Advocacy Quality

From educator to advocate (and everything in between)

This is the text of my keynote address at the Little People, Big Dreams Conference organised by Child Australia. It was delivered at the Darwin Convention Centre on Saturday 13 October 2018.

I’d like to acknowledge the Larrakia people as the traditional owners of the land I am very fortunate to be speaking on today. I’d like to acknowledge their continuing custodianship of this land, acknowledge their elders past and emerging, and acknowledge any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people here today. I’d also like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, who are the traditional owners of the land I live and work on.


The title of my keynote today is “From educator to advocate – and everything in between”. While the title gives you a bit of a summary of what I’ll be speaking about, it also highlights a lot of issues with educators, advocacy and everything in between.

The first is actually pretty obvious – there isn’t actually anything between educators and advocates! Educators have been advocates, are advocates, and will be advocates tomorrow and the next day. We can disagree over what advocacy is being presented by educators, whether it’s positive, negative, or neutral – but educators are advocates every day, whether we own that role or not.

The overwhelming majority of families and members of the community judge our profession, and judge how important early education is, not by research reports, or parliamentary inquiries, but by their direct experience with educators, in centres, engaged with their own children and the children in their community.

If we’re going to start talking about advocacy and educators, it’s fair to ask a basic question right at the start. Why advocate? Why, when so much is already expected of educators, should I be asking more of them? Why, when educators are underpaid, undervalued and under-resourced?

The answer to that is actually pretty easy, but what we do about it is incredibly hard.

We live in a time in history when so much of the world is improving. Diseases that killed millions are gone, millions have been lifted out of poverty, and infant mortality has been steadily decreasing for a century. But what we know nearly 20 years in to the 21st Century, is that those gains have been, and continue to be, unequal.

Many are doing a lot better, but many are not reaping the benefits – and many of them are children.

Half of the world’s refugees are children. In Australia, we lock children up on island “detention” facilities, and have kept them there so long that most have either psychologically retreated inside their own minds, or attempt suicide.

In Australia, 22% of children are developmentally vulnerable when they begin school.

But our biggest shame in Australia is reserved for our treatment of Aboriginal children. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 25 times more likely to be in detention than non-Aboriginal children, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth are about 15 times more likely to be in prison than non-Aboriginal youth.

Rates of child removals from Aboriginal families have more than doubled since 2008 – the year non-Aboriginal Australia patted ourselves on the back for Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations.

These are big issues. But why are they issues for educators? I could quote the Code of Ethics. I could quote the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Important documents, but at the end of the day they’re only documents.

The reason this has to be on our watch is, for me, one of simple practicality. We are one of the very few workforces that works directly with young children every single day. We have to be on the frontline for young children, because we do it every day. We should be the first to say “that’s not good enough for children”, or “This has to change”.

The other issue with my title – “From educator to advocate” – implies that there’s a start point, and an endpoint, and a nice easy path to get from one to the other. This keynote would have meant a lot less stressing and last-minute rewriting on my part if that were true, but unfortunately it’s not. It certainly not true for me.

Like most people, I didn’t start my career thinking I’d have to be an advocate for it. My job was my job, and I loved it. It didn’t really occur to me at the start that there were big battles going on about childcare, what it meant, who it was for, who should pay, and how it should be valued. I just remember getting to go to work every day and work with young children, which was – and is – such an extraordinary privilege.

In fact, my first job in early childhood education was as a casual educator. I had no intention of going into education – after finishing High School I started a Media Production degree. I needed a job to fund my then somewhat frequent trips to the Uni Bar, I’d always been good with children, and a childcare centre was just down the road.

In a turn of events that makes 2018 Liam shudder, 2003 Liam was hired an hour after my interview, with no qualifications, no references and a Police Check that arrived three months later!

Now I get to stand here and pretend I know what I’m talking about. Anyone can do the same. I have far more privilege than most, which is why it is desperately important that other voices get up here as well. Fortunately, the rest of the program at this Conference has been full of those voices, but we need more making that transition.

That first centre was a formative experience for me. I didn’t know anything about early education, and I was firmly in the camp that just saw it as “childcare” and saw myself as a “childcare worker”.

