House debates

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Matters of Public Importance

Early Education

3:12 pm

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I have received a letter from the honourable member for Kingston proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:

The government’s failure to invest in the early years of Australian children.

I call on all honourable members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

3:13 pm

Photo of Amanda RishworthAmanda Rishworth (Kingston, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

This matter of public importance is critically important. There is nothing more important than the early education of our children, and Labor knows this. We have known this for a long time. On this side of the House, we know that quality early education leads to a range of better education, social and health outcomes. It literally lays down the solid foundation for life.

It's not just Labor that has this story to tell. There are stacks and stacks of international research that says that investing in the early years leads to a significant return later in life. Studies from the UK and the United States, for example, have shown that children who have attended preschool had significantly better reading and maths scores in primary school and better results at age 16. But we know here local data shows that preschoolers have higher language and cognition NAPLAN scores in Year 3. Of course, children who attend early learning have better success, are more likely to graduate from high school and have better social outcomes. This research confirms that the benefits are actually higher for vulnerable children.

These are the facts. Labor doesn't need convincing. That is why we have a proud history of investing in early education. Two of the many critical policies that we implemented in government were the national preschool program for four-year-olds and the National Quality Framework. The preschools program has been a critical public policy achievement. Indeed, universal access, led by Julia Gillard, has seen enrolments of four-year-olds in preschool increase from 77 per cent to 93 per cent. This is a great achievement, one that I think we should all be proud of.

We backed this preschool commitment with a national quality agenda in order to lift educational quality and safety standards in the early years. The quality framework is also a success story, with 57 per cent of services having improved their quality rating when reassessed and 75 per cent of services now meeting or exceeding the national quality standard. Australia's four-year-olds are now enjoying the benefit of universal access, and the children attending early learning centres and preschools are enjoying a play based learning environment and being educated by qualified early learning educators. This is Labor's legacy. Of course, it should be bipartisan. It should be welcomed and supported across the chamber, but it hasn't been under this coalition government.

This government has a shocking record—which continues to get worse—when it comes to early education. Since being elected in 2013 the government has refused to commit to long-term funding certainty for preschools. It has begrudgingly rolled over one-year stopgap funding for preschools, creating massive uncertainty for families, staff and the sector. At the moment our preschools right across the country are funded for only one year, until the end of the 2019 school year. How are families and preschools meant to plan for their future, enrol children, sign leases, recruit teachers, when they don't even know whether their funding is secure? This is not good enough for the future of our children. There are 350,000 preschool children and their families who are now in limbo.

The government have seen fit to give long-term certainty to our big banks, locking in tax cuts for a decade. They tell us that that is important for certainty, that it will help us give the big banks the opportunity to make profits into the future. Well, how about our young children? How about those who deserve certainty into the future? They are our future. It is time for the government to be honest with the Australian people. The minister is trying to claim that he is somehow funding preschools into the long term. That's not what the budget papers say. The budget papers are very, very clear. What they say is that there is zero, zero, zero money past 2020 for funding for early education. Now, isn't that a coincidence? That gets this government through until after an election without their having to commit to funding for early education.

We have seen the minister, who used to be a cheerleader for universal access, now crab walking away. In fact, he's looking for any excuse—every excuse—not to fund our preschools. In February, he said, 'We must improve the quality of the data.' That seems like an excuse when we're seeing success in our preschools. Then he said, 'We're not going to give the states a blank cheque.' There's never been a blank cheque when it comes to preschools. There were important agreements between the states and territories that he himself, as minister, has decided to rip up. Last week his office confirmed that the program is indeed scheduled to end in 2020. He said that he would 'iron out any policy settings into the future'. Well, that is certainly not a commitment. What does 'iron out policy settings into the future' mean? It certainly gives no comfort to preschools and long-daycare centres around Australia that are delivering high-quality education.

This is not the only cut that this government has made. When it came to the national quality agenda, state and territory services all around the country believed that this minister would come to the table and renew the agreement. What he actually did was rip up the agreement. He cut $20 million from the program. He walked away from quality in our early education centres—quality that was seeing proper checks being made, quality that was seeing improvement in our centres and quality that was keeping our children safe and giving them an excellent education. This minister ripped up that agreement and walked away. Rather than build on the successful agenda, the government has said, 'There is nothing for us to do.' What, to save $20 million a year? At the same time, they are wanting to give $17 billion to the big banks. That shows this government's priorities.

There's another fact that I think the House might be interested in. That is the fact that funding preschool costs about $440 million a year. That is the same amount that this government could find for a small philanthropic organisation. It was backed by big business, found at the back of the couch, not requested and not wanted. It was solicited by the government, in the words of the environment minister. They are willing to give away this money, ensuring that this organisation is able to get the money without even asking. Well, preschools are asking, families are asking and children are all asking this government, 'Where is our money? Will they commit to preschool? Will they commit to early education?' The signs are not good.

