Parliament – early education and preschool funding

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

I think this House is very well aware of the government’s failures in so many different areas. In so many portfolios, we can see that the government cares more about playing politics than delivering good outcomes for our community. But, when it comes to early childhood and preschool, all we get now from the Morrison government is silence. We don’t even get politics when it comes to early education; we just get deathly silence. They used to dabble in a bit of politics in this area, a bit of bashing the states and territories—talking down our early educators and criticising them for getting paid on public holidays. But now they can’t even be bothered to do that. It is now just pure neglect.

We are in a shocking situation where we have less than 12 months of funding left for our national preschool program—for the year before school. Earlier this month, thousands of four-year-olds and their families began their preschool and kindy program in government, community preschools, kindies and early learning centres right across the country. This is a really exciting time for children and their families. I met some of them at Nakara Preschool in Darwin with the member for Solomon, at Goodstart at West Ryde with our candidate for Bennelong, Dr Brian Owler, and at the Cardinia Lakes Early Learning Centre, with our candidate for La Trobe, Simon Curtis. Today, it was great to visit the Campbell Street Children’s Centre in Queanbeyan with the member for Eden-Monaro.

There are 350,000 children who are enjoying the benefits of a quality early preschool program, and that is thanks to Labor. Labor introduced the national preschool program in 2009. But this is the last cohort of children who have been funded by this government. And, even then, the Liberal-National government could barely summon the energy to lock this funding in. They were dragged, kicking and screaming, to the table, only sending out the funding agreement to lock in this year’s funding in late September last year. That only gave the states and territories a couple of weeks to lock it in and make their plans for the year. But this had been the same old pathetic story under this government: stopgap funding for 12 months after public outcry, with no consideration to giving certainty to families, certainty to staff and certainty to providers.

But at least in the past the funding was in the budget, even if only for a year. This time, there is no money in the budget. The 2018-19 budget contains no funding for preschool after the $440 million in 2019. There should have been $440 million for next year, the year after and the year after that, but, instead, what appeared in the budget was zeros. The government had a chance to rectify this in MYEFO. We called on them to rectify this in MYEFO. It was a chance to show the community, the sector and families that they were committed to funding preschool ahead of the end of year. But, no, all we got was more zeros from this government—no money. The simple fact is that there is no money for preschools. It seems the government can find $440 million for their big business buddies at the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, and they can do it in a flash. They can quickly find $423 million for a company registered to a beach shack at Kangaroo Island. And, of course, they easily found $85 billion for their big tax cuts to banks and multinationals. They can easily find all this money—they just lift up a cushion and find it under the couch—but they can’t find the money for our nation’s preschools, and it is a disgrace. It is a shameful display of their priorities. How can preschools, kindies and early learning centres plan for next year when there’s no funding allocated?

When I visited Kardinia Lakes a few weeks ago, the centre director, Tamika Hicks, explained how hard it was for her to plan with this uncertainty. She said he couldn’t offer her staff ongoing contracts; they had to be limited-time contracts. And she said, ‘Unless this cut is reversed, every child under the age of four will miss out on preschool funding before school.’ Tamika will have to lay off four early childhood teachers without this funding. $440 million equates to $1,263 for each of the 4-year-old programs.

Mr Laming interjecting

I hear the member for Bowman interjecting. We’ll get to his great support of our program very soon. This cut will not only hurt centres; it will hurt families. Without this funding, early learning centres and preschools will have to cut places to fit their reduced budget, cut hours available to children or increase fees to cover the hole in their budgets. Families will have to choose between higher fees or missing out. Children will miss out on better education, social and health outcomes that flow from quality early education.

We on this side of the House know that investment in early education literally lays down the foundations for life. Labor gets it. We always have and we always will. That is why we have announced that a Shorten Labor government will introduce a new national preschool and kindy program. We will commit to ongoing permanent funding for the four-year-olds’ program. There’ll be no more going cap in hand to Canberra every year for our centres. Our teachers can get on with the job and our parents can plan with certainty. For the first time, we will extend the program to three-year-olds, giving Australian children access to 15 hours of subsidised early learning in the two years before school so that they can get the best start to life.

We will also reinstate the $20 million of funding each year cut by the Liberals from our national quality agenda. The Liberal Party and the National Party might not care about quality. We know that they see early education as merely babysitting. But Labor believes that early learning centres should be safe and should deliver high-quality service, and we have a role in delivering that. Around 700,000 Australian children will benefit each and every year from our preschool and kindy program. This is the biggest investment in early childhood education.

Now, we have seen some support come from unusual quarters. In fact, it was pleasing to see the member for Bowman calling for three-year-old preschool funding, and tweeting our policy, tweeting the article that endorsed our policy. That was really wonderful to see. What he should do to go to his caucus room, put up his hand and say: ‘Could you please put four-year-old funding in the budget? Please put the money in the budget!’ If he doesn’t then he is being disingenuous to the people he’s meeting in his local area; he’s not telling them the truth about his advocacy here. He might want to go into his community and tell them one thing, but here in parliament he should stick his hand up and say, ‘Come on, Prime Minister, at least fund four-year-old kindy.’ But he hasn’t done that, and we will soon see if he does that.

We have the Minister for Education, who’s been a little silent on these issues. We know he’s been very busy intruding on academic freedom in our universities and engaging in climate change culture wars in our schools. But I would like to remind the minister he does have a day job, and that is to secure the future of our preschool program. I know that the minister may not find it easy. He may pretend to care, but, if he really cared, he would make sure that his Treasurer put this money in the budget. Time is ticking. April’s coming. The budget’s coming. He failed to do it in MYEFO. He failed to get the funding commitment in MYEFO, but he has one last chance. I don’t want to see—and I know those on this side of the House do not want to see—one year of funding in the budget, because that would be a cop-out. What we want to see and what we’ve committed to is permanent funding across the forward estimates. Anything less would show that this minister and government is no longer committed to the preschool program.

On this side of the House we see education as an investment. They see it as a cost. It is time that the minister and the government look at the evidence. The evidence is in. The community believes in this. It is time that the government finally stands up, puts our children in the centre and funds four-year-old and three-year-old kindy. Anything less is a betrayal of Australia’s children.

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Friday, 01 February 2019
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