Parliament – Appropriation Bill 2017-18 Second Reading (Early Education)

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

I would like to talk about early education in this debate because early education is a critical part of what government should be getting right and what government should be doing. We know that, if you give children the best start to life, then they will go on to reap those benefits for many years to come. Early education has always been a big passion of mine and continues to be in my role as shadow minister for early education and childhood development. We’re hearing a lot from the government about their childcare package and, unfortunately, while there is some good news for some parents, missing from this debate is the benefit for children.

When we talk about early education and child care we have to talk about the children. It can’t be just about workforce participation. While that is part of the benefits of access to child care and access to early education, it cannot be the whole picture. It has to be about putting children in the centre. It has been disappointing, as time has gone on, that we’ve heard the minister—and, indeed, the Prime Minister—constantly only talk about early education in the framework of workforce participation. As a result of this discussion that is only about workforce participation, we’ve seen the government’s new childcare package actually making it harder for vulnerable children to access early education. That is incredibly disappointing because it’s the vulnerable children, those who need that extra investment and support, who will be falling through the cracks of this government’s proposal. That is because they’ve made it all about how much both parents work. It’s all about the parent who has the fewer number of hours. The more they work, the more child care they get access to. As I said, that’s a principle that completely negates the importance of early education.

The government has been trying to argue that it is only well-off Australians who are going to have cuts as a result of their childcare package. But as a result of FOI, from the details of government’s own modelling, we know that the majority of the 279,000 families that will either have reduced assistance or have it cut entirely are families in the two lowest income brackets. That is because they don’t meet this government’s cookie-cutter activity test. This is deeply concerning and something that the government does not want us to talk about.

You’ll have heard in question time recently that the Prime Minister said, ‘Why didn’t Labor get on board?’ The reason why Labor didn’t get on board with this deeply unfair package is that many vulnerable kids are going to miss out. Indeed, if you look at the top 10 electorates that are going to be worse off, they include Lalor, Rankin and Blaxland. These are not communities that are rolling in money. These are communities that need support for early education. For those families who have a single income and earn less than $65,000, 88,000 are going to be worse off. That is a significant number of families.

The Prime Minister’s rhetoric is: ‘We want to reward families who work hard.’ Of course, child care is part of the package of ensuring that families do get to work. However, the Prime Minister and the minister have failed to recognise that life can be complex, that there is casual and insecure work, and it is unclear how families in those situations are going to meet the new fortnightly activity tests that gives you an entitlement to child care.

The government has said that you’ll be able to predict, to forecast, how much work you’re going to get. But what will happen if those families don’t get that work? What will happen if those families aren’t able to meet this strict fortnightly test? Will they experience, as many people have said, a debt to Centrelink? Will there be a robo-debt notice that comes through the post saying, ‘Well, you didn’t actually meet your casual hours’? ‘You can’t change your child care; you can’t change the hours that you’re booked in.’ But will the government then be slapping you with extra payments?

This is not what Australians signed up for and this is not helping those who have insecure and casual work. The government’s ignoring the fact that there can be complex arrangements in families. There may be one parent caring for a number of children. There might be a child with a disability. There might be an older parent. Once again, they may not be able to meet this government’s strict work test, and, as a result, their child will miss out on government support for early education. It’s just not good enough.

The government has often been caught bragging about how much they’re spending on this new system. I have to say that I wouldn’t be bragging if so many families were going to be worse off as a result, but the government has often been bragging about this. Indeed, what was snuck into MYEFO was $1 billion of savings in early education. It is still not clear where these savings are coming from. Are these savings going to come from the many families that are going to see their subsidy cut or abolished altogether? It is incredibly unclear where these savings are coming from. But what is very clear is they are not being reinvested into early education. The government, while it gives with one hand, takes away with the other, and families are going to miss out as a result.

We also heard—and I’m very pleased that there are some regional members in the House at the moment—that the budget-based funding program that has served many regional communities, in early education, playgroups, child care, is in absolute disarray. As a result of the government’s changes, the longstanding process and commitment to rural and regional services, when it came to child care, was ripped up. Instead, what the government has said is, ‘You have got to compete for this money.’

