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Transcript of interview with Virginia Trioli and Sussan Ley: ABC TV News Breakfast: 25 July 2013: child care and early childhood education

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25 July 2013

SUBJECT: Child care and Early Childhood Education

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Now childcare will of course be one of the most important political issues at the next election. So let's speak with the Minister for Early Childhood, Childcare and Youth, Kate Ellis, who joins us from Adelaide. And in the studio with me we are joined by the Opposition spokeswoman, Sussan Ley.

Sussan Ley, good morning. Kate Ellis, good morning to you. Thanks for joining me, both of you.

KATE ELLIS: Good morning.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Kate, can we start with you, the key pressure points on child care are cost and places. Tell us your policy to deal with those two key issues.

KATE ELLIS: Well, in terms of cost and affordability, of course we are providing record levels of financial assistance to families. In fact what we know is since we increased the child care rebate so massively when we came to government it has led to a surge in demand for child care places. And in fact we've seen over a twenty-three per cent increase in the number of children looking for child care places which is why viewers such as the one in your story just featured are having a lot of difficulty finding places.

Now, what we are doing in order to address that is operating on a number of levels. We have flexibility trials which are operating at the moment looking at new ways, innovative ways that we can meet families' needs. We are also offering grants to local government to increase the number of places that they have within their jurisdictions and importantly we've identified that there's a number of planning barriers that are in place which are restricting the number of childcare places we have and are holding people back when they want to set up new places.

So we have commissioned an academic from UTS to undertake some work to come up with the best practice so that we can have more places and get rid of those planning barriers.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: So at this stage going into the election, this close to the election you actually don’t have a policy for creating more places and more affordable places? You're commissioning a study into that?

KATE ELLIS: Well, no, as I just said, we have over eleven million dollars in trials which are currently underway and grants which are open for application now for local government to apply for funding now to increase the number of places they have. But the reason I also…

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: [Interrupts] But as part of that, do you actually have in your mind how many more places? I'm trying to get to the nuts and bolts of this. How many more places that you believe need to be put in place as soon as possible in order to deal with that lag?

KATE ELLIS: Look, it actually varies hugely across the country. We know particularly in Sydney there is a dire shortage of places in many areas and there is a lack of land in order to create more places in those areas as well, which is one of the reasons we are working with state and local authorities there. But we also have other areas in the country where there is an oversupply of places and centres are operating with forty per cent occupancy and complaining about having real issues about viability.

So I don’t think there is a magic number, but what we do know is that at the moment in some of those areas and I can point to some areas in Western Sydney where there are local government jurisdictions that have rules in place saying, you cannot set up a new childcare centre if it has more than forty places which obviously threatens the viability.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Okay, I'll come back to that in a moment. I just want to hear from Sussan Ley. Can you quantify what you think needs to be done in terms of creating more places? How many more places need to be created and how do you make them more affordable.

SUSSAN LEY: Look Virginia, it is patchy across the country. Kate is right about that but the real problem we are facing is that if you want to invest in childcare in building a childcare centre, you look at the sums and you will put your equity elsewhere because running a centre, the margins have become so narrow under this government with the cost price squeeze that the places are not actually appearing in the first place. So that's the real problem. The sector is straining under so much red tape and regulation.

Kate mentioned twenty-three per cent. Well, the twenty-three per cent figure I have in my mind is that since 2010 childcare costs have gone up twenty-three per cent. Look, in 2007 under John Howard there wasn’t a problem in childcare.

It wasn’t such an issue at the election. Everything was running smoothly. We had it under control. This government has just launched a new agenda. No problems with the agenda, but the way they’ve implemented it has rushed and botched the process.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Let me get to the specifics of what you were saying. What is the cost price squeeze exactly that you say makes running a childcare centre not profitable? What's that about?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, centres need to put their fees up because of new regulations. Parents are saying, I can't afford those fees. I will take my children out of child care.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: What are the new regulations that are making the prices go up?

SUSSAN LEY: Changes in the ratio of educators to children and the qualification requirements of the educators. We don’t argue with those things. We want to see the industry professionalised. We don’t mind the smaller ratios. But the way it's been implemented, it's been too hasty. There's been insufficient transition and what's happened is that the price has been ratcheted up as a result.

