Tasmania Talks – child care policy and investment in Tasmanian early learning

Thursday, 17 March 2022

MIKE O’LOUGHLIN, HOST: Federal Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education and Development, Amanda Rishworth, is in Tassie at the moment. So, let’s find out what she’s up to. Amanda, good morning. Thank you for your time this morning and welcome to Tasmania.

AMANDA RISHWORTH, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT: Well, it’s great to be here and great to be with you, Mike.

O’LOUGHLIN: And I know that you’re in Queenstown, what’s the weather like? And you’ve spoken to my mate down there as well. So, what’s it looking like in Queenstown as we speak?

RISHWORTH: It’s absolutely blue skies. I’m looking out over Mount Owen, and there are just blue skies, a few clouds, but it is absolutely beautiful today.

O’LOUGHLIN: So, one of the main issues on your radar at the moment is the costs associated with child care – tell us about that.

RISHWORTH: Look, people have been talking to me a lot around the country about the rising cost of child care. Nationally, out of pocket costs went up by 6 per cent last year – that is way more than inflation. And what people are telling me is these costs have been going up over a significant period of time. But what that actually means for some families is that children are often locked out of access to early education and care. But also, a lot of parents just can’t go back to work. They can’t go back to work, they can’t do the hours they want to work, because it just doesn’t make financial sense if you take child care costs into consideration.

O’LOUGHLIN: And would you have had a look too at the amount of how many Tasmanian kids in child care, wouldn’t you?

RISHWORTH: Look, I don’t have the figures off the top of my head. But there are a lot of children –

O’LOUGHLIN: 13,820.

RISHWORTH: There you go, 13,820 families using child care. Look, there could be a lot more if child care was actually cheaper. And we know there is two benefits to childcare. As I mentioned, obviously helping families get back to work, but also ensuring that kids get early education. In addition to that, many more children use, for example, after school hours care. And that’s also getting more expensive, but also harder to find out here in Tasmania, and so accessibility is a big issue as well for after school hours care.

O’LOUGHLIN: So can you give us some examples? I mean, touch on more if you can, expand on how much Tasmanian families are paying for child care currently.

RISHWORTH: Well, it really varies from centre to centre. It can range from anything from $100 a day up to $110 – $120 a day. Of course, you do get currently government subsidies for that. But what I’m hearing from parents is that government subsidy, which is based on how much you earn and how much you work, isn’t really keeping up with the increased cost of child care. So that subsidy isn’t going up in fact, and so families are struggling with that cost. $110- $120 a day is quite a lot, some are lower than that, some are around the $70 – $80 a day, but if you want to work full time, or even a few more days a week or a few more hours, that really starts to add up.

O’LOUGHLIN: You’ve got to admit the way things are going with fuel – because we’re talking families that are doing it tough. Families that need to buy the groceries, pay the bills, and none of those are getting any cheaper, let’s face it. I understand someone called into the program saying he just drove past the shell service station in Newstead and unleaded was to $241.9 a litre. Now you’re talking child care, but how can people even afford to drive the kids to child care?

RISHWORTH: Well, look, obviously petrol prices have been out of control for some time, and things in the Ukraine have made those worse. And that petrol is rising, increasing. Of course that is very, very difficult for families, along with the other cost of living pressures. But child care regularly comes out as one of the things that have gone up the highest. Time and time again when the ABS figures come out, it is always above the CPI level, and it has been for some years. So, in terms of family budgets for those people working, absolutely fuel is out of control, the cost of groceries are going up, and child care is up there as one of the most expensive things.

O’LOUGHLIN: Also, let’s talk since the Liberals were elected in 2013, child care fees, I guess, have certainly risen, but they’ve no plan to end the pattern. But that can be due to a lot of those commercial companies as well that don’t tend to be well let’s say friendly to the family.

RISHWORTH: That’s exactly right. And that’s why Labor has said that we’re going to implement two parts of our policy to control the cost of child care. First is we’re going to increase that subsidy that families get. But you’re absolutely right, we need to look at a serious price regulation mechanism when it comes to childcare –

O’LOUGHLIN: Absolutely.

