Speech: Urgent action for early childhood education and care
People are doing it really tough. Many are left with a choice of putting food on the table, paying rent or going to the dentist, and all the while they are still trying to cope with the pandemic. There is no question that people need cost-of-living relief. This is the time to make some monumental changes to do exactly that by investing in essential services. Early childhood education and care is one of those public services that needs urgent attention.
After many years of being considered a third- or fourth-order political issue, early learning is pretty close to front and centre of the political agenda, as it ought to be. A radical rethinking of early education and care has been a long time coming, and in no small part it is due to the advocacy of so many in the sector and the community who have fought hard for recognition of early learning as what it really is—an essential service that is critical for children in the early years of their development. It should be well funded, universal and fee-free.
In his address last week, the Governor-General stated:
The ultimate goal is to add affordable child care to the list of universal services—alongside Medicare, the NDIS and superannuation—that Australians cherish.
The Greens welcome the aspiration of delivering child care as a universal service. We have been saying for many years now that early childhood education and care should be free and universal, an essential service. We took to the election a bold, fully costed plan for free and universal early childhood education and care across Australia. As the Greens spokesperson for education, I am so proud to lead this work. I want to highlight, however, the urgency of the task ahead and the need for the new government not only to get on with the job of raising the childcare subsidy but also to deliver a far more ambitious agenda that tackles affordability; workforce, including pay and conditions; and the terrible reliance on for-profit early education providers.
Education should never be for profit. Gap fees are going through the roof, while there are thousands of staff vacancies in our childcare centres across the country. Alarmingly, short-staffed services are increasingly relying on staffing waivers just to keep their doors open. Centre staff and children suffer when this is made more and more common. The United Workers Union has announced that its workers will go on strike in September. I give my full solidarity and support to those educators who are demanding a better deal. The union has said:
Educators are leaving the sector in record numbers every week due to burn-out, workload and low pay.
Centres across the country are having to limit enrolments, close rooms and cancel staff leave.
Children and families are suffering due to the strain.
After nearly a decade of inaction on early learning, educators have had enough.
In just the last few days, several critical new reports have been released which further highlight the need for swift and systemic reform of early learning. The Centre for Policy Development's Starting now, the Australia Institute's Childcare review &strike require systemic solutions and the Thrive by Five early childhood education and care workforce action plan are calls to action for the incoming government variously on affordability, a well-treated workforce, excellence in early learning, tackling private provision—the list goes on. The treatment of early childhood educators is a national shame. Early childhood educators continue to be paid well below what would be expected of those with their responsibilities and skills. A proper workforce strategy must be delivered and actually implemented with the early learning sector and unions to achieve higher professional pay and better working conditions.
The childcare scams simply cannot be quick-fixed down the road by this government. This should be a top priority. The billionaires and the tax-dodging, profiteering fossil fuel corporations that are driving the climate crisis must be made to pay their fair share so we can have the public services everyday people living in Australia need. While I have no doubt that there is much careful work to do, I do not want to see the government deferring much of its work on child care until after a drawn-out review or acting only following the release of its vaunted Early Years Strategy. We need free and universal early education and care now, with educators who have the best pay and conditions. We need action now.