Release type: Speech


Opening of 2013 Australian Childcare Alliance and Childcare Queensland annual conference, Gold Coast

Thank you very much for inviting me to officially open your 2013 Australian Childcare Alliance and Childcare Queensland annual conference here on the beautiful Gold Coast. Some of you were here last year. In fact, many of you would have been, and I know I rushed in, gave a speech at some point in the proceedings that you were very kind enough to pause for me to do that as the then shadow minister and then rushed out again but it's really, really nice to be back.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Kombumerri people and pay my respects to elders past and present. And I am pleased, as I said, to be here as the Assistant Minister for Education. I am the Abbott Government's dedicated Minister for Early Childhood Education and Care and I'm really looking forward to working with the early childhood sector in my new role.

I'll be part of an education portfolio team together with our senior Minister, Christopher Pyne and Senator Scott Ryan as the Parliamentary Secretary. I met with Christopher a couple of days ago and he said early childhood education and care is all you, Sussan. So if you've got any complaints about my performance you'll be talking to Christopher I'm sure but otherwise I am the - the buck stops with me.

I do want to listen to everyone who has a role to play in early childhood education and care, a sector that's critical for families across Australia and it's a huge responsibility when you consider that almost every child in Australia will attend some form of child care or early learning before they start school.

Can I acknowledge Peter Price, your president of Childcare Queensland, an executive committee of ACA. Kerry Mahoney, president of Childcare South Australia and also executive committee of the Australian Childcare Alliance and the Childcare Queensland Management Committee in red t-shirts around the room and the building.

I know that during the election campaign many things were talked about and it was quite late in the piece that we did release our childcare policy - a policy for better child care and early learning and it's now my job as a member of - as a minister in the Government to respond to the concerns that were raised with me as shadow education minister in terms of rolling out a new policy in government.

Now, this policy sets out our vision of a thriving child care and early learning sector that delivers accessible and affordable care, more choice, more flexibility, good quality care. Provision of early childhood education and care in Australia is a market you - many of your private providers, and you know that. It's a matter of choice for parents and the better services are able to respond to the needs and the wants of parents, the stronger the sector will be. And this is true whether the service in question is a for profit child care provider, a community pre-school or a kindergarten operating inside the school system.

The sector has grown enormously over several decades starting as not much more than a cottage industry providing child minding and babysitting services so long ago it resembled - the present sector is nothing like it while parents engage in the workforce but it's now extensive and it's a professional industry.

The developments have been influenced by governments and government policy but the underlying driver has been the fact that parents have demanded better services, more choice and greater flexibility.

To give a sense to what has changed, in the September quarter 2004 there were approximately ten thousand services catering for seven-hundred-and seventy thousand children and five-hundred-and-forty-nine thousand families. Wind the clock forward to September 2012, eight years later, there were over fifteen thousand services catering for over one million children.

It's been estimated that the childcare industry in Australia generated ten-point-three billion dollars in 2012/2013 and this estimate doesn't include preschools, kindergartens so actually the sector is significantly larger.

The Australian Government is the largest funder of early childhood education and care providing around six billion dollars per annum and families also make a significant contribution, spending over two billion per annum on fees after subsidies, which is more than the state and territory governments spend in this sector as a whole.

So against that broad background, may I outline the Abbott Government's commitments and the things that we want to do in the early childhood education and care sector.

Number one, the Productivity Commission review. We've committed, as a priority, to have the Productivity Commission inquire into how the childcare system can be made more flexible, affordable and accessible. And during my term as Shadow Minister I drafted quite a few terms of reference.

I'll be finalising those terms of reference in consultation with the sector and with my department to make sure we cover everything that we want the PC to look at. And then, by the way, they'll come back to me and say we can't possibly do this in just twelve months, but we are committed to completing the review in twelve months and that will include a submission process so that we hear very strongly from the sector, from parents and everyone who has a stake in this important area.

We'll ask the Productivity Commission to consider options within the existing funding envelope for enhancing choices available to Australian families as to how they receive childcare support. As usual with Productivity inquiries there'll be that extensive stakeholder consultation so we will reach out to you and I know that you will respond.

The second thing I want to talk about is reducing red tape and improving the implementation of the National Quality Framework for early childhood education and care. We do support the NQF. In spite of things that have been said from time to time we do support the NQF but we are concerned by reports from childcare centres and parents that its implementation is causing administrative and staffing problems which are then passed on as cost increases for families.

That's why we've committed to working closely with the states and territories as well as the childcare sector to find practical ways to improve the implementation of reforms without compromising the standard of care that must be provided.

So together with the states and territories we will review the implementation of staff to child ratios in order to assess whether the ratios can be implemented in a more measured way. This is not about changing the ratios permanently or getting rid of them but looking at how they can be implemented in a more measured way to give the sector enough time to absorb the change and continue to service the families and parents as well as you do.

We will also conduct a review of childcare qualifications and seek the cooperation of the states and territories to pause the requirement that all staff should be qualified until a full review of early childhood qualifications is undertaken.

