Analysis

Early education isn’t a big issue this election. Here’s why it should be.

This article is the second in a weekly series by Lisa Bryant exploring the 2019 Federal Election and how it will affect services operating under the National Quality Framework.

When a Federal election is called, lobby groups around the country fight to make their issue a big election issue. They want their issue to be the one that politicians compete to fix with promises of major policy changes and (even better) major investment. Just like we want for early education.

But so far, in the second week of the election campaign, early education isn’t big. And probably won’t be. Despite the knowledge of how vitally important access to high quality affordable education and care is to children the issue is not of great concern to politicians.

If knowledge of the importance of things made politicians adopt policies and make promises, climate change would have been solved years ago!

According to the ABC’s Vote Compass survey the key issues in this election are the environment and the economy. Education hardly rates this election, much less early education.

Why?

Some of it is about timing. The Labor Party announced their two big things, three-year old preschool and better wages for educators, last year. The Coalition implemented their big thing, the new Child Care Subsidy (CCS), last July. There may be nothing more left to announce.

It’s also about how much it is a ‘barbecue stopper’ issue. Access to early education is not the issue it once was. Papers are no longer screaming about waiting lists. Cost is still a bit of an issue, despite the Government’s claims that ‘childcare’ is 10% more affordable than it was before CCS, and that they spent 2.2% more on helping families with the cost of care this quarter than they did 12 months ago.

(I don’t know about anybody else but it seems like CCS was a pretty lengthy and messy process to only get an extra 2.2% into families’ pockets!)

It’s also about the success of advocacy campaigns. The fact that the sector is simultaneously running a number of disparate election campaigns probably doesn’t help. Sectors that have traction in getting their issues translated to big election issues overcome their internal differences and present a united front, such as we saw with the Marriage Equality Campaign for gay marriage and the Every Australian Counts campaign that resulted in the creation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

The Early Childhood Australia led campaign Early Learning Everyone Benefits is calling for an early years strategy, two days of early education for every child, long term universal access funding for two years before school, increased access for children at risk of disadvantage, ongoing funding of the NQF and workforce development strategies.  Launch into Learning, the campaign run by the large education and care providers is essentially calling for the same thing in different words. United Voice under the Big Steps Campaign is calling for Government funding for “professional pay” for every educator. The Australian Education Union is pushing for a high quality permanently funded preschool sector. The Parenthood is calling for high-quality, affordable early childhood education, two years of preschool and proper wages for early childhood educators. (Of course many of these campaigns would argue that they were instrumental in getting the Labor Party to make any promises.)

So why should early education and care be a major election issue?

How about these five reasons for starters?

  1. Because of the abject failure of the Coalition’s Child Care Subsidy to fund access for the children who need it the most. 14,000 fewer children were in receipt of ACCS in September 2018  (3 months after the new subsidy started) than were in receipt of SCCB, JETCCFA and GCCB in September 2017. A total of 6,620 of these children were at risk of harm or from families facing temporary financial hardship. Where are they now?
  2. Because it’s also an economic issue. Accounting firm KPMG has shown that if the gap between Australia’s male and female workforce participation rates could be halved, our annual GDP would be $60 billion greater in 20 years. They say one of the main barriers to increasing female workforce participation is ‘childcare’ costs.
  3. Because it’s an issue for women. The organisation Women Vote, developed to ensure there is public debate about the important issues that affect women, has women’s workforce participation and access to ‘childcare’ as one of its five focus areas.
  4. Because it is a major issue in political discourse. Early education and gender-based wage increases are issues that figure prominently enough “in the platforms and public statements of the major political parties or candidates, and in the media” to have been included in Vote Compass, the ABC’s election tool that allows voters to determine how closely aligned they are with each party.
  5. Because the major parties have actually made education and care central to their election campaigns. The Liberals have nominated more affordable ‘childcare’ as one of their achievements. The Labor Party have made two key promises – two years of preschool education for every child and closing the gender pay gap for educators. The Greens have promised two years of early childhood education, free childcare for most families, abolition of the Activity Test and a range of other measures.

And for one more reason. The most important (albeit seldom-heard) reason. Education and care should be a major election issue because it is an issue that matters for children. 

But then, why would that actually matter to our politicians?

Children after all, don’t vote.

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