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Tuesday, 25 June 2013
Page: 6913

Ms KATE ELLIS (AdelaideMinister for Employment Participation and Minister for Early Childhood and Childcare) (13:25): I am incredibly proud to speak on this Early Years Quality Fund Special Account Bill 2013 implementing the government's Early Years Quality Fund. I am particularly proud to do it at a time when recent debate on this sector has descended to an entirely new low. The offensive, outdated and incorrect mutterings of Judith Sloan and the like must be exposed for the rubbish that they are. The statements that have been made in recent days could, of course, just be dismissed as the dinosaur views of an irrelevant commentator, but sadly they are views that are shared by some of those opposite. They are views that other people have put on the record and supported and they are views that must be challenged for the sake of this critically important sector.

Our government is the first federal government in our nation's history to recognise the importance of the early years of a child's life through the early childhood education and care sector. We have led historic reforms to improve the quality of early childhood education and care through the national quality agenda. With more children in care than at any time in our nation's history, this is vital for our nation's future. Earlier this month I announced that there are now more than one million children using child care at any given time. Whilst in recent days—and from the contribution we have just heard—we have heard scaremongers talk about how people will be fleeing the sector, about reduction and people pulling children out of care, what we have actually seen is a rapid expansion following our government's efforts to massively increase the affordability of the sector. We are also improving the quality of child care so that every one of those one million children is able to get the best early learning opportunities possible.

We have seen conservative cheer squad member Judith Sloan label early childhood educators as 'dimwits'. This follows the opposition's own shadow minister referring to them as 'so-called early learning educators'. We see that this follows a pattern of ignorance. We have seen the member for Higgins say that the National Quality Framework is based on 'nothing in particular'. We have seen the member for Aston suggest that childcare quality improvements were 'for no discernible benefit'. The member for Herbert has even said that early childhood educators campaigning to be valued and to be paid fairly in Townsville were chasing the dollar and that they should do their job for the love of it.

The views opposite could be right. The NQF could have been based on nothing in particular—that is, if you disregard the decades and decades of compelling international and domestic research which clearly demonstrates otherwise. Early childhood professionals have absolutely had enough of this rubbish. I have had enough of this rubbish. So let us put the facts on the record. The research is now unequivocal that the first five years of a child's life are critical to their development, that it is a time when 90 per cent of brain development occurs, a time that sets up children for the rest of their lives. What happens in these early years will not just impact on them now but will also impact on social outcomes, on their future health outcomes and on their educational outcomes for years and years to come. Therefore, the quality of early childhood education and care provided is fundamentally important.

We know that there are two main drivers of quality in our early childhood settings: local child to staff ratios and the qualification standards of those staff. Early Childhood Australia has recently released an evidence brief which summarises these key drivers of quality. The research shows that higher numbers of staff to children are associated with important learning outcomes including more extensive language skills through increased opportunities for conversations with adults, increased literacy skills, improved general knowledge, more cooperative and positive behaviour with peers and with adults, and better concentration and attention skills. The research also shows that the most significant factors affecting quality are the qualifications and training of the staff. Children in early childhood education and care settings led by an educator with a bachelor's degree in early childhood show greater progress and achievement in language, in literacy, in numeracy and in learning and are better prepared for school compared to children in programs led by less qualified educators. These are the facts.

In addition, there are less reportable child accidents or serious incidents when educators with higher qualifications are employed. All of the research, including the OECD analysis, shows that qualified early childhood educators have a significant positive impact on early child development. This research is why our government has led reforms, in partnership with all of the states and territories of all different political persuasions, to ensure that we lift the qualifications of staff and that we improve staff to child ratios so that children can better learn and develop. The evidence is now clear that involvement and interaction between qualified early childhood educators and children is critical to driving better learning outcomes for children during their early years. Long gone are the days when childcare staff were regarded simply as babysitters. These are early childhood professionals and they must be recognised and they must be valued as such.

To support these standards our government is making a significant investment of over $190 million to train and retain a higher qualified early childhood education and care workforce. However, significant challenges still exist in developing a qualified workforce to meet the growing childcare needs of families. The Productivity Commission have made it clear that if we want to attract and retain qualified early childhood educators, wages will need to increase, particularly in long day care centres. We know that there are already many early childhood educators earning above award rates through their centres' current enterprise agreements. While the government supports more providers valuing and rewarding their staff at above award rates, we also have a key priority in that we want to ensure that child care remains affordable.

