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For want of some data, the battle was lost

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“My dataset is better than yours” was the most common refrain heard during today’s public hearings in the Jobs for Families Child Care Package.  I was fortunate enough to attend, and while there were no nails in the coffins of this reform package, it’s certainly not looking terribly well and probably is in need of some medical attention.

I tweeted at length about it earlier this morning, so just wanted to post a quick summary of the main highlights from my point of view.

1. The impact on Indigenous children is appalling

Listening to the testimony from the SNAICC representatives was truly hard, as they respectfully but forcefully outlined the likely impact of these reforms on Indigenous children.

It’s incredible that mere weeks after the Closing the Gap report revealed our failure to meet the early childhood attendance goal, we’re seriously considering implementing reforms that would make it more difficult for Indigenous children to access ECEC.

2. Who’s got the best data?

The Government has two reports in its crosshairs – an ANU report commissioned by ECA and a Deloitte report commissioned by SNAICC – that had the temerity to suggest the reforms might be bad for many children and their families.

The Government has pointed to the reports not using the best data available. Which is understandable, given that the Government has refused to release data on crucial parts of this reform. It is madness that we are considering passing legislation that we know so little about.

3. Bureaucrats bereft, basically

The hour spent in the company of no less than six bureaucrats from the Department of Education was particularly terrifying. Answers to questions took agonisingly long to produce, and seemed in many places to be a “best guess”. Consultation processes, described by the sector as ranging from woeful to comedic, were “extensive”.

4. Want ECEC? Get a job

We at least gained crystal-clear clarity around how the Government views early childhood education. Senator McKenzie, Committee Chair, at one point left the beaten track entirely for some bizarre point about mothers going to yoga classes while their children were in childcare – on the public dollar, for shame!

For the Government, funding ECEC is viewed as welfare funds. Not funding early learning, but funding welfare, and just like every other form of welfare funding they begrudge every single cent spent on it.

The beating heart of this package (the JOBS FOR FAMILIES package, the clue is in the title) is punishing children for their employment “choices” of their families.

5. Gymnastic advocacy

Which leads to my last point. The dexterity required for people and organisations to suggest that this is a “good” package that can be made better with some minor amendments is now incredible, verging on the impossible. The litany of issues with this rushed, under-explained and data-poor legislation were recounted endlessly today. Every major part of the reform package has serious structural issues. The Activity Test. Closure of BBF services. The hourly benchmark fee. The six-hour blocks of funding. The lack of transparency over eligibility for the Child Care Subsidy.

At a certain point, when every part of the car is broken, you get rid of it and save for a new one. It’s time to throw this package out and start again.

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Advocacy Blog

Who should be at the centre of our advocacy?

A couple of weeks back, I wrote a piece on modelling commissioned by Goodstart Early Learning on the possible economic impact of the Government’s current proposed early childhood education and care (ECEC) reform package. I raised my personal concerns as an advocate on the report, why it was commissioned and how it was used.

I’ve linked to the piece above, but the main points in summary are:

  1. Uncertainty about why Goodstart would commission this report at all, given they are an early childhood organisation and not Government spokespeople;
  2. Serious concern with the facts of the report itself, which excludes both the Activity Test and subsidy cap from the modelling, essentially rendering it worthless; and
  3. How the report was used to further the political objectives of a Government which is seeking to slash access to ECEC for children based on the employment status of their family.

Goodstart were, unsurprisingly, not too happy with my analysis, and wrote to me asking me to publish their response. Which I did.

Last week, Early Childhood Australia (ECA) published a post by ECA CEO Samantha Page which discussed the importance of making economic arguments as part of ECEC advocacy. The post explicitly mentions “several commentators” being unhappy with the Goodstart-commissioned report, but does not name them or link to their pieces. I cannot help but find the timing interesting, but after reaching out to ECA they were unable to provide any further details of who these “several” commentators are, or links to the pieces that they are referring to.

I believe it’s fairly safe to assume the post was referring to me. Which means I will now have to, once again, defend the initial Goodstart post before moving on to discussing the ECA piece in more depth given their public “review” of my work.

As I have previously stated, ECA’s post does not address the serious issues with the report itself, nor discuss the implications of it being utilised to advance a particular political agenda. If, as the post suggests, ECEC advocates should ensure that their advocacy positions are well-informed in economic terms, ECA should be lining up beside me to dispute the PwC report purely on the basis it does not actually provide any accurate modelling by failing to take into account the Activity Test or the subsidy cap.