As you all know, I've travelled extensively in my role and particularly in Western Australia and Queensland I'm hearing report after report of educators coming in on 457 visas. We have nothing against 457 visas, they fill valuable gaps in the workforce in Australia but we don't want a system where because we can't meet the number of qualified educators in this country because the training is not happening fast enough that we end up defaulting to this position.

So those measures will coincide with a review of the extensive regulations, reporting requirements and related guidelines that the childcare sector currently operates under. The goal should be quality early childhood education and care with minimal regulatory burden on services so that they can focus on outcomes for children.

The key relationship - the relationship that should matter the most, is that between the educator and the child on the floor of the childcare centre? And everything that wraps around that including the role of government is to support that.

I want to touch on the ministerial review of the Early Years Quality Fund and this should come as no surprise to those who followed the debate in Parliament and read my remarks as the shadow minister at the time. The Early Years Quality Fund was established in response to an ongoing union campaign seeking wage rises for the childcare workforce.

However, there have been concerns across the sector about the inequity of the EYQF. On Monday and Tuesday next week, I will be receiving briefings from my department in Canberra on where we - exactly, we stand in terms of the contractual requirements around the EYQF as it currently exists and I'll have more to say after I've undertaken those discussions and consultations.

But what I do want to say to every single educator and many have emailed me, quite cranky. I understand that. If you have an expectation that your pay is going to be increased and then that is - comes under doubt, of course you're going to be cranky.

But I, as I said, when the legislation went through Parliament, cannot really support something that only rewards about twenty-seven per cent of the workforce.

But I absolutely do recognise that it is a low paid sector and in many ways a sector that requires more support in terms of training, productivity, workforce and many other things that are related but not exactly defined by your pay.

But the most important thing to remember if you're an educator is that the wage case has now been lodged with the Fair Work Commission, something that I advised the union, United Voice to do when I first met with them on this subject. Gosh, you know, maybe it was two years ago.

But there is a process for this and the process is the Fair Work Commission. It's a very robust process, a very strong process and I also said and by the way, guys, you've got a really good case because if you look at what you have to do under the EYQF compared to what you had to do previously, you are rapidly becoming much more professional.

You need to know more, you need to have more understanding about early learning processes and, of course, you do have this regulatory burden which, while we weren't - can't get rid of, we want to reduce. But I mean that too demands an avid level of professionalism from you as educators.

So you know, that case is going through the Fair Work Commission and I hope it happens quickly and I hope it give confidence to educators that they are valued and recognised. But we will see what it produces.

I am happy to say though that all of the funds that were allocated, the three-hundred million dollars over two years to the EYQF are not going to be snatched back by Treasurer Joe Hockey. They will remain within the childcare portfolio somewhere. So they will benefit us as a sector.

The fourth election commitment that we made was to restore the funding to occasional care. Something that I am - I'm really, really committed to. We will restore the funding that was cut by the previous government. Now, I need to work with the state and territories because they do support funding in this area as well.

I think they need about forty-five per cent of the cost. So if we can get something going that's consistent with our previous cost sharing arrangement, I'll be happy. But we have got that commitment and those dollars set aside to restore the Federal funding to occasional care.

Last thing I want to mention is about advice and consultation. I don't know how many childcare centres I've visited in my time as shadow minister. I think it might be around two hundred, across every state and territory.

But what I did notice about the previous government - and I'm not here to make criticisms and it's not just really in this area - was that as time went on, consultation got less.

And just because I'm moving from, you know, into a slightly more glamorous office in Parliament House and I'll be surrounded by more people to support me and a department that's incredibly professional and has some great minds on this subject, doesn't mean that I'll be sitting behind my ministerial desk all the time.

I will still come out to talk to you and, in fact, I said during the campaign that one of the things I wanted to do was in every state to spend half a day at least on the floor of a childcare centre working as an educator. Well, not as an educator because I couldn't hope to do that but working to an educator, being supervised.

And somebody said to me we'll start in the morning so you get the tough stuff, the nappies and the set up and so that's my clue, I'll start early in the morning. But I do want to do that, not to try and make a point but to better understand from the people at the coalface what their job and their life in a centre is really like.

So I've visited a lot. You know, you come through and you might spend a couple of hours but to actually be hands-on is something I'm looking forward to. But we will, as a government, establish an industry advisory council for the childcare sector. It'll be co-chaired by me with a respected industry expert and leader.

The advisory council will provide information, consultation and recommendations on proposed legislation or policies affecting the childcare sector. And this will actually really, really be of assistance to us. So this consultative body will be helping me in my job. It's not about me telling the consultative body what they should be telling the sector. It will be very much an information flow back to me.

So look, that's probably enough from me. I hope I haven't talked for too long but I did want, very much, to outline the Coalition's commitment as this is the first appearance, is that the right word - presentation that I've made in my role as Assistant Minister for Education so it's good to get that out there.

And obviously, over time, we will seek your greater feedback. Can I thank everybody again for the wonderful things that you do and I really mean that? For the educators in our sector, for the people who provide the opportunity for you to come together in Childcare Queensland that I've had a terrific working relationship with.

For all that you do for Australia's youngest and most important citizens. Thank you again and thank you for having me here and I wish you all the best for a successful conference.

Thank you.