This minister has form. He treats early education like every other part of the education system. Whether it's cuts to schools, cuts to universities or cuts to TAFE, this minister has marked it to be cut from his own portfolio. Let me remind the House that he is so out of touch with the needs of families. He's so out of touch with what ordinary families are going through that he wanted to be congratulated when childcare fees went up by five per cent. He wanted a pat on the back. His response when he was asked about this was: 'Families can just move centres. They can just change centres.' He has no understanding about what it means to have a connection with a centre. He has no understanding of families building relationships with educators or the impact that it has on families when these prices increase.

It is time the minister commits to funding our preschools. It's time he commits to the quality agenda. If the banks need certainty, our preschools certainly do. Let's see the minister lock in money for a decade for our preschools and then we will know he is serious about early education. Until he does that, he is failing the children and families of Australia.

3:22 pm

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party, Assistant Minister for Children and Families) Share this | | Hansard source

Every child deserves to have the best start in life. We're in furious agreement with the honourable member. But the evidence and the runs on the board from across the many portfolios that look after the children of Australia, from the coalition government, are outstanding. Whether it's the education and childcare package; the preschool funding, which I'll talk about shortly; interconnected programs, like Connected Beginnings, with health and education; or in my portfolio of social services, it's outstanding.

Just to correct all of the errors in the honourable member's speech, we do agree that preschool is important. The federal coalition government has locked in $870 million for 2018 and 2019. That's benefitting 340,000 children each year. Preschool funding is locked in until January 2020. Minister Birmingham has told members of the other side repeatedly that he is negotiating with the states, as the states run most of these preschools. That funding can't be, as he mentioned, a blank cheque.

It's not a blank cheque, but there is a problem. The states get the money even if the children don't turn up. Some of the figures are astounding. The children who need the most help at preschool, in some of the most disadvantaged areas, aren't even attending. From the figures for the Northern Territory, there was only 36 per cent attendance. In South Australia, it was 38 per cent. That's amongst the most vulnerable Indigenous cohort. Of all the children in Western Australia, only 60 per cent are turning up. But the states are happy to take the money and run. We are trying to put responsibility back onto the states. Money won't help them, but children turning up at preschool will. We have no argument with those opposite about that: going to preschool before you go to school delivers enormous benefits. But we have a responsibility to the taxpayers and we have a responsibility to the children. We've got to put the states on the sticky paper and make them get children into preschool.

If those opposite are so concerned about it, how come Labor didn't commit to long-term preschool funding in their last budget? They didn't commit to preschool funding in their 2016 election plan. They're complaining today, but did they do anything in their most important document, the budget reply? There was no mention of it, despite our budget commitment of an extra $440 million in 2019.

In the Department of Social Services, we commit a billion dollars around the country—$225 million through parenting and early childhood intervention each year. There are prevention programs that try to support parents to build parenting capacity. There are 2.1 million individuals and families each year that benefit from these parenting programs, community playgroups and family relationship services. We're working on the fourth iteration of the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children. The third action plan, underway at the moment, is putting particular focus on the first thousand days of a child's life, because, if a child is thriving by five, they are set on a totally different trajectory for the rest of their life. The Connected Beginnings program is a holistic integrated early childhood initiative that is focused on remote-area Indigenous children, trying to get their health and their early childhood development correct so that they do get to preschool and then they go on to school.

But our changes to child care are probably the greatest changes to child care for a generation. There is a better-off fiscal outcome for the average family of $1,300 each year. Some children and families get much more benefit, and that's focused on children and families that work more and earn less. So it's targeted at those that need the help. We have removed the annual childcare rebate cap of $7,600 so that, if you are working and claiming, the subsidy goes straight to the childcare centre. For instance, families earning up to $187,000 will have an increased cap of $10,190. We've increased the subsidy for those earning the least, from 72 per cent to 85 per cent. That amounts to $2½ billion. That's extra money into child care. And that doesn't even take into account the safety net spend—because some children and vulnerable families do need extra support above that. The safety net ensures that grandparents with primary care of their grandchildren; foster parents; and parents undergoing medical treatment, for example, can get extra assistance, and that amounts to $1.2 billion. So, between the direct subsidy to the childcare centres and the safety net, that's $3.7 billion extra.

I know the other side won't be complaining, because I've got the figures here on the extra numbers of families, by electorate, that this will benefit. Among the electorates, the greatest beneficiary of these new changes is Lalor. The member for Lalor has 13,303 families. The next one is McEwen, another Labor seat, and then Greenway, with 9,967. Some of the other top beneficiaries are Fenner, Canberra, Kingston, Dobell, Oxley, Petrie and Rankin. So I know they won't be complaining when they actually get away from the cameras and look at the policy outcome. They'll see that this new childcare package is an absolute winner for families.

