Tuesday, 19 February 2019
Matters of Public Importance
Early Childhood Education: Preschool Funding
It's an important debate that we are having today. The nation should be listening because it's such an important topic. The member for Longman and I chair the bipartisan friends of early education, and obviously you'd expect that strong bipartisan approach to education to fray slightly just months away from an election, so today is an important opportunity for us to cast the looking glass over the two party policies.
You can anticipate also that there's been a little bit of a struggle for Labor in the last few months as both health policy under Minister Greg Hunt and school policy under Minister Tehan slowly evaporated as far as the scare campaign goes. When you're scrounging around for that scare campaign, as Labor always does and always will before every federal election from opposition—the Labor party must come up with a scare campaign. They have to identify one because that is their only path to victory, so we suspect that it may well be early education. Already we are seeing them scurrying around, looking for that scare campaign, wandering into ununionised early education centres and trying to sign people up to United Voice. The best way to do that is a scare campaign.
Let's go through the details, knowing that, for a long time, in fact for a generation, we have had a national partnership for universal access to early childhood education that has been signed off. I know truth is painful but slowly but surely what federal governments from both sides of the political fence have done is drag state governments into a focus on coverage of the population. This is fundamentally an area funded by state governments. When you hear people on the other side of this chamber lamenting that the Liberals don't do this and that, this is a state government responsibility for which, historically, the federal government has increased its contribution over time but it was always a top-up. If you go to childcare centres, you won't hear the Labor Party MPs admitting that the federal contribution to the universal access national partnership agreement was a top-up and it topped up the hours from the traditional 10 a week to 12 and then to 15.
I don't mind having one foot on the sticking paper. Like history teaches us, the federal government will take more and more of a role in this area over time. There is no disagreement about that due to vertical fiscal inequity. But in reality we just need a modicum of honesty in this debate—that is, that the feds, both Liberal and Labor, have always tried to pull the state governments into a broader approach, where the disadvantaged cohorts in our towns and cities go to childcare in first place.
There is no point increasing childcare access to the age of one month if the people who need to be in childcare don't go. And the great challenge in Australia is that the most disadvantaged populations aren't showing up and that's been a federal focus, not just for this side, not just for this colour—and I know you have got short memories—but it was for their government when those opposite were in power as well.
We know that 40 per cent of disadvantaged kids simply never show up to early education. We know that 45 per cent of Indigenous children don't get to child care at all. There's no point releasing the beast of three-year-old childcare on to the nation without a plan for decent coverage. You have got to have coverage. And let's look for the evidence because there are plenty of commentators out there. The Mitchell Institute said that preschool education adds to childhood education—there is no doubt about that—but, if the most disadvantaged children aren't attending, it simply can't happen.
I would like to table the OECD data which no-one over there has read. It shows that in nations like Germany, France and Belgium, there are significant benefits to a second year of child care and to adding in education at preschool level. The problem is it's not in Australia. Early education for three-year-olds doesn't appear in the PISA data. Have a look at the OECD data: it's a seven point benefit on PISA, based on the recollection of 15-year-olds, and adjusted for social economics. The benefit of a second year of early education—and you can see they are all stunned over there—is a humble one PISA point benefit. An Australian early education sits proudly with Ireland, Latvia, Brazil, Montenegro, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey in demonstrating no benefit whatsoever to a second year of preschool. There reason is because those who have the greatest need don't attend. They don't show up because the states haven't found a way to get them there. It's easy in universal childcare, social welfare economies like northern Europe. Everyone routinely does it. But Australia has the highest rate of households that are intergenerationally welfare dependent that do not access child care. Until they do, you will not see the educational benefits that the Mitchell Institute trumpets.