I am proud to say that with this bill the government will establish the Early Years Quality Fund with $300 million to support more long day care services to improve the wages of their early childhood educators. This Early Years Quality Fund is a historic step for early childhood educators. It is particularly important for Australian children who want to be able to form a bond with an early childhood professional who they are familiar with and not with a different educator each week. I know it is particularly important for the peace of mind of parents that they know that when they drop their child off in the morning they are dropping their child off with someone with whom they are familiar and have a strong bond with and affection for. Services that sign up will have to make a commitment to quality. They will also have to agree to limit fee increases and to provide transparent information so that Australian parents have all the information that is required to make the best choices for their family.

Not all employers will want to sign up to an enterprise agreement or indeed agree to the terms the government will put in place to ensure fee restraint and a commitment to delivering high quality child care. But we know that enterprise agreements are absolutely necessary to ensure that employers pass on the grants in wage increases to employees and grants will be contingent on these agreements being in place and supported through the processes available through the Fair Work Ombudsman. An enterprise agreement is the only mechanism available to protect this fund. We do not want it used to prop up revenue and we do not want it used to improve anyone's bottom line; we want it used for the wages of our hard-working early childhood educators and professionals. An enterprise agreement is the instrument to achieve wage increases unless the children's services award is increased. I recognise that this is a sector which has undertaken huge steps in recent years and while this bill establishes a fund for the long day care sector I also acknowledge that there are a range of critical early childhood educators who are working in other settings, who are working in family day care, who are working in out of school hours care and a range of other approved childcare services.

Our government also believes that the professionalism of the early childhood workforce needs to be recognised on a sustainable and permanent basis across the entire sector. We are really proud of our government's record in ensuring that lower paid workers can access permanent across-the-board wage increases. Our government abolished Work Choices. We introduced the Fair Work Act, which removed barriers to equal remuneration claims to be considered under federal workplace relations law, making possible equal pay claims under the federal system. This has already achieved some great results, which we have seen through the first successful pay equity decision for the social and community sector workers and it has encouraged other sectors to pursue cases to improve outcomes for low-paid workers. Our government will build on those achievements by investing a further $6.2 million to establish a specialist pay equity unit within the Fair Work Commission, which is due to start work from July 2013. The new unit will undertake research and data collection to inform matters related to pay equity under the Fair Work Act, modern award reviews and annual minimum wage decisions. These measures are laying the foundations for pay increases for feminised sectors like the children's services sector into the future.

These are substantial achievements and I really want to take a moment to acknowledge the role of the Big Steps campaign in generating wide support for addressing wages for early childhood educators across Australia. This was a broad-based campaign which won support from parents, from educators, from small and from major childcare providers right across the country. Thousands of educators across Australia held stalls, letterboxed, made signs, petitioned, held rallies and spoke passionately about the difference that educators make to children's lives. I can speak from firsthand experience of this: I received the letters, I received the emails, I received the tweets. We heard you loud and clear. In fact, your voice was heard in every town and city in the country. Your campaign made our community recognise that it is no longer good enough in Australia to entrust the development and the safety of our children with you and do nothing about the low level of remuneration attached to it.

I want to particularly also recognise the Big Steps team in my electorate of Adelaide in building support amongst our community for the professional sector. Unfortunately, despite the support generated in the community, the coalition are intent on destroying this bill, threatening wage increases for thousands of early childhood educators. If you listen to coalition speakers on this bill here today, you will not hear a single commitment to quality. You will hear no recognition that qualification standards and child-staff ratios are important. You will hear no recognition of the role that early childhood educators play in giving children a better start to life. You will hear no support for the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care, which is delivering these improvements in childcare settings across Australia, despite the fact that every other state and territory government have signed up, because we all know that this is the critical way forward.

There is only one group that is left sitting out that has not recognised that. Sadly, it is the group that sits opposite me right now. We know that if the Liberals have their way, there will be no advancement of this important professional work and staff will continue to be deeply underpaid for their important work. For decades, early childhood workers have been lumped in with babysitters, with no appreciation for the role that they play as critical early childhood educators.

What started off as ignorant misunderstandings has now descended into the breathtakingly vile and malicious slander from the conservatives that we have heard from in recent days. I am here to say: it must stop now. Those opposite must abandon their Judith Sloan like dinosaur views. The facts must dictate the future policy in this critical area. And the evidence is compelling. The coalition just do not understand the hard work that all childcare centres across Australia have been putting in to improve the quality of child care for Australian children. Only Labor will make record improvements in early childhood education and care, as we have in the budget, with over $25 billion going to this sector over the next four years. We have demonstrated our commitment by the fact that we have now tripled expenditure in the area, compared to what those opposite were spending when last in government. Only Labor will continue to support services to improve the wages of early childhood educators and, importantly, give Australian children the best start in life, as all of the evidence shows it can do.

With this bill, our government is setting the path towards a quality early childhood sector that recognises early childhood educators as the professionals that they are and that values the work that they are doing in communities across Australia each and every day. I am absolutely proud to commend this bill to the House.