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)
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.
We serve Australia, and we see early childhood education and care funding as crucial. I'm in a party whose leader is female. She's in fact a grandmother, and she has a very talented and hardworking daughter who also has young kids. I'm a parent, and I know what's involved in raising a child—not as much as a mother knows; nonetheless, I am a parent. And I remind people that Maria Montessori probably did more work on early childhood education, human development and human behaviour than anyone who has ever lived and anyone who's alive today. Her research, her findings, were profound. She said that the critical years for the formation of both character and intellect are birth to six. So early childhood education is fundamental. Character and intellect are developed then.
I'm going to be brief, because the main point I want to make is to thank Senator Pratt. She approached us, and our offices then spoke. This is an important topic, as I said. But what we didn't see, what we didn't hear, was an articulation from that office of the problem. That's not a criticism of that office. It's just that basically my staff asked, 'With this inquiry, what is it you're going to achieve?' And we were given the Labor Party policy in return.
The secretariat in the Senate is already busy and very stretched, so we need to see evidence of what will come from this, from all the work that will be involved. I want to point out an example of someone who works with us very well, and that is Senator Deb O'Neill. She came to us in the previous weeks with her bill regarding more protection for franchisees and for car dealers in particular. We worked with her, and we've worked with Senator O'Neill in the past. That's the sort of person we like to work with. That's what we need: facts. And, Acting Deputy President Sterle, we've worked well with you. You've come to us with facts. It is the same with Senator Sheldon, with Senator Gallacher and with Senator Gallagher. We appreciate people coming to us. We will work with anyone. We'll work with any party, provided that we are given the facts, the data, the substance that people want support on. We've worked with Senator Patrick and take great delight in working with him, and Senator Griff and Senator Lambie, and the Greens; we've worked with the Greens.
Perhaps I should point out that the Liberal-Nationals coalition learnt first, and they learnt very quickly, that we do work honestly and sincerely, and we stick to our position until we're given evidence otherwise. And then we will come on board, so we can be critical and questioning. But that's our job, because we serve the people of Australia. So, while I thank Senator Pratt for approaching us on this, we need the substance, we need the facts, we need the data. That's all I needed to say, apart from the fact that One Nation sees early childhood education as critical and sees child care as critical. But it needs to be based on fact.
I rise to speak on this reference proposed by the Chair of the Education and Employment References Committee, Senator Pratt. The reference proposes an examination of how best the Australian government should invest in early childhood education and care to achieve the very best care and development outcomes for young Australians. This reference is a critical and important opportunity for the committee to examine and recognise the central value of early childhood education to children, to families, to communities and indeed to the whole Australian economy. Really, it is long past time we examined and committed to solutions to the problems that are plaguing this sector.
There are so many questions about how we as a society support, fund and roll out quality early childhood education services in Australia today. Funding is one of the big questions. How should we best fund this critical sector? How should we best manage and deliver quality early childhood education and care? And of course one of the most important questions in how we deliver quality early childhood education and care is the workforce. How do we support a quality early childhood education workforce? Today we know that the dedicated, qualified professional workers in this sector are severely undervalued. Critically, we need to examine, as this reference proposes, the wages that we pay to our hardworking early childhood educators.
This is a hugely important sector to our community, to our society and to our economy. We know that early engagement with children and their families through early childhood education and care delivers strong outcomes for the community. There is a very well established body of evidence, which, indeed, is growing, that early engagement with children and their families delivers the best, strongest outcomes. Early childhood education and care is critical for children's social development, emotional development, language development and, indeed, cognitive development. In fact, we know that 90 per cent of a child's brain development occurs in those critical early years of zero to five years of life. And so the best outcomes are going to be delivered by a system that delivers high-quality, affordable and accessible early childhood education. We want to be able to fulfil the potential that our children have and we want to be able to lift their opportunities.
There is also, of course, a growing body of evidence about the importance of early childhood education in dealing with disadvantage. Early childhood education and care is absolutely critical for children who come from backgrounds where they need extra support, where they need extra education and care if we're going to be able to lift their opportunities as they enter school and as they become young adults in our country. Quality programs mean much greater educational attainment for children, flowing through the school years and, indeed, into adulthood. And accessibility to services is critical to delivering the full developmental benefit that can be unlocked through quality early childhood education. Improving affordability and access to early childhood education is going to benefit hundreds of thousands of Australian children and their families, and it's not just going to benefit children and families; it's going to benefit the whole economy and benefit social participation as well.
Early childhood education and care services, of course, increase the opportunities for patterns to go out and work and for them to earn. And that doesn't just affect them in their own households; it affects all of us. It affects our economic potential. We know as a country that we have a problem with the workforce participation of women and that quality, affordable, accessible early childhood education is critical to boosting the participation of women in our workforce, in our economy and, indeed, in our society.
But it is absolutely critical that parents know when they put their children into early childhood education and care that they receive the highest quality programs. That in turn relies on the workforce. It relies on the right workforce planning and asking: how do we secure a strong professional workforce into the future? It relies on the best, highest quality training for staff. And, critically, it relies on us committing to decent, respectful pay and conditions for our skilled and qualified early childhood educators.
