Childcare back in education – but what will be the major changes?

Newly-installed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball has announced a major reshuffle of the Government’s ministerial positions, giving early childhood education and care its third minister in this term of Government.

Childcare will now fall back under the umbrella of an Education Minister – a position now held by Simon Birmingham, a relatively junior Senator from South Australia.

In general terms, this is of course a positive outcome for the sector. It was moved to the Department of Social Services (DSS) under Scott Morrison late last year, an apparent indication of the Government seeing it primarily as a workforce participation strategy. Including it in the Education department should continue Australia’s slow move to viewing early learning as fundamental to long-term success.

This news is of course very new, and we don’t yet have any idea how Senator Birmingham will reshape the Education portfolio he is inheriting from Liberal warrior Christopher Pyne. But, it’s worth raising a couple of quick points/concerns in the wake of this announcement.

Firstly, bureaucratic. The shift of childcare to the DSS would have required a significant amount of administrative changes and restructuring. This will now need to be transferred back to the Education Department – with all the challenges, difficulties and technical issues that will result. It may seem minor, but it will be an issue.

Secondly, departmental. A lot of the “nuts and bolts” of childcare administration may still sit within the DSS, not Education. How well will this now work between the two Departments? This will be particularly relevant to the Child Care Benefit, and programs like the Inclusion Support Program.

Thirdly, political. The Government’s current “Families Package” is facing difficulties in the Senate. It includes a number of measures that will adversely affect vulnerable children and families. Will there be a reset on this package? Birminigham is, on the face of it, likely to be less comabative in his approach than either Pyne, or the new cuddly Scott Morrison. Dare we hope for a more consultative and listening approach? Which, unfortunately, leads to the fourth:

Fourthly, policy. Childcare’s move back to Education could (and I shudder as I type this) lead to another round of consultation with the sector. This would be following the pre-NQF period, the Productivity Commission, the ACECQA review, two Senate committees and the Government’s own consultation this year. Consultation fatigue doesn’t even begin to cover this. Any more consultation will not reveal what has already been made abundantly clear. Investment in quality early education works.

With an election due next year, Senator Birmingham may have less than a year to make his mark on childcare. With that timeframe, we shouldn’t have to wait too long to see what direction he and the new PM will head in.

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The Curious Case of Scott Morrison

It’s been a whirlwind week. Almost every political analyst in the country is predicting the end of Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership, sooner rather than later. After years of crowing over the ALP’s internal squabbles, the LNP is finding out firsthand how quickly things can implode.

But I may have just reached the level of my credulity. Minster for Social Services Scott Morrison has made policy decisions that are sensible, obvious and may possibly result in better outcomes for children and families. I’m pinching myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.

In quick succession, Morrison has all but confirmed that the 1.5% levy on large businesses initially earmarked to pay for Tony Abbott’s signature Paid Parental Leave scheme will be redirected to better targeted childcare assistance. He has cancelled the ridiculous (and ridiculously expensive) “Stronger Families” program and will redirect the $17M to frontline social services. He has also postponed proposed changes to Family Day Care regulations that would have affected FDC educators enrolling their own children.

When Scott Morrison was announced in December as the new Minister responsible for childcare (as part of a revamped Social Services portfolio), it is fair to say that positive and reasoned decision-making was not the first thing that we were expecting. His time as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection was marked by the relentless and harsh treatment of vulnerable asylum seekers, including children. Using blunt force and operating largely outside of Australia’s ethical, moral and possibly legal obligations, Morrison is credited with “solving” the problem of the boat people.

Given dominant Australian attitudes to asylum seekers, this was never going to cause him any real problems. Most Australians wanted this to happen, and Morrison seemed to revel in the backlash amongst social justice campaigners and advocates.

My initial thoughts in December was that this approach would fall flat on its face with social policy. Australians have no problem at will harsh and damaging measures directed at “irregular maritime arrivals”, but would not countenance similar measures at home. To my surprise, Morrison seems to have quickly realised this.

There are few potential options worth considering with regards to these seemingly significant change of approach. The first is that Morrison is the first real indication of the Government’s overall “reset” to its political approach. Working closely with Tony Abbott and the rest of the Cabinet, Morrison is evidence that the Government will significantly and fundamentally recalibrate its way of doing business.

The second (and, to my mind, far more likely given the last week), is that Morrison is re-positioning his political image as a moderate as part of a potential run at the Liberal leadership. Morrison is considered one of the only three real contenders to replace Abbott, along with Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnball. Of the three he’d be last in the running by most estimates. Positioning himself as a moderate on these issues during this time is a politically smart move for Morrison, particularly if Abbott is determined to dig in on his current approach.

We’ll know more after Tony Abbott’s address to the National Press Club tomorrow, but regardless of all the speculation in this post, we can at least be certain that Scott Morrison may be very surprising in his new role – and not in the way we had all assumed.