at the last election which tried to align fee relief for those that needed it the most. As I said we will go through that process. What we’ve got to do is balance two elements up when it comes to our early childhood education system. It is about workforce participation and ensuring women in particular can get back to work, but it’s also about giving children the best start to life and ensuring they get access to early education in the years before school. And what we know from all the research is that has a double economic benefit. So my focus as we develop our policy, and as I said we don’t know what the landscape will look like and I’ll be carefully calibrating whatever Labor’s response is –

CONNELL: I understand that, and I’ll just shoot myself in the foot I know you’re not going to announce your policy right now, I’m a realist. But looking at policies around the world, I’m sure you take an interest in various elements. Do you look at some of the countries in Scandinavia and think that would be great but it’s just too expensive? We’re talking about subsidising nearly all child care.

RISHWORTH: We do have to be economically responsible, we do need to get it to families that need it the most, and we do need to make sure every child gets access to early education. So they’re some of the principles that are driving me. I’m not going to say anything’s off the table, I’m happy to look at all different policies, but they have to be affordable. I’m a realist when it comes to that we have to make sure they’re affordable –

CONNELL: That’s the thing I guess isn’t it, what is affordable? If you see it as first and foremost as workforce participation and making sure more women can get into the workforce, you might say well this Scandinavian model of 95 per cent subsidy is affordable. Affordable is in the eyes of the beholder isn’t it?

RISHWORTH: It is and at the last election we did that diligent work, which was a different design for a different economic time, in which we did the costings and we were able to pay for it and did the responsible work. So I intend as we approach the next election – which I might say is still two years off Tom – I will continue to do that diligent work again and we will present an early education and care policy at the next election. I will spend my time talking with providers and importantly families about what they would like to see and what will make things better for them. But you do have to strike a balance with any policy about what we can afford and what the social and economic dividends are, but I still maintain that investment in the early years delivers very high economic returns.

 CONNELL: I’m not wishing the election to be any closer just in case viewers were thinking that, but we will see a policy eventually on the table. Amanda Rishworth thank you for your time.


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