RISHWORTH: We’ve also said we will have the ACCC look at price regulation in the child care area. Because you’re absolutely right, we don’t want to see – if we are increasing the subsidies that government, and under Labor we will increase the subsidies that families get, and the percentage of fees that are covered – we don’t want to see that eaten up in profits. So, we’re serious about tackling that with a price regulation mechanism. That hasn’t happened yet and that really needs to happen.

O’LOUGHLIN: Because Amanda, I personally and those listening to this program would like to see families better off in anyway, shape, or form. And obviously, with an election coming up, a Budget to be called I’m sure that’ll be called sooner than later – it has to be obviously – so that’ll be very interesting when Frydenberg goes through that. But if you can talk us through, because it’s coming up, let’s hear Labor’s cheaper child care plan. Follow it through for us so we can give people an opportunity. Tell us what your – well, Labor’s plan is.

RISHWORTH: Absolutely. So, at the moment those on the lowest income get an 85 per cent subsidy, we are lifting that to a 90 per cent subsidy. But also, as you go across all the income levels, we’re going to be increasing the subsidy for families, for children. On average, it really varies depending on your income and your activity, but there’ll be a number of families that will be in the thousands of dollars better off as a result of Labor’s plan.

But in addition to that, we want to look at how we regulate the price, as well as have transparency in the childcare system. If companies are making profits on child care, they will need to publish both profits ,along with what fees they’re charging, and actually what quality they are offering. So, we think that transparency is really important. But ultimately, we want to get child care to an essential service. And that means we want to look at how we move to a 90 per cent universal subsidy model, but we cannot do that without actually having some price regulation and price controls.

So that’s one of Labor’s important areas we want to address. But here in Tasmania, we’ve also been talking about how we invest in the physical family infrastructure. So in Queenstown, for example, today we will be announcing money to help improve the outdoor base of the child care centre here. It’s one of the only services on the west coast and they deserve an investment in their facility. In Zeehan, we visited the local kids club there that provides after school activities for children and playgroup to support parents. So, we announced that we would put some funding into that service. In addition to our broader cheaper child care plan, we also want to invest in the infrastructure that supports these services that are very isolated, that are doing an amazing job in supporting children and families. And so, we’re making some announcements in individual services about that as well.

O’LOUGHLIN: Are those announcements – the $50,000 for the Queenstown child care service, the $5,000 for the Bernie Community House and the $3,240 for the Zeehan Playgroup – all of that on condition you get in?

RISHWORTH: That’s correct, along with an investment of $50,000, for example, in Launceston at the playgroup there run by Playgroup Tasmania. They are commitments – the Federal Government doesn’t actually have this type of funding made available, so it would require the election of a Labor government. as well as our cheaper child care plan, to be able to implement these things.

O’LOUGHLIN: And working with the ACCC, that is so necessary.

RISHWORTH: Absolutely. And what we’ve seen is there has been some that have been able to keep their fees low, because they haven’t been trying to make money, but there’s some definitely that we need to put the brakes on.

O’LOUGHLIN: Also, I gather there’s quite a bit of commitments you’re making, hence we love a federal election, the money comes out from wherever. But you’ve got north west families benefiting for, I believe it’s an investment in the Warawyn Early Learning Centre as well?

RISHWORTH: Yeah, the Warawyn Early Learning Centre, I visited that yesterday. They’ve just seen a boom in terms of demand, they’ve got 28 babies waiting for a place. So, these families are obviously families that need to go back to work, they want to go back to work, but the facility is just not big enough. I think there was 11 toddlers, and number of kindy kids. So, the waitlist there is huge. The staff do an amazing job, but the facility itself cannot take any more children. And so, our $1.3 million commitment there is to help the council expand that facility, because there’s clearly families that want to go back to work. I mean, in today’s day and age, most families need two people working to make ends meet, as you pointed out, with all those cost of living pressures. So, to not be able to go back to work when you want to go back to work, because you can’t get a place or you can’t afford it, is just not good enough in this day and age. So, we made a commitment there to really help that service increase its capacity.