That person, that professional, that educator is very very different to the older, crazier, more unfit person that speaks to you here today. One was barely an educator, the other proudly calls himself a teacher and an advocate.

The journey between those two is long and winding, and unique to me. I wish there was a roadmap. I don’t know what happens next for me. I can’t give you directions that will work for everyone in this room, or even anyone else in this room. All I can do is go through a few things I’ve learnt along the way, and the principles that I’ve found on that journey.


The first principle may be the most frustrating one. It’s probably best summed up by the classic shampoo commercial – “it may not happen overnight, but it will happen.” Becoming an advocate is something that can both be an instant decision, but can take an entire career to do well, or become comfortable with. Everyone in this room can decide to be an advocate right now – but becoming a successful one means committing to the long haul.

For me, my advocacy story really started outside of early education. I grew up and became politically aware under the John Howard Government, and my first engagement with advocacy was around the illegal detention of refugees. I admired those who stood up to the Government, who stood up for the vulnerable and marginalised.

I connected this engagement with advocacy to the early education sector in 2009, when I took on my first Centre Director role and became directly involved in the Big Steps campaign.

For me, this was an ethical requirement. Although Centre Directors are not paid and resourced anywhere near enough for the work they do for our communities, they are in positions of leadership and authority. For myself, I could not take on the privilege of leadership without using that privilege to advocate for the educators I worked directly with, as well as the broader educator workforce.

The Big Steps campaign, and the long-running fight for professional wages has been the perfect example of why advocates have to commit to the long-haul. The story is stark. Metal-fitters can study for a year and gain a Certificate III, and get paid about $40 an hour. Early childhood educators study for the same length of time, for the same qualification, and get paid about $20 an hour.

Metal-fitters do important work, but can anyone seriously make the argument that the work of educators is half as valuable to society as that of metal-fitters? Is that really the story of early childhood educators in this country?

No. That was unfair twenty years ago, it is unfair today, and it will be unfair until it is fixed. But unfortunately, just because we know something is unfair, doesn’t mean it will be fixed.

The reasons for this disparity are complex and historical, but let’s not shy away from a crucial fact. One of those professions is dominated by men, and one is dominated by women. 97% of the early educator workforce is female. It has one of the lowest Award rates that requires a qualification, barely above minimum wage.

For all the writing, thinking and stupid comments from politicians that have been associated with these facts, it’s actually all incredibly simple. The gender of the workforce and the pay are directly and inseparably linked. The one is the reason for the other. “Childcare” is seen as women’s work, women have been doing it for free for ages, so it’s not worth paying anything.

For men like myself in the sector, that means we need to accept our positions of privilege and value – which are given by default, not necessarily competence or hard work – to advocate for educators, which means advocating for the respect and professionalism of work that is given a negative connotation because it’s quote women’s work endquote.

But this particular fight has been going on for two decades, and we’re still a ways off winning it. In today’s environment when we want instant wins through signing an online petition, or sharing a viral Facebook post, it can be frustrating and difficult when campaigns and justice take time.

Just over five years ago, I stood with a group of early childhood educators and United Voice members in one of the many gardens at Parliament House, and listened to these words from the man who would become Australia’s Opposition Leader.

In 2013, Bill Shorten said: “It is no longer enough, I think, for Australia to rely upon the emotional, the intellectual and indeed the physical efforts of Australia’s childcare workers and not adequately remunerate them. It is no longer enough, in Australia, that we say to marvellous professional childcare workers, for whom we entrust the development and the safety of our children and for whom these people commit emotionally to our kids every day and to say that there’s nothing that can be done about your low level of remuneration.”

That was five years ago. It turns out we absolutely could continue to rely on a female workforce to do all those things and not pay them fairly for it.

That’s hard. But just because something’s hard, doesn’t mean it’s not right.

Just because change takes time, doesn’t mean that change doesn’t need to happen.

Just because campaigns can be slow, doesn’t mean that we won’t win.