But there are also, we estimate, 230,000 families that will be able to work more. Under the old system, it was a zero-sum game for many families: you would go to work, but then your child care would take all the extra financial reward for the work. This package is making child care much more affordable, and if you are meeting the activity test you can get more support. It is such a good initiative. We've also addressed the incessant increase in childcare fees. We have capped the subsidy. In the old system, it was chewed up almost within three or four months for some people.

Ms Rishworth interjecting

The first year before school is very important—no disagreement with you on that. We have allowed the system to work so the children can get that preschool funding through the existing childcare long-daycare centre. We've had amazing take-up of this system. Over a million families are eligible for it, and there's been huge take-up. You tried to set up a protest website, but there were so few people accessing it or complaining that you closed the site down. That's an amazing change—to roll out a whole new system like this in such an efficient manner and get so many people involved.

But it is so important that you understand that the coalition government, whether it's in social services, in health or in education, are committing extra billions of dollars to the development of Australia's greatest assets, which are our children. We have no argument with you about that, but we are actually doing it. We are putting the money on the table for the states, but we are insisting that they make the families get their children to the preschool, and then they will get the fiscal assistance. It's no good just giving money to the states and finding out that it's used in some other portfolio or in some admin role. It should be in the preschool working for the child's development. The best friend child care has ever had has been the changes we have made to this system.

Historically you might have had some runs on the board, but what's happening now is so much better than the old system. I've had children in preschools, in family day care and in group day care. It is much better now. Looking at what we had to go through when my children were little and now, it is so much better now. We are allowing working mums and dads to work so that they can save hard and get ahead. That is what we are trying to do—empowering families. Life is hard if you've got a big mortgage, if you've got a big commute or if you've got big fiscal responsibilities for your family, and working is essential, and this childcare system allows them to do that. (Time expired)

3:32 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

As a parent of four young children, I've seen firsthand the benefits of early childhood education. Ensuring that all Australian children have universal access to early childhood education is vitally important to a child's development. It lays the foundations for their school education, their wellbeing and their general living standards. It's crucial that all children have some access to some form of early childhood education. It's good for a child's brain development, for their fine motor skills, for general knowledge, for musical and artistic ability and, importantly, for social skills. Any parent will tell you how much a child soaks up and learns in those early years.

It's one of the great marvels of humanity, I believe, to watch a child learn in those years zero through to five—how to use their hand-eye coordination and how to speak and communicate. It's the great marvel of modern humanity, and I don't know why any person under the sun would want to cut funding for programs that deliver that early childhood education and make it available and accessible to Australian children, particularly those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. But that is exactly what the Turnbull government is doing in risking this funding beyond 2019 and not providing certainty for the states that deliver those programs on the ground. It's a matter of deep concern to the Labor Party, because every single member of the coalition parties, the National Party and the Liberal Party, has voted for and supported a budget that does exactly that—potentially risks funding beyond 2019 to the tune of $440 million for early childhood programs throughout the country. Last week it was confirmed that the funding has not been renewed through the national preschool and kindy program.

The minister has made much of the reasons behind that, stating that this is Labor's view of what's actually going on. It's not Labor's view. It was confirmed in the media just a week or so ago. Robert Bolton, the education editor of The Australian Financial Review, stated in an article entitled 'Surprise $500m hit to preschool funding':

Preschool and early-learning education for more than a quarter of a million Australian children is under threat as the federal government prepares to cut nearly half a billion dollars of spending on the sector.

There it is in black and white. That's the view of an independent editor for education for The Australian Financial Review. So for the minister to come in here and say that that's not what's occurring is simply misleading the House of Representatives.

I want to make a name of the National Party—the minister represents a National Party area—because the Nats have this great habit. When the Turnbull government does things like cutting funding for Medicare and schools and hospitals, the Nats slink back to their communities and, when the people of the country blow up about it, they tell them: 'Oh, no! That wasn't us. We didn't vote for that. That was the Liberal Party. We don't agree with what the Liberal Party does.' But then they come back in here and, of course, that's exactly what they are doing when voting for coalition proposals and supporting these cuts that have been outlined in the budget.

This program is pretty important—350,000 preschoolers across Australia rely on this program to get a good start in life. Many of them are from disadvantaged backgrounds. They include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. When we talk about closing the gap on educational disadvantage in this country, access to preschool education is vitally important in achieving that goal. We'll have no hope of reaching that goal if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids miss out on those foundational education years.

We've seen some pretty bad decisions from the Turnbull government, but this one would have to take the cake. Labor is opposed to this because in government we established federal funding for this program. We instituted the first national preschool and kindy program agreement, which was signed by Labor in 2008, and preschool enrolment increased from 77 per cent through to the 93 per cent it is at today. That one figure alone is proof that this program is working. It's proof that this program is getting more kids into early childhood education and providing them with the foundational support they need for a good education. For this minister and this government to be risking that program by cutting that funding is despicable and must be opposed.

