SUBJECTS: Early Childhood Education and Care Relief Package and review
Russell Woolf: Well, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the child care industry was on the brink of collapse, as worried parents pulled their children out of day care. So, the Government stepped in and provided free child care, and replaced payments that centres get through the Commonwealth’s Child Care Subsidy with a weekly payment, which is half what they were earning before coronavirus. For centres who lost a lot of business, it was a lifeline. But, for those who didn’t, getting less money meant they couldn’t make ends meet, and they had to reduce staff hours and places for children.
Nadia Mitsopoulos: Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan was flooded with complaints –well, his Department was – and, when we spoke to him a couple of weeks ago, he said he was listening, and a departmental review was underway. Well, that review has been done, and the Federal Education Minister joins us this morning. Hello, Minister. Thanks again for your time.
Dan Tehan: Always a pleasure.
Mitsopoulos: So, how did this review assess the free child care offer? Did it help or hinder the industry? Because, the impacts were great for some centres, not so good for others.
Tehan: Well, what the review has found was that the system worked. 99 per cent of our 13,400 services remained open. 86 per cent of providers said the package helped them to stay open. 86 per cent said it helped them to retain staff. 87 per cent said it meant that they could look after children of essential workers and, importantly, vulnerable children. And, 76 per cent said the package helped them to remain financially viable. When you look at what’s happened to the sector around the globe, where we saw mass closures, I think, overall, we can say that the system worked, the new package worked. And, the fact that we’ve got 99 per cent of our providers up, running, caring and educating for our children, I think, is something that the sector can give itself a big tick for.
Woolf: That’s a very, very good result. It must mean that, we spoke to two or three people that fall into that 1 per cent, sadly, because they were struggling. And, one of the big things was that it was parents utilising that service where they were both working – generally speaking, they were the people that your Government was encouraging to continue working, as essential workers – when they offered to co-pay in order to get their children through, to try and help their smaller child care centres with wages, for example, to pay child care staff, they were knocked back. Is that something that you looked at? Is it something that could be changed – co-payments from parents?
Tehan: So, one of the important things with the package was that it was calibrated with JobKeeper. As you know, the JobKeeper really – the payments for JobKeeper – only began a couple of weeks ago. So, what we’ve found is that because we were able to get our system up and running immediately, waiting for those back payments from JobKeeper did put some pressure on those centres that were seeing, still continued strong demand. Now, we did put some additional measures in place to help with that. And, as a result of this review, we’re also looking at a couple of other things, especially for in-home care, where they tend to have smaller cohorts of children and deal with more vulnerable children. So, that’s something that we’re, we’re looking at at the moment …
Mitsopoulos: … What do you mean looking at a couple of other things, though? The way you fund those in-home care? What are you looking at there?
Tehan: Yes. So, look, whether there is additional measures that we need to put in place, just to help those particular services. And, that’s something which has come up in the review. So, we’ve …
Mitsopoulos: … So, a subsidy, Minister? Is that what you’re talking about?
Tehan: Well, look, whether it’s a subsidy, whether we use, we always set up our special circumstances funding, so, whether we might use that. We’re obviously assessing that, and also assessing what we will do as we see increased demand come back into the system. As you will have seen clearly demonstrated, our success in flattening the curve has also seen a demand for services to increase quite dramatically, especially as families are sending children back to school. And, as you know, in Western Australia, we’ve got that face-to-face teaching now resuming at all levels. We’re seeing that start in the eastern seaboard, as well. So, with this increased demand, the lessening of restrictions, we obviously have to look and see, okay, a package which was designed for when demand was coming out of this system. What do we do now that demand is coming back into the system?
Mitsopoulos: Okay. Dan Tehan is our guest. He’s the Federal Education Minister. On that point then, when will the free child care offer end? What is the recommendation there?
Tehan: Look, there’s no recommendation there. What the review does, does say, though, is that we need to look at how we’re going to deal with the increasing demand. So, that’s something that we’re closely looking at at the moment. Now, we’ll consult with the sector. We’ve made it very clear that we would provide four weeks’ notice of any changes. But, this was always designed as a temporary measure, and we obviously turned the old system off and put in place this new system. So, at some stage, we will look to going back to the old system, where parents make a contribution, where there is subsidised care, but you pay according to your means. So, we’re analysing that at the moment, consulting with the sector, look at what’s happening with increased demand, and then we’ll make decisions. But, we’ve made it very clear: any decision, there would be at least four weeks’ notice given to the sector.
Woolf: The date that seems to be popularly mentioned is 28 June, which means if you’re going to give four weeks’ notice, that’s a couple of weeks away from now. Is that right?
Tehan: Look, as I’ve said, no decision has been made, but we undertook to do this review. We’ve done that. It shows that with 99 per cent of services up, running and operational, that our temporary measure has worked. So, now, we do have to assess where we go from here, and that’s something that the Government will actively consider over the next couple of weeks.
Mitsopoulos: Will it mean, Minister, that you will have to actually put, and I know you say you’re looking at co-payments. You’re looking at restructuring subsidies. Will it mean, at the end of the day, that you’d actually have to be putting more money into the child care industry?
Tehan: Look, we’ll wait and see what the review recommends. We’ll wait and see what the consultations with the sector lead to, what their views and thoughts are. So, we’ll undertake a very thorough process. As you could imagine, when demand was plummeting, when parents were pulling their children out of the sector, we had days to act before the system was going to collapse. We now have a little bit more time to have a serious look at where the sector’s at at the moment, and we’ll make decisions over the coming weeks.
Woolf: Dan Tehan, Federal Education Minister, we appreciate you joining us on ABC Radio Perth in WA today.