Goodstart’s response did not either. No-one, at any point, has ever challenged me on this. The fact that people seem to be either offended or unhappy that I have pointed this out is interesting, but irrelevant. I am more than happy to be challenged by facts, not hurt feelings.

Separate to the response to the report, ECA’s post raises a number of concerns regarding how they view ECEC advocacy – and ECEC advocates. The post states that advocates are “uncomfortable” with making arguments based on economic investment, and are “letting children down” by not utilising these arguments effectively.

I in no way, shape or form represent advocates in the ECEC sector, but for my part I respectfully disagree with Ms Page on this point, and actually find that perspective somewhat insulting. Again, only speaking for myself, but I have been making arguments based on the necessity for early investment for many years. Here, here and here, just to list a few. ECEC advocates have actually been doing this for quite a while. Of course the economic arguments can be made, but should always be made in subservience to the child-centred arguments which position early childhood education as a birthright, regardless of their socio-economic status.

But there is a limit. I will not, and cannot, support in any way a proposed reform package that at its heart shackles together a child’s right to participate in ECEC with the economic contribution of their family. That is what this package does, and no amount of amendments, or tinkering or minor changes will change that unassailable fact. Recent Senate Estimates put some hard numbers on the number of families that will be adversely affected by the Government’s proposed changes. 37,000 families will have their access to ECEC either slashed or eliminated as they are deemed to not contribute enough to the Australian economy. This week, SNAICC released a report that demonstrates Indigenous children will have the most to lose from this package, mere weeks after this year’s Closing the Gap report revealed that Australia had failed to meet the targets for early childhood education.

There seems to be a view that the because the package is on the table, it should not be blocked outright but amended. I will contend that is not advocacy in the best interests of children, and is patently not the only option given the current make-up of the Senate. Poor policy has routinely been knocked back by this Senate. So should the Jobs for Families package. Organisational submissions to the Senate Inquiry suggest I am far from alone in this view.

I can’t imagine the communities where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ECEC services will close as a result of this package will be swayed by the argument that it’s better overall for the economy.

Of course making economic arguments is important for advocates. But it should never be undertaken by separating out children from the equation. Yes, it might be easier to just argue from an economic angle. But no-one should get into the advocacy business thinking it’s going to be easy.

I’m genuinely puzzled by the defensive responses from Goodstart, and now ECA, by the simple stating of my position on these issues. Positions that are, again, hardly limited to myself. Advocacy is a big tent, or should be. Organisations can take whatever position they want on legislation, but they should be able to have the discussion with others in the sector on other approaches – particularly if they are representing the sector.

Interestingly enough, a mere two weeks before the economic article post was published, ECA actually published a great piece on the ethical obligation and responsibility to advocate in the sector. Strangely, it doesn’t actually mention the need to articulate the importance of economic investment. Given the spirited defence of the importance of economic arguments in “proper advocacy” in the most recent piece, it’s odd that it wasn’t brought up in the earlier post.

Some great points that are in that earlier piece though:

“The Code of Ethics also provides a responsibility to engage in public advocacy – to ‘utilise knowledge and research to advocate for universal access to a range of high-quality early childhood programs for all children’.”

That’s universal access, not access for some based on their parent’s roster.

I, and others, feel that responsibility to advocate for universal access to a range of high-quality early childhood programs for all children. I will continue to do so.

I can only speak for myself, but that means I will continue to vehemently oppose the Government’s proposed reforms. I would urge all other advocates to do the same. In fact I would go so far as to say that I am very “uncomfortable” which large ECEC organisations offering support to this package, and those that do are “letting children down”.

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Indigenous children’s access to ECE slashed by Government reform package

New report reveals impact of Government’s reform package on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services

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A report from Deloitte Access Economics for SNAICC released today revealed the concerning impact of the Federal Government’s “Jobs for Families” package for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their families.

From ABC News Online:

The Deloitte research shows 40 per cent of families using the BBF services would receive fewer hours of subsidised care.

It also shows 54 per cent of families using BBF services would have higher out-of-pocket costs and the biggest impact would be felt by families earning less than $65,000.

Two-thirds of service providers would also receive less government funding.