You have to invest the time. You have to take the time. You have to build credibility, and you have to learn. Advocacy for all educators starts with advocacy for yourself – knowing that the work you do has value, even if the majority of the community doesn’t think so – yet.

Professional identity is so important in our work. Educators who don’t value themselves and the work of early childhood education cannot facilitate high-quality learning for children. Yet the words and images that dominate the sector do not always uphold a professional standard.

A quick check of recruitment advertisements on job website Seek bears this out. “Childcare educators.” “Childcare Worker.” “Diploma team member.” I see a lot of resumes in my role, and the candidates who refer to themselves as “childcare workers” outnumber those who say “early childhood educators” by about five to one.

Educators are fighting a long-term battle for professional recognition and the appropriate wages that go along with that. United Voice’s Big Steps campaign continues to advocate and share stories from the sector, but we are burying our heads in the sand if we think some outside force is going to swoop in and magically change the way educators are viewed.

We should remember the foundation for quality early childhood education is quality early childhood educators. Outcomes for children are only as good as outcomes for educators. Advocating for educators is advocating for children. Let’s make sure we’re setting the standard for how those educators are viewed.


The second principle I want to talk about is how we identify with our advocacy, how we own that title. I know that for a really long time, I was hesitant to claim that title myself. Today I would rank advocate as my second professional title, just behind teacher. It’s crazy to remember that I used to be really nervous about calling myself that.

Years ago, I had all sorts of reasons for being nervous. I didn’t know enough. I didn’t have enough experience. I wasn’t in a leadership position. I wasn’t credible. You name it, I had an excuse for it! When you look at the people that I look up to as advocates, how could I possibly have the nerve to put myself in their company?

People like Gillian Triggs, Megan Davis, Julian Burnside, Jane Caro (Google them if there’s any names there you don’t know). They’re real advocates! I don’t do anything like what they do.

I don’t have an articulate way to say “that’s nonsense”, so I’ll just say “that’s nonsense”.

Advocacy, and advocates, can come in many forms. It can be a Facebook post after an Australian Senator makes a monumentally stupid statement about early childhood educators. It can also be a nearly 20-year campaign for professional wages for educators.

Outside the sector, it could be a young man like Dylan Voller having the courage to talk about his experience in youth detention one day in a Government hearing right here in the Northern Territory.

Or, it could be tents out the front of Old Parliament House that have been there for decades, reminding everyone who visits that sovereignty has never been ceded, and were are all on land that always was, always is and always will be Aboriginal land.

So I spent a lot of my early advocacy career waiting for someone to come up and give me an advocacy induction pack, maybe with a badge and a little booklet, and say “welcome to the Club!” Strangely enough that still hasn’t happened, even though a small little part of me is still waiting for it!

I am unfortunately here to tell you there is no Advocacy Office, checking applications to determine who is or isn’t an Advocate with a capital A. You get to decide you’re an advocate, not me, not anyone else. Owning and embracing that title is crucial to your journey.

Luckily there’s no membership fee, no taxes paid and no office hours – there is however a large and often overwhelming sensation that there is a huge amount that is unfair and inequitable in the world and you have to do something about it! Welcome to the Club.

You and you alone are the only person who can bestow the title of advocate on yourself. But that doesn’t mean that others won’t try and take it away from you. This is a lesson that I particularly learned over the last two years. In fact, my growing acceptance of my role as an advocate grew at almost exactly the same time that my advocacy was questioned, dismissed and attacked.

For those who listen to the podcast I do with my pals Lisa and Leanne, the Early Education Show, we’ve devoted many of our 80 or so episodes to breaking down the Child Care Subsidy and why we think it’s bad for children.

The reason I, and a few of my closest colleagues such as Lisa Bryant and Leanne Gibbs, advocated so strongly against it was that it was bad for children – full stop.

The Government’s own figures acknowledged that 25% of children would be worse off. Minimum subsidised hours of access would drop from 24 hours a week to 12 hours a week. The Budget Based Funding program, which primarily supported Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child care services, would be ceased.

The legislation ties together a child’s right to access early education with the payslip and roster of their parent – something children have precisely zero control over.

