Opinion

OPINION: The New Child Care Package is about removing children from the discussion

Since the Government started developing the policy that was initially known as the Jobs for Families Package, and is now marketed as the New Child Care Package, there have been those who have bravely tried to believe that at the end of the day it would be good for children.

Way back in 2015 when this discussion began, the Government made bold claims that there would be $3 billion extra invested in the sector. Surely that would mean more children would get more access, right? Yes, the policy was literally being called “Jobs for Families” and the amount of hours that could be accessed would be less, but more money would be in the system overall.

Ignoring the fact that the extra investment didn’t end up being $3 billion (it was $1.6 billion or thereabouts), it turns out this was a desperate, false hope. The Shadow Education Minister Amanda Rishworth yesterday released a Department of Education analysis that revealed 279,000 families and their children would stand to be worse off under the new Package. Incredibly, 88,000 thousands of those families will be in the lowest income threshold.

The release of this analysis prompted the usual political accusations back and forth, and a bit of a ripple in the media. But to anyone who has followed the policy debate since 2015, and actually read and listened to the statements of the Minister responsible rather than trusting him to “get” early education and the needs of disadvantaged children, none of this is a surprise.

For anyone who had managed to kid themselves into thinking this Package under this Minister for this Government could somehow end up benefiting children, the statements following the release of this analysis must surely be the final wake-up call. Let’s take a look at some of the public words that have been used about the early childhood education and care sector in the last 24 hours but the man with overall responsibility in Australia.

I mean, is the Labor Party really saying they want more taxpayer dollars to support child care for people who are sitting at home? Is that what they want? Because frankly, that would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.

But we’re not talking about early education here from the Labor Party. We’re talking about the base child care system, and they seem to be saying and suggesting that they want to see more taxpayer subsidy going to people who aren’t working, aren’t studying, aren’t volunteering, aren’t even looking for a job.

There it is, finally spelled out clearly. Simon Birmingham sees the work that happens in most services under the National Quality Framework as “the base child care system”, not early education. This is not a shock, not a surprise, but the culmination of a clear trajectory for this Government.

Let’s go right back to February 2017, when the Government was desperately trying to get this legislation through the Senate. Here’s Simon Birmingham:

The “right” parents. But let’s be honest here. Children attend early childhood centres, not their families.

So what is meant here is “the right children”.

Children who didn’t have the audacity to be born into struggling or disadvantaged families. Children who have no say whatsoever over their circumstances, and would all stand to benefit from access to quality early education.

But that can’t be said out loud. So the entire development, legislating and marketing of this policy has seen the systematic removal of children from the debate.

It started from the very title of the reforms – “Jobs for Families”. A clear admission, right from the start, that this isn’t about outcomes for children.

The tighter and more stringent linking of the Work Activity Test and hours of subsidy. All pitched to working families as necessary to ensure that only they, “the right parents”, got it – and the layabouts at home don’t. Hourly fee caps that encourage services to operate like car-parking spots.

The removal of any reference to education from the Department of Education’s section on (what used to be) early childhood education and care. The clear identification of two separate systems: “Proper” education, provided in preschools under Universal Access funding, and the “base child care” system.

The advocacy battle (such as it was) for the legislation itself is done and dusted. The New Child Care Package will come into effect on 2 July 2018, despite every single warning bell that sounded. But there is still a place for advocacy on our professionalism, and how important early childhood education is.

We can go silently into this new system and allow ourselves to accept we’re just child care. Or we can stand up for the voices of the people the Government are desperately hoping won’t be noticed in all this.

The children of any family, regardless of their payslip.

I can only hope those in the sector who have large organisations, or are peak bodies paid by their members to advocate for them, decide to raise their voices as well.

If I was an organisation that had added my support to the Package overall, and was now being told that I was just in “the base child care system”, I’d be considering letting people know what I thought about that.

Liam McNicholas is the Editor of The Framework.

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