The Liberals are addressing the lack of access to early childhood education but their solutions will not work

Across the state the early childhood education access crisis hinders parents, in particular women, to return to work and help prepare their children for primary school. 

While the fact a bill is in front of parliament represents how far the conversation has come around early childhood education and women's economic issues the bill does not present real solutions.

Abigail spoke in parliament today about the Liberal's Childcare and Economic Opportunity Fund Bill and how it fails.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD (18:17): On behalf of The Greens, I contribute to debate on the Childcare and Economic Opportunity Fund Bill 2022. The bill is, to put it kindly, the wrong solution to the right problem. The Government is right to finally acknowledge the enormous financial burden placed upon new families in New South Wales trying to access quality early childhood education and care. There is, of course, no doubt that there is a lack of affordable early childhood centres and child care throughout the State. It is particularly pronounced in lower socioeconomic areas and in western New South Wales, where, not coincidentally, there is also a distinct lack of publicly owned and run facilities.

The stress and impact on families that the lack of childcare options presents, and the impact on children's long-term wellbeing, is something that we need to address urgently, along with the ongoing barrier that it presents to some women's participation in paid work. You do not need a 77-page research paper to tell you that—we have known about it for years—but Treasury got one done, just to be sure. TheWomen's economic opportunities in the NSW labour market and the impact of early childhood education and care report did not allow its somewhat misguided assumptions to get in the way of achieving some really meaningful insights. The report states:

The cost of ECEC in Australia and New South Wales is high by international standards, with subsidies progressively withdrawn on the basis of household income, from a level below the average full‑time wage of a single income earner. Accessibility of care, in terms of the availability of places across locations, and the type and quality of care, presents a further challenge to parents. The ECEC market is predominantly privately run, with limited system management to prevent cost escalation and to ensure supply across the State, in stark contrast to the universal public provision of education from age five onwards … A significant determinant of availability and quality of ECEC is the workforce, who are paid well below the average wage.

So the report acknowledged the issues that are caused by the fact that we have a predominantly privately run early childhood and childcare system, and the fact that the workforce is not adequately compensated for the incredibly valuable work that they do.

It was with great fanfare that the Treasurer announced he would be addressing the lack of affordable and accessible child care in our State as part of his so‑called women's budget in June. Affordable and accessible child care, he told us, is critical to increasing "women's workforce participation", to enabling women to be seen as productive units for the purposes of our economy—never mind the enormous contribution that women make to our economy through their unpaid work. I have long expressed the view that it is well past time that we move on from archaic concepts of gross domestic product and gross State domestic product which undervalue the millions of hours of unpaid work performed across the State and which create a perverse incentive to get more people into paid work regardless of the tangible impact on their wellbeing. I reiterate that you can improve GDP in this State by getting everybody to pay for each other to look after their children, but if everybody looks after their own child that does not increase GDP. The idea that just because there is a cost involved it creates some sort of tangible impact of an increase in GDP and upon people's wellbeing is, of course, a complete fallacy.

This also ignores the experiences of single women and two‑income families who are already working full‑time, often in multiple jobs, and spending huge chunks of their income on ensuring that their children are looked after. This bill is not focused on them because it is directed only at increasing the numbers of women working, or the hours they are working each week, and not on easing the burden on women who are already working. Never mind the evidence that shows us that early childhood education is of significant benefit to the children themselves, above and beyond that to their parents, particularly in lower socioeconomic areas. Access to early childhood education has been shown to have a huge impact on children's lives. In addition to the development of early social skills, children attending early childhood education are more likely to have disabilities and other learning disadvantages picked up at an earlier age and to receive the early intervention they need to prepare them adequately for school.

I acknowledge the excellent contribution from Mr Justin Field in relation to this conflation of care of infants and then the years leading up to preparation for school, before they even get to preschool stage. I reflect on my own experience as a parent. My view on whether I would be the one to look after my children or ask someone else to was always based on the principle that I would look after them unless they would be better off with someone else spending that time with them. If I felt that I was just depositing them at a daycare centre like a repository, to be held as opposed to being educated, then that was not good enough for me. But what an incredibly privileged thing that is for me to say, because I had a choice. I had a choice whether or not to work. I chose to work, knowing that I could afford and that I had access to child care. That is not a choice the majority of people have. I am keenly aware of that.

