Monday, 15 March 2021
Education and Employment References Committee; Reference
I too want to contribute to this debate. I want to start by looking at the way in which the governments of Mr Abbott, Mr Turnbull and Mr Morrison have really botched early childhood education and care in this country. Far be it for me on this day, the March 4 Justice day, to suggest that early childhood care is women's business, but I'd hazard a guess that this is the view of the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments and their succession of male early childhood education ministers. They just don't get the importance of affordable early childhood education and care to the economic wellbeing of families, women and the nation. They just don't get that quality early childhood education and care which is affordable for families is good for everyone.
As we know, until recently there were no women at all on their powerful Expenditure Review Committee. We know that they were shamed into cobbling together, after the budget had been announced, their Women's Economic Security Statement. It was pretty laughable, because it was quite difficult to pinpoint economic reforms that would benefit women, but they'd managed to cobble something together because they'd been criticised by women's groups, by economists—indeed by most people in Australia—for that very poor budget and that they definitely had their male credentials on the line. Since then they have appointed Senator Ruston to that powerful economics committee. Of course, we know that under Mr Abbott, who laughably and disgracefully appointed himself minister for women, there was only one woman in cabinet, and, quite frankly, things haven't got much better since those days.
The test to ascertain whether governments are truly interested in women's economic advancement is how important they rate early education and care. Where is it on their agenda? Let's have a look at what they've done in the area. They promised us a new, beaut system of child care with a guaranteed cap on the skyrocketing fees to families. But we know that hasn't worked. The only group that's in denial about the failure of that system to make child care more affordable is, indeed, the Morrison government. I think the Prime Minister made it a bit of a signature policy of his to somehow magically reduce fees across Australia for working families using early childhood education and care. Well, it has not worked. We know that the cost of early childhood education and care for families is now a significant burden. Indeed, it is holding women back. It becomes too expensive for parents to use care full time, and that burden is then carried by women, who continue to work part time. We know what that does to women's economic advancement: they fail to get promotions. We've got a 13 per cent wage gap between men's and women's wages in this country, and nothing makes that figure stick more than condemning women to part-time work because full-time child care is completely unaffordable.
You heard Senator Pratt earlier talk about how she managed her son when he was in early childhood education and care. It's a burden for families, and we're putting that responsibility onto grandparents. There are now many, many grandparents in this country who look after children one or two days a week because early childhood education and care are simply not affordable. Of course, if that's a choice for families, good on them—that's what should happen—but lots of families are forced into that situation. And we don't know how many families are accessing backyard care. We know it's been a problem in the past, but we have no idea about that. We can measure the number of grandparents who care for children, but we don't know what is happening with backyard care, which is unregulated and where children are potentially placed in vulnerable situations.
It has been shown recently that, with Mr Morrison's 'rolled gold' or 'beaut' system, out-of-pocket costs in Brisbane, Sydney and Darwin are now higher than they were under the old system. What we've seen, right back from when Mr Howard introduced the current system, which has been tinkered with at the edges, is that no-one has really tackled childcare costs adequately. The government have made an absolute botch of it, and it is not front and centre of their agenda. They have now put it with Mr Tehan, who has the very big responsibility of education. If we've got child care on the one hand and the education system—schools, universities—on the other, we all know which direction he is going to get pulled in, and early childhood education and care will continue not to get the support or indeed the spotlight and focus that they need to have.
The increased costs that I've just talked about in those major cities of course come at a time when wages in this country have been stagnating. For most Australian workers, wages have not risen. During the pandemic many Australians lost their jobs. The group that has been hardest hit during the pandemic is again women. We've seen a recent shameful study—and I've heard nothing from the government about this—showing that women of child-bearing age, with university degrees, are now not being re-employed. What is the male-dominated Morrison government doing about that? Nothing. Not a word have we heard. So that is a growing problem, and we'll see women continually being held back because males with university degrees are being re-employed at a much, much faster rate than women of the same age with the same qualifications. That tells you employers are making a very clear choice about really not supporting adequate family leave for men and, particularly, women.