3:38 pm

Photo of Julian LeeserJulian Leeser (Berowra, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm particularly pleased to speak on this MPI on child care today because earlier this year I became a father for the first time. Perhaps for that reason I'm alert more than ever to the crucial importance of the early years of our children. On Friday of last week I went to see Goodstart Early Learning Child Care Centre Berowra, a centre that's been there for 20 years and provides fantastic care to the young people in my community. I got to read to some of the young kids there, I got to make pyramids, Egyptian-style, with some of the five-year-olds, and I even had one small kid lobby me for more support for farmers, showing that you're never too young to lobby your local MP.

As other speakers have said, the first few years of our children's lives are a time when they will learn more than at any other time in their lives. There is some really interesting research by Professor Heckman of the University of Chicago about the importance of those early years. During these special years there are new experiences every day. They're learning how to walk, how to talk, how to share with others and how to draw and, eventually, they're learning the first stages of reading and writing. Children are naturally curious, and childcare workers work hard to nurture that curiosity.

The Turnbull government's commitment to child care and our policies support families with young children in child care across the country. Recently we implemented our new childcare package, which increases Australia's investment in early childhood education and care by $2.5 billion over the next four years. Our policy was designed with families front and centre. Under the Turnbull government's policy, nearly a million Australian families benefit. The average Australian family is set to be better off by $1,300 a year under the childcare package. We've removed the annual childcare rebate cap of around $7,600. This ensures that low- and middle-income families aren't limited by an annual cap on their child care. Around 85 per cent of families using child care will feel the benefits of this reform over the course of a financial year.

Families earning more than around $187,000 will also benefit from an increased cap of $10,190 per child to assist with childcare costs every single year. We've increased the subsidy from around 72 per cent to 85 per cent for more than 370,000 Australian families using child care and earning less than around $67,000 a year. Due to these policies, hardworking and aspiring Australian families with children in child care are now better able to face the cost of living, especially when you combine the policies with the coalition's tax relief policies which passed in the recent sitting of the parliament. The new activities test is ensuring that taxpayer support for child care is targeted to those who depend on it in order to work or to work additional hours. It's estimated our reforms will encourage more than 230,000 families to increase their workforce participation. Incentivising Australians back into the workforce will continue to grow our economy.

Our $1.2 billion childcare safety net recognises that vulnerable children and families need extra support. For example, the family safety net ensures that grandparents with primary care of their grandchildren, foster parents, and parents undergoing medical treatments receive the support they need. Hourly rate caps have been introduced as a necessary measure to arrest incessant childcare increases. In addition to the new childcare package, the government has committed around $870 million for preschools in 2018 and 2019 to ensure more than 340,000 children each year continue to have access to 15 hours of preschool a week. That's 600 hours a year.

It's important to think about what Labor have done to improve early-childhood education and care, because this motion's been moved by those opposite. Labor have been so desperate to find failure that they set up their own protest site. But, guess what, within just a few weeks they took it down because there was no interest. They voted against our reforms and continue to snipe from the sidelines but don't have any childcare policies of their own. The reality is that the opposition voted against the 5,805 families in my electorate of Berowra who will benefit under this package.

In 2016, Labor offered only expensive election bandaids to the old, broken system which would have delivered an annual windfall of up to $176 million to families earning over $250,000, at the expense of low- to middle-income working families. Labor haven't learnt the lesson from their previous term in government. They stood by while childcare fees increased by 53 per cent under their six years of government, without taking the necessary action to fix it. We're now taking that action. Labor failed to deliver their promise to build 260 new childcare centres and end the double drop-off. We remember Kevin Rudd talking about that. They only built 38. Labor totally dropped the ball on compliance. Under Labor, in the two years to June 2013, there were no cancellations, no suspensions and only two fines issued. Compliance checks fell from 763 to 523—a paltry effort compared to this government's 4½ thousand checks in the last financial year. (Time expired)

3:43 pm

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There's much enthusiasm on this side of the House to participate in this debate. As a teacher by training, I think for many, many decades there's been a fundamental and profound understanding by anybody who works in the teaching profession—and I suspect by many parents, and the previous speaker acknowledged his new insight into education as a new parent. But there is a fundamental truth in all education, and that is: the earlier you invest, the better the return you get on that investment.

I was trained and worked as a high-school teacher and a TAFE teacher. I'm very profoundly aware that when you're working at the remedial end of education—when somebody has got to the age of 13, 14 or older without a solid foundation in the basics that they need, and they're struggling in education, you really are up against it to put in what needs to be given to that person so that they can reach their full potential. It's much more difficult and it's much more expensive to actually try to redress problems once people get to that age. The evidence is in. This isn't ideology, as the Prime Minister likes to complain that people talk about. This is evidence. There's been evidence for decades, by researchers and people in the education sphere, that, if you invest in children at the most formative time in their life—and we know that's the years from nought to five—and get them a solid educational foundation at that point in time, you are maximising their chance to succeed, not only for the rest of their educational life but also into their adult and working life.

