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National Early Childhood Election Forum

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National Early Childhood Election Forum report

The forum held in Melbourne last week was sponsored by some of the partners behind Early Learning: Everyone Benefits – CELA, ECA-Victoria, ELAA, Goodstart, CELA, KU Children’s Services, and Playgroups Australia. CELA CEO Michele Carnegie and Research Adviser Megan O’Connell attended the event.

Interesting viewing

Last week’s National Early Childhood Election Forum in Melbourne makes interesting viewing for many reasons, not the least being which parties were able to provide its official spokesperson.

Only one of the speakers – Labor’s Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education Amanda Rishworth – was bringing her portfolio to the stage. Senator James Paterson represented the Liberal/National Party (LNP) incumbent Education Minister Dan Tehan, and Greens Senator Janet Rice represented new Greens Education spokesperson Senator Mehreen Faruqi.

Whether you attended in person or online, or missed out altogether, the full proceedings are well-captured in this video recording provided by Early Learning Everyone Benefits (ELEB).

forum speakers
L-R, Sam Page, MC, Senator James Paterson, Senator Janet Rice, Shadow ECE Minister Amanda Rishworth.

What did I miss?

Hosted by Sam Page, CEO of Early Childhood Australia and spokesperson for ELEB, the forum introduction also included special input from Geraldine Atkinson of SNAICC to raise the voice of indigenous children.

We then heard short speeches summarising their ECE platforms from Labor, the LNP, Greens, and an inner Melbourne candidate, Ruby O’Rourke, who represented independents.

The second half of the forum was devoted to a well-managed question and answer session including both prepared questions from peaks and other participants, and some spontaneous questions submitted via Facebook Live.

Who won?

It wasn’t a debate and while there was occasionally lively engagement between political candidates, overall the presentations and responses were open and as transparent as the individual politicians could make them.

There were occasions when Senators Rice and Paterson had to fall back on more general party philosophy – or personal experience as parents – to respond, as they were not fully across the portfolio position. Of the two, Senator Rice had a stronger general knowledge issues affecting indigenous children, and on higher education policy as it related to ECE workforce.

In terms of sharing details and appearing to be in command of her party’s position, a clear ‘winner’ was Labor’s Amanda Rishworth. She had the advantage of experience in the portfolio and understood ECE issues like the difficulties of implementing the new CCS. As a result, she could answer more questions in more detail and received more floor time than others on the stage.

What were the highlights?

BBF announcement

A surprise for many was Ms Rishworth committing specifically to a review of the decision made by the current government to move BBF (budget-based funded) services out of the Education portfolio and into Social Services.  You can hear this around the 56 minute mark on the video.

Amplify has been working with mobile BBF educators on this story and as a result we’ve provided the news as a more comprehensive article here.

Wage increases

The question of wages increases arose early and hinged on the ALP’s announcement of substantial pay rises for early childhood educators over eight years.

The LNP response from Senator Paterson – and re-stated by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg on the ABC Insiders program on Sunday morning – focused on tax cuts as a way of increasing educators (and others’) net incomes rather than any targeted wage increase.

“The less we take from them in taxes, the more they will have to spend in their own way.”

James Paterson, video 58:40

Another question – directed to Ms Rishworth – asked how the pay rise promised in Labor’s platform would be delivered and how equity for above-award employers would be maintained.

Ms Rishworth confirmed the increase over eight years, said the costings include superannuation, and assured listeners that the increase would not need to go through the Fair Work Commission because it would take too long and “educators have made their case… and waited long enough”.

Ms Rishworth said that if elected, Labor would “…work with the sector about how best to deliver it”.

“We have designed [the pay rise] to be … available to everyone [including those paying above award now] … so if you’re already doing the right thing you won’t be penalised.”

Amanda Rishworth, video 1:00:20

Costings

CELA CEO Michele Carnegie put her question regarding the reliability of Labor’s promised spending given the funding is tied to the ALP winning controversial changes to tax legislation if elected to government.

“Your early education spend is tied to getting tax savings through the Senate, if this is unsuccessful will you maintain your commitment to funding your election promises within the same timeframe?”

Michele Carnegie, video 1:03

Ms Rishworth’s response relies on a large degree of parliamentary responsibility from Senators in a future Labor-controlled government. If elected, she said, no one could say Labor did not have a strong public mandate for its changes as this ‘bold plan’ .