I decided that this was unacceptable. A broad coalition of sector advocates and organisations decided it was largely OK, because it would be an overall funding increase, with some amendments. We publicly disagreed, and stated why.

For this, we have lost work, we have lost friends, and we have lost future opportunities. In the past two years I’ve been called naive, I’ve been told I’m dividing the sector for my own benefit, I’ve been told I don’t care about outcomes for families, and much much more.

Advocating against the new Child Care Subsidy was still the right thing to do. My view has been, and always will be, that if children are left behind by policy, that policy is not good enough.

One of the hardest advocacy lessons to learn is that others won’t necessarily see you as an advocate, but a troublemaker, a stirrer, someone out for themselves, someone not “on the team”.

They’ll believe that their advocacy is better, and more serious. But at the end of the day, if you know that what you are advocating for is right – not for yourself, but for children – then you have to speak out.

It also highlights why it’s so important that people who actually work alongside children and families have their voices heard, and share the stories from their communities.

One week after the new Child Care Subsidy was introduced, I was in the corridor at my work talking with our enrolments officer. We heard an angry, emotional voice from the Front Office. A woman was there with three young children, and she looked and sounded furious.

I introduced myself, and asked her how we could help. She explained that two of her children attended one of our Early Childhood Centres, and she had received her first new account statement after the CCS launched. She had received no subsidy, and was being charged the full fee.

In my office, we talked through her situation. She had experienced family violence, and was rebuilding her life in a new home. She had stopped studying earlier that year to try and manage her new circumstances.

The new system didn’t care about her story. All Centrelink knew was that she wasn’t studying, or working, so accordingly her children weren’t deserving of subsidised access to early education.

This is why it’s so important that the people around the big table, talking to MPs, talking to the Education Minister, talking to the Prime Minister, are actually fronting up to children and families the next day.

When you don’t have to go back on Monday morning and actually speak with the families who are losing out under these “reforms”, you’re not as effective as you could be.

Speaking publicly means putting yourself out there for feedback and criticism, fairly or unfairly. But if you know who or what you’re speaking up for is worth it, then speaking up is always worth it.


The next important principle is deceptively simple – take opportunities as they come up. Say “yes” to opportunities to advocate, no matter how uncertain you are. This particular principle is very important to me, and it’s because of the make-up of people in this room today, reflective of the make-up of the early childhood sector itself.

According to the most recent ECEC National Workforce Census, out of the almost 195,000 educators and teachers working in the early education sector, around 7,600 were men. That’s 97% of the sector who are women.

In the top roles in the sector however, men actually outnumber their female colleagues. Building on analysis that my friend and colleague Lisa Bryant conducted, we looked at 16 of the largest, or most prominent, early childhood organisations and peak bodies, and found that out of the 35 most senior identified positions (usually CEO and Chair of the Board), 19 (or 54%) were held by men.

When comparing representation in senior leadership roles with working as educators directly with children, men are 14 times more likely to be in the CEO’s office than a classroom.

The statistics do not imply anything about the individuals undertaking these leadership roles, but rather points to a more complex discussion. Why are women so under-represented in the senior leadership roles of the sector, when compared with their overwhelming representation in educator roles?

One place we could start would be looking at what organisations value in senior leadership roles. While looking at the people in these roles, one factor that really stood out was how few had early education backgrounds and experience. Backgrounds in community services, health and finance featured far more prominently.

But another issue is more fundamental to how our societies work. In the last six months, I have appeared on ABC Canberra Radio twice. I have appeared on ABC News and Ten Eyewitness News. I have had two articles published on ABC News. None of those things happened because I was more informed, more articulate, smarter, more professional than anyone else in the sector.

In the case of the TV interviews, it certainly wasn’t because I looked better on TV!

They happened in large part because from birth, as a white male born into privilege, I was trained, conditioned and expected to take opportunities, to speak out, and be heard. Nothing in my upbringing, in all the popular culture I watched, in all the news I read, told me anything other than my view was important and should be heard.

It’s called “unearned male confidence”, and if I could do one thing in the world and then retire to a small bookshop somewhere and never do anything in early education every again, it would be to bottle that confidence and inject it into the rest of this sector.