For a long time, we've been pushing for this in this country, and I'm very pleased that the former Labor government got behind commitments to early learning, particularly for four-year-olds. Obviously, there's an interest in having this available for three- and four-year-olds, but that commitment was there for preschool for all four-year-olds. We did that because we respected the evidence and we cared about our youngest minds. We cared that every young child under the age of five had the opportunity to get on the step to education on an even footing, and that it wasn't the case that, if you happened to have a lot of money, you could buy a good-quality experience for your little ones. You probably already had an enriched home with lots of learning aids and experiences, but you would also have been able to access what were expensive preschool opportunities. We said this should be available to all children. That's an investment. It's not a cost to the budget; it's an investment in our future.

I visited the Smith Street Children's Centre last week in my own electorate. I know many colleagues, including those on the other side of the House, visited such centres last week for Early Learning Matters Week. When you see three- and four-year-olds and their excitement and the drive to learn and to be part of a great experience, it's just so inspiring, and we need to foster that. Too often we have systems that kill that off. Often by the time they got to high school, I would think: 'What have we done? We've killed that inquisitiveness and joy in learning.' We need to put more into that, and that's an investment for this nation.

So it is absolutely shocking that the government will not give a long-term commitment to that preschool opportunity. What they have been doing is rolling it over, year by year. That means that, if you go to enrol your little one in a school, you won't know whether the preschool program being run in that centre will still be available by the time your little one gets to that point, because the government won't give long-term certainty. It is, I would suggest, something that they can't just push off until after an election—which I think what's been exposed with the budget papers makes us cynical about. It's got to be a commitment. Parents and families in my electorate and the centres that I visit and the parents I talk to want to know now that this government is going to give a long-term commitment to preschool education, a long-term commitment to their kids and a long-term commitment to all of our best interests in having a really well-educated population for the future.

3:48 pm

Photo of Chris CrewtherChris Crewther (Dunkley, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak against this nonsense matter of public importance claiming that the government is failing to invest in the early years of Australian children. This is at a time when the Turnbull coalition government has been investing more and more into child care, preschool and kindy. In Dunkley, for example, there are 5,618 families who are benefitting from our new childcare package—a childcare package where nearly one million families nationwide benefit by our $2.5 billion increase in early childhood education over the next four years. For example, as part of this package, we increased the rebate to 85 per cent for 370,000 families earning below $67,000. We've also removed the annual rebate cap for low- to middle-income earners and increased the cap to $10,190 for those earning above $187,000. The typical family across Australia will be $1,300 better off per child per year. But what did Labor do? They voted against these reforms.

With preschool, as well, we've committed $870 million in 2018-19 to ensure that more than 340,000 children each year have access to 15 hours of preschool a week. Unfortunately, state and federal Labor are making disgraceful claims that we will eliminate or cut preschool funding from 2020. This is absolutely disgraceful, and it is playing political football with kids' lives. It is playing with the lives of kids, parents, educators and local preschool operators and staff, who continue to contact my office because of these false claims. As the father of a daughter who'll be four in 2020 and who'll use preschool in that year, I am particularly disturbed by these false claims. It is incorrect that the federal government won't be funding kinders from 2020, nor are there any cuts in place. The fact is that the current national partnership agreement ends in 2020. But that just means a new partnership agreement is, and will be, negotiated with the states and territories and put in place before then for 2020 onwards. In this new partnership agreement, we are focusing on incorporating measures to encourage greater levels of preschool attendance.

Unfortunately, as I've noted, the state Labor government, along with federal Labor here, has put out information claiming that the end of one partnership agreement means the end of funding. That is simply not true. As I've said, not only is the government interested in continuing and enhancing this funding, but I am interested too. I am interested as a person who spoke of the critical importance of early childhood education in my maiden speech. I am interested as a person who, through my own initiative, has been recently delivering books from local Frankston author Jeannette Rowe with a message to not only childcare operators but parents at preschools, kindergartens and childcare centres to promote early education and early reading. And I am interested as a person who has supported an organisation called 123Read2Me in my electorate, which is a local charity giving free books to those in need, promoting early childhood reading. I've helped them fund a new car to help them deliver free books to children in need. I am passionate about early childhood education at all the places I've visited—preschools, kindergartens and childcare centres—particularly in the last few weeks but throughout all my time as the member for Dunkley.