“I would hope that the Senate respects that mandate and actually passes our legislation.”

“These are the commitments that we are making in the early education space and we expect we will be able to deliver them and we shouldn’t have people stand in our way for what is a clearly outlined agenda – outlined in terms of early education and outlined in terms of the tax loopholes we want to close as well.”

Amanda Rishworth, 1:03:20

Activity test

Another audience question was to the LNP representative about changing the activity test to reduce the new disadvantage for unemployed families. The questioner highlighted the evidence for ECE especially assisting vulnerable children.

Senator Paterson replied with a clear grasp of his government’s position. He acknowledged the educational benefits of ECE but said the workforce participation component of childcare was a greater priority.

“The government … stands by [the activity test]”

and

“When there are parents [working full time in two jobs] who struggle to find places in childcare … and there are … other families [who] don’t work … I think it’s fair to say that all children [in childcare places] should come from families who are either working or making some other contribution to the community.

and

“[While] early education is really important and beneficial for children … having parents who are actively engaged in the workforce, study or the community is also really important.”

James Paterson, 1:05

Workforce strategies

A question directed to Senator Paterson at the forum asked him about his party’s strategy to develop the ‘childcare workforce’ (the Greens and Labor have released their workforce strategies).

Unfortunately, he perhaps missed the context of the question and responded in terms of wages, saying the LNP did not support Labor’s ‘radical’ approach to ‘tax some Australians who work in private businesses in order to subsidise the wages of other Australians who work in private businesses” video 58:40.

A later question from the audience about restoring federal funding for professional development enabled the Greens and ALP to share their similar proposals to develop workforce strategies in consultation with the sector (see last week’s article).

Ms Rishworth undertook to work with the sector to see look at what programs had worked in the past and what could be the best option for future investment.

Senator presented the Greens view that student debt was too great a burden for early childhood educators and that fees for TAFE and university study in early childhood would be targeted by her party.  While the ALP is promising 10,000 ‘fee-free’ places, the Greens would seek to abolish all tertiary fees for all undergraduates, including early childhood students.

“We have a commitment to make tertiary education fee free for all TAFE and university undergraduate courses (across the board).”

Senator Rice, 1:13.30

‘Tantamount to communism’

Another audience question for Senator Paterson was about a recent interview where his Minister, Dan Tehan, was quoted claiming Labor’s plan for free preschool for three-year-olds was ‘communism’. Senator Paterson said he felt the statement wasn’t made in that context, but rather referencing the ALP policy to ‘subsidise wages for workers, which I think is a radical departure from what we’ve seen’ (video 1:15).

I’ll be interested to see [if Labor is elected] how they are able to resist the calls of other[s] such as the aged care industry which can also make the case that their workers deserve higher pay, and many other industries, and how sustainable this will be if it is to be rolled out in every industry. If we’re going to go down to a system where the government taxes workers in private businesses in order to subsidise the salaries of workers in other private organisations – that would be a very different departure to the way the Australian economy runs and I think there would be very adverse consequences.”

Ms Rishworth responded to Senator Paterson: “We do that: we do that in non-government organisations that deliver programs on behalf of government, we put significant money into non-government schools … we already deliver subsidies that contribute in part to their wages, so it’s not that radical.”

[Editor’s note: Minister Tehan does appear to use the terms ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ relating to free childcare in the edited ABC radio news report.]

What else?

OSHC and vacation care wasn’t forgotten (video 1:16:30) and we urge all readers with OSHC experience of any form since January 2015 to participate in the National OSHC Survey 2019 here.

Playgroups Australia’s forum question about support for playgroups and libraries brought forth thoughtful responses from all three politicians, with only Ms Rishworth able to point to specific policy including the ALP commitment to $6million for playgroups and toy libraries nationally as well as funding for peak bodies.

All three parties voiced strong support for not-for-profit and community based providers in a question about high profits for private providers, with their answers about the profit margins being split typically along party lines.

Where to now?

At the time of writing, the sector continues to wait for a policy from the sitting government explaining its position on early childhood education beyond its introduction of the Child Care Subsidy and into the future.  With two more weeks before the polling date, you may yet see some kind of platform release and if so, we will endeavour to bring it to you here.

In addition to the Greens and ALP policies covered in Amplify last week, you can read Amanda Rishworth’s speech to the forum here, and find a range of sector group policies and positions:

 

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