Hilariously, the Federal Government has claimed the report is inaccurate and fails to take into account other elements of their reform package – despite the fact that the Government has consistently failed to reveal huge amounts of actual information the proposed reforms, both through the Regulatory Impact Statement process and in the proposed legislation currently before the Senate.

The Child Care Subsidy is only vaguely described, how it can be applied for and received is basically unknown, and how children and their families’ situations will be monitored on an ongoing basis is not described.

The economic benefits of the Jobs for Families package are dubious at best. The impact on children and families at-risk and experiencing vulnerability is crystal clear. The argument that this package is “OK with a few amendments” is becoming increasingly difficult to swallow.

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Closing the gap target unachievable if current reforms go through

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Earlier this week, the Federal Government launched the annual Closing the Gap report. As seems to now be the story every year, there are a few things to celebrate (such as the decline in infant mortality) but much more that frustrates.

In early childhood education (ECE), targets have not been met. A new target of 95% of Indigenous children enrolled in ECE in 2025 has been set. With collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities, and sensible policies from Governments, this target could be met well before a decade passes.

With the current reform package before the Senate, there is no chance of this target being achieved. Which explains why they’ve put it off for a decade.

From Calla Wahlquist in the Guardian:

On Wednesday the 2016 Closing the Gap report set out the new goal of getting 95% of all Indigenous four-year-olds, not just those in remote communities, enrolled in preschool by 2025.

But the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) says the user-pays funding model proposed under the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Jobs for Families Child Care Package) Bill 2015 would threaten the viability of Aboriginal-run child and family service centres, halve the number of subsidised childcare hours available to low-income families that don’t meet a new “activity test” requirement, and further disadvantage Aboriginal children.

SNAICC deputy chief executive officer, Emma Sydenham, said the decision to scrap the Budget Based Fund, a top-up for those services that couldn’t cover their costs with fees or individual child subsidies, 80% of which were Indigenous, may force centres to close.

“Their focus is only on the needs of particularly vulnerable children and families in their communities,” Sydenham told Guardian Australia. “Their focus is not on how to meet the bureaucratic needs of these policies.”

There is a particularly kind of madness or cruelty (or both) in speaking the easy words of healing, consultation and Closing the Gap while putting forward policies that will make those things impossible.

This isn’t just about closing an inequitable gap in outcomes become Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It’s actually about improving lives and opportunities.

If the Government believes that slashing access to one of the most proven ways of addressing inequity – early childhood education – is the best way to meet this target, I dread to think what they have planned to address all the others.

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A numbers game

Many have come out strongly against the Federal Government’s proposed reforms to early childhood education and care, primarily due to significant concerns on how the proposed Activity Test will affect the right of children to access early education.

It’s been a tricky fight for a lot of reasons, but one of the big ones was the complete lack of data and numbers around the number of children and families likely to be affected.

We’re getting somewhere now, after Education Department deputy secretary Jackie Wilson appeared before Senate Estimates on Wednesday night.

Judith Ireland from Fairfax covered the numbers revealed in that appearance:

About 45,000 families will be worse off under the Coalition’s childcare reforms because they pay childcare fees that are higher than the upper limits of the government’s new subsidy rate.

A Senate committee also heard on Wednesday night that a further 37,000 families would be worse off because they did not work enough hours according to the new “activity test”.

This breakdown comes after the government published modelling late last month that showed overall, about 184,000 families would lose support in the new childcare package that starts in July 2017, while more than 815,000 will be better off.

Not insignificant numbers. It’s becoming indefensible for anyone with the interests of children of their families to advocate for this package – even with amendments – to be passed.

Even with the information revealed in Estimates, huge question marks still remain over the nature of the Government’s much-spruiked by un-detailed new safety net.

Hopefully we’ll learn more over the next few weeks.

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Advocacy Blog

Goodstart response to Saturday’s blog post

A departure from the norm for this blog, but after Saturday’s post on Goodstart Early Learning’s release of a commissioned report from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) on the Government’s ECEC reform package, Goodstart contacted me via email. They have asked if the response can be posted on my site, which I am happy to do.

Goodstart’s response in full can be found at the end of this post. I encourage readers to read it, before returning back up here for my quick thoughts.

I actually have had the opportunity to read Goodstart’s submission to the Senate Inquiry, along with every other publicly accessible submission. As with the PwC report, it was not easy to find as (at the time of posting) it is not included on Goodstart’s media or publications page, but is linked to through this blog post.