O’LOUGHLIN: Amanda, as we touched on at the start, the cost of living is absolutely shaping up to be one of the biggest election issues for the upcoming federal election. I mean, child care obviously is right there as top of the list, but that’s the – I mean every politician of colour, creed I don’t care where or from needs to promise big things to get up to get across the line. In this regard, you’re seeming – $50,000 seems to be a favourite with you because even what PlayConnect, you’ve got a $50,000 investment for Playgroup Tasmania’s facilities as well?

RISHWORTH: Yes, that’s correct. PlayConnect, we went and visited that as well to see how families have been, many of those families just walk down to the PlayConnect site, they are in Launceston and COVID has been really isolating for them. So to come and connect there, and to be able to meet other parents has been really important. Once again, that building looks like it’s about to fall down. It really does need some love and care there. And so, we’ve committed that, along with I believe the State Government has given them a grant as well, to upgrade that building. That’s an example of real need.

But the cost of living is a really big issue for families, whether it’s petrol, or whether it’s energy prices, it is really tough. And look Labor’s already announced a number of things around obviously, child care, around how we can bring our energy prices down and particularly electricity prices. And I know that Anthony Albanese will have more to say on the this. But there are other areas as well, we’ve got to get wages moving again, real wages are declining in this country, and we need to get real wages moving again as well.

O’LOUGHLIN: Well if you’ve got other commitments tell us more about that. I mean, we really need to know from federal pollies what is going to be promised. Now tell me about education for primary, and that being the childhood education development, but surely primary school. You look at NAPLAN for example, I mean, how disappointing that is, I do believe they’re changing next year to an earlier time so that students can go do the NAPLAN test earlier, so teachers can actually realise if there’s any difficulties, to work on them earlier.

RISHWORTH: Look, you’re absolutely right. And actually, it does start with early education because when you think about it, 90 per cent of the brain is formed before your five years of age. So, you know getting in early and when we talk about accessing early education and child care, it isn’t just to help families get back to work, it is about helping those early years. But of course, when it comes to primary school, we do need to invest in primary school. Labor has announced a number of policies, including helping with getting facilities up to scratch, and investing in facilities. Because of course, teacher quality is really important, but allowing teachers to have facilities that are state of the art is also really important to allow them to best do their job. And we’ve also announced some money around COVID and recovering from COVID. When I’m out there talking, a lot of students have disengaged during COVID. They’ve fallen behind, and there are certainly kids that have fallen through the cracks. We need to make sure that they’re in a mentally healthy place to learn, and investing in that is it really important as well. So, we’ve announced a couple of policies around that area as well, in ensuring we’re investing in our schools to catch up from the disconnect. Mental health of young people is on the rise as a result of COVID, and it was bad before, but it’s certainly on the rise now. So, we need to make sure kids are in a good mental space so that they can learn as well.

O’LOUGHLIN: And masks in schools. I mean, we realistically, here we are we’re spiking, we’re probably up to worse than we were some time back with Omicron. Well, brother of Omicron, BA2 the situation is now people aren’t wearing the mask, that’s fine if people don’t want to. But what about schools, we need to continue wearing masks, and that’s the reality masks are going to be something we need to probably not take away. We probably need to sort of mandate in greater areas in regard to education.

RISHWORTH: Well look, I’ll leave the recommendations around masks to the health professionals. Certainly when we see a spike in COVID, the health professionals might change their settings. I usually try not to give the medical advice, but I always encourage people to look at what the medical professionals are saying and try and take that on board. And masks in schools differ from State to State, I am aware of that. But you know, we certainly in South Australia have seen a spike in our schools, which is also very disruptive when you have to go into isolation, very disruptive. So, I think we can’t assume that COVID is kind of over in terms of the disruption, particularly in schools. Certainly in my state of South Australia we’ve seen quite a number of kids go into isolation, and that certainly disrupted schooling as well.

