Never before has early childhood education received the political and media prominence it is receiving now, in the lead-up to the federal election on May 21. Whether as a cost-of-living issue, a strategy to boost paid workforce participation, or an important tool for supporting children’s development, both major parties are talking about it. It is a refreshing change for a sector which is too often taken for granted. This change could be seen as a result of the pandemic, which highlighted the importance of education and care, and of the sustained advocacy from a range of peaks and campaigns on the importance of the first five years.
Who will do the most to ensure that 1.5 million Australians, who are too young to vote, can access high quality education and care from a well-qualified, fairly paid, and stable workforce?
Your vote counts for the future of our children, families, and our sector – here’s what the parties are putting forward
The Coalition (Liberal Party and National Party)
The Coalition will continue the childcare subsidy scheme in its current form. This means childcare fees are subsidised by the Government, with the Government paying more subsidy to low and middle-income families. The amount of subsidy families receive from Government also depends on parents meeting activity tests for working or studying.
The Preschool Reform Agreement between the Federal Government and the states and territories means that all 4-year-olds will be guaranteed access to a kindergarten or preschool program in the year before school.
The Coalition has also announced a change to the Federal Government’s paid parental leave in the Federal Budget. The Government has committed $346.1 million over five years to the Enhanced Parental Leave scheme, which combines payments for principal carers and for fathers and partners (these payments are currently separate). Families earning less than $350,000 per year will be eligible.
While the announcement does provide the benefit of flexibility for couples to decide how to split out their leave, some commentators have expressed concern that it will do little to encourage fathers to take time off to share caring responsibilities.1
In the budget, the Coalition announced $19.4m to fund up to 20 new community-managed education and care services in rural and remote areas where there is a gap in service provision. This is a welcome first step, though much more work is needed. For example, research from the Mitchell Institute shows that a third of Australian families are living in “childcare deserts”, where more than three children aged four and under are vying for each childcare spot within a 20-minute drive.2
Australian Labor Party
Child care is Labor’s most significant policy spend – Labor is promising an extra $5.4 billion on what is currently being invested by the Coalition-led Government.
Labor promises that 96% of Australian families will be better off under its proposed reforms to:
- Lift the maximum childcare subsidy rate to 90% for families for the first child in care
- Increase childcare subsidy rates for every family with one child in care, earning less than $530,000 in household income
- Keep higher childcare subsidy rates for the second and additional children in care
- Extend the increased subsidy to outside school hours care
Labor also promises to:
Engage the ACCC to design a price regulation mechanism to ensure affordability
Engage the Productivity Commission to review the sector with the aim of introducing a universal 90% subsidy for all families
Improve transparency in the childcare sector by forcing large providers to report revenue and profit publicly, provide real-time fee data and quality ratings to families, and ban non-educational enrolment inducements like free iPads
Develop a national early years strategy to better coordinate funding and programs for families and young children
The Australian Greens
The Greens want to make access to childcare free for all families and expand paid parental care, making it easier for women to participate in paid work. It plans to fund the $19 billion investment by taxing those with a very high income, introducing a “corporate super-profits tax” and cutting government subsidies to coal, oil and gas companies.
The Greens also plan to phase out for-profit early learning to ensure every child has access to early learning and care from a high-quality, government-provided, or not-for-profit service.
In relation to the workforce, The Greens say they will guarantee annual award increases of CPI plus 0.5% in female-dominated industries, including childcare and education, with an aim to close the gender pay-gap. In addition, they are campaigning that the minimum wage would be pegged to 60% of the median wage. The Greens believe education should be free, so anyone interested in completing an education and care qualification could do so for free. In addition, anyone with a student debt will have that debt forgiven.
Our 6 Point Plan for Education and Care
CELA has collaborated with two like-minded peaks, Community Child Care Association (CCC), and Early Learning Association Australia (ELAA), to develop our 6 Point Plan for Education and Care. We have shared our plan with the Acting Minister for Education and Youth, Stuart Robert MP, Shadow Minister for Early Childhood, Amanda Rishworth MP, Senator for NSW and Spokesperson for Education for the Australian Greens, Dr Mehreen Faruqi, as well as with other political candidates in marginal seats.