So this MPI is a continual scare campaign, and it is utterly disgraceful. As Minister Birmingham has said for months, we extended the national partnership to give us time to develop a new funding model from 2020 onwards that addresses the serious attendance issues with the current model, where one in three children don't attend for the full 15 hours, with non-attendance even worse amongst children in high-disadvantage cohorts. It seems that those opposite are not as caring as we are about attendance at preschool. We will work with the states and territories to make sure that future agreements address these serious issues around attendance in preschool so that children are prepared for a flying start at school.

The member for Kingsford Smith referred to TheAustralian Financial Review having confirmed the budget paper. These are points that the minister actually sent through at the time, noting that this is not true. The story has actually been running for months across Australia as various union groups try to push it with local newspapers. 'That's a saving of more than $440 million,' it said. No— (Time expired)

3:53 pm

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We're about to have the sixth year of the coalition government—next month, I think it is.

Opposition Member:

An opposition member interjecting

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I know it seems like 60, but they're only starting their sixth year of government! And we've seen policy after policy after policy that has benefited the top end of town and has forgotten working Australians, middle-class Australians and those who care about an egalitarian Australia. But this decision, in terms of national preschools and kindy programs, is taking bad policy to a newer, lower level. Unbelievable! It's almost like they don't care about education. Remember when Prime Minister Turnbull used to talk about his good schoolmate Mr Gonski? I take you back to the Gonski expert panel that looked at education and the benefits thereof. This was from a banker who looked at it from an economic point of view and more broadly—there were other people on the panel. He showed that it's the best investment, better than giving money to the top end of town and hoping it magically trickles down when it has not done so in any developed or undeveloped economy anywhere in the world.

We know that investing in education is a good investment, and I repeat the comment from the member for Cunningham: the earlier you invest, the better your return. We need to get it right. Like the member for Cunningham, I was a teacher. That was more than 20 years ago. I can tell you this about my understanding of teaching: you mostly direct your attention at the middle of the class. You do need to prod the unmotivated when you can. Obviously, you don't want to hold back the talented, and, if you can, you give them a boost, but they teach themselves. I shouldn't say that, but that's the reality of the brightest kids. Most importantly, you need to give a helping hand to those that are challenged, to bring them up to the middle, to help them along. There are all sorts of reasons that a kid can be finding a classroom difficult: you need to find what works for that particular kid. If you can give an extra boost to young kids, it'll make life so much easier for the primary school teachers. I was a secondary school teacher. It will be easier for them and, as the member for Cunningham said, for the university and TAFE teachers of the future. This is money well spent.

To have a policy where the government is effectively walking away from 350,000 Australian preschoolers, so that they will miss out on the advantages of early education, is unbelievable, in the face of all of the research, all of the data, all of the literature—all of the evidence. All the Prime Minister needs to do is talk to his schoolmate, Mr Gonski. I don't know about the Prime Minister's education. It seems to have been a little bit difficult. Perhaps his chauffeur was teased by the other chauffeurs or something like that, because he doesn't seem to talk about his educational experience. If he spoke to Mr Gonski, he would know that this is money worth investing. The benefits will flow. Economic benefits will flow. In the past 10 years, what has happened with preschool enrolment? It has increased from 77 per cent to almost 93 per cent. That's good, hard, empirical data. And why did that happen? Mainly because of the work of Labor. I particularly mention the member for Adelaide, who has been tireless in this, and who persisted with the hard details to make sure that all children had access to a good preschool education. I wish her well in her new endeavours, whatever they might be. She has made a significant contribution to the Australian community.

In the face of this mountain of evidence, what do we see? We see this government, under Prime Minister Turnbull, decide to rip $440 million away from preschool funding. In a tight budget situation, $440 million might seem like a lot. However, on a whim, the Prime Minister was able to find $444 million in the space of nine days and hand it over to basically outsource the process of looking after the Great Barrier Reef. I'm not taking anything away from the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. They do good work and they're worth supporting. But we need to have a proper process. We know from Gonski and beyond, and all that study, that investing in education gives you a return. Who knows what Nobel prizes could have been won—maybe into studying the reef—if we'd invested in that early childhood education? Incredible! There are two different approaches to $444 million that the Prime Minister can take: he has a chance to help out 350,000 Australian pre-schoolers, or to hand it to the top end of town. And what does he do?

3:58 pm

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On 2 July, we implemented a new childcare package, so it's probably important that we focus on the facts—something that seems to get lost in so many of these debates. The new package increased Australia's investment in early childhood education and care by $2½ billion over the next four years. Nearly one million Australian families will benefit. The typical Australian family is better off to the tune of about $1,300 per child per year. That's a fact. And these facts aren't in dispute. We've removed the annual childcare rebate cap of around $7,600 to ensure low- and middle-income families aren't limited by an annual cap on their child care. Around 85 per cent of families using child care will feel the benefits of this reform over the course of this financial year alone. Families earning more than $187,000 will also benefit from an increased cap of $10,190 per child to assist with childcare costs every year. We've increased the subsidy from around 72 per cent to 85 per cent for more than 370,000 families using child care and earning less than $67,000 a year. So I'm not too sure where the member for Kingston's MPI, 'The government's failure to invest in the early years of Australian children', actually comes from. I would have thought an extra $2.5 billion is a fair investment in the early years of Australian children, but perhaps the Labor Party's mathematics and mine don't quite add up somehow.