Because 54% of leadership roles in the sector being held by men is an appalling, insulting and intolerable state of affairs. That has to change.

It changes by women currently working in educator roles deciding that they can and will take on senior leadership roles, and can and will take on outspoken advocacy roles.

Because I’m here to tell you, men aren’t giving up those positions. We’re trained from birth to believe we belong in them. Women are trained to believe they’re unqualified, they need to wait their turn, that they just need to keep knocking politely on that door (according to former Prime Minister and Minister for Women Tony Abbott).

From an advocacy perspective, this means doing something that I know is much easier to say than do. It’s saying “yes” when there is an opportunity to give a speech, to be interviewed, to talk to a Member of Parliament, even if you think there’s no possible way you can do it.

I’m amazed and disheartened by how often colleagues I know and respect turn those opportunities down. When I started to be offered them, probably 8 or so years ago, it didn’t even occur to me I wouldn’t do them.

That’s an unfair advantage, and given our sector, I have to ask you all to be brave and push against it.

Because then one day, you will all become people with power to advocate. Someone with early childhood qualifications and background might be the head of our largest advocacy body, or our largest not-for-profit early childhood organisation, or even our largest for-profit organisation. At the moment, that is not the case for any of those three roles. I want that to change.

Standing here now, delivering a 50-minute speech after years of speaking and writing, I know it can seem like I have this nailed and probably have always just been able to do it. I am here to tell you that is not the case, not even slightly.

My first media appearances were embarrassments on a scale I can now barely think about. I was nervous, I forgot words, I stammered – as one colleague delights in reminding me at every opportunity, I hadn’t even ironed my shirt!

I was terrible, and I felt bad, but I kept going. I did it again, and then again. I got better. It’s no different than any other skill – the only teacher that really works is experience.

Even then you’ll still make mistakes, and that’s always hard. For particular advocacy causes, you might also feel that you cannot speak up.

One of the advocacy areas I think about most is the experience of Aboriginal children in Australia. I have written and spoken about those issues over my career, and I am incredibly aware that I do so as a non-Aboriginal person.

In my view, there is no advocacy issue more important than this. Access to early education for all children is a worldwide advocacy movement. But the experience of Aboriginal children is an Australian story, and it therefore must be our first and most important challenge.

We also need to be clear that the appalling statistics related to child protection and out-of-home care are not failures of Aboriginal strength and culture. They are the legacy of two centuries of policies, programs and actions that systematically disadvantaged and harmed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and people.

Recent Closing the Gap Reports have confirmed that work towards a number of targets, including early childhood education enrolments, is not progressing.

After conducting investigations on how Australia was upholding our obligations under a number of United Nations Conventions, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz said that Australia’s lack of progress on Closing the Gap targets was “woefully inadequate”.

She said the detention of young Indigenous children was “the most distressing aspect of her visit” to Australia. She said: “I found meeting young children, some only twelve years old, in detention the most disturbing element of my visit. I’m quite shocked about the punitive measures being taken, which really lessen the chances of a good future for these children.”

At first glance it may seem that those of us who work in non-Aboriginal early education services cannot do anything about this. Surely this is a political issue. Why do we have to do anything? What can we do?

I also know I cannot presume to speak for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I am a white, middle-class man and as such am representative of many of the past and continuing struggles that face the First Australians on this land.

But knowing what we know about the current lived experiences of Aboriginal children in this country, which I live on, I can’t not be involved in doing something on this issue – even if that means I can and will make mistakes.

My commitment is to always be open to listening and learning, to acknowledge when I do make mistakes, and to base my advocacy on the works of Aboriginal organisations such as SNAICC, Reconciliation Australia and others. But as educators, where can we start?

We can start with the National Quality Framework. This large-scale reform of the sector was based on a key document, the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians which states that Australia ‘commits to improved outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and strengthening early childhood education’.

