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.

 

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Australia’s business community should be thinking long-term about childcare investment

We didn’t get a lot more information about the Government’s planned “families package” at the Press Club yesterday, but we do now know that Tony Abbott’s signature Paid Parental Leave scheme is – to coin a phrase – dead, buried and cremated.

Which leaves a rather large sum of money now up for grabs, funded by a 1.5% levy on some of Australia’s largest companies. Predictably, the business community has insisted that since the PPL is gone, the levy should be gone as well.

The Government has made no mention of what will become of this levy, though it seems reasonably clear given Tony Abbott’s address and Scott Morrison’s recent media comments that it will be kept and redirected in some way to the childcare budget.

The members of the business community quoted are flatly stating that any additional funding of childcare is the Government’s responsibility. I am fine with this argument in a broad sense, and indeed strongly advocate for full Government funding of all forms of early childhood education and care.

But this is still a cop-out from Australia’s businesses. The potential short-term increases to workforce participation (particularly for women), and the enormous long-term improvements to the economy are now almost universally accepted. Business has a chance to be a real part of the solution in ensuring that childcare is affordable, accessible and of high quality.

In the heady days of 2014, when members of the Government tended to laugh until they cried when anyone suggested they increase investment in childcare, I wrote that the sector may find a possible partner in Australia’s business community. This sprung from the Business Council of Australia’s submission to the Productivity Commission enquiry into the sector which strongly advocated for a much stronger childcare sector.

For the business community to now simply turn around and say “not our problem”, while demanding that the Government provide billions of dollars worth of tax breaks, incentives and other financial palliatives to support them is more than a little hypocritical.

Business leaders have made a habit recently of complaining about the short-term nature of politics, which doesn’t look beyond the next term. They should start looking beyond the scrapping of a levy that isn’t even in place yet, and think long term about what sensible structural reform to Australia’s childcare sector could mean for the entire community.

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.

Accentuating the positives

Early childhood education and care has been moved out of the education portfolio. Our new Federal Minister has a track record in blunt, non-consultative decision making (as well as locking up children on remote island prisons). In general, the Federal Government is buffeted by distractions and “gaffes” of its own making.

On the face of it, it’s hard to be positive about the likelihood of any positive reform to Australia’s children’s education and care sector. The current Government is firmly opposed to any budget increase to this area, and appear far more focused on “crackdowns” on a minority of operators and services engaging in financial misbehaviour.

However, despite the noted cynic I am, I determined to find some positives. And it turns out, there’s a big one.

The Government has to get this right, or their current woes will seem tame by comparison.

Australia’s child care sector is one of the most expensive for families in the OECD. This has inevitable flow-on effects to workforce participation (particularly for women), and has a demonstrated impact on Australia’s overall economic performance.

The Coalition may be ideologically opposed to Government funding of child care (as Mums have always done it for free), but they are now in the absolute minority on this issue. Access to affordable, high quality child care is now a necessity. In a short space of time, it will be seen as a right.

The Government have repeatedly laid the blame for the sector’s woes at the feet of the previous Labor Government, but that window of opportunity has now closed. This is now firmly the problem of this Government.

Given their current woes, they will be desperate for a big win. What better area than the one that is a pressing issue for a huge number of families? Medicare backflips, knighthoods and all the rest would recede pretty rapidly into the distance if the Government announced sweeping reforms to the child care sector that maintained (and extended) quality outcomes for children, while improving accessibility and affordability.

Is this likely? Perhaps not. But it should be remembered that Tony Abbott has already had to back down from his “signature” Paid Parental Leave policy, with the expectation that some of this money will go to addressing child care issues.There are even reports on the day I post this that the Government is still working through its plans on this.

If we’ve learned anything about this Government, months and months of hard-faced insistence that their policies will be enacted are pretty easily forgotten when they are backed into a corner.

Over a million children are now utilising some form of child care in this country. All of them have their own challenges (major and minor) navigating Australia’s complex system. That’s a lot of voters ready to put pressure on the Government.

Failing to adequately address accessibility and affordability issues will be an unmitigated disaster, both for the sector and for the Government. Even maintaining the status quo with some tinkering at the edges won’t cut it, given that Abbott has committed 2015 to being the year of family policy.

But positive reform of the sector, improving accessibility and affordability for all and bringing the child care sector into the 21st Century would be a huge victory for Tony Abbott on this front. It’s not hard to imagine that a win that size would not be tempting for him.