The new activity test is ensuring that taxpayers' support for child care is targeted to those who depend on it in order to work or to work additional hours. It's estimated our reforms will encourage more than 230,000 families to increase their workforce participation, and I would have thought that's a good thing. Our $1.2 billion Child Care Safety Net recognises vulnerable children and families that need extra support. For example, the safety net ensures that grandparents with primary care of their grandchildren, foster parents and parents undergoing medical treatment receive the support they need.

Hourly rate caps have been introduced as a necessary measure to arrest incessant child care fee rises—$11.77 for centre based day care, $10.90 for family day care and $10.29 for outside-school-hours care. In addition to the new childcare package, the government has committed around $870 million for preschoolers in 2018-19 to ensure that more than 340,000 children each year continue to have access to 15 hours of preschool a week. I just can't seem to find the failure to invest in the early years of Australian children. All I'm seeing is an extra $2.5 billion, an extra series of money, going to those less well-off. I can't seem to find the failure to invest.

Labor's desperate to find failure, even when it's not there. They even set up their own protest website, but I can't seem to find that either. It seems it's been taken down, because there was no protest. It is funny that, when $2.5 billion extra is provided and one million families benefit, there is an absence of protest! In fact, I can't even see the member for Kingston here. Is she here somewhere? I'm speaking to my colleagues. It's her MPI; it's her matter of public importance and she's legged it. I guess it's not that important to the member for Kingston, is it?

Photo of Madeleine KingMadeleine King (Brand, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

She's too busy!

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Really? She's too busy, I hear back there—she's far too busy to turn up to her own matter of public importance. That says everything we need to know, doesn't it? It's a complete and utter stunt and, dare I say, a lie—not that Labor knows anything about Labor lies. Unbelievable: the Labor Party voted against these reforms and then the shadow minister comes in to complain about lack of investment and doesn't bother to turn up. It says everything.

The opposition voted against 8,739 families in my electorate. In 2016 Labor offered only expensive election bandaids to the old broken system—a system that saw childcare fees under those opposite increase by 53 per cent. Facts hurt. They are not in dispute. I was here when those opposite offered 260 new childcare centres. They were going to get rid of the double drop-off. I was here; 10 years ago we were offered that. Only 38 were built, and there we are: they completely and utterly dropped the ball. What a joke of an MPI!

4:03 pm

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Batman, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise again to speak on this very important issue: the government's abject failure to invest in the early years of our kids. Last week was Early Learning Matters Week, and I was horrified that the Turnbull government chose that week to confirm that it is refusing to commit to funding for the national kindergarten program. It's clear they intend to walk away from the 350,000 kinder kids across Australia, including, I might add, 2,500 in my electorate of Batman, who rely on this program. In fact, they are going to cut $444 million from the sector a year after the next election is due.

There is a mountain of research, data and literature which shows the positive educational, social, health and emotional benefits of a quality universal preschool program. Preschools are one of the public policy success stories of the last decade. Since the first agreement was signed by Labor in 2008, preschool enrolment has increased, as we heard from previous speakers, from 77 per cent to over 93 per cent. Of all the cuts the Liberals have made in the last five years, this is surely one of the most cynical and the worst. This is on top of the damaging childcare subsidy changes, which will affect those who can least afford it.

In my electorate we have so many wonderfully diverse early learning centres, from Thornbury Kinder to the Keon Park Children's Hub, the Annie Dennis Children's Centre to the Yappera Children's Service, who provide early education to our First Nations community. These centres are all incredibly unique but unified in two things: (1) the educators are passionate about the value of early learning, as they work in this sector not for the measly amount of money they earn but rather because of their passion for educating our young kids and caring for their entire families, and (2) they are incredibly concerned about the government's unwillingness to commit to kinder funding and the stress that the childcare subsidy changes is causing to families. Just this morning at an AEU information session we heard from three wonderful early childhood educators—all women, I might add, as the industry is a female dominated one, which brings a whole gendered aspect to this debate. The stories and experiences of these women were remarkable, from stark anecdotal evidence of the benefits they see and deliver every single day to their charges, to the rock-solid research that underpins the vital nature of early learning.

Thornbury Kindergarten in my electorate, led by Danielle Logan, prepared a petition to the government, which was signed by educators and parents, calling on the government to provide certainty for kindergarten funding. They get right to the heart of the matter, and I'd like to read a section from the petition to you:

As you are aware, since 2013, the federal government has offered only temporary funding for their contribution towards funding 4 year old kindergarten. This is unacceptable.