This was embedded into the foundations of the NQF, with one of the Guiding Principles of the Framework being: Australia’s Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Cultures Are Valued. Under this Principle, we are all called to action, with the Guide to the NQF stating:

“The NQF is underpinned by a commitment to ‘Closing the Gap’ and acknowledges Australia is a nation of great diversity, and an ancient land that has been cared for by Indigenous Australians for many thousands of years. Education and care services have a shared responsibility to contribute to building a better society and sustainable environment and to support children, families, colleagues and the local community to understand, respect and value diversity.”

We know that addressing structural disadvantage and vulnerability must start in the early years. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has conducted a significant amount of research demonstrating the necessity of early childhood being a critical part of the Closing the Gap strategy.

Quality early learning experiences can support all children to get the best start in life. Given Australia’s past and our responsibility to Aboriginal Australians, there needs to be a significant and sustained focus on embedding Aboriginal perspectives in early childhood education and care—first with educators, and through them young children and families.

We can draw a direct line between our work as professionals in the early education sector and the potential for improved outcomes for young Aboriginal children. A quality start to primary and secondary school could be the difference for any number of children and their families.

Addressing disadvantage and vulnerability is our responsibility because it is happening on our watch.

Nelson Mandela once said that ‘there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’ Australia has a long way to go in closing the gap for Aboriginal children. As early education professionals, we should not have to be forced to take ownership or responsibility for this issue—we should embrace the opportunity to influence change with both arms.

But this cannot be about “saving” Aboriginal children and families. We also know that Aboriginal children and their families are strong in their culture, their history, and their contributions to our communities. The challenges faced by Aboriginal children and their families are not capability, but opportunity.

As a community, we need to work harder to ensure that every child has the opportunity to be valued and respected for who they are, and for their childhoods to be a strong foundation for who they will become.

We also know (or we should know) that it’s not about forcing Aboriginal people to adapt to the mainstream system.

But the new Child Care Subsidy does exactly that. When the Government ceased funding for the Budget Based Funded services, they claimed the new system would have a “generous” safety net, and Aboriginal children and families who used to access BBF services would be able to apply for the Additional Child Care Subsidy and get support.

What this means in practice, is that Aboriginal children and families used to have a service in their local community that they could arrive at and be supported without judgement and a minimum of bureaucracy.

Now those children and families need to put up their hands to a service and say “we’re disadvantaged, we’re vulnerable”. Then an application goes to a bureaucrat back in my hometown in the Department of Education, and they make a “determination” for 13 weeks support. If they need more support than that, another application has to go in for another 13 weeks support. And so on.

The lack of awareness of how disrespectful, how judgemental and how utterly that fails to listen to the voices of Aboriginal advocates is incredible. If you want support, we want to know in lots of detail how disadvantaged you are. It is the most shameful and despicable part of a terrible piece of legislation.

Aboriginal people have been educating and caring for children on this land for tens of thousands of years. Non-Aboriginal approaches to early education must listen to and learn from Aboriginal experiences, and ensure that services and programs are culturally safe and appropriate. This shouldn’t be a “nice add-on”, it should be a bare minimum requirement.

For non-Aboriginal advocates, it’s also a requirement that we listen to and learn from Aboriginal voices. The only solutions to these issues are Aboriginal-led solutions, as was made clear in the recent and powerful Uluru Statement from the Heart. There are many options available out there, from directly in your local community to national organisations like SNAICC.

But even then, we will make mistakes, we will get things wrong, we may offend people. I have probably done one or all of those things in this very speech. But we still have to make the decision, if we think what’s happening to young children on our watch isn’t good enough, to listen more, learn more, support Aboriginal advocacy efforts and use whatever opportunities we have to advocate.

But crucially, it’s not just about removing barriers and improving opportunities for Aboriginal children. We need to make sure that we are promoting positive and respectful views of Aboriginal people within non-Aboriginal families and communities, and working towards a more respectful society than the one we have today.

You will all have stories that can and should be told, whether they’re directly your own or whether they belong to children and families you know. Early education advocacy will be richer for hearing those stories, and that’s what I want you all to hold onto. Your story will be heard, even if you think you were nervous, stammering, unprofessional and not good enough. What people will remember is your story.


