Since the beginning of the election year, Early Childhood Australia (ECA) along with other early childhood peak bodies, research organisations, service providers and community groups has been promoting seven key policy areas as the Election Priorities for the Early Learning: Everyone Benefits campaign. The three major political parties—Australian Labor Party, Liberal-National Coalition, and The Australian Greens—have responded to these priorities through several platforms and revealed their proposed early childhood policies.
In this post, Amanda Walsh, ECA’s Policy and Government Relations Executive Manager, and Carolin Wenzel, Early Learning: Everyone Benefits Campaign Manager, summarise how well these parties have addressed each of the seven policy areas.
The analysis has been gleaned from each party’s direct responses to the campaign’s Candidate Survey questions, as well as policy announcements and public statements made by each party’s spokespeople.
Responses from the parties show that, while all support children’s early learning, there are significant differences between them when it comes to the detail of their policy. For example:
- The Coalition has made no response to the proposal that Australia needs a cross-portfolio Early Years Strategy, but both Labor and the Greens are strongly supportive of the initiative.
- Labor commits to increasing children’s access to early learning, regardless of their parents’ workforce participation by extending universal preschool funding to two years (3 and 4 year olds) as well as increasing the amount of Child Care Subsidy to be paid to low and medium income households – at least those that meet the activity test or are eligible for an exemption. They have also promised a ‘review’ of the impact of the new Child Care Subsidy system—including the activity test—on vulnerable and disadvantaged children.
- The Coalition does not support extending preschool/kindergarten access to three-year-olds but has implied that three-year-olds’ preschool access could be addressed once attendance rates for four-year-olds are higher.
- Labor and the Greens support the raising of educators’ wages (and Labor has announced it will subsidise wages), while the Coalition has rejected any direct intervention.
Following is a detailed summary of responses to each election policy priority:
1. National cross-portfolio ‘Early Years Strategy’
Support in the early years covers many portfolio areas beyond education, including health and community services.
There has been no response from the Coalition on this policy priority.
Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education and Development, Amanda Rishworth, made this commitment:
Labor recognises that current programs and funding for early childhood development is spread across a number of departments. If elected, Labor will work to improve policy coordination and evaluation across government.
She also pointed out that:
Labor announced a policy to invest $1.6 million to upgrade and expand community toy libraries and playgroups—noting this would be the first-ever federal funding program for toy libraries.
In answer to direct questions from the campaign, the Greens spokesperson said:
Greens support the development of a comprehensive national ‘Early Years Strategy’ that recognises the importance of early childhood development, family support and play-based learning.
The Greens also support ‘culturally safe, integrated, community-controlled early childhood services’ for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families.
2. Two days per week access to early learning for all children
We put it to all parties that: due to the recent reforms to the Child Care Subsidy scheme, some children are no longer able to access subsidised early education because their parents/caregivers are not engaged in work, volunteering or study for the required eight hours per fortnight.
Our question was: ‘Do you believe that children should have the right to access at least two days per week of quality early childhood education, irrespective of their parents’ workforce participation or other activity?’
The Liberal—National Coalition is sticking by the activity test—which means that families earning over $67 000 per year must show that they are working, studying or volunteering for eight hours a fortnight to receive the Child Care Subsidy, and families under $67 000 per year are restricted to 12 hours of subsidised early learning per week. But the activity test is waived where children qualify for the Child Care Safety Net.
Labor is also in favour of keeping the activity test, but says it will review the impact of the Child Care Subsidy system on vulnerable children.
- The activity test will be abolished for three-year-olds (joining four-year-olds) who attend preschool.
- Subsidies will be increased to 100 per cent (of the capped rate) for families that earn up to $69 527 and meet the activity test.
The Greens’ policy abolishes the activity test for all families. They propose fee-free child care for 80 per cent of Australian families, including all families on household incomes under $171 959. Subsidies will be available for households earning up to $351 248
3. Two years of preschool/kindergarten
The Coalition has committed to continuing funding all children to attend 15 hours per week of preschool in the year before school, until the end of 2020. They are concerned that while the enrolment-rate average across Australia is now up to 95 per cent, attendance is still patchy—with around 28 per cent of children not attending the full 15 hours, 34 per cent of those who are vulnerable or disadvantaged not attending, and 41 per cent of Indigenous students not attending the full 15 hours of preschool.
In response to our question, they said: ‘We want to do the work necessary to get the existing policy for four-year-olds right before we roll the same policy over for three-year-olds’.
