Subjects: Coronavirus and Early Childhood Education and Care Relief Package
Tom Elliott: Now, big new policy – and there’s a new policy being announced almost every day. The Federal Government announced around lunchtime this afternoon that it is going to put $1.6 billion towards child care. Now, there’s a couple of components. One is if you are an essential worker, whatever that means, you’ll get free child care. Two, it wants child care centres, who might be struggling with lack of numbers right now, to make sure that they apply for the JobKeeper allowance, the $1,500 a fortnight, to keep child care workers employed. Now, we spoke with Meredith Peace from the Australian Education Union earlier on in the program, and, it was clear after talking with her that what an essential worker actually is, is rather unclear. Joining us on the line, hopefully to clear things up, is the Federal Minister for Education, Dan Tehan. Mr Tehan, good afternoon.
Dan Tehan: Tom, always a pleasure to be with you.
Elliott: So, what is an essential worker? I mean, for example, I’m told that I’m an essential worker because keeping our station on the air is important. Does that mean I get free child care, if I want it now?
Tehan: It does, Tom. As the Prime Minister has made very clear, anyone who is working at the moment is working to help us beat this pandemic, beat the health impacts that this pandemic potentially can have, and also the economic impacts that it can have. And, we want to make sure that workers, if they are out there on the frontline doing the job that we need done to get us through these next six months, that they get access to free child care. We want to make sure that those vulnerable children get that continuity of care that they need, and continue to get that. And, also, for all those people, especially over the last couple of weeks, who lost work and decided to unenroll from their child care provider, that if they want, that they have the ability to re-engage with their provider, as well.
Elliott: Right. So, just so we’re absolutely clear, anybody who is currently working right now is, by definition, an essential worker?
Tehan: That’s right. The Prime Minister wants to support and help everyone who is working at the moment. He’s made that very clear. Once you start ruling workers in and out in a situation like this, it gets incredibly difficult. What we want is everyone putting in the effort, everyone contributing to making sure that we get through this pandemic, we get through the other side, and that we’re stronger for it. And, that’s why we’ve been very keen to support all those – whether it be the cleaners who are turning up to hospitals, whether it be those who are working in the tyre service centres who’ll be fixing the tyres on the trucks that are delivering the foods to the supermarket – everyone is playing an essential role. You’re broadcasting messages, you’re providing information out into the community that they need to be hearing, so that they get a clarity of what state and territory governments, of what the Federal Government, is doing. Everyone needs to play their part. I mean, one of the essential roles that you’re playing is delivering those messages around what we’re asking of individuals at the moment, in terms of social distancing. All these things, in the end, will help us defeat this pandemic.
Elliott: Okay. So, I mean, this is something that the child care sector has long argued for. They say that they’re just part of the education system, and, in the same way that primary and secondary education are provided by the state, and tertiary education is partly funded by, you know, by HECS, and things like that. They’ve always argued that the preschool, child care, should also be funded. So, is this, sort of, I mean, is this a temporary measure, or do you think this is likely now to become permanent, where child care is paid by the state, as it is in a lot of Scandinavian countries, for example?
Tehan: This is a temporary measure. It will run for 12 weeks up to 30 June, and then for another 12 weeks to get us through the six months of this pandemic. And, we will also have a review mechanism in place after a month to make sure that it’s delivering the financial stability that we want into the sector. These are extraordinary times, and we need to put in place measures that will deal and help us get through these extraordinary times. And, that’s what we’ve been able to do in the space of a week. What we have done is redesign the way our child care system is funded, so that our child care sector can get through the pandemic. And, then, once we’re on the other side, we’ll go back to the reforms and the system that we had put in place.
Elliott: Right. It’s interesting, isn’t it, because, the only thing is, as I mentioned to your colleague Michaelia Cash earlier, like, a lot of things like income taxes were only introduced in a number of countries as a temporary wartime measure back 100 years ago, when World War I was being fought. And, here we are in 2020, and we’re still paying income tax. Are you absolutely certain that this will be temporary, because, I reckon, if it works, people will say, ‘Let’s keep it.’
Tehan: No. Look, it’s a temporary measure. It’s there for the 12 weeks leading up to 30 June, and then the following 12 weeks. We want to use it to get through the pandemic, and then we will go back to the existing child care reforms which we had embedded, and, I think, were working very well for families up until the, we had to face this coronavirus pandemic. And, there we’ve seen, obviously, a lot of parents withdraw their children from child care. So, it’s meant that we’ve had to redesign the system so it will work for all those who need their children looked after and educated, while they’re working in these areas that we need people working, to make sure that we can beat this pandemic.
Elliott: Now, I’ve heard from a lot of people who run child care centres, and they’ve said that they’re going out of business, and they’re going to shut their doors. Will this keep them open, or are you a bit worried that maybe a lot of child care centres simply won’t reopen, once the school holidays are over?
Tehan: No. We hope that through what we’re doing in putting a base funding amount, which is based on the fortnight leading up to 2 March, before the pandemic started to impact, will provide the viability the sector needs, combined with the JobKeeper payment, which child care providers are eligible for. So, when you put those two measures in place, we think we now have underpinned the financial viability of the sector for the last, for the next six months, which is what we’ve set out to do.
Elliott: And, finally, is it free irrespective of what the different child care centres actually charge? I mean, does the Government just pick up the tab for everybody’s child care, everybody who’s working?
Tehan: So, the base amount that we’ve said is based on that fortnight before 2 March, and it’s the fees that were paid up to the cap which the Government has put in place for the sector. So, it’s based on the amount of fees that the sector was, well, an individual centre was, receiving in the fortnight leading up to 2 March.
Elliott: So, before the coronavirus shutdown …
Tehan: … Before the coronavirus shutdown, that’s right.
Elliott: Right. Now, finally, all these measures are going to cost an absolute fortune. Has your colleague and friend Josh Frydenberg, has he just got the money printing machine running 24 hours a day at the moment?
Tehan: What we’re putting in place, and it is, right, it does come with a cost. But, what we’re putting in place are the measures that we need to, to keep our economy functioning through the pandemic, so that we can come out the other side and immediately begin to grow and support our economy, once we’re through the pandemic. What we want to make sure is that basic infrastructure is still there, so that our economy will grow out of this. If we don’t do this, then the problem is that we might have economic consequences which lasts far beyond the pandemic. And, then, of course, once we can start growing our economy, getting people back into employment, we can start paying off the debt that we have accrued over this six months. But, it’s incredibly, well, these are just extraordinary times. You and I, I remember, had a beer just before Christmas. And, do you think either of us imagined that we would be having this conversation now, and what was going to be, what was facing the nation. So, I think it’s incredibly important that we understand the circumstances, what we’re trying to do, and, yes, we want to make sure that we’re financially viable at the end of this. And, one of the great things that we’ve had that we, that a lot of countries didn’t have, was a budget in balance, and a strong economy going into it, which we’re all very fortunate for. And, thanks to the great, hard work of the Australian taxpayers, who put us in that position.
Elliott: Indeed. And, may they keep working for many, many decades to come. Dan Tehan there, Minister for Education in the Federal Government.