With that wage burden, where women have lost employment and where wages have stagnated, families are now having to make choices about childcare fees. 'My childcare fees have gone up four per cent'—or six per cent—'how am I going to afford that?' What else is coming off the family budget to enable families to continue to work, where that is their choice? We don't know that, and it's one of the issues that a Senate committee can really drill down into. But we do know that childcare costs are a significant burden on family budgets.
The other issue, which you rarely hear the government talk about—and, in fact, I'd argue it's the most important point—is that early childhood education and care are good for our children. We all know that putting the services, support and education in when children are young is the biggest boost we can give to children. Study after study shows us that the first years of a child's life are vital to their development. In fact, 90 per cent of brain growth occurs by the age of five years. So children in quality early learning are absolutely benefiting from that. What we want to see is stimulating, quality early childhood education and care; we know it's good for children. But it needs to be not only good for children but affordable.
What about for children in vulnerable families? Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child says that, if early adversity is not mitigated, vulnerabilities can impact on lifelong learning, behaviour and health. We know that. We know that it has a big impact if it's not reversed. So ensuring that children in vulnerable families have access to early education is a social good. But I have never ever heard those on the other side, in the Morrison government, talk about a social good. It goes completely over their heads.
Thrive by Five recently took out a full-page ad signed by a range of academics and other well-known people across Australia. They've been very vocal, and rightly so, about the need for children to have access to quality early childhood education and care, and for this care to be affordable for families. They too back the need for all children to have access to quality learning. Of course, we saw this during the pandemic. Early childhood educators have been amongst the strongest advocates for quality education and care, and they were champions during the COVID pandemic, particularly during the lockdowns. Without them, doctors, nurses and other frontline workers wouldn't have been able to go to work. Yet these people are not adequately paid for the contribution they make to the wellbeing of our children—nor, indeed, were they for their selfless service during the pandemic. Parents know this, academics know this and Thrive by Five know this. It seems the only group who don't know or recognise this are the government, who are in a position to do something about the shocking wages in the sector. Make no mistake: it is the federal government that funds this sector. I know the Prime Minister likes to say he doesn't hold a hose and he's not the police, and I'm sure he's saying he's not responsible for childcare centres, but he is. Responsibility for the poor wages of early childhood educators rests fairly and squarely at the feet of the Morrison government—nowhere else but at their feet.
To add insult to injury, this was the very first sector the government removed JobKeeper from. If that's not a sign that they don't understand, or won't acknowledge, the importance of this sector to families—in particular to women's economic advancement and the development of children—I don't know what is. It frustrates me, and I'm sure it bewilders families, when the government stand up and defend their caps system. In WA there has been a massive increase in the mean per-hour fee. In suburbs such as Belmont and Victoria Park, where I live, we've seen fees go up by 3.4 per cent—no wages growth and a fee rise of 3.4 per cent. In Joondalup, in the northern suburbs, we've seen fees go up by 6.7 per cent. In Swan, out in the eastern suburbs, we've seen fees go up by 5.2 per cent. And in the more affluent suburbs of Cottesloe and Claremont we've seen fees go up by 4.4 per cent. This is unacceptable.
It's just amazing that the Morrison government continue to ignore what's happening in Western Australia. In their recent tourism package, the only place in WA to get money was Broome. You and I know, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle, that if we fly from Perth to Broome we'll pay $2,000 return. If someone flies from Sydney they'll be getting there more cheaply than us. If that's not punishing Western Australians, I don't know what is.
Labor has a solid plan. We want to cap fees for 97 per cent of families who use early childhood education and care, and we want to have a Senate inquiry so that these issues can be properly addressed and placed fairly and squarely at the feet of the Morrison government. And be it on their own heads if they say, 'Oh, we don't run childcare centres!'—which I suspect is exactly what we'll hear from the Prime Minister. It's time they faced the truth. They fund this sector, and they need to get it right for families in this country.