The last principle that has served me well during my time as an advocate is actually a sound principle for most things – don’t make advocacy about yourself. By that, I mean always put the cause above yourself. It’s important to remember that advocate doesn’t simply equal famous.

Yes, there are incredibly high-profile advocates out there, raising awareness and making change on the world stage. But there are far more people working in their local communities, in their workplaces, in their local councils doing the same thing, but without a huge following.

This principle was really brought home for me when my career moved me away from direct teaching and Directing roles. The first 8 years or so of my career were spent doing the work of educators – working shifts, not taking home a lot of pay, dealing with the physical and emotional drain of spending 10 hours a day pushing your own needs down to support the needs of a group of little people.

Now, I work in a nice office, where I can wander off for a coffee anytime I like, write keynote speeches, have thinking time, and have very little human responsibility. It’s important to remember that in our sector, that is in an incredible privilege.

In the organisation I work with, we ensure that everyone in senior leadership roles like mine begin with the notion of service. I, and the people I work with, are there to serve the Centre Directors and educators who are doing the actual work.

If I’m not helping them support the young children they work with, I am a waste of a salary.

For me, that also means advocating for educators – both directly through supporting the Big Steps campaign with United Voice, of which I am still and will always be a member, and through my own writing and speaking.

Outcomes for children can only be delivered by educators, and yet we are more comfortable speaking up for children than educators.

It’s the end of the day, so let’s do a bit of movement before we wrap up! If you are an educator or Director, or otherwise work directly in a centre or program with children, please stand up.

Now, if you work in a support role, or a leadership role out of a centre, or aren’t working directly with children, please stand up.

Those of us in roles such as mine, without legislative responsibilities and with no direct day-to-day, ongoing work with children, are in what my Manager and professional mentor gleefully describes as “made-up jobs”.

I am not in the Education and Care Services National Law. Nominated Supervisors are, educators are, teachers are. The Government has not deemed my job to be essential to the successful education and care of Australia’s children.

There are people in similar positions in the room today. What I would ask you to do is to reflect critically on your roles – my challenge to you is if you are not advocating tirelessly for those who are carrying out the day-to-day teaching and education with children, you are not doing your job.

I am fortunate to work with an incredible team of Centre Directors in the ACT, and I’d like to just acknowledge their professionalism and work in their communities of children, families and educators.

I reflect every day on the privileges that my “made-up” job entails me, and if I cannot justify my work to that group of incredible women at the end of the day – then it’s not worth me being there.

For me, this means that above and beyond my day-to-day work, of which advocacy is certainly a part, it also means advocating above and beyond my 38 hours a week. Honestly, it’s the main reason I write a blog, record a podcast every week, and speak at events like these.

Anything less I could not ethically justify. I can’t do the work I do, away from the actual work of early education, if I’m not doing everything I can for those that do. If I get to sit at the table, it’s my job to speak up for those that don’t.

Always make sure the foundation of your advocacy is those you’re advocating for.

It can means making decisions that will set you against your colleagues, and against organisations you respect and believe in. One of my earliest and most contentious advocacy experiences was back in 2013.

It seems so long ago now, but in the last remaining months of the then-Labor Government, they suddenly became interested in professional wages for educators. This seemed like a big win for the Big Steps campaign and United Voice.

The result was the Early Years Quality Fund, which I imagine many people don’t remember. At the time I was the ACT convener for the Big Steps campaign, and I remember being asked to come in to United Voice ACT’s office and be told that we’d had a great win! They told me that 40% of the sector would be given Government-funded pay rises of up to $6 an hour, based on who got their applications in first.

This was bad policy, and just because the Labor Party are generally better overall in education and social policies, does not mean we should support them blindly.

I’ve spoken to so many people who now seem to see politics, even advocacy, as just Labor Vs. Liberal. In that cause, fierce and powerful advocates for children do not speak up about Labor’s policies, or the Greens, or other “progressive” parties. If the price of joining up with a political party is silence, it is too high.

Advocates should be fearless and furious with criticism. Advocacy should be targeted at politicians, without being tied to a single party. Advocacy should be about our sector, not political victories for others.

