Monday, 15 March 2021
Education and Employment References Committee; Reference
That the following matter be referred to the Education and Employment References Committee for inquiry and report by 21 October 2021:
Models for Government investment in early childhood education and care (ECEC) with particular reference to:
(a) the levels of government and other funding required for ECEC to optimise economic and social participation, equity of access and developmental benefits, and maximise ECEC's contribution to national productivity;
(b) the roles of Commonwealth, state and territory governments in the funding and management of ECEC services, including child care, kindergarten and preschool;
(c) the actual and potential economic, social, and developmental benefits from ECEC for children, families, educators, communities, and the economy;
(d) workforce planning to ensure high quality training and conditions for early childhood educators; and
(e) any related matters.
The motion is for the Senate Employment and Education References Committee to look into models for government investment in early childhood education and care, with particular consideration of a range of critical issues. We've moved the motion for this Senate inquiry because we believe very strongly that there's a need to optimise economic and social participation for people with children, that the issues around equity of access and the developmental benefits for children also need to be recognised and that therefore early education, care and development have an intrinsic purpose in terms of contributing to children's and family wellbeing and social and economic wellbeing, as well as to the productivity of our nation. When you look at public debate about these issues and you talk to Australian families, it's high time for the parliament, and for the Senate, to listen to those families, and to children's development experts, about their needs and to people seeking to participate in the economy about these issues.
We've seen very directly the fact that Australian families have struggled with skyrocketing childcare costs in what is a broken system. The 2018 so-called investments by the Morrison government have, sadly, failed to keep a lid on the out-of-pocket costs experienced by families, even though this government promised that that was the intent of changing the subsidy system. Those changes have failed to support working parents and, in particular, women to work full time or to increase their hours. If you were to look at those issues in the context of disincentives to work, it would be very clear that the take-home pay that you would add to the family pay packet with the second-income earner moving from working three days a week to four or five days a week is not worth the while of a great many families considering further participation in the workforce. This means we see parents, educators and the sector at large screaming out for reform. Labor's put forward a plan for cheaper child care, but this is a contest of ideas that really needs to take place in this parliament so that we can put Labor's policy under scrutiny but also question the coalition on its plans. We also need to engage with the states because the states have a role in subsidising kindy and preschool, a critical part of those early years. But those subsidies aren't applied equally in terms of who gets to use them, who has access to them at what age and how many days a week you can access them. The money the Commonwealth hands over to the states to support those state programs is also not equally allocated when you look at which states get money.
The results of all this are that there are children in our nation who don't have access to early education, even though it would be very much in their developmental interests to have that access, that families can't afford to use child care and that, also, when they do, they're subject to a really fragmented system. It's a juggle that I remember very well as a working parent, where two days a week, from nine till three, my son would be able to go to kindergarten, and then I would have him in long day care on the other day. But it was complicated greatly by the fact that kindergarten was available for three days a week, not two, in the alternate weeks. This meant that you couldn't book, for example, an extra day every alternate week for your childcare placement, because you couldn't drop in one week and drop back out in the other. The system is incredibly fragmented and it does not work for working parents.
We know that we need to make child care more affordable. At the moment, 97 per cent of families in the system are being adversely affected. It needs to be made more affordable for an overwhelming number of families. We want to be able to give a voice to parents—parents who sometimes have to stay home simply because they can't afford to go to work.
The Labor Party very much respects the choices of Australian families to stay home, look after and be with their children, and to develop their interests and their wellbeing at home if they want to—and if they're able to. But that's not the case for all families. There are many families, including those of women like myself—I realised that our family wellbeing was going to be much better if I was able to pursue my interests as a working parent, making me a better mother and parent at home. But it's telling that there are too many parents who have to stay home simply because they can't afford to go to work—those out-of-pocket childcare costs, if you're working on that third or fourth day or if you have more than one child using child care, are simply too expensive to make it worthwhile.
In addition, the best outcome for our children and our future is indeed a well-funded and well-organised system. We need to expose the faults in our system. We need to uncover them and highlight where we think we can make improvements. Our children and our families deserve a world-class early childhood education system—a system that's able to boost the economy and also strengthen the resilience and education of Australia's children.
