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Minister for Education Dan Tehan interview with Craig Zonca and Loretta Ryan, ABC Radio Brisbane Breakfast

Ministers:

The Hon Dan Tehan MP
Minister for Education

SUBJECTS: Early Childhood Education and Care Relief Package

Loretta Ryan: Now, yesterday we spoke with Lisa. She’s the director of a child care centre in Brisbane, struggling to run her business. And, she said the past few weeks of the pandemic have been a nightmare for her.

Craig Zonca: Yeah. The headlines read, ‘Free child care’. And, parents, you might go, ‘Oh wow, this is fantastic.’ But, for Lisa, she says, ‘Well, it may not be as good as it sounds,’ particularly from her perspective running a child care centre.

[Excerpt]

Caller Lisa: It’s becoming harder and harder. I’ve got parents that are wanting to come back, wanting to go to work, because, obviously, they’re not working at home anymore, and their employees are asking them to come back. But, we just can’t physically put any more children in our centre, at all.

Ryan: So, what do you say to them, and what’s their reaction?

Caller Lisa: Like, we’ve lost a lot of parents, because, obviously, they have to go back to work. I’ve been quite lucky. A lot of my parents are sort of like, we said, ‘Okay, let’s do two days, let’s do sort of like cut the hours down, so 8:30 to 3:30.’ So, that’s helped them a lot, and we’re just on limbo waiting for the Government to make the announcement of what their next step is. Because, last time they only gave a day notice.

Ryan: How is it affecting you and your stress levels, and your staff?

Caller Lisa: Oh my stress is to the roof, and my staff are having days off because they’re sick, and they’re just like constantly working. It’s just really hard. But, we just don’t know what’s happening.

Ryan: Lisa, is there any help for you? Is anyone trying to give you some advice?

Caller Lisa: No. We’re just waiting. Like, we’ve got our governing bodies, which is Community Services, and they just can’t do anything.

Zonca: If a politician’s listening this morning, what would be your message to them, Lisa?

Caller Lisa: Oh God, let us go back to normal. Let us run our things just like we were before, so we can provide high quality care to children. We just want to go back to normal.

[End of excerpt]

Zonca: That’s Lisa from Norman Park. Well, one politician is listening to ABC Radio Brisbane this morning. He’s on the line. His name is Dan Tehan. He’s the Federal Education Minister.  Dan Tehan, good morning to you.

Dan Tehan: Morning Craig and Loretta. How are you both?

Zonca: I’m well, thanks. But, you can hear the anguish in Lisa’s voice there, as someone who runs a child care centre. How does that make you feel, when you hear someone like that in tears?

Tehan: Look, obviously, I’ve got a lot of empathy for Lisa. And, can I say to her, thank you for what you’ve been able to do over the last two to three months, in enabling children to get the care and education that they need throughout this pandemic. The early childhood education sector has done an extraordinary job. Ninety-nine per cent of centres have remained open. They’ve provided that care that’s been needed for children during the pandemic, especially for essential service workers and for vulnerable children. And, we are working actively now to be able to deal with the situation as we come out of the pandemic. Obviously, our ability to flatten the curve in the space of a couple of months means that we now have to look at our child care system and make sure that it can deal with the increased demand that is coming. And, I’ve had consultations with the sector this week, and we will be considering all options over the coming days. And, I understand that Lisa wants to go back to the old system, and this is one of the things which is under active consideration at the moment.

Ryan: Lisa and others in the industry did say that the free child care program had failed. What’s your reaction to that?

Tehan: What we’ve seen is that it brought demand back to the system. At, when you remember the height of the pandemic, there was a collapse in demand. Parents were taking children out of the system, and the system was on the verge of collapse. And, if you look at what happened internationally, that is one of the legacies now that they’re trying to rebuild, with their child care sectors overseas. What we’re able to do here, was keep 99 per cent open. A survey of over half of all providers showed that the system that was put in place, 86 per cent said it kept them financially viable through the pandemic. Our challenge now is, as we’re seeing demand come back into the sector, is how we now adapt from the policies that were put in place to deal with the pandemic and the collapse in demand, and now what we’re seeing with the increased demand. And, we know that we need to make changes, and they’re under active consideration.

Zonca: Minister, you say active consideration there for changes to this package, and talk about bringing demand back into the system. What seems to be the issue, as we chat to child care centre owners and operators, is that there’s so much demand, but they can’t meet that because they don’t have the funding. Because, what the Government did was, you know, take away that gap payment. But, the Government didn’t fund that gap payment that parents were previously paying. So, therefore, they haven’t had as many spaces as they would otherwise normally have in their child care centre.

Tehan: Well, the Government, through the Business Continuity Payments and JobKeeper –and they were calibrated to work together – put extra funding into the system throughout the pandemic. The issue we’ve got now, though, is that what we need to be able to do is enable the demand to increase, and, for the parents who need the care, for obviously the price signal to be able to work in a way which means that they can get that. So, that is what we’re looking at. We have to, we have to be cautious in what we do, because if we just go back to the old system, there is a worry that there could be a fall in demand again. And, some of the advice we’re getting is that that could be a 15 to 30 per cent fall in demand. So, what we’re trying to do is make sure that we’ve seen strong growth come back into the sector. We want to see that to be able to continue in a sustainable way.

Ryan: Is there enough understanding, because we talk to Lisa, we hear her story. She’s there on the ground. She’s a teacher, like many others. And, these things are brought in. They try to follow suit. They try to abide by what’s dealt to them. But, is there enough understanding about what is actually, really going on? Have the teachers been spoken to?

Tehan: Yes. Look, we’ve been doing broad consultations with the sector, both last week and this week, as we try and finalise a package that will make sure that we’re working for this new demand driven, or demand driven weeks and months and hopefully years, that will come into the sector …

Zonca: … Minister, you say that consultation last week and this week. Should that have been happening, you know, weeks ago, when this package was first announced, or even before this package was first announced?

Tehan: Well, the package was done with consultation with the sector. We’ve, we did the, one of the biggest surveys of the sector after four weeks of putting the package into place. We got responses from more than half the 1,400 providers. And, so, we’ve been doing this right through the process. And, I thank the sector for the way that they have engaged with the Government. They’ve been incredibly responsive in what they’ve done. And, as I’ve said, in getting through the pandemic, having 99 per cent of our providers operating, having 86 per cent saying that the package helped their financial viability through the pandemic, it’s been that consultation, and what they’ve told us was needed, which has helped.

Zonca: Minister, we have news in 60 seconds. At this stage, the package due to expire at the 28th of June. Will there be any changes before that point?

Tehan: Look, under review at the moment. We’ve said we’ll give four weeks’ notice. My hope is that we’ll be able to provide the sector with further guidance in coming days.

Ryan: Dan Tehan, Federal Education Minister, thanks for joining us.

Tehan: Thank you.