House debates

Tuesday, 28 November 2023

Grievance Debate

Early Childhood Education

7:04 pm

Photo of Josh BurnsJosh Burns (Macnamara, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Over the past few months, I have seen just how important our early education system is, not only for the services that it provides for our youngest Australians but for the community as well. Since coming to government, early education has been a real priority of the Albanese government. It's looking to make it more affordable for families, looking to make sure that women who are working are not disincentivised by the cost of early education and looking to make sure that those women seeking to work full time, and any other parent, are able to do so in a way where that extra day's pay, or extra couple of day's pay, is not completely eaten up by the cost of early education.

Early education is also so essential for our youngest Australians. We know that the impact it has on our youngest Australians is profound. We know the social skills, the education skills, the interactions and the life lessons, and the brain development that occurs in those early years, are fundamental. In July we made early education more affordable for around 1.2 million Australian families. We made a commitment to the Australian people to deliver on early education, and we are doing just that.

Under the plan for cheaper child care, the government has lifted the maximum childcare subsidy rate, and this has improved the cost of early learning and dropped the costs for families. We understand the importance of valuing and recognising our early educators. They are incredibly skilled, hardworking and dedicated professional Australians, and we know the impact that they have on our youngest Australians as well. We have helped to deliver the industrial relations settings that will lead to more significant pay rises for our early educators. We are funding university for early education teachers and fee-free TAFE. We know they're doing vital work, we know they do an important job, and we're going to make sure that they are paid accordingly.

These are the broad settings and the context that I provide for my remarks in this debate tonight. We know how important early education is and we know that it is important that governments work together to deliver these services. But I want to talk about something that's going on in my own community of Macnamara right now.

The city of Glen Eira is one of my municipalities. It's the municipality that I grew up in and have spent most of my life living in. I now live in the city of Port Phillip, but I am in the city of Glen Eira every other day. It's a beautiful part of Melbourne. The City of Glen Eira are, for the most part, an extremely competent council. They run very good services and they do an excellent job on behalf of the people of Glen Eira.

One of the things that they do is run a number of early education services, which they have made a preliminary decision to close—and they shouldn't. They shouldn't close these services. These services are brilliant. They provide an excellent standard of education for our little people who go there. They exceed the national quality standards. I am proud of them, and they mean a lot to our community.

To demonstrate how much they mean to the community, upon realising and hearing the news that the council had made a decision to close these centres, the community has responded in the most extraordinary way. They have organised, they have raised their voices and they have worked together to ensure that the educators and the kids who attend these early education centres are recognised for the important places that they are and the important work that they do—because they do more than just provide essential care for our children. They have been vital places for our local community for years. But, on 3 October this year, all the parents and staff at the Glen Eira early learning centres were informed that the council made a preliminary decision to close the centres before Christmas. There was no consultation. The decision came out of absolutely nowhere. That's not what our families deserve. At no point did the City of Glen Eira contact me, any other federal member of parliament, or any of the state members of parliament, seeking some form of support or raising any issues around the funding arrangements for these early learning centres.

The City of Glen Eira have made funding requests to the federal government. They made a request of $15 million for the Carnegie pool. That is a great community asset. The federal government made a commitment, and we delivered on our commitment to help fund the Carnegie pool. But the City of Glen Eira are not just running a pool. These services are about investing in the future of our community. They're about the future of these young people who attend. They're about the early educators who have worked for them—some of them for decades—servicing our local area.

It is shattering that the Glen Eira City Council could be so dismissive of the impact of brazenly making the decision to shut these centres, and they did it without considering the impacts on our local community.

How do the parents feel? Emiko is a mother of two, and her three-year-old son is at the Caulfield Early Learning Centre in my electorate. She was planning to increase his days at the centre next year, and her one-year-old daughter is enrolled to start in January. Emiko does not have any other options for her children. Waiting lists for other centres are full. Emiko wanted to return to work next year at a new job, but, if she can't find a centre to look after her children, she will have to sacrifice her own career ambitions, and that is simply not good enough. As Emiko herself said:

We're in tears thinking about having to tell my son that the centre that he's essentially grown up in, with a carer who he adores, that he might not be able to go there next year.

Berrin, another parent, has his two oldest children at Caulfield Early Learning Centre. He's been in the process of enrolling his younger child for more days so he can return to full-time work as well, and he'd planned to send his six-month-old there next year. He said:

I was flabbergasted. I do not understand—first of all that they could make the decision, and then say they're convening for consultation. But also all the other childcare centres have already done their enrolments for next year. We have three kids. How are we going to get them in the same place?

Emiko and Berrin are just two of the parents that I'm talking about right now. There have been so many other engaged, passionate and fantastic parents who have lobbied the council and raised their voice. The parents rallied together to let the council know that the preliminary decision to close these centres was the wrong decision. They put together an online petition which has currently got more than 7,000 signatures, which is an extraordinary achievement by the parents. They organised a rally of more than 100 families outside town hall, which I attended, and they sent a strong message to the councillors that they need to reconsider their decision to shut these centres. They collected over 2,000 physical signatures to deliver a physical petition to the council. They've worked with me, my parliamentary colleagues from the Liberal Party, Independents and state members—unfortunately the Greens have not joined our campaign—and they have put together a 40-page report filled with the voices of parents, children and the broader community, as well as detailed alternatives and pathways that the council could consider to help save these centres.

This decision is taking a huge toll on staff. We know that early learning education is a traditionally difficult, low-paid and female dominated sector. We know that we need to do more for our workers. We know that we need to support early learning educators, not take away their jobs as the council is deciding to do. And the council are model employers. The City of Glen Eira is a great employer. They do a fantastic job of looking after their people, and it is no surprise that they have a dedicated staff who enjoy really good pay and conditions that are considerable to many others in the industry. I would implore Glen Eira to think about the impact that they're having on their own people who have served them and their council for so long.

The overwhelming number of parents in our local community believe that this is the wrong decision, and they have asked the councillors to, at their upcoming meeting, consider the impact of their decision and reconsider their decision of closing these centres. They do not need to close these centres. What they can do is push back the starting date and enter into negotiations in good faith with state and federal governments. We are here to talk in good faith. We are here to speak with the council. We are here to look for a way in which we can support them to keep these services open because we need quality education services for our young Australians. These are quality education services. They're fantastic community assets in the City of Glen Eira, and it would be so short-sighted if the councillors of the City of Glen Eira were to throw away this community asset. I'll be with the parents every step of the way to save these centres.