As a peak body representing education and care services across Australia, we are committed to working with whoever wins office to advocate for the changes we believe are needed for our essential sector.
In our 6 Point Plan for Education and Care, we call on Government to:
Fund two days of education and care every week for every child from birth to school
Strengthen Australia’s commitment to the inclusion of all children
Mandate National Quality and Assessment ratings every three years
Build and implement a national industrial instrument for the education and care sector
Implement the National Children’s Education and Care Workforce Strategy now
Properly fund infrastructure and governance support
Relevant research and reports
It’s not just CELA, ELAA and CCC who are calling on Government to address the long-standing issues in education and care, which are now acute after two years of pandemic.
In November last year, the Centre for Policy Development released its report “Starting Better: a guarantee for young children and families,” which calls for universal access to high-quality early education and care from birth until school. Read it here.
The Australia Institute, an independent policy think tank, has recently produced two reports of relevance to education and care.
The first is “The Economic Benefits of High-Quality Universal Early Child Education” by economist Matt Grudnoff. The report argues for Australians to have access to universal, free, early childhood education and care with funding directed to not-for-profit services, which tend to be higher quality and invest more in staff. While requiring significant public investment, the report argues such an approach will deliver better economic outcomes.
“Australia’s economy continues to be held back by relatively poor ECEC provision and an overreliance on the private sector – both for funding ECEC services and delivering them. One result is that female labour force participation and employment outcomes are well below potential compared to male outcomes and female outcomes in other industrial countries. This, in turn, suppresses overall employment, incomes, GDP, and even government tax revenues.”3
It goes on to say:
“Australia invests less in ECEC services (relative to GDP) than most OECD countries and far less than the Nordic countries (with their world-leading ECEC systems). But Australian households pay more toward those services (again measured as a share of GDP) than those in other countries (even including Nordic countries).
“Australians thus pay more, but get less, from an ECEC system that is both underfunded and disproportionately dependent on private contributions (mainly parent user fees).”4
The second report from the Australia Institute is “Educating for Care” by Mark Dean. This report highlights the alarming growth in job vacancies in education and care,5 drawing on recent data from the National Skills Commission, with over 6,000 vacancies nationally.
The report argues for increased investment in training, mostly in TAFE places, to train new entrants. It also calls for increased funding of ECEC as an essential service so that staff can be paid appropriately and a move towards universal access, among other recommendations.
The Business Council of Australia, in its Budget Submission in February this year, argued that the childcare subsidy system, while targeted, results in second-order problems:
“The complexity of the system, the taper rates and income testing cut-offs – and the interplay of these factors – can be a deterrent for women to work and an artificial barrier to advancement in the workforce. Consideration could be given as to how further changes to the CCS could reduce the disincentives families face.”6
The BCA argues that the Productivity Commission should be engaged to investigate the feasibility of universal access and the intersection of the childcare system and the early childhood development system, among other things.7
Finally, we must make reference to a report titled “Federal Election Benchmarks 2022” from the Work and Family Policy Roundtable, a group of academics from 18 universities with expertise in work, care, and family policy. In its report, the group argues for free universal early childhood education and care, and to improve gender pay equity by making equal remuneration an explicit objective of the Fair Work Act.8
These reports acknowledge the essential service of education and care and the positive impact high-quality provision has on children.
All political parties promise to spend a large amount of money on education and care – though some more than others.
It is now up to you to decide who you think has the best plan to deliver the great outcomes Australian children and families need and to address our significant workforce challenges.
1 Don Arthur (2022), Changes to the Parental Leave Scheme, Parliament of Australia
2 Hurley, P., Matthews, H., & Pennicuik, S. (March 2022) Deserts and oases: how accessible is childcare in Australia?, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University
3 Matt Grudnoff (March 2022), “The economic benefits of high-quality universal early child education”, The Australia Institute, page 4
4 Ibid. page 5
5 Matt Dean, (May 2022) Educating for care: meeting skills shortages in an expanding ECEC market, The Australia Institute
6 Payne, M., Ruston A, Hume, J. (February 2022) Advancing women in the workforce: Women’s budget statement Business Council of Australia, page 9
7 Ibid. Page 11
8 Work and Family Policy Roundtable (April 2022) Work, Care and Family Policies: Federal Election Benchmarks 2022