Goodstart makes some good points (echoed by the rest of the sector) in both their submission and in their response to me below. It’s important to note that my post was not about their submission or surrounding documents though – it was about the specific report commissioned, how Goodstart used that report and how the Federal Government used that report.

Goodstart’s report, and subsequent media release, was quoted in Parliament. By the Prime Minister. To encourage the passing of this package by the Senate.

Goodstart’s submission to the Senate inquiry was not. This is why I posted on Saturday.

The key points that I raised in that post, which are not discussed in Goodstart’s response, are:

  1. Why did Goodstart commission the report at all?
  2. Why did the report not take into account the Activity Test and subsidy cap, both of which will have significant impacts on children, families and any potential effect on workforce participation?
  3. Why did Goodstart’s media efforts following on from the report entirely focus on workforce and economic outcomes, with no reference to the effect on children?

Given Goodstart’s position as Australia’s largest provider of early childhood education and care (or “childcare”, as it is repeatedly referred to across Goodstart’s website and public statements), these are questions that are worth raising and discussing.

It is disappointing that Goodstart believes that with amendments (which are described as “minor amendments” on their media page), this Bill should be passed. I disagree. Major amendments will not save this Bill. The Bill is poor policy. It is regressive in terms of positioning the sector as early education, and splits children into those deemed “worthy” of accessing education (by virtue of being in a “working family”) and those who are not.

Many in the sector more articulate than me agree.

I cannot change or influence Goodstart’s approach to advocacy – and as an organisation they are entitled to view the Government’s reform package in any way they see fit. But I will stand by my view that, in my personal opinion, Goodstart (as Australia’s largest ECEC provider) has an obligation to champion the voice of children and their right to access education regardless of the circumstances of their families. Not sometimes, but all the time. Not for some, but for all.

Dear Liam

I am emailing you regarding your blog post from February 6.

I am sorry you didn’t have the benefit of reading Goodstart’s detailed submission to the Senate Inquiry on the Government’s ‘Jobs for Families’ childcare package – or the media release we sent out explaining our position. Both are available here on our website along with a quick summary of our position about the strengths and weaknesses of the Government’s approach.

Goodstart Early Learning has made a strong commitment to advocacy on behalf of the 60,000 families whose children we care for across the nation. We’ve spent many months working hard to argue for more funding, better access and greater equity through the Productivity Commission process and direct to the Government since it announced its response to the Commission’s recommendations.

As our submissions, evidence to inquiries and media releases on the issue make clear, there’s no question that the vast majority of Australian working families will be better off if the Government injects more money into subsidies.

There’s also no question that the current draft legislation needs to be improved to do more for disadvantaged children [emphasis is Goodstart’s – Liam].

Goodstart lodged its submission to the Senate Committee on Monday February 4 and we issued the media release that same afternoon. Like many in the sector we believe the package needs amendment to ensure disadvantaged children receive at least two days of early learning each week – no matter what their parents do.

We don’t believe there is a conflict in lobbying the Government to do more for children from low income households while also welcoming changes which will make early learning more affordable for the majority of working households in Australia.

As you noted in your blog post, late last week Goodstart also released independent modelling from PwC which demonstrates the Government’s claims that the changes will be good for two-income families were well founded. Importantly there will be strong economic benefits for the nation when more women return to work as a result of early learning being more affordable.

We are urging the Senate to pass the bill, with amendments to ensure disadvantaged children receive at least 15 hours of early learning each week [emphasis is Goodstart’s – Liam].

Liam we hope you will be able to correct the record with your readership by posting this email or at the very least the links to our submission and media release.

Kind regards

Wendy George
Campaign Manager, Goodstart Early Learning

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Australian early childhood education is under threat – and we may not even know it

“And so people in the sector need to recognise and, if need be, adjust their business models to support those families who are looking to provide for their children for six hours a day or four hours a day over three days.”

– Senator Simon Birmingham

Advocacy gets tricky in the details. Fighting the good fight for ideals and foundational rights is not easy, but it’s clear. Calling out and ending the scourge of domestic violence. Calling for the release of children from immigration detention. Calling for a fair, equitable and funded early education and care sector.

There are clear, consistent and compelling cases that can – and are – being made on these important causes. But there comes a time when you need to move beyond the headline, get people round a table and hammer out a plan.

