The Coalition Government has found much to fault the previous Labor Government for, not least in its handling of early childhood education and care.
They’ve managed a tepid and limp hand clap for the creation and implementation of the National Quality Framework, which provides a national minimum standard for this work for the very first time.
Services are however, apparently “drowning in red tape” and quaking in fear from the “dead hand of government regulation”. The way the Coalition tells it, the last six years in ECEC have basically been a horror movie that the public has at last been able to walk out on.
Labor, those socialist fiends, have apparently just been throwing money at problems plaguing the sector – which presumably means that services are drowning in both red tape and money. A weird way to go.
But it appears that nothing has made the now grown-up and serious Government more disappointed than the handling of the Early Years Quality Fund.
“It was unfair,” they cried. “It was inequitable!” they wailed. “It was a lot of money we’d rather not spend on educators!” they murmured quietly on their way back to their offices.
But it placed the Government in the tricky position of trying to tight-walk between their burning desire to erase the last six years of history from the books, and the somewhat uncomfortable image of ripping away a small pay increase from people who work with young children.
To address this fairness and inequity, the Government has instead redirected the $300 million fund to “professional development” to the entire sector.
Well, $300 million minus the amount that had already been contracted out to organisations who, when politely asked by politicians on hundreds of thousands of dollars a year (plus entitlements and apparently any large bookshelves they feel they might need) to return the money they were going to give to some of the lowest-paid workers in Australia, shocking said “No”.
According to the Department of Education, money should be rolling out to spend on professional development pretty soon. There is not a lot of information available on requirements, processes or obligations on services concerning the money.
But a more basic question has possibly not been asked – can the Government even do what they are proposing to do?
Let’s have a look at what we know.
The EYQF was legislated – it passed the House of Representatives and the Senate and became law. This means the money allocated for it can only be used for the prescribed, legislated purpose – i.e. professional wages.
From an interview on ABC’s 730 program in December:
SUSSAN LEY: …the special account Labor created only targeted long-day-care centres and only targeted a small proportion of those.
LEIGH SALES: But you’re in charge now. You’ve got the $300 million?
SUSSAN LEY: Well, we are stuck with their legislation and I don’t propose to send the legislation back to the Parliament.
The context of the conversation was that Leigh Sales had suggested to Sussan Ley if the issue was one of equity, why not just redistribute the funding to the entire sector. In this section, Sussan Ley has suggested that this was not possible due to the nature of the legislation.
The actual legislation itself – The Early Years Quality Fund Special Account Bill 2013 – is available here and is pretty clear. It’s a riveting document with an almost spectacular lack of detail, but the key point is Section 7:
Purpose of the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account:
The purpose of the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account is to provide funding to approved centre based long day care services, to be used exclusively for paying remuneration, and other employment-related costs and expenses, in relation to employees in the early childhood education and care sector.
Based on the evidence, it would appear to be legislatively impossible for the Assistant Minister to do as she is proposing, which is to redirect the funding legislated in this Bill.
Yet that appears to be exactly what is occurring, with apparently no objection from either the Opposition or United Voice.
The Bill does state that funds can be used for professional wages and “for other employment-related costs and expenses, in relation to employees in the early childhood education and care sector.” This, however, hardly directly equates to professional development.
I have contacted the Assistant Minister with these questions and, based on my previous communications with her office, will receive a reply from her Department in 2-3 months.
But it perhaps needs to be asked of the other political players in ECEC why this rather substantial question on whether the Government can do what they are proposing to do has not been asked in Parliament.