What the government hasn’t understood is that the new program comes in on 1 July this year. These budget-based services, which used to rely on money for a calendar year, have no idea what their fate is, and we are less than 4½ months away from this new program coming in. They have no idea what is in store for them—no idea whatsoever. What we’re talking about is 43 rural and remote and Indigenous mobile services that no longer have a clear future. So it’s a bit rich to hear those on the other side talking about how much they care about rural and regional Australia, when very isolated children, children who may only access a service once a month or once every six weeks, have no guarantee that that service will even be available.

The government keeps saying, ‘It’ll all sort itself out. Well, I’ll just give one example, Paroo Contact Children’s Mobile, based in New South Wales and servicing 36,000 square kilometres, have confirmed that they are facing a bleak future under the new system. Whilst Paroo have explored options to ensure they can provide services to rural and regional communities under the government’s new childcare package, they’ve been advised by the Department of Education and Training that it is unlikely that Paroo would successfully transition to the new childcare system. Families in the communities that this service helps and supports face a range of social, emotional, cultural and geographical isolation and barriers to accessing services that the government’s new system fails to recognise.

These services are small—they are not, I guess, the big fish in the system—but they deserve support. They have had support from governments of both persuasions for a long time, and now this government has come and ripped the carpet from under them. I have been speaking a lot to these services, and they are very, very worried. It is time that the National Party stood up for them. Most of these services are in National Party seats, and it’s time the National Party stood up to their big brothers in the coalition and actually said, ‘Protect these services.’ These services are supporting farming families and regional areas. The National Party has gone missing when it comes to the budget based rural and regional remote services—and it is a disgrace. We will continue to give those services a voice and say, ‘Please reconsider cutting their funding,’ or, ‘Just get your act together and let them know what they’re going to get and, if they’re not going to get anything at all, find a way to fund them. Find a way to keep these services going.’

As I said, this new childcare funding will come in on 1 July. There are still many, many questions about how it’s going to work. The government has not provided parents and families and centres with answers. How does the government intend on implementing the activity test? They are yet to come clear on this. It is already February and the question remains as to how families and centres are expected to report their activity to get their subsidy. When they can’t navigate their MyGov account will families be forced to wait in longer queues at Centrelink to report fortnightly? There are many questions. How will the centres report activity? Is the government’s IT system ready to go? I suspect it’s not. Come 1 July I think we’ll see the government’s system in absolute disarray.

There have been two or three government ministers—I think there might have been three ministers—looking after this area and talking about this amazing package. But they haven’t done the hard work of actually working out how to implement these changes. So I think we’re going to find families and centres in disarray come 1 July, not knowing how much the subsidy is and not having any certainty around how they report, how they access their subsidy and how the centre is able to support the most vulnerable families. We know that there’s a change to those children at risk and how you get the extra subsidy. No longer can the centres go through that process on behalf of families. There is a lot of confusion within the sector and a lot of confusion for parents and families, and it’s time the government started to get on with the job. Stop talking about this and actually look at implementation in a way that will meet families’ needs.

The government has also missed a huge opportunity when it comes to preschools. The government has recently announced stop-gap funding for just one year for four-year-olds to access preschool. The government had an opportunity to show that they were committed to four-year-old preschool and to support states and territories to deliver that. To do that, it would have been right to put funding in over the forward estimates. However, they didn’t. Once again, this has been a hallmark of the government—just drip-feeding a bit of money year in and year out. Preschools need to plan. They need to know what their future holds. Indeed, the minister has made some concerning remarks suggesting that this funding will not be guaranteed into the long-term. This creates uncertainty for families. I’m disappointed that the minister hasn’t taken the opportunity to stand up to his Treasurer and to the Minister for Finance and say, ‘Preschool for four-year-olds is a priority and the federal government should play a collaborative role with the states and territories to deliver that.’ He failed to take that opportunity and, as a result, we now have the drip-feeding of money to preschool with this veiled threat: ‘We need to review this.’ This program is getting results. Despite the minister trying, under a South Australian election campaign, to argue that we don’t have enough four-year-olds in preschool, it is getting results. Progress is being made. We need to continue that and give certainty, so we can make more progress to ensure that children are getting the best start to life.

Of course, the minister continues to brag about how childcare fees are not going up as much as he thought they would. Indeed, four per cent, six per cent—a range of these is seen by the government as a good thing. But families are hurting. This government has been in power for five years. We have seen not one step to provide relief to families when it comes to child care costs; no discussion around access; no discussion around early education. I urge them to think seriously about early education and children.

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