Tackling domestic violence will take generations of work in law, government, our schools and our homes. It will require challenging the very forces of society that encourage men to desire and exercise control over women.

Ending Australia’s offshore detention program, and freeing children from their abject existences within it, seems less and less likely as global events and our own inward focus hardens our attitudes. Even changing the Government will not end this.

As for early education – talk about getting lost in the details.

I’ve devoted a fair chunk of my professional career in this sector to understanding, exploring and arguing with people on Twitter about the ins and outs of Australian early childhood policy. There are any number of people more intelligent, articulate and credible in this space – but I’m not exactly a newbie here either. But, confession time, I find the system inordinately complex, challenging and migraine-inducing. On a good day.

Australia’s legislative, regulatory and political framework for Birth-5 education is a labyrinthine mess of funding streams, Federal/State & Territory overlaps, a system deliberately designed to foster profit-based competition, local government planning issues and an undervalued and underpaid workforce. They’re just the problems I could think of while writing this paragraph.

The Productivity Commission Inquiry was designed – at least in part – to identify, and provide solutions for, these endless entanglements. Its success in this area is minimal at best, and given that the current Government has had wildly varied responses to its final report depending on A) who was the current Minister at the team (just a reminder, we’re up to 3 now since the last election) and B) which Department has responsibility for the sector (2 so far, 3 if you count going back and forth from Education). It’s telling that the new Minister, Simon Birmingham, has barely referred to the Commission at all since his elevation to the role of Education Minister.

Advocating for a fair and equitable early education system is easy – right up until the point you have to get into the details. And it’s in the details that something very concerning is happening – and I’m not convinced the sector is ready for it.

Senator Birmingham has recently floated the idea that ECEC services should charge by the hour. An innocuous suggestion by itself – most families don’t use a service for its entire hours of operation each day. But, taken alongside a number of other statements and policy directions of the last 6-12 months, it’s now clear that Australia’s early education system is facing an existential threat.

Generalising massively here (which we have to because, again, the details make my head hurt), we can see the Birth-5 education advocacy push within Australia (and even internationally to greater or lesser extents) as moving along a continuum from formalised babysitting towards recognition as part of the formal education system. It’s a very simplified version, but we can generally agree that we’re moving towards a vision of being viewed in the same framework as primary, secondary and tertiary education – funded and available to all.

The National Quality Framework (NQF) was a significant milestone on this journey. It was agreed to by both Coalition and Labor State and Territory Governments, and despite some tough talk has been continued under the Coalition Federal Government. I’m a vigorous defender of the NQF – and its now clear that the Government know it’s here to stay. Which makes their current policy moves dangerous.

They’re not going to get rid of the NQF. They’re going to make it meaningless.

Proposed changes, currently before the Senate, will see the current work/study activity test – essentially how much you contribute to the economy before your children are deemed worth of accessing an ECEC services – will become tighter locking out already marginalised children and families.

The Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care estimates at least half the indigenous families now using childcare would fail the work and study “activity test’’.

– Natasha Bita, The Australian

This erosion of access was the first major push-back. The current proposal to expect services to charge by the hour will push us back another step – except this one will be over a cliff.

The Government’s moves, taken as part of a wider push, will see the sector slide back along the continuum. Rather than heading towards integration with the education system, Birth-5 education will become a service for parents like a trip to Monkey Mania. In fact, given the administrative nightmare hourly charging within the CCMS system will cause the sector, we may as well hand over to private indoor playgrounds. At least their system is set up for it.

“After all, nobody expects a three or four year old to engage in 10 to 12 hours of centre-based learning per day. These children will be much better served via access to two or three shorter educational sessions per week.”

– Senator Simon Birmingham

I can understand families being seduced by this idea – particularly given that Australia’s Birth-5 system is the most expensive in the OECD. But Early Childhood Australia have legitimate analysis that hourly billing will actually end up being more expensive in the long run.

Regardless, I don’t actually believe that this argument is about the cost of ECEC. Despite a significant international shift in the last 5-10 years towards recognising and beginning to properly fund this area, the current Government just does not fundamentally accept the need for early education (with the exception of Preschool). Despite the clear evidence on return for investment, Australia does not appear ready to take this leap away from a workforce participation mindset towards a focus on society as a whole. The evidence is becoming overwhelming – just as with primary and secondary education, everyone benefits whether you personally have children in the system or not.