I think that the inequality between those who can and those who cannot afford these sorts of childcare options is even more stark when children reach the age of 2½ or three. From my own experience, that was the point at which my children started experiencing difficulties that I was incapable of dealing with. I did not know what to do. There was nothing in the parenting manual about how to look after my children at that point. I was incredibly fortunate that I could put them into early childhood education where they were able to identify, "Yes, your children are different from the norm. There is something here you need to look at." But, again, what an absolute position of privilege I was in and that other people were not in.

It is no accident that that is how our system has got to the point that it is at now; it is through systematic underfunding of public services. We are making it so that only the most privileged of us are able to provide that sort of care for our child. I think that it is really important that we focus on that when we talk about choice. I share some of the previous speaker's sentiments that it does seem to be an approach that is based on a very privileged, wealthy vision of what families are going through. It really rubs me the wrong way, when I consider the realities of what most people are going through in this State.

The framing of the provision of affordable and accessible child care as a women's participation issue goes some way to explaining why the Treasurer has conceived and drafted the bill for this reform so poorly. But to understand how the Treasurer could get this reform so terribly wrong, we need to understand his and the Liberal Party's adoration of market economics and stubborn adherence to the idea that profit‑taking entities can provide essential public services somehow cheaper or more effectively than public and not‑for‑profit entities. When we saw waves of privatisation 20 or 30 years ago, there was certainly that view. I think it has been disproven now. I think people have seen that private entities have the same issues. If you look at the core structural drivers and impacts around a public versus a private entity, there is no inherent reason why a government entity would be less effective or more costly than a private one. I know that I am rubbing up against the core ideology of the Liberal Party on that, and I am unlikely to get any love for those sorts of sentiments.

But it is no accident that child care in our State is so unaffordable and so patchy; it is precisely because over the years the government stopped funding public alternatives. The so-called childcare deserts outside metropolitan Sydney that the Treasurer keeps talking about are effectively the same areas in which there are no publicly run centres. Long gone are the days when local councils routinely ran childcare centres. Childcare centres used to be run across the State. Looking back through the history of childcare provision, it is not that surprising that we have ended up where we are. A whopping 75 per cent of our daycare centres are private and run for profit, 17 per cent are private not‑for‑profit and 2 per cent are managed by Catholic and independent schools. Only 6 per cent are run by government.

So what is the Treasurer's solution to this problem—a problem created by giving over the running of an essential public service to the private sector? It is more investment in the private sector. That is his solution to a problem which has been caused by investment in the private sector. Here we have a proposal not to directly invest billions of dollars in public childcare services but instead to prop up the very entities taking profit at the expense of families across our State. The response from the Government is to shovel more money out the door to private providers, with the hope of maybe enticing or incentivising them to build more services in underserviced areas. How the Government expects this to improve affordability is anyone's guess. Following the Government's logic of supply and demand, a new entrant into an underserviced area would be able to charge even higher fees to desperate families and, driven by a profit motive, private for‑profit providers surely will.

I compare that with Labor's response to improving child care for Victorian families. Labor will spend $9 billion and establish 50 government‑owned and affordable childcare centres—greater investment, starting sooner, in government public services. Early childhood education and care is the first rung on our education ladder. The fact that this policy will further degrade the availability of a public education offering flies in the face of our proud, universally available public education system, which we have spent so long building up, protecting and supporting.

The bill contemplates more money going to private operators. The Greens policy at both the New South Wales and national levels is explicitly against public money going to private early childhood education and childcare centres. It is a core Greens policy principle and informs our thinking on the bill. We should be doing something far more similar to what the Labor Government in Victoria is doing. For example, we could have set up a fund for councils to access to establish council‑run early childhood education centres instead.

Notwithstanding The Greens' opposition to the bill on the basis of our core disagreement with privatisation of public services, I thank the education Minister and the Treasurer, and, in particular, their hardworking staff, for working cooperatively with us on the bill. In the past few days over the course of a number of meetings, we have been able to agree on a number of amendments, which, if successful, will improve the bill. We have some fundamental differences of opinion on policy. However, there is always room to improve any legislation if the attempt is made to work it through. I sincerely thank the Treasurer and the education Minister for the respect they have shown to The Greens in taking the time to have those discussions. I am out of time but will have more to say during the Committee stage.

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