Parliament – funding for preschools

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

We know that the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments have not been consistent on many things, but one thing they have been consistent on is their failure on preschools and preschool children. There is a long list of policy failures and neglect from this shambolic government, but their disregard for preschools is surely one of their most concerning failures. They simply refuse to provide any certainty for our preschools and they use them as pawns to inflate their budget position. We hear the same story year after year: after educators, teachers, state governments and families rally at Parliament House and rally around the country, begging for more money, the government begrudgingly roll over one-year stopgap funding to preschools. This creates massive uncertainty for preschools and kindies right across this country, but, importantly, it’s creating massive uncertainty for families. Families who want to give their children the best start to life are uncertain about where the government stands when it comes to funding for their children.

As it stands now, preschools are funded for only another year, until the end of 2019. This is convenient timing because, by funding preschools until the end of 2019 only, the government conveniently get to the other side of an election, and we know that in their forward estimates, in their own budget papers, there is no money in the budget after 2019. What does this mean? What does this mean for families and preschools? How are they able to plan for their future? I have been speaking with preschools. They want to plan for 2020. They want to enrol children now for 2020, but they can’t. They can’t because the government have failed to provide them any certainty. They can’t sign leases, they can’t recruit teachers and they do not know where their funding will come from after this year. This is not good enough. It is not good enough for the 350,000 preschoolers and their families that are constantly left in limbo by this government.

On Monday in question time, the Treasurer was asked to guarantee funding for preschools. What we got was a lot of hot air and a lot of waffle but absolutely no guarantees whatsoever—no commitment, no guarantees, nothing to give families any comfort and nothing to give our preschools and kindies any comfort at all. The government have stated on many occasions the importance of giving funding certainty to non-government schools and they have said that it is important to give them certainty for a decade. Of course, we on this side have supported that. But what we haven’t supported is the fact that, if it is good enough for non-government schools, then it is good enough for our public schools and it is good enough for our preschools. Why should there be a different standard for our preschools? The only guarantee from this government is that, for the nation’s four-year-olds, there is no money in the budget after next year. It is a simple fact. No matter what the government members will tell you, no matter what the minister wants to tell you, the truth lies in the budget papers. After calendar year 2019, there are zero dollars in the budget. There are zero dollars in the budget for 2021. There are zero dollars in the budget for 2021-22.

We know that some members of this government have trouble counting. The member for Dickson and the member for Deakin can’t always line their numbers up. But hopefully, for government members, it is not hard to understand that zero dollars for our preschools means there is no money available from the Commonwealth. And, unless this cut is reversed, every child now under the age of two will not receive preschool funding; they will not be supported by this government and their families will not be supported by this government.

The last minister for education liked to use preschool attendance data as his excuse for not committing funding to the program. He said he wanted to go and negotiate with the states and territories. I am not sure what this new minister is going to do when he walks into the states and territories meeting—that is, if it goes ahead—sits down with them and says, ‘I am here to negotiate. I am here to negotiate over zero dollars. We are not prepared to give you any money whatsoever.’ I am not sure what the reaction is going to be, but I assume that the state ministers may not turn up to that meeting.

We know on this side of the House how important quality early childhood education is. It leads to a range of better educational, social and health outcomes for children later in life. It literally lays down the foundation. The Labor Party get it. We understood this when we introduced universal access to preschool when we were in government and we understand it now. That is why we have been proud to commit to ongoing permanent funding for four-year-olds. No more will preschools and families and states have to go cap in hand to Canberra every year, begging this minister for some consideration. Our teachers and our preschools can get on with the job, and parents can have certainty that their child will access early education.

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. This is so we can give our children the best start to life. We are also going to reinstate the $20 million of funding that was cut by the Liberals that ensures there is quality in our preschools and in our early learning centres, quality that ensures that inspections and assessments take place to lift up the quality of our early learning in Australia. This is not a priority for the government. Unfortunately, without any notice, they cut this money, leaving states and territories in the lurch.

Labor is proposing one of the biggest investments in early childhood education, and many, many people think that is a great thing. The Australian Childcare Alliance said it is ‘a great outcome for Australian families’. The Early Learning Association Australia are ‘thrilled’. They said:

… after more than eight years of research and debate, early learning service providers and families will finally have some certainty …

Early Childhood Australia said it is a very welcome announcement. The Parenthood said parents will welcome this announcement. The Early Learning and Care Council of Australia said they were ‘excited about the commitment to extend access to three-year-olds from 2021’. They said:

The evidence is overwhelming that two years of access to early learning dramatically improves children’s lifelong education, health, wellbeing and employment outcomes.

Ross Gittins, in The Sydney Morning Herald, wrote:

… I can’t think of any other single initiative more likely to benefit us socially and economically.

There is only one group in Australia that does not welcome Labor’s announcement. There’s one group that has said this is too costly and not worth doing, and that is the Liberal and National government of Australia. And shame on you!

Unlike the government, we do not see early learning and investing in our children as a cost; we see it as an investment. It is happening around the world, in the UK, Ireland, France and New Zealand—in China. Everyone is acting on this, because they know it is a smart investment. They know that it is a good investment and it will lead to better outcomes. The only people who are denying our children permanent funding for four-year-olds, certainty when it comes to preschool, are the government. They are the only group in this country who refuse to understand and talk about its importance.

I invite the government, I invite the new minister: if you want a tutorial, I am happy to give you a tutorial about the benefits—the economic benefits, the benefits for families, the benefits for children and the benefits across our society. Of course, what would be best would be that he stopped his rhetoric and the government stopped denying these benefits and actually acted. I say to those opposite: join with us and give the parents of four-year-olds the certainty that they deserve; put permanent funding in the budget. There is a time coming up when you will have the opportunity to do that. It is called the MYEFO, the budget midyear statement. Put the money in so that preschools around this country have certainty and, while you’re at it, fund preschool for three-year-olds as well. That way, together, we can invest in the children of this country.

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