I note that Labor has a policy which would see the $10,560 a year childcare subsidy cap scrapped. It will be an issue to see how well that will work, and that can be interrogated by this committee. But, equally, it can put the coalition on its mettle to see where it wants these issues headed. The maximum childcare subsidy rate should, in Labor's view, be lifted; the childcare subsidy rate needs to be increased and also tapered for every family earning less than $530,000. That may seem like an extraordinary amount of money—indeed, it does in my view—but the issue is that there are families which simply choose not to participate in early childhood education. These are skilled professionals and people who have a worthwhile contribution to make to the economy who simply don't participate, not only because of the subsidy rate but also because of the fragmentation of the system and how difficult it is to access quality care. Under Labor's plan, a million families would be better off and it would remove financial barriers for more than 100,000 families who are currently locked out of the system.
This is quite telling: we want to scrutinise this and talk to the community about our own policies, but we also want to see the coalition challenged in this debate. Labor believes that a plan for cheaper child care is a win-win: it's good for parents, good for children and good for the economy. We want to work with the Australian community to talk about what the nation's plans should be. This includes testing the coalition on its current policy settings.
We know that the current system disproportionately affects women, who make up the majority of Australia's second-income earners. The way the current system is designed simply means that second-income earners earn little or even nothing for working a fourth or fifth day in a week. Making child care more affordable will give women back the power to make choices. If they want to work more hours or days they shouldn't be penalised, but Australian families currently don't have that choice, because going to work is simply unaffordable. That's not only doing a disservice to those household incomes but also to the businesses that would like to say to Australian women, who have no choice at the moment, that they will be able to take up more hours in their workplace if they're available.
At the moment we do have some critical nation skills shortages that would be served by allowing women to work those hours by making going to work and having children a much more affordable and desirable thing to do. We know that women's participation in the labour force is lower in Australia than it is in similar countries. It is especially lower for women working full time. So, to lift economic growth, we must make child care more affordable for Australian families, and this is something that has very much been highlighted by the Grattan report.
In the context of discussions about workplace assault, power in the workplace et cetera, I have to say that intrinsically linked to sexual harassment and workplace policies should also be the capacity for women to take up leadership roles and be respected in their workplaces so that they are able to drive workplace culture effectively. Currently, families don't have that choice. Currently, we also know that, because of the kinds of cultural expectations that we have in Australian workplaces, it is indeed hard for men to step back and play more of an active role at home. So, in my view, we very much need to look at these issues holistically.
The Productivity Commission released data in February this year that shows a 21.7 per cent rise in one year in the number of parents who aren't working because of childcare costs. That means this nation now has more than 90,000 parents not working because of out-of-control fees under this government. The data shows childcare costs rose by some 5.6 per cent between 2019 and 2020. That's supported by the latest inflation data from just last week. Out-of-pocket costs in Brisbane, Sydney and Darwin are now higher under this government than they were under the old system.
There are a great many issues that we need, and want, to dive into in this inquiry. I've highlighted some of the economic issues. Equally important is the early development role of early education for our nation's children. The first years of a child's life are so critical to their development. Ninety per cent of brain growth occurs by the age of five. This is why Labor is intrinsically committed to improving our national system for child care and early education, and it is why we should be having a robust national discussion about these issues, engaging with early childhood specialists and educators and with Australian families on these issues. Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child say that if early adversity is not mitigated, then vulnerability can impact on lifelong learning, behaviour and health. Greater access to child care helps children get the best access to early education and can play a critical role in improving their lifelong outcomes.
Australian families deserve better, but, most importantly, Australia's children deserve better. The current system is a fragmented mess and families are under incredible financial pressure. Caps on the childcare rebate, the loss of family benefits and the tax system mean that some second earners could be working for little or nothing on the fourth and fifth days of a full-time week. The CCIWA highlighted this when they said:
… in a household where both parents have the potential to earn $60,000 per year full-time, the second income earner would be working for about $2 per hour on the fourth day and nothing on the fifth day.
That is an outrage. It puts Australia's families in a ridiculous situation.
Of course you're not going to enrol your child for the purpose of early education, even if you're not working, if you can't afford to do so. The daily fees are simply too high to make a robust decision for your family that says: my child and their interests would be best served by being able to access a greater amount of time in the early education system. We know that it's around 15 hours a week, which simply is not adequate to meet those needs. (Time expired)