HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 24 AUGUST 2020
Nothing I have done in my life has been as rewarding as being the dad to three little boys. Spending time with them, reading and playing games, is one of my true delights in life. But it's hard too. That's just dealing with one or two or sometimes all three of them. When I look at early educators and the work that they do every day, I do so with huge respect. This isn't babysitting; this is education.
As we learn more and more about neuroscience, we get the sense as to the importance of quality early education. That's why when Labor was last in government we pursued both a quantity and a quality agenda, ensuring that early childhood education was more broadly accessible but also raising the standards and the qualifications and ensuring that the ratios were right. That's vital not just for now but also in the future.
Investing in early education is a productivity measure. We know from studies such as the Early Training Project, Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian Project how much of an impact you can have on lives if you invest early on. A study in Heidelberg West, a new Australian randomised trial, is adding to that evidence base as well by randomising disadvantaged children into high-quality early education and comparing them with a similar control group to look at the impact. We need to learn more about the impact of high-quality early education, because it is potentially one of the greatest investment that can be made.
As various studies of the Perry Preschool experiment have shown, when you're working with children who might otherwise end up committing a felony—as the typical child in the control group in Perry Preschool did—then you can get a return something in the order of seven to one for every dollar that you're putting into early learning. So we need a strong focus on early education, not only because it is absolutely vital in improving workforce participation, particularly for women, but also because it's critical for kids.
We know that raising the accessibility of early education is vital for improving the labour force participation of parents but we also know that we need to do a lot on the quality agenda. That's why Labor has been so concerned at the haphazard way in which the government has handled the early childhood sector. On 20 July the government announced that JobKeeper would be withdrawn from the early childhood sector. This is the only sector in Australia now that is specifically banned from receiving JobKeeper, alongside universities, which, through a variety of subterfuge measures, have also been kept out of receiving JobKeeper subsidies. Enormous pressure has been placed on early learning centres. As the shadow minister, Amanda Rishworth, has pointed out, this has been done too hastily and it has caused significant problems right across the sector. So we're calling on the government to put in place a more consistent approach, with more consistent supports for early learning centres.
This bill puts in place a number of sensible measures which improve assistance to vulnerable and disadvantaged families. Labor supports those measures. But we do so in an environment in which we're aware that the government was claiming that there would be free child care, without funding free child care. We saw, for many centres, their inability to access JobKeeper prior to 20 July because they used casual workers who'd been employed for less than 12 months and were therefore ruled out, due to this arbitrary distinction that the government made. As the member for Kingston has said, this is ‘a broken promise by this government, a broken promise to families right across Australia’.
In my electorate of Fenner I've been in touch with a range of early learning educators who are frustrated at the situation that they've been placed in this year. One educator wrote to me, prior to 20 July:
… approximately 30% of our employees will not qualify for the job keeper incentive because they have not been with the service for 12 months.
She also said that they were frustrated at the lack of access to protective clothing and equipment. She said:
This tells us that the Australian Government as well as families don't care about us.
I am a grandmother myself and I have not had any contact with my own children or grandchildren for weeks and yet I am expected to come to work every day and hold other children and work in close spaces with co-workers. Early Childhood environments are, in nature, breeding grounds for germs and so we are attuned to the effective prevention of the spread of infectious illnesses. But we are being taken for granted and left without any acknowledgement of what we actually do each day and how our jobs are placing us at risk.
Another early learning educator wrote:
… I'm writing to ask for your support of early childhood educators who have been defined as essential workers recently with lowest pay & highest risk. Other essential workers such as nurses, doctors, retailers etc are allowed to wear masks & protective clothing but we are not. We cannot practice social distancing, so putting ourselves & our families at very high risk of being infected by Coronavirus.
Another early learning educator wrote:
Each and every day we are putting ourselves and our families at risk just for the government with no personal protective gear or anything, we even find it hard to get simple things like gloves, soap and hand sanitizer.
She went on to say:
All I ask is think about us, recognise us as a profession and not as baby sitters, lower-class s--t kickers, because this is how we feel. I have worked in the sector for 5 years and have gotten many sicknesses like gastro, colds, cases of flu and more from the children. We don't receive any support for the hard times we go through. This needs to change before it's too late and the economy begins to fail even more because all childcare centres close and families can't go to work. Just remember this lies in the government's hands so we ask please support us as educators.
Labor will continue to be a strong voice for early learning educators and for the families that depend on them. Labor recognises the crucial role that early education plays in our community and will continue to maintain the pressure on this government to do right by the early learning sector in the course of this pandemic.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.