Blog Policy

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

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

Blog Policy

Three years on, what has the Government achieved in early childhood policy?

Three years, three Ministers, two Departments, one Productivity Commission Inquiry – Zero progress.

Today’s announcement from the Prime Minister that we could be heading to the polls as soon as July marks as good a time as any to reflect on the Abbott/Turnbull Government’s achievements in early childhood policy since 2013.

Well, at least this won’t take too long.

Access to and affordability of ECEC was one of the big issues in the 2013 election. The then-Opposition Coalition had campaigned hard on ensuring a better-structured sector that would be more affordable to families. This was primarily to be achieved through a Productivity Commission inquiry.

Tony Abbott and the Coalition won the election, and the inquiry was set in motion. Sussan Ley was appointed as the Minister for the sector. Her time in the role can mostly be marked by the phrases “we’ll wait and see what the Productivity Commission recommends” and “it’s all Labor’s fault”, as well as overseeing an unnecessary fight over Universal Access Preschool funding with every single state and territory and floating thought-bubbles about Government-funded nannies.

Ley’s tenure as Minister marked no actual policy direction or announcements. Her support for the National Quality Framework was tenuous at best, and her relationship with the sector was poor. I imagine she was as happy to see the back of ECEC policy as we were to see her move on to Health.

The biggest milestone of the Age of Ley was the Productivity Commission (PC) report into the sector, which promised to be a game-changing proposal for fundamental structural reform. In the end – not so much. Two years on, the PC’s Final Report has all but vanished from the discussion. It ended up being an extremely lengthy exercise in fiddling around the edges which, while disappointing, was inevitable given the restriction placed on the PC to only make proposals within the current budget for ECEC.

The Commission finally reported to the Government in November 2014, meaning that any proposed budget changes wouldn’t be in place until the next Federal Budget in May 2015. Getting on to two years after they were elected.

Keen to ensure that the sector wouldn’t be bored during this waiting period, Tony Abbott followed up his Grocery Code of Conduct by putting Ley out of everyone’s misery, shifting ECEC out of Education and making it the responsibility of children’s friend and advocate Scott Morrison.

Morrison, fresh from overseeing the mental, physical and emotional torture of children in island concentration camps, went full-tilt into “Loveable Old Scott” mode, promising to sort out the funding of the sector and the attendant affordability issues.

Morrison introduced the foundations of the “Jobs for Families” package that is currently before the Senate. That is literally about all I can actually remember from his time in the role. Good work Scott, have a go at Treasurer as a reward.

Which brought us the downfall of Abbott, the introduction of the agile and nimble Malcolm Turnbull as PM and the appointment of fresh-faced Simon Birmingham as the third Minister to take the wheel of ECEC policy.

Birmingham has continued trying to get the Jobs for Families Package through the Parliament, with the innovative and agile tactic of making it even worse.

It’s hard to believe that three years on, and literally nothing has happened in ECEC. The Government’s reform package will not pass before the election. After decrying Labor’s inadequacy in handling this portfolio, the ability of the Government to achieve literally nothing is almost impressive.

We’ve got a little while before the election, double-dissolution or not, and it’s possible we may see some wider election promises in this area. It seems more likely that they’ll just continue to the claim the Jobs for Families Package is the magical fixer of all things.

Three years of inaction in ECEC is ridiculous and pathetic. Let’s hope the next three see positive moves forward.



Coalition now supporting the NQF?

Sussan Ley, the Coalition’s spokesperson for childcare and early learning, has signalled that if elected her party will ensure the implementation of the National Quality Framework.

The Coalition has promised if it wins the election to convene a meeting with state and territory ministers to fine-tune the NQF to remove excessive regulation, but will maintain the quality aspects of the reforms to a sector dominated by low-paid female workers.

“Rollback of the reforms is not a term I have ever used and, by law, any slowdown would be a decision for the state and territory governments, individually or collectively,” opposition childcare spokeswoman Sussan Ley told The Australian.

“If we’re elected, we will sit down with state and territory ministers to work out what aspects of the NQF could work better than they are at present,” she said.

“In particular, we will focus on where excessive regulation adds to compliance and cost but not to quality.”

Source: The Australian

This is a fairly significant backdown after years of dramatic recitations of “the dead hand of government red tape”. The Coalition will also apparently accept the verdict of Fair Work Australia on any wage increases for educators. Taking Ms Ley at face value, this is good news for the sector.

It is important to remember, however, that the Coalition has been feeling political pressure on childcare and early learning, and the Australian has been very accommodating to their views on government regulation.

Also importantly, in the article Ms Ley claims that she has never stated that the Coalition would “roll back” reforms. This is disingenuous at best, and an outright falsehood at worst.

A good comparison on Ms Ley’s apparent change of heart can be found be reading this article “Coalition plans for childcare rollback” from 2012.

Ms Ley told The Australian the regulation was killing the sector and must be abandoned.

“Family daycare is becoming incredibly inflexible under the National Quality reforms,” she said. “I’m really feeling the frustration of the sector because every childcare roundtable I attend brings forward more examples of the dead hand of government regulation in a sector that absolutely doesn’t need it.