So keep that flicker of positivity alive in 2015 – and keep an eye on the Government’s desperation levels.

Government arrives at policy position the rest of Australia arrived at 18 months ago

In what is presumably another example of the Prime Minister tackling the numerous barnacles that seem to be stubbornly attached to the ship of Government, Tony Abbott has foreshadowed that 2015 will see some tinkering to his signature Paid Parental Leave scheme. This will apparently see a focus on low- and middle-income families, as well as “more available and more affordable child care as well.”

As in many policy areas with this apparently “consultative” and “listening” Government, it seems that everyone else in Australia (including the majority of his own party) came to this realisation many, many months ago. Tony Abbott’s stubborn determination to hang on to the original “Rolls-Royce” version of the PPL was turning in to some sort of ongoing performance-art piece on political incompetence.

It’s important to note however that no actual details have been provided regarding any redistribution of funds from PPL to childcare. Presumably Cabinet s sifting through the Productivity Commission’s report into the sector, utilising its incredibly broad and diverse breadth of experience in these kind of issues to develop sensible and considered policies.

(Quick reminder below of the immense diversity and breadth of life experience in Cabinet. I dare anyone to find a group of old white guys more reflective of today’s Australian community than that bunch below.)

Various media outlets are reporting that the “tinkering” will see significantly less money spent on women earning $150,000 and over, with the savings essentially redirected into funding nannies and other in-home care arrangements.

I’ve written before about the complications that would ensue from simply pushing for more nannies. Clearly, the best solution to the issues facing the childcare sector is a well-funded, high-quality and easily accessible early childhood education and care sector. A significant redirection of funds into Long Day Care in particular could reap significant benefits.

We’ll likely know a lot more in early 2015. But given the Government’s track record in other policy announcements, we’ll likely wish we didn’t know a lot more in early 2015.

The twelve days of red tape repeal

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Hello, dear readers. It’s that magical time of year, Red Tape Repeal Day!

Is there any more wonderful time to gather friends and family close, grab the extra-large ceremonial scissors and go to town on all the red tape you can find.

In the spirit of the season, please join along with me for a non-regulated sing-a-long!

On the first day of red tape repeal the PM repealed for me
Those lefties at the ABC.

On the second day of red tape repeal the PM repealed for me
Childcare quality.

On the third day of red tape repeal the PM repealed for me
Women in cabinet.

On the fourth day of red tape repeal the PM repealed for me
Credit card protections.

On the fifth day of red tape repeal the PM repealed for me
Newtown Year 9!

On the sixth day of red tape repeal the PM repealed for me
Ministerial accountability.

On the seventh day of red tape repeal the PM repealed for me
Aged care safety.

On the eighth day of red tape repeal the PM repealed for me
Indigenous funding.

On the ninth day of red tape repeal the PM repealed for me
Job security.

On the tenth day of red tape repeal the PM repealed for me
Reporting refugees.

On the eleventh day of red tape repeal the PM repealed for me
David Gonski.

On the twelfth day of red tape repeal the PM repealed for me
Being mean to Bolt.

Happy Red Tape Repeal Day, everyone!

Wage rises for educators now in doubt

The AFR is reporting that the incoming Abbott Government will be “redistributing” funds from the Early Years Quality Fund and a similar wage-increase fund in the aged care sector.

The Coalition may reallocate the childcare fund, which was set up to distribute any taxpayer-subsidised pay rises for childcare workers.

It is unclear whether any childcare workers had received the wage top-up already because the Labor government was late to release the eligibility rules for the two-year wages subsidy, which was due to end in 2015.

The Coalition’s childcare policy states it would honour any contracts already made and the remaining funds would be kept in the government’s childcare budget.

It is entirely unclear what this will actually mean. No money has started rolling out to services, although some contracts have been signed.

Some services had received “conditional approval”, and the incoming Government has not made clear whether they will be honoured.

UPDATE: Early Childhood Australia have released a statement calling on the incoming Government to honour the funding commitments in the EYQF. The statement is worth reading in full, and highlights the inequities and divisions inherent in the Fund.

In order to be eligible for the fund, organisations were required to have an Enterprise Agreement (EA) in place with their employees. The creation of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ did not sit well with a sector that takes its ethics and commitment to social equity very seriously.  There was considerable dissension and concern in the early childhood sector, as demonstrated by the submissions to the Senate Inquiry Submissions on the Legislation.