For many years, I've been hearing from early childhood educators that the wages are just so low they can't actually afford to stay in the jobs that they love. If we want a high-quality early childhood education sector, we need to invest in the educators themselves and we need to figure out how to do that in a sustainable way. We can't continue to offer quality early childhood education in this country when about a third of educators are leaving the jobs, sector and industry they love every year because they just can't afford to stay on those low wages. Nothing in early childhood education is possible without an absolutely exceptional workforce of dedicated, committed early childhood educators. But, to deliver that workforce, we absolutely need to figure out how to deliver better wages and better conditions to those educators and better training so that they can be their very best. The low wages in the early childhood sector are absolutely at odds with that goal. They are at odds with maintaining this exceptional workforce. Early childhood educators have done absolutely everything they can to make their case to this federal government. They have campaigned for better wages for years. They have tried to raise their wages through the bargaining system. They have run work value cases. They have won equal pay cases. They have walked off the job multiple times to try to get the respect and the recognition that they deserve from this government for their important work.
Over 90 per cent of these people are women and they are qualified. They are professional. They are dedicated. They are committed to the children that they are providing education to and care for. But they are severely undervalued. They are flat out underpaid. With wages as low as $21 or $22 an hour, this absolutely critical workforce is earning around half the average wage. So, if we value this sector, if we value the contribution early childhood educators make to the sector, we have to figure out how to provide professional wages to the majority women who work in this sector and who, day in and day out, provide excellent and high-quality education services to children.
The fact that this sector is over 90 per cent women and the fact that the sector has been seen as women's work is really the key factor in why their wages are so low today. Fixing affordability for families is absolutely critical, but it's only half the problem that we face in the sector today. We absolutely need to improve the pay and the working conditions for educators themselves. So the future of early childhood education and, indeed, our whole education system has to include a plan about how we finally ensure that those educators are paid what they are worth—educators like Kerry, who has been in the sector for over 30 years. She is an educator who finds it difficult to afford to stay in the job that she loves. She's been in the sector for over 30 years but she, as a senior educator, earns only around half the average wage. She can't afford to buy a house. She rents. She can't imagine when she'll be able to retire. She's in her 50s and, because of the low wages she has been on for over 30 years, she can't see when she'll be able to retire.
It is extraordinary that we organise such a critical sector like the early childhood education sector on the basis of low wages. It's extraordinary that the federal government has continued to look at early childhood education as basically babysitting. On the league table of OECD expenditure on this sector, we as a country are nowhere near the top. We do not invest in this sector at the same rate as other countries which have much better outcomes.
As early childhood educators say, while they absolutely love their jobs, love doesn't pay the mortgage or the rent. While they love working with children and are dedicated and committed to doing that, love doesn't put food on the table. We need a sustainable early childhood education sector—one that recognises in pay packets the professionalism of educators and one with affordable and accessible education that supports parents to return to work. We need a sustainable early childhood education sector that provides the highest quality early childhood education and care that invests in our future generations. We shouldn't be a country that spends well below the OECD average on this critical sector. We should absolutely invest in it.
We need a federal government that values early childhood educators—that values them in their pay packets, that values their professionalism and that respects and rewards them. We need a federal government that will invest in and develop a sustainable quality early childhood education system. For all of those reasons I think this reference—to examine how we can best invest in early childhood education and care to achieve the very best care and development outcomes for young Australians, to examine the funding, to examine the management and delivery of services and, critically, to assess the wages that we pay our hardworking early educators—is absolutely critical. This reference is critical. This investigation is critical. I commend this reference to the Senate.
I rise to speak briefly on Senator Pratt's motion to refer to the Senate Education and Employment References Committee a reference about early childhood education. I want to say at the start that early childhood education and care is an essential service. It should be universal and it should be free. I say this not just from a rights perspective. There is a compelling case for free and universally available early childhood education and care because it has enormous benefits for children and enormous benefits for families. Of course, it has enormous benefits and is good for women. It also has enormous social and economic benefits for our whole community. It leads to a more equitable society.
I have been a beneficiary of affordable early childhood education and care, as have my children. I would not have been able to study or have a career if I hadn't had that benefit. But I can tell you it didn't come easily. The early childhood education opportunities and child care that were around where I lived when I was studying were completely unaffordable. I was lucky that a few students at the University of New South Wales got together and lobbied the university to open the first cooperative childcare centre at the University of New South Wales. I cannot thank enough the early childhood education and care workers at that centre and across the board who educate and care for our children, our little ones. I agreed with Senator Walsh when she said that they are some of the lowest-paid workers in our country. That is completely unacceptable. If we do value education and if we value care for our children then we must, as a priority, value those people who provide that education and care.
But I guess we also have to acknowledge that in our patriarchal society caring work has long been seen as women's work. It's undervalued, and that has created a heavily casualised and underpaid workforce in this particular sector, which is early childhood learning and care. This is not an accident, to be really frank. The entire system, and practically our entire economy, really relies on the unpaid and underpaid work of women in caring roles and on the skills and difficult work done in early childhood and childcare centres. That is simply an extension of this underpaid work.
I think this inquiry is important because it will examine how to fund early childhood education and care well. Every day I meet people in the community—especially women—who tell me that most of the salary they're earning goes to pay for early childhood education for their children. That's not a country that we should be aspiring to. We should use exactly the same logic as our public schools, where education is free, for early childhood education and care because that's where our children are going to be set up for the rest of their lives.
I'll conclude by saying that it's important to inquire into how we can fund early childhood education and care to be fee free. We did it in the pandemic with the stroke of a pen, but then a few months later the government took us back to the old broken system. And it is a broken system; it is hard for people to afford that system but it should be an essential and universal service. I commend this motion to the Senate and I hope that we can agree to start off an inquiry so that we can move towards a system which is universal and fee free for every family and every child in this country.