You can keep putting the price of child care up, that's fine. You can say, we're doing this because we demand quality, but if parents ultimately take their children out of childcare into backyard arrangements which we are seeing across the country and investors aren't building new child care centres because there's no money in providing child care and the whole sector is straining, this is what we're seeing today.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: I want to get a response from Kate Ellis to that in just a moment and then get to exactly what you plan to do as opposed to criticising the Government, but just one more clarification on this. You say that because of the

haste that's why the cost has gone up. You say, you’ve got no problem with child care workers being paid more, costing more or the ratios being better. Surely that's the reason for the price going up, not the haste.

SUSSAN LEY: It is the reason but…

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: [Interrupts] But you are happy with that? You say you are happy with people being paid properly to do an important job and with the ratios being right, so the cost is always going to be higher then, following that logically.

SUSSAN LEY: The cost is always going to be higher but in some states the way it's been implemented has meant that you need for example more educators on the floor. You can't take them away during lunch periods. You need the staffing level to be - that everyone has a diploma at a certain point in time.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But isn't that good?

SUSSAN LEY: Look, it is good but we need to be flexible about how it actually gets rolled out in practice rather than saying at a particular time of day this number of people need to be here. You know you’ve got children going home. You’ve got a staff member going on sick leave. There are lots of different ways that you can meet these qualification and ratio requirements without being so absolutely rigid around the edges. That's what we are talking about.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Sussan, I will come back to you with some more specifics hopefully about what your policy is, but Kate Ellis, can I get you to respond to those particular criticisms? And I have heard criticisms from childcare centres about the red tape, about the forms that need to be filled out, the books that need to kept on every individual child, their every movement through the day, has that got out of control and is that putting pressure on prices?

KATE ELLIS: Look, my response would be, I think it shows how entirely out of touch the opposition are. If Sussan is here telling us that parents are pulling their children out of approved care and putting them in backyard care at a time when we have a record number of children in care, when we have parents struggling to find places because demand is so high and when we've actually seen over a thousand new long day care centres open over the term of our government, I think we need to talk about problems that exist before the sector.

There are some real problems. I think that we do need to take seriously the struggles that families are having with availability, but I think to run these scare campaigns about people pulling people out of centres when all the evidence shows that in fact the exact opposite is happening, show that they are a long, long way out of touch.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But do you acknowledge that there's too much red tape at the moment? Professionalising the industry is one thing but then putting onerous burdens on childcare workers who really just need to be involved in being engaged with those children, that's surely another thing and maybe something that you need to consider?

KATE ELLIS: Look, I certainly don’t apologise for raising the standard of care. We now have all of the evidence that shows how critical these early years are. But what we've also tried to do is this isn't something that we've gone it alone on. We've worked with every state and territory government of every political

persuasion who have all come together and signed up and said that this is the best approach.

And what it means is that previously child care centres used to be regulated by state authorities and also by a national authority. What we've done is come together and said, that's crazy, why don’t we all work together and have one set of national regulations so that people are accountable to one body and have to fill out one set of paperwork?


KATE ELLIS: And I've heard from providers who have said that that's been really helpful.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Sussan Ley, can you give me the specifics of what it is the Opposition will do in order to make those new places?

SUSSAN LEY: Look, it's actually not one set of national regulations. You can be an excellent quality centre in Queensland, almost exceeding the standard and you can only be working towards it in New South Wales because New South Wales and Queensland have actually implemented the national quality framework differently. So I make the point that it is not a national system and that's a perverse outcome of it.

We understand that we need to professionalise et cetera the industry. What we would do is sit down with our state and territory counterparts and ministers and say, how is this working? How is this not working? How can we ease the squeeze on parents? How can we make sure that when these deadlines are reached the prices do not jump up another twenty-three per cent and become completely unaffordable?

