Unfortunately, in politics we have become used to the disjuncture between rhetoric and reality, but under this government it has been turned into an art form.
Big spending budgets from so-called fiscal conservatives and thousands of pages of new regulations from a Labor Party claiming to be a friend of small business are two cases that come to mind.
But there is now another area where federal actions are having an invidious and negative impact on the lives of millions in our community, namely childcare.
Under the guise of the best interests of the child, the Gillard government has imposed sweeping changes to the childcare sector, leading to more red tape for providers, higher costs to families and volunteer fatigue among the thousands of parents who make up local management committees.
It is a classic case of big government thinking it knows best, with top-down solutions for what are uniquely grassroots community organisations, who themselves have the most at stake in producing the best possible outcomes.
What is more, we are often seeing reluctant state governments push back against the heavy-handed approach of their federal counterparts who are seeking to impose their solutions from up on high.
These strongarm tactics make a mockery of Julia Gillard's claim of ‘cooperative federalism’ and shine a light on some of the key deficiencies in the legislation. Indeed, just last week there was a major story in The Age, with the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth threatening to withhold over $100 million in funding from Victoria if it does not implement by 2013 the universal access requirement for 15 hours of kindergarten a week for all four-year-olds.
While 15 hours of kindergarten a week may be a noble objective, it does come with immediate costs. Not only does the overall financial burden for parents increase and it becomes difficult in the immediate term to find sufficient numbers of qualified staff, it is also that other programs for three-year-olds in the same facility often need to be cut to accommodate the extended hours for four-year-olds. This problem is particularly acute in Victoria, where we have a high number of three-year-olds in kindergarten programs.
At a public childcare forum I recently held at Kew Heights Sports Club in the electorate of Kooyong, which was attended by senior representatives from the for-profit and not-for-profit childcare sector as well as by the local Boroondara council, a number of local providers indicated they had been forced to scale back changes for three-year-olds that would have otherwise continued, but for these new changes.
Many parents also expressed their concern about the changes and the perverse impact they were having on them.
With this level of uncertainty hovering over federal funding, kindergarten management committees feel they are unable to plan with confidence infrastructure upgrades, class sizes and fee schedules. For these volunteers, who are already dedicating hundreds of hours a year to their kindergartens, like Diana Nelson, President of the JJ McMahon Memorial Kindergarten in Kew, this cloud of uncertainty is making their difficult task even harder.
Based on the views aired at the Kooyong Childcare Forum, it is easy for me to see why the Baillieu government is absolutely right to call on the federal government to show more flexibility when it comes to implementing the mandatory universal access requirement.
The sector is in transition and will need time and resources to adjust.
It is not just the universal access issue which is causing problems for the sector, it is also the other changes being introduced as part of the National Quality Agenda for Early Childhood Education and Care.
Under this framework, all preschools and long-day care services are required to have in place a child-staff ratio of one-to-four for children under two years of age. For children 25- to 35-months, it must be one-to-five by 2016. And for children aged 36 months to school age, it needs to be one-to-11.
By 2014 family day care educators will be entitled to care for up to seven kids, with no more than four under school age. In terms of staff for preschool, including long day care and family day care, they will, under the new requirements, need to hold a formal qualification or be working towards one in early childhood education and care by 2014.
For long-day services and preschools, at least half the staff will need a diploma and others a minimum of a certificate III. For family day care educators, a certificate III will be the minimum, with coordination unit staff holding at least a diploma.
These are very significant changes, particularly when one considers that the Productivity Commission found in its 2011 report into the early childhood development workforce that 45 per cent of educators in family day care do not hold this new minimum qualification and that, in their words:
‘… some FDC educators will not consider it worthwhile to begin working towards it, instead opting to exit the sector.’
Should these departures eventuate, existing shortages of labour supply in the childcare sector will only be exacerbated.
Indeed, the Productivity Commission has said that the Government's reforms will require an additional 15,000 workers and that to cater for this demand wages will need to increase. In the words of the report:
‘The supply of suitably qualified workers is likely to take some time to respond, and temporary exemptions from the new standards (waivers) will be required. Government timelines for reform appear optimistic.’
This is an important warning sign for the Gillard government.
At the Kooyong Childcare Forum, local providers said that the absence of qualified staff often forced them to fill gaps with temporary staff, which put upward pressure on wage bills, again lifting the cost burden on the parents.
In addition to airing their concerns with the lack of qualified staff available, local providers also raised their concerns with the quality of vocational training in the sector. This is a problem that was also identified in the Productivity Commission report and one that the Gillard government should be far more attentive to than it has been.
One of the panel participants in the Kooyong Childcare Forum was Ms Gwynn Bridge, who is President of the Australian Childcare Alliance. They conducted a survey into childcare affordability in April-May this year, the results of which are illuminating.
The survey found that 68 per cent of respondents could not afford the 15 per cent increase in childcare fees that the Productivity Commission report found would be the case.
Such an inhibitive cost increase will force 72 per cent of respondents to find alternative care arrangements among their own family, 88 per cent of respondents to reduce the hours spent by their children in long-day childcare and 34 per cent of respondents to place their children in unregulated childcare arrangements.
Among those families already experiencing financial stress, these additional costs would see 76 per cent of respondents withdraw their kids from current long-day care arrangements, and 70 per cent of parents would ‘consider delaying having more children if the costs of childcare increased further.’ Remarkably, this 70 per cent figure is a doubling of the number of parents who answered a similar question in a 2010 survey.
What this survey and others like it have found is that parents are screaming out for relief from the rising costs of childcare in this country. If we do not do something urgently, the consequences will be profound.
The Labor government's decision to cut the childcare rebate, to freeze its indexation and to abuse Tony Abbott for rightly raising the issue of funding support for nannies is indicative of their insensitivity to this burning issue in the electorate.
What is more, Labor have broken their 2007 election promise to build 260 new childcare centres, with only 38 ever built.
When one adds to this poor record Peter Garrett's inflexible and heavy handed approach to the universal access requirements and the other quality framework reforms, it is easy to see why we need a new approach.
My colleague the member for Farrer, who has done an impressive job as shadow minister for childcare and early childhood learning, has made it very clear that the Coalition is committed to a more flexible and understanding approach.
We must always remember that childcare is not a welfare entitlement but, rather, part and parcel of key measures to boost productivity and labour force participation.
For me, it was terrific to have Sussan Ley participate in the Kooyong Childcare Forum, along with many other professionals in the sector. I look forward to working with her and my other colleagues in this place to drive a better deal for the children and their families who, at the end of the day, are the only ones that count.