It’s worth discussing primary and secondary education within the context of this (now extremely long) look at advocacy and details. The Gonski campaign was a fantastic example of education-based advocacy because it was clear, and actually managed to overcome a lot of the problem of minute detail. The Australian community at large could accept the details of the problem – and solution – because the argument about the right to accessing school is done and dusted.

The reason Birth-5 advocacy doesn’t have a “Gonski”-style campaign is the right to access argument is still being waged. We’re still in the weeds of even getting the community to accept this needs to be funded at all, let alone how.

The Government’s current approach reflects this – and therefore the “solutions” being proposed are a staggering case of missing the point entirely.

Senator Birmingham is not wrong to point out that families may be paying a lot for hours they are not using. But this isn’t the point – the point is they’re paying a lot for ECEC full stop. Forcing services to upend their entire approach misses the point that the system needs to be structured and funded to support the attendance of all children, particularly those experiencing vulnerability.

Senator Birmingham is not necessarily wrong to raise the issue of children attending 10-12 hours of formal learning a day. However, this firstly exposes a rather simplistic and inaccurate view of what is happening in ECEC services, and secondly his proposed solution is again entirely the wrong approach. If this is his concern, regulate services to provide shorter permanent hours of operation. Instead of opening to floodgates to Paid Parking Meter Childcare, let’s do 8.30 – 3.30. Heaven forbid the business community should have to be flexible to meet the education needs of children.

The move towards a fair and equitable Birth-5 education system is under threat, and the details are the weapons. Small but significant policy changes that undermine the gains of the last decade. I’m worried that the sector isn’t ready for this, and that private operators in the space may actually seize on the proposed system.

We need to be aware, and we need to force ourselves to keep up with the details. We may end up buried under them.

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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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12-month funding extension doesn’t tell us anything about the Government’s position on early education

Sussan Ley is obviously familiar with the idea that you don’t come to a party empty-handed.

Before almost 2000 delegates at the opening day of Early Childhood Australia’s National Conference on Friday, the Assistant Minister for Education announced that the Federal Government would commit to a further 12 months of funding for the National Partnership Agreement on Preschool funding.

This Agreement provides funding to the States and Territories to top up their existing funded Preschool hours to 15 per week for every child. It was due to cease at the end of this year, and since its election in September last year the Government has steadfastly refused to confirm if the funding would be extended.

This failure to provide certainty has been regularly condemned by the sector, by early learning experts – and even the Productivity Commission has recommended in its draft report that the funding should be kept.

Minister Ley’s announcement has provoked mixed reactions. The extension of funding is undoubtedly welcome, but the caveat that it is only a 12-month extension once again places the sector in a state of uncertainty.

The decision provides further emphasis on the core problem facing the Government’s approach to childcare and early childhood education: It doesn’t have one.

Ever since their election, and in fact during most of their time in Opposition, the Abbott Government has been content to provide regular and scathing assessments of the Labor Government’s ineptitude and profligacy in this area.

“Fees rose 53% under Labor,” intones the Assistant Minister so regularly it is probably in her email signature block. “Operators are drowning in red tape” is another popular catchphrase.

Both those lines can be (and regularly have been) strongly rebutted – but one year after their election, there seems little point arguing to toss when we don’t even know what game we’re playing.

The early childhood sector and the community are no closer to understanding what the Government’s approach to such a critical policy area is now than they were one year ago. 52 weeks after they were handed the keys to Parliament House, it is surely not unreasonable that we might have an inkling of what the Government thinks needs to be done with early learning and childcare.

The go-to excuse has always been the Productivity Commission. Handballing the political hot potato to the Commission was a short-term measure to avoid scrutiny and making any actual decisions. Examining the issues and factors surrounding the sector is a worthwhile exercise, and the Commission’s draft report has already sparked debate in the community.

But the Government’s refusal to even point in the general direction of a policy position until they have had the chance to read the final report is now bordering on lunacy. Governments, and in particular this Government, are not unbiased implementers of recommendations from independent reviewers.

Governments are values-driven, and have a particular ideological bent. It is surely time, regardless of what the Commission recommends, that we have some idea of how the Government even views early learning.

This is a significant community issue, and plays into the lives of practically every Australian family. Regardless of whatever specific concerns people may have had about the policy settings of the previous Labor Government, they were at least clear that they stood for a growth in funding to early childhood education, a national benchmark of quality and support for children and families experiencing vulnerabilities to access early learning.

