Question time: Early Learning and Care
Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (14:17): My question without notice is to the Minister representing the Minister for Education. Minister, happy Early Childhood Educators' Day! But perhaps it is not so happy for the educators. The United Workers Union has come to parliament today to meet with the Minister for Education and to deliver a petition of more than 30,000 signatures. The petition calls for the federal government to provide a wage guarantee to workers in early childhood education and care throughout COVID-19. The union says that the employment guarantee provided by the government doesn't prevent part-time staff and casuals from facing drastic cuts in hours. The vast majority of the sector is part-time or casual. They are among the lowest-paid workers in Australia. Why won't the government commit to a wage guarantee for our critical early childhood educators and carers?
Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia—Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:18): I thank Senator Faruqi for her question. I do acknowledge that early childhood education providers, carers and educators across the country provide an essential and very important service to many, many families, and an important and essential educational opportunity and benefit to many young Australians. My own children received outstanding care in early childhood education from wonderful carers and I'm sure that is the case for many others in this chamber. We acknowledge their hard work, the care they provide and the foundational start they give to young Australians in their education and wellbeing. It is why our government has been pleased to expand opportunity and access for families to be able to reach early childhood education and care services, and we saw record numbers of children and families accessing the services as we entered the pandemic this year. We value the work of those carers, who, of course, have their wages determined through standard industrial relations processes, as indeed do all Australians as part of the award system. But, increasingly, we have pleasingly seen the number of children accessing valuable care services grow, increasing some 1.8 per cent last year to 1,339,970 over that period of time. The number of families is increasing as well. That growth is a testament to the fact that, under our government, prepandemic, our childhood education reforms had provided for families to be able to access care, with support from the government for those who needed the most hours of support getting the most amount of hours of subsidised care. For those earning the least, they were getting the greatest rate of subsidy under our reforms, and that helped drive more families into a system to receive such care.
The PRESIDENT: Order, Senator Birmingham. Senator Faruqi, a supplementary question?
Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (14:20): Minister, we are seeing growing enthusiastic support across our community for universally available early learning. Just this week, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner identified an overhaul of childcare as a key priority for women's equality, and research from the ANU and Grattan Institute has shown the huge benefits of greater public investment in early learning. When will the government admit that the current system is broken and commit to fee-free, well-funded early learning for all families?
Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia—Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:21): We won't admit that, because we don't agree that's the case. In fact, our belief is that our reforms have strengthened the current system. Our reforms saw investment grow. Investment is forecast to be around $9 billion a year in Australian government support for funding early childhood education and care services, growing to $10 billion a year over the next few years. This is a significant rate of growth in expenditure in these areas. In the growth of expenditure, we have made sure that we target that expenditure. As I said before, under the reforms our government enacted, families who can least afford care receive the greatest level of subsidy and support to access that care. Indeed, the most vulnerable families receive an entire subsidy—all fees are paid and covered in those circumstances. Those working the longest hours receive the greatest entitlement to subsidy, whilst guaranteed hours are there for children in relation to their preschool access.
The PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Faruqi, a final supplementary question?
Senator FARUQI (New South Wales) (14:22): Minister, the Thrive by Five campaign for universal access to early learning launched this week, with everyone from Michelle O'Neill and Jay Weatherill to Julie Bishop and Nicola Forrest saying that universal early learning is a great idea. Why is the government dragging its heels and refusing again and again to commit to making our childcare system universally accessible?
Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia—Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:22): Our childcare system is universally accessible. It is universally accessible on a range of levels. Firstly, in the provision of preschool opportunity for children, not only has our government continuously worked with the states and territories to ensure that there is universal access and right to attend preschool services but we continue to try to work with the states and territories to better benchmark attendance at those preschool services. Far too often, the reports we get back are about enrolment in preschool but fail to address the gap in attendance, where often the most vulnerable children who will most benefit from attendance are the ones least likely to be attending. The work that our government sought to do has been to engage states and territories to try to ensure the funding we provide for the delivery of preschool services gets to the children who need it most and delivers them the support that they deserve in terms of being at child care, being at preschool and getting that educational opportunity that they will benefit from.