Labor’s ECEC policy blunts hard edges of Coalition’s plans, but fundamental reform still nowhere in sight

Mid-way into the endless 2016 election campaign, Labor has released the details of its early childhood education and care policies.

The big ticket items are:

  • an increase in the Child Care Benefit by 15% from January 2017
  • an increase in the annual cap on the Child Care Rebate from $7500 to $10,000
  • additional funding to Budget Base Funded services, primarily supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services
  • a commitment to develop a new Early Years Workforce Strategy, and make submissions to Fair Work Australia supporting higher wages for educators
  • re-introducing funding for professional development support
  • funding for “oversight, transparency and accountability” of fees and fee increases in ECEC services

The policies will be kicked around by all and sundry for the next few weeks, so my views are going to be more in the areas of context and long-term reform.

It can’t be questioned that the proposals as listed above are all, in general, positive – particularly funding certainty for Indigenous early childhood services and the revival of the Professional Support Coordinator (in one form or another). The list of principles at the start places children first – while this is only a press release this is positive, and the sector should watch closely that this continues in any formal proposals and eventual legislation.

But the big picture is a bit more worrying in terms of advocacy for early childhood in Australia. Everything listed above is either a fix for, or a response to, specific policies of the current Government.

This isn’t Labor’s vision for early childhood education in Australia. It’s their list of what they think the Coalition got wrong, and what they’ll do about each point.

Somewhat frustratingly, almost the one thing that the current Government got relatively right – combining the CCB and CCR into one subsidy paid directly to services – is not even mentioned, let alone planned to be implemented.

We have the right to expect more from a left-leaning, nominally progressive alternative Government than hitting “Track Changes” on the Government’s Jobs for Families plans and altering it.

One of the more impressive things about Labor’s term in opposition over the last three years was a focus on policy, including Jenny Macklin’s work on social policy. To get to an election, with three years of Government incompetence and inaction on such a critical issue as a free kick, without a real vision for reform is not OK. We can, and should, expect more.

Once again, the election battle in ECEC becomes about fee relief. Access to early education is critical, but continually fiddling with the various rebate streams is not reform, and it will not change lives.

The Coalition’s Jobs for Families “reforms” were a huge disappointment and a missed opportunity, but given their ideological bent not a huge surprise. The Jobs for Families-lite being promised by Labor is better, but the sense of a missed opportunity remains.

Labor couldn’t have had a better run-up to this issue. After falling victim to Coalition scaremongering in 2013 about rising costs which became steadily more apocalyptic in tone, the Government then proceeded to do absolutely nothing about it. After trying (and failing, despite support from some of the early childhood sector for some bizarre reason) to sell their Jobs for Families package to the community, they then announced they’d even kick that down the road to 2018.

Labor could be decimating the Coalition in this area. Imagine if they took ECEC as seriously as superannuation or negative gearing. Imagine we’d had a reformist policy for ECEC announced six months ago, that could be being argued and prosecuted throughout this campaign. Labor were able to take the first important step with the National Quality Framework – to go small-target now and just propose a fix-up job is not what the sector, the community and children need or deserve.

Yes I’m always grumpy. Yes I rarely say anything is good enough. I’m not going to apologise. The day we, as advocates for children, decide that “well this is better than nothing” or “at least it’s better than the alternative” we may as well just stop, because we’ll never get anything better.

Labor’s ECEC policies are better than what we currently face. They are certainly better than the Coalition’s plans. There is much to be appreciated. But that is not the end of the conversation. It might make a broken system better, but it does not propose a new system.

They can do better, and they must do better. I’ll take the grumpy label, until children’s enrolment in early childhood is not tied to their parents’ job security and ability to pay fees. Until early childhood is a full part of the education system.

In short. Well done Labor, but you’ve got a lot more work to do. Best get started.

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3 thoughts on “Labor’s ECEC policy blunts hard edges of Coalition’s plans, but fundamental reform still nowhere in sight

  1. This sector does not- and cannot be made to- work as a functional market. The ALP has announced today that there is a place for fee regulation which tacitly recognises this fact. Here then is the starting point for a discussion about genuine reform. We won’t have that discussion of course because there is only just enough political enthusiasm to consider two questions: (1) Who gets something? (2) How much do they get?

  2. I believe there was something in there about rolling the existing payments into one means tested payment direct to the service… Don’t quote me on that. Otherwise. I totally agree with you!

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