TUESDAY, 22 JULY 2014
PETER VAN ONSELEN: To discuss this issue we are joined live out of Adelaide by the Shadow Child Care spokeswoman Kate Ellis. She joins me live, thanks very much for your company. Can I start by asking you what are your initial thoughts on this, before we get into the politicking? Because obviously PPL becomes relevant. But the recommendations that are coming forward from the Productivity Commission, does Labor have broad support for them or broad concerns?
KATE ELLIS: This is a big report. It’s over 900 pages and it’s got a range of recommendations on all sorts of different things.
Really it comes down to, it’s calling on two things. It’s calling on reform of the system, and our position is that we will always support sensible reforms if they are better for Australian children, better for Australian families and better for the sector…
VAN ONSELEN: But do you think these are sensible? I guess that’s the big question. In broad terms, do you think they are sensible?
ELLIS: Well, I’ll come to that in a second. The other thing, of course, that it calls for more investment. That’s something the Government have already ruled out and are actively undertaking – they have already announced over a billion dollars in cuts to the system – so there’s the reform and the investment.
In terms of the nature of the specific recommendations, the Productivity Commission themselves have said that they need to do a whole lot more work. They need to do a lot more work on modelling, on how this would impact on families. But also specifically on how it would work. Because what they are proposing is a whole new system, where, as the report said, some families would have 90 per cent of costs met. But that is the cost that the Government determine is a fair price to pay for child care, that is not necessarily the cost that child care providers are charging parents. So any gap between what…
VAN ONSELEN: So your concern is that the gap could be large because the Government determinant point is way off what the market will bear?
ELLIS: Absolutely. And there is nothing in these proposals which says that that’s what providers will actually charge. So there is a whole lot of work that would need to be done to deem what is an appropriate Government rate for each different sort of care.
But the overall point is, for every new program that is being proposed by the Productivity Commission – whether it is about nannies, whether it is about grandparents, whether it is about new unlimited in-home care – there is going to be no additional funding to meet that.
So it makes a pretty simple equation. If you are trying to do a whole lot of new programs with no new money, the only way that you can do that is by cutting the existing support that you give to child care. And that’s something that I think Australian families would find hugely concerning, as do we.
VAN ONSELEN: Presumably, means-testing, tighter means-testing than what the Productivity Commission is suggesting, would be one avenue that the Government might look at here. There’s an irony, isn’t there though? I remember when your side of politics were in power, the Liberals were opposed to large swathes of means-testing across other public policy areas, yet now in Government, with the harder fiscal task they’ve got in front of them, they seem to be favouring means-testing?
ELLIS: Well, we’ll wait and see. What we do know on that front, is that they did give a very specific pre-election promise that they would not means-test the Child Care Rebate. So it looks like there is a bit of softening up, and I know that they haven’t repeated those promises today or since they have seen this report. So we will wait and see whether that’s another broken promise.
But we also need to look at the impact that, or any other recommendation, would have on workforce participation. You know, the whole reason that Tony Abbott is saying that he is sticking with his rolled-gold, over $20 billion, Paid Parental Leave program is that he is saying he wants to increase women’s workforce participation. Yet at the same time they are announcing big cuts to child care funding, which the Productivity Commission has confirmed has a much larger impact on workforce participation.
It’s pretty chaotic and doesn’t make a lot of sense on the face of it.
VAN ONSELEN: Now you introduced stronger, more rigorous educational standards for child care workers. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the report is potentially recommending that that be downgraded to a different level to improve accessibility. Is that something that Labor would even consider?
ELLIS: Look, the report is a bit mixed in this regard. It’s saying that the National Quality Framework is very important, that it should be maintained, which I absolutely agree with. But at the same time it’s saying that we should weaken some of the requirements around qualification of staff in services for under three-year-olds.
As I said, I would like to study the report in more detail. But at first glance, my view is absolutely, that all research shows that this is what matters in terms of children’s development.
And the way that you improve the quality of care is that you have well qualified staff who know how to get the best out of every child and give them the attention, the supervision and the early learning that they deserve. But that you also have appropriate ratios in place so that staff can give the level of attention that is required at that age group. That’s the reason why.
I know that the Abbott Government like to refer to it as ‘Labor’s quality framework’, but we need to remember that this was not just something that was agreed by the previous federal Government, but every state and territory government of every different political persuasion.
Because the evidence is overwhelming and I would be very concerned about any measures to water-down quality when we know that this is actually what means that we get the best educational outcomes, the best social outcomes. The best outcomes throughout a child’s life is if we really invest properly at this stage.
VAN ONSELEN: Now the other news from the report is that if the Productivity Commission get their way, by the time I’m a grandfather, I might actually get paid to look after my grandkids. Is that a productive thing to do? In so far as grandparents get lumped with this anyway? What’s the point in paying older Australians to do something they would probably find themselves doing anyway?
ELLIS: Well there’s some pretty big provisos on that. You would have to sign up and agree that you would do a year’s full-time study at TAFE to get your Certificate III. I don’t know what your plans for your retirement are…
VAN ONSELEN: Well that’s straight out the window already, but go on…
ELLIS: Well its two year’s part time study. So what it is saying is that we need to make sure that the funding in the early childhood education bucket is about early childhood education and care – so that qualification would be particularly important.
We’ll look at all of these proposals on their merits, but we will see how many grandparents are willing to take up those qualifications. The other thing, of course, is that they would be regarded as employees, and they would be re-entering the tax system and going through all that comes with that as well.
And also, of course, the Government will pay a percentage of the fee for carers, so it would also mean that parents would have to start paying their parents to look after their children.
Which is why some of these recommendations in this report look quite interesting, some of them, I think, look a little bit unusual, and some of them look like they would actually be making the system even more complex, which is something I think we all agree we want to avoid.
We all agree, this is a really complicated system. Our child care system at the moment is complicated. The way that it works – the way that people determine their payments. I think that if we are looking at reform, we need to be looking at reforms that simplify, but also improve the system. Not just reforms that are interesting.
VAN ONSELEN: We have got a story coming up in a moment, but it would be remiss of me not to ask you a pre-determined question before we air it. Palmer United Senator, Jacqui Lambie, wow, she had some comments on radio today, which I am sure you have been made aware of. Is there a lower bar of acceptance because she if from the PUP Party? If a major party person did this, male or female – particularly male quite frankly – they would just be hung, drawn and quartered for it. She seems to be let-off as just being a bit of a bogan?
ELLIS: Look Peter, I didn’t hear the radio, but obviously I have heard of the comments. I cannot for the life of me work out how that even came to even be discussed in the first place. They’re clearly ludicrously inappropriate.
But everyone I’ve heard speaking about it has been quite outraged. But probably beyond outraged, has just been quite stunned that that ever even happened, and that discussion came about. I don’t know what questions she was being asked. I don’t know why she was giving those answers. I can’t provide any sense on this one I am afraid.
VAN ONSELEN: It’s interesting isn’t it? I mean the mechanism for dealing with this is really a party mechanism, so major parties deal with it when it happens, generally speaking. So a minor party, in a sense, they are a law unto themselves because there is not a Parliamentary mechanism for dealing with this. So it’s left to whether Clive Palmer does or not, and he won’t?
ELLIS: Well ultimately the way of dealing with is, of course, the Australian public having a say on what they want their elected representatives to be speaking about, and the manner they want them to be conducting themselves. That’s the ultimate accountability we have here. But in Senate terms, that’s quite a long time.
VAN ONSELEN: It is. Alright, Kate Ellis, we appreciate your time on the show, thanks very much.
ELLIS: Thanks Peter.