Labor is promising the funding of universal access to 15 hours per week of early childhood education for two years before school, with a second year available from 2021. This was announced in early October last year, and costed at $1.75 billion over four years.
The Greens are promising to extend universal access to 24 hours per week of early childhood education for two years before school. We gave them extra marks for the increased hours of preschool
4. Funding certainty for preschool/kindergarten
The Coalition has not committed to a permanent funding agreement for preschool in the year before school. The government had stated in April 2019 that it would ‘continue to work with the states and territories to support a longer-term plan’.
At the National Early Childhood Election Forum on 2 May, Amanda Rishworth stressed that, if elected, the Labor government would ‘lock in’ funding for two years of preschool, and end the annual funding uncertainty.
Her response to the Candidate Survey was even firmer:
Labor’s National Preschool and Kindy Program commits permanent funding to the existing universal access program for 4 year olds. We will lock the funding into the budget and provide certainty to parents, educators and providers.
The Greens have also announced that they would support ongoing funding for the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education and Care.
5. Addressing disadvantage, especially for First Nations, rural and remote children
There is agreement from all parties that vulnerable and disadvantaged children who will benefit the most from early learning currently have the least access.
The Coalition gets 3 stars here because this year’s Budget includes $4.9 million for participation strategies. They have set aside extra funding to support vulnerable and at-risk children through the Additional Child Care Subsidy (ACCS), and families earning under $67000 are exempt from the activity test. However, there is an unexplained gap in the number of children accessing the ACCS, and the activity test disadvantages developmentally vulnerable children in middle-income families.
Labor’s 3 stars are because they promise to review the impact of the Child Care Subsidy system, including the activity test, on vulnerable children and very low-income families. And if they are elected, they would extend preschool/kindergarten to three-year-olds and say there will be no income restrictions or activity test for three and four year olds attending 15 hours of preschool programs.
The Greens promise to allocate a proportion of the Community Child Care Fund (CCCF) for quality, community-controlled and culturally safe, integrated early years services.
A proportion of the Community Child Care Fund will be allocated for quality community-controlled, culturally safe integrated early years services, to ensure access in areas of high First Nations populations and high levels of disadvantage.
6. Ongoing funding for the National Quality Framework
In the 2018 Budget, the government announced cuts of $20 million from the National Partnership Agreement on the National Quality Agenda for Early Childhood Education and Care, leaving the states and territories to cover funding for quality assessments. Lack of funding in this area already means long periods of up to four years between quality assessments.
Both Labor and the Greens have expressed strong support for ensuring that quality in the early childhood system is monitored and properly resourced, and they have promised to restore the $20 million funding.
7. Funding for a sustainable, quality early childhood workforce
There has been no response from the Coalition on how to address the looming workforce crisis in early childhood education.
Labor has promised a 20 per cent pay rise over eight years for all early childhood educators. A $100 million fund for workforce development and supporting expanded capacity, as well as 10 000 fee-free places in early childhood education courses at TAFE.
Amanda Rishworth has stated:
Labor introduced the Early Childhood Workforce Strategy in 2012, which expired in 2016. We know there will be a shortage of educators over the coming years. Labor will sit down with early educators, their representatives and the sector to develop a new workforce strategy.
The Greens, in their early childhood policy, have said that they recognise the significant contribution early childhood educators make to lifelong learning, and they are making these commitments:
- Support the United Voice ‘Big Steps’ campaign for fair pay for early childhood educators.
- Develop and implement a workforce strategy with the early learning sector and unions to achieve professional pay and better working conditions for workers.
- Make TAFE and university free so that those studying to be early childhood educators and carers will not be saddled with enormous debts that take decades to pay off.
- Address the gender pay gap through legislative, workplace and economic reforms to eradicate the root causes of women’s income inequality.
NB: All parties were given equal opportunities to respond to the Candidate Survey on Early Childhood Education and Care, and to represent their policies at the National Early Childhood Election Forum. This is a summary of each party’s responses for the benefit of interested voters.
View and download the #Election2019 Early Childhood Policy Guide here.
- View the candidates’ responses to the Candidate Survey on Early Childhood Education and Care here.
- Listen to the ARACY Election Webinar comparing the policies by ECA CEO Samantha Page here.
- Watch the full video of the National Early Childhood Election Forum here.
View and download the #Election2019 Early Childhood Policy Guide here.