Budget does nothing for the madge-less

One doesn’t have to pay too much attention to the political sphere to work out that early education just isn’t the Federal Coalition’s ‘thing’. The very name of their centrepiece policy, Jobs for Families, shows what their priorities are. The recent Federal Budget and associated pre budget announcements by the Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham also reflect the Coalition’s lack of interest in ensuring children in Australia get the best start to their education.

One thing that is there, however, is the rhetoric. The minister stated that ‘childcare’ delivers valuable and important early education benefits. He also said “it is critical that children in the earliest years have access to a quality preschool education in the year before they begin school”. Strong words eh? One would expect them to be followed by an avalanche of funding announcements and by a clear vision and policy to ensure every Australian child has access to a quality early education.

But don’t hold your breath. The minister squibbed it. Scott Morrison, in delivering the Budget, squibbed it. The Prime Minister, forgetting all those Jobs for Families package photo opportunities with young children at early education services, also squibbed it.

A few days before the Budget the minister announced a one year only $428 million extension to the National Partnership Agreement on universal access to early childhood education. One year. Why just one year? Because this will “allow for proper discussions with the states and territories on how we fairly guarantee in an ongoing sense 15 hours of preschool beyond that, given the very different models of preschool delivery that apply from one state to another”. Given that in the four years the Coalition has been in power we have had no less than four short term extensions to the Universal Access National Partnership Agreement, one would think they could have had the “proper” discussions with the states and territories by now!

So did the Budget deliver anything new to the early education and care sector? No, it didn’t. The Government used it to reiterate its commitment to delivering the Jobs for Families package – or as this was expressed: “The Government has delivered significant early reform of the child care system that will help support Australian families who want to work, or work more.”

And this is what it comes down to. For the Coalition Government, despite the rhetoric, early education and care is nothing more than a means to workforce participation. It is about delivering women to employers. It is about productivity and increasing the GDP. It has nothing to do with children and their right to learn. It has nothing to do with making sure children have the best start to life. It is nothing about a vision of the sort of country we could be.

For the Coalition Government, despite the rhetoric, early education and care is nothing more than a means to workforce participation.

As many readers would know the package dramatically cuts the amount of early education and care that children in Australia can access. Whereas under the current subsidy system every child has access to a guaranteed minimum 48 hours a fortnight, in the new system, under the so called ‘activity test’ children’s access depends on their parent’s work/study or voluntary activities. Both parents now have to work over 16 hours a fortnight for their children to be able to get what they do now. Children of families who earn under $65,000 can access 24 hours of care a fortnight regardless of whether they pass the activity test but given that most long day care centres operate 8-10 hour days, in reality this means just one day’s care a week for most of these children.

Outside of the education and care sector, the Budget was a bit more interesting. The Government airily dumped about $13 billion worth of impossible to sell ‘zombie’ measures left over from the 2014 budget. Let me repeat that. It dumped $13 billion dollars of savings that it couldn’t get through the Senate. If the early education and care sector had been united in its opposition to the activity test, could this also have been among the measures the Government would have been forced to drop? This is seriously worth pondering.

The Government did allocate a whack of money ($16.1 million) to advertising the new Child Care Subsidy system that is the centrepiece of the Jobs for Families package. Hopefully some of this advertising will be directed to the education and care services which will have to do a lot of explaining of the new system to parents in their new role as defacto agencies for Centrelink.

The Government also came good on their promise to Nick Xenophon in exchange for his support in guaranteeing the passage of the Jobs for Families package through the Senate. $61.8 million per year has been set aside to ensure the continuation of Budget Based Funding (BBF) to Indigenous and mobile services. This has been set aside from the money that was already budgeted as a grants program for disadvantaged and vulnerable communities and services. Essentially what this means is that BBF services will not have to compete with other services for scarce funds, but no additional funds have been allocated for other services. So the win for BBF services came at the expense of funds for other disadvantaged or vulnerable families and other marginally viable services.

In his pre budget speech to the National Press Club, Simon Birmingham reminisced about his late grandmother, Madge, who was a primary school teacher. He said she “ensured he had all of the basic literacy and numeracy skills required to learn”.

Maybe a good message from the early education sector to the minister is that not everyone has the privilege of having a Madge. And that is where early education comes in. To ensure all children get the same start to life as he did. With all the moral panic the Coalition goes on about Australia’s falling rankings in international tests, you’d think they would at least look at what the countries doing better than us have, that we don’t. They all have a comprehensive early education system. And that’s what we need. A comprehensive early education system so we don’t end up with the ‘Madge-less’ children falling by the wayside.

Surely the Coalition could be persuaded to make this their newest ‘thing’?

Lisa Bryant
Early Childhood Consultant