If the Coalition Government turned around tomorrow and announced policies that would ensure universal access to early education for all children, I would support them, loudly and strongly. I don’t care who does this, I just want it done.

Not making what you do about yourself is also a tool for wellbeing and resilience, and keeping you motivated in the long run. I am a human being like any other, and I have an ego like any other, and of course I enjoy things like today happening – with Child Australia giving me 50 minutes to ramble on in front of you all at the end of a great day!

But while there will be many, many people out there who won’t believe this, I do what I do not to raise my own profile – but to raise the profile of children, of educators, and of early education.

I want to live in an Australia where every child can access early education without their parents having to log their income and working hours on Centrelink. Where a child’s postcode doesn’t define their destiny.

Where educators are valued and prized, and centres are turning them away because so many children are growing up wanting to be early childhood teachers and educators. Where the work we do isn’t just seen as part of the education system, but the most important part of the education system.

I want to see this day, and I want to be a part of it, but I don’t care for a second whether my name has anything to do with it. Because that’s another part of being an advocate that can take some getting used to.

Failures belong to us. When we don’t get what we’re asking for, we need to regroup and work out how to advocate better.

But victory belongs to those we’re fighting for. The recent announcement that the Labor Party will take a policy of funded three-year-old preschool to the next election isn’t a win for advocates, or for the Labor Party – it’s a win for children and the community.

And that’s how it has to be. As soon as we make it about ourselves, we’re not advocating, we’re promoting.


I’ve talked a bit throughout this keynote about losing friends and colleagues through advocacy, which – if you’re prepared to speak out when it’s not convenient to others – is inevitable.

But I want to end on the flip-side of that. Over the last five years I’ve made friends and connections through advocacy that have made me a better advocate, a better early education professional – even a better person. Some of them even presented keynotes at this Conference earlier today, hint hint!

So I want to make sure that the last message here is a positive one, and it’s the single best piece of advice I can give anyone – whether about advocacy, or your career in general.

Surround yourself with good people, ethical people, people who both inspire you on – and check you when you’re getting too far ahead of yourself.

We are all human, and prone to failure, mistakes and ego. Having people around you who can ensure that you’re remembering the principle that advocacy is about what you’re fighting for, not who is fighting, is the most important thing you can do.

I can’t express how grateful I am to the people in my life who I can email at any time and go “does this sound right?” “Does this make sense?” “Am I being an idiot?” I email that sentence quite a lot, to be honest!

In summary, advocacy is not just writing, not just attending rallies or forums. The Early Years Learning Framework encourages educators and teachers to look at every moment with a child, or group of children, as an opportunity to learn. In exactly the same way, every moment in our day-to-day work is an opportunity to advocate for our professionalism, and the professionalism of the sector as a whole.

Every time you greet a family at the door, we could be advocating. Every time we have a pedagogical discussion with an educator, we could be advocating. But I firmly believe we also have an obligation, and imperative, to advocate at that wider level – at the level of policy.

At the end of the day, advocacy is a story we tell. I’ve told you mine today, but the story I want to be told in hopefully not too many years is that as a community, Australia decided to value children and early education.

Educators working in not-for-profit, for-profit, community- managed, remote, rural, metro centres decided to tell their stories and the stories of the children they worked with, and everyone realised how important this was.

For me, I could not be happier if the people you heard from today, maybe even myself, become part of your story and owning your power as an advocate, and claiming that title.

The last thing to think about as you begin to head back to your communities of children, families and educators, is that if you don’t tell your own story, it will be told on behalf.

Educators will be viewed as babysitters unless we say we’re not, over and over again. If we don’t speak up for children, who will? We have to be the ones to tell these stories, because we’re the ones qualified to do so.

I leave you with this quote, which you can Google and discover my favourite TV show!

“We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one”.

By Liam McNicholas

I am an experienced early childhood teacher, writer and advocate. As well as managing community not-for-profit early childhood operations in a variety of roles, I have advocated for children's human rights; the need for investment in early childhood education; and for professional recognition and wages for those working in early childhood education and care.

I am available to be commissioned for freelance writing, editing, event speaking and consulting work.

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