O’LOUGHLIN: I know with the election in South Australia on the up and up. Listen I’ve just had an email from Natalie, Amanda, who says on the issue of child care – with a subsidy, the cost of childcare once you have more than one child means that it’s not really worth going back to work. I’m a high school teacher but I haven’t worked since mid 2017. I’m due to have my third child, my oldest just started kinder this year. If I went back to work, most of my wage will be eaten up by the cost of child care. You end up asking yourself, why would I leave my baby to be looked after by someone else when there’s no real financial benefit? Better if I just stayed home and look after them myself. I did consider sending my kids for a couple of days a week so I could work casually for my own mental health, but I couldn’t get a place for them because priority is given to parents already working, which is fair enough. If government wants to get women back to work, they really do need to make child care more affordable and accessible. That’s from Natalie.

RISHWORTH: Look Natalie, that’s absolutely right. And that’s exactly what Labor’s plan is planning to do. Both in the short term to really lift that subsidy level for families right across the board, and in addition then look at how we move to a 90 per cent universal subsidy. I think what we’ve got to do when it comes to child care is stop looking at it as a welfare measure. It is not a welfare measure, it as a productivity measure, it’s an education measure. And we’re missing out on Natalie’s skills. I mean, she might want to stay home and that’s absolutely her choice. But if she wants to go back and work and not face that financial disincentive, we’re actually missing out on her skills as a high school teacher. And that’s really disappointing. So, we are missing out on a whole lot of skills across our economy if we don’t make child care cheaper. And it’s not just good for the individual family, it’s actually good for the whole economy if we actually leverage some of those skills that are out there.

O’LOUGHLIN: And it’s interesting having a Federal Election coming up. It’s nice to see politicians coming along and saying here’s what we promise if we get in. What I’m finding interesting though, and I know that your boss Anthony Albanese has been accused of this, but how do you feel about pork barrelling accusations? I mean, the electorates held by a range of parties and independents that seem to be getting their fair share of promises here in favour of Labor seats, especially the electorates, getting ahead of this election that are struggling. We’re talking your Brandon, your Bass, your Lyons, these are the situations. So how are you finding that? I mean, a lot of people are thinking “here we go, the pork barrelling has started”.

RISHWORTH: Look I have to say, I think there is a real difference between getting a colour coded spreadsheet and working out which of the sporting facilities we’re going to invest on based on just winning votes or just buying votes, or car parks that never actually get built. I mean, if you have a look at the announcements we’ve made, they have clearly demonstrated that there is need, but it’s also in partnership with councils, with the state governments. So, if you’ve seen some of the commitments that we’ve made, whether that’s the PlayConnect commitment in Launceston that’s already got a commitment from the State Governments, the child care centre we’re joining today in Queenstown that’s run by a group supported by local council. It’s these types of investments that are based on need. There’s clearly need out here, and I think when you do it, you’ve got to work in partnership with local council. I don’t think that can be accused of pork barrelling. I think when we talk about pork barrelling, it really is when it’s just sort of putting a line on a spreadsheet, saying “yeah I’ll find this”, as opposed to clearly understanding the need in the community.

O’LOUGHLIN: Well said, but it doesn’t change my opinion, but I do appreciate it. I think also, we’ve got to start looking at the other side of it. And it’s probably not your portfolio, but pensioners, the pensioners went up by $20 a fortnight for singles $30 for couples. It doesn’t help with a tank full of gas does it?

RISHWORTH: Oh, definitely. The cost-of-living pressures are right across the board. And you know, pensioners definitely do it tough. I’ve talked to a lot of pensioners myself. And you know, it isn’t unfortunately my portfolio, but certainly I’m very, very aware of the cost living pressures that they face.

O’LOUGHLIN: Amanda Rishworth is in Queenstown at the moment, the Federal Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education and Development. I thank you for your time and enjoy your time on the beautiful west coast.

RISHWORTH: Thank you so much and thanks for having me.

ENDS

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