We have no such direction from the current Government, even in such general terms. In Opposition, Sussan Ley regularly lambasted the National Quality Framework as “the dead hand of government regulation”, while in Government has defended it from attacks by Senator David Leyonhjelm.

Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey have grimly told Australians that the budget is tight and no extra money can be found for early education in the Budget, while allocating $5.5 billion to a Paid Parental Leave scheme that barely even has majority support within their own party.

The Government is under no obligation to outline specific early education policies until they are ready – but they have surely run out of time to keep their general thoughts on such policies hidden and unknown.

They have certainly not been shy about coming forward with their ideological positions on a number of other issues such as free speech, the environment and education to name just a few.

Which begs the question: why is the Government so silent on early education?

Two possibilities suggest themselves – either they have no idea what to do and how to do it; or the plans they do have are too shocking to share with the electorate.

It’s hard to know which is worse.

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Blog Policy

The Abbott Government is playing the community off against itself on the right to childcare

The Productivity Commission is due to hand down its draft report into the Childcare and Early Learning sector this month. As the deadline approaches, we are finally beginning to see indications of policy approach from the Federal Government in this area.

The Coalition spent most of its time in Opposition, and so far all of its time in Government, blasting the ALP for inefficient management of the childcare sector. “Costs have skyrocketed”, they’ve declared; “educators are drowning in red tape”, they’ve proclaimed.

Over the last week a new angle has become clearer. The ALP’s mismanagement has left the system open to rorters and fraudsters. Decent, hard-working families are being denied places at their local childcare centre as the service is full-to-the-brim with the children of “stay-at-home-Mums”.

So determined to drag childcare into the Government’s overall narrative of “lifters versus leaners”, the Government has even started to demonise the very “stay-at-home-Mums” that during the Howard years were feted and showered with election-eve spending at the slightest hint of a poll drop.

The Government has been determined to reframe a difficult post-Budget period into a classic “us against them” battle, and it was inevitable that the complex and difficult issues around quality, affordability and accessibility of childcare would similarly be split.

Let’s get the obvious retorts out the way first. The Government has provided no data, statistics or numbers on any of the claims it has made. None at all. It has merely presented these issues as facts, and expected people to respond to them as such.

There are already clear, priority-of-access guidelines in place for all long day care services which clearly prioritise working families. If the Department of Education has specific evidence that specific services are flouting these guidelines, in breach of their operational commitments, then they can be followed up.

The Government has also alleged widespread rorting of a subsidy for parents who are studying (Commonwealth Jobs, Education and Training Child Care Fee Assistance or JETCCFA scheme), and has again directly implicated service providers. Apparently “some” parents are over-claiming this subsidy, and “increasing number” of services are claiming for services not provided and “a number” of services are overcharging to claim more of the subsidy.

It might be hard to pick through the dense layer of hard data and statistics quoted above from the Assistant Minister for Education’s press release, but it’s hard to actually tell how much of a problem this is from the information provided.

It’s the same story with the bludging parents taking up all the childcare places. The Assistant Minister has provided no evidence or data on the amount or increase of this problem. “It’s a very frustrating thing when you can’t get a place and you are a working parent and others who are not already have a place,’’ said the Minister – and she is undoubtedly right.

But the problem is that the Government are not proposing anything that will actually resolve these issues.

What the Government is doing is finally giving us an indication of what their policy approach to childcare will be.

A Productivity Commission into the sector was the right call, and should actually have been carried out some time ago. Childcare and early learning is an entirely different sector now than it was in the 1990s.

But the Commission has been critically held back from actually proposing the reforms that are desperately needed. The terms of reference provided to the Commission by the Treasurer Joe Hockey explicitly state that no further budget funds will be provided to childcare overall, despite investment in early childhood education being internationally recognised as best practice.

Given that restraint, the Commission will not be able to propose any policy changes that will actually fix the chronic underfunding and fragmentation of the childcare sector.

It is in that context that the Government’s framing of the debate becomes clearer. Despite the irrefutable evidence that access to high quality childcare has a hugely positive benefit not just to children and families but society as a whole, the Government will be making it harder for some children to access childcare.

For children’s advocates, every child has the right to access a high quality childcare service.

But rather than invest, repair and expand the sector to meet the needs of the modern Australian community, the Abbott Government will seek to play the community off against itself on which families and children have the right to access a service.