For the last five years, teachers, educators, families, employer groups and the Australian Education Union have needed to campaign to retain 15 hours of kindergarten for 4 year old children.

For the last five, years teachers and educators have had no job security. For the last five years, families have had no security for their child's kindergarten education. We need to fix this.

We on this side of the House get it. I especially do. As I told the House yesterday, I have twin girls, who are now 30, but they actually failed kindergarten. It was their early childhood educator who identified that they simply weren't ready to go to school and would benefit greatly from another year. I am eternally grateful to that early childhood educator for alerting me to this, and my girls, who get teased mercilessly about failing kindergarten, went on to do very well at school and have become teachers themselves.

My kids went to kinder in our local area—Clyde Street Kindergarten, actually. It gave them social and education skills to get them school ready. All kids deserve this opportunity, especially disadvantaged kids, as early education means their future holds more opportunities and choices, like finishing school, getting a decent job, and fulfilling their hopes and dreams. Today, along with the parents in my community, early educators, unions, grandparents and many kids themselves, I call on the government to fix the mess they have created. What could be more important than equalising opportunity right from the start by providing early education to all our kids?

4:08 pm

Photo of Sussan LeySussan Ley (Farrer, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to speak on the MPI. Policy reform is very difficult. In the area of childcare policy Labor has introduced no reform for at least six years—probably even nine; time gets away. I can remember that in opposition and then in government all the Labor Party did was criticise the reform process that the National and Liberal parties undertook—that is, to have a Productivity Commission investigation and look at how we can support the most families accessing child care and early learning for parents returning to work and for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and at the same time have a strong, viable sector. We were always there for the children. We always are there for the children.

Labor, unfortunately, is there for the childcare unions, to some extent the educators, and to some extent the political argument. Make no mistake: we support the educators too. We value what they do. We know that early learning is not babysitting. We're absolutely on board with all of that. All I have ever heard from the Labor Party when it comes to childcare policy is negatives, negatives, negatives, but never one single positive policy. I'm not saying they didn't exist; I'm just saying I could never see them and still haven't seen them in this MPI. Most of the speakers have talked about the universal access to preschool, which is a national partnership agreement between the Commonwealth and the states. It has nothing to do with the childcare rebate that we pay to parents to support them when they go back to work or where they have their children educated in early learning. It's a completely different proposition. It has been wheeled into every single argument.

There's been a lot of nonsense talked about the minister and the budget papers. There has been no recognition of the facts, which were that the national partnership agreement was extended by us—it was extended by me as childcare minister—because it ran out. Like all national partnership agreements, it ran out. Conveniently, the Labor Party latched on to it as if it was a continuing agreement. We funded it. We continued it. Remember, child care and early learning are the preserve of the Commonwealth government through the subsidy support rebates we provide. Preschool is the preserve of the state governments, because it belongs in the school system. But we helped bridge that gap. The current minister—who undertook the very, very difficult reforms that came out of the Productivity Commission review—extended that national partnership agreement on universal access to preschool until 2019 and worked with the states and territories to make sure it was rolled out properly and to make sure every child who was entitled to get that got the support that they needed. It isn't just about handing money to the states. I can assure the Labor Party that if they ever get into government they won't be doing it either; they will be wanting results.

Getting back to the actual childcare reform itself, the difficult proposition was this: childcare fees were going up and the rebate was going up. There was an inflationary component in that. If you're operating a childcare centre and you know the rebate for your parents is going up, you might continue to put your fees up. We saw some really incredible price spikes. What we also saw was the maximum rebate going to parents on the maximum income. That didn't make any sense, because we know that the parents on the higher incomes sometimes can afford to pay a little bit more. I'm not making judgements about every family. Every family deserves support, and they get it through this government's childcare package. What we've done is increase the subsidy from around 72 per cent to 85 per cent for the more than 370,000 families using child care and earning less than $67,000 a year. Do not lecture us about withdrawing money from child care and about not supporting parents. It's that group of parents who are probably entering the workforce, who have got all sorts of bills happening around them and who have incomes of $67,000, and we've increased the subsidy by more than 10 per cent for them.

What we've done is make ourselves pretty unpopular with some people on the higher incomes, who were used to the ever-increasing childcare rebates. We've made ourselves pretty unpopular, but we've made the hard decisions. Senator Birmingham, as the childcare minister, has made the hard decisions. He has worked this policy through and has presented it to Australian families. Obviously, there were issues at the beginning, but I'm surprised at how small in number those issues have been. The activation that the Labor Party has desperately tried to get from all of the childcare unions and everyone else to speak against our policy has failed miserably, just like their childcare policy did.

Photo of Kevin HoganKevin Hogan (Page, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The discussion is now concluded.