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Okay, so how do you do that?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, we have to have that conversation with the State and Territory Ministers and there are areas of regulation and red tape that I think can be removed so you’ve got staff hours allocated to filling in forms, to doing paperwork and staff members, educators are taking this home. These centres give them two hours a week for programming. They are taking home work to complete in their own time. Every single centre I visit and I have been to about two hundred in the last six months says, as child care educators we want to sit on the floor, play with the children, nurture, love them and what we are finding we are doing is paperwork. People are leaving the industry because of that.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Sussan Ley, I think we've addressed that. Just another opportunity for you to outline what the policy might be from the Opposition.

SUSSAN LEY: Let's take a step back. The childcare policy settings of today don’t belong to where they were formed a generation ago. We are saying we will have a productivity commission review that will actually look at all of that. It will look at the rebate…

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: [Interrupts] There's bi-partisan support for that isn't there, the productivity review?

SUSSAN LEY: The industry is very supportive. The profession is very supportive of that. I'm not sure that the Government takes our productivity commission review seriously, but remember that the NDIS came out of a productivity commission review.

So it is the right way to approach this from a workplace participation perspective because it's not just about where your child goes while you are at work. It's about female generally participation in the workforce in the first place and usually women tell me that they're not doing the job that they are trained for. For example they're an accountant, they are doing a couple of days a week as a bookkeeper because they can't get the childcare they need at the price they can afford. That's the real hub of the problem that we want to address.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Should the rebate be extended to nannies at home?

SUSSAN LEY: That's one of the things our productivity commission enquiry will look at. It's not something that we would announce because we need to look at lots of other things as well. Day care is important, in home care is important.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Are you leaning towards it? Do you see an argument for it yourself?

SUSSAN LEY: Look, I see an argument for making sure we have got models of in home care that work, but paying a nanny to unstack the dishwasher with the childc are rebate, not at all. It does need to come under the existing framework but we need to make sure that framework is real and relevant. Parents understand it. Parents have got choice and parents can be freed from that awful stress that they are facing at the moment when it comes to the long commute, finding a place for your child, rushing home at the end of the day and feeling at the end of the week that really you haven’t got anywhere.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Kate Ellis, where does the Opposition - sorry, the Government - stand at the moment of the issue of this subsidy being extended to nannies? And also just the Government's response on a productivity commission investigation into it?

KATE ELLIS: Look, I mean I just think it shows what a policy free zone the Opposition are. They have had six years in Opposition to come up with a single

policy about what they're going to do for childcare and they’ve said, we'll have a review. We are saying that families and indeed children need action now. So that's why we've acted to increase the childcare rebate. That's why we're acting to increase the number of centres. That's why we're lifting quality.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But you have a freeze on that rebate.

KATE ELLIS: Well, no, we have a cap at seven-and-a-half thousand dollars per year which less than ten per cent of families get near touching of course. We will spend over twenty-two billion dollars in direct fee assistance to families in the next four years. Just to put that in context, in the last four years of the Howard Government they spent just over six billion dollars, so well over triple.

So we are acting now, but we also recognise that families need flexible solutions. That's why we have a range of really innovative trials underway at the moment. We also know that families need action now on availability which is why we are putting grants out there and working with other jurisdictions of government. I don’t think it is acceptable to go to an election and tell the Australian people, we will not tell you what support we'll give you, what level of financial assistance we'll give you, what sort of types of care will be available or will be up for review.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Okay, sure, but Kate Ellis, I did have a question for you and time is really on the wing now, support for a productivity commission review and where do you stand on nannies?

KATE ELLIS: Look, I think we need different forms of care. We've increased the number of in home care places by seventeen per cent recently. I know that all parents have different ways of doing things.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Just quickly if you can.

KATE ELLIS: In terms of a review, as I said, I think we need action now. I think that is the priority and I think the Australian public need to know before an election what they will get.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: And Sussan Ley, will we get that before an election?

SUSSAN LEY: We'll get lots of things before the election.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: We will need formal details before the election on that.

SUSSAN LEY: You'll get lots of details before the election. We don’t k now when the election is, Virginia, we wish we did, but we are absolutely committed to easing the squeeze on families and every family I meet everywhere across Australia today is talking about this issue. It has become a real BBQ stopper.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: That's why we are talking about it today. Sussan Ley, really good to talk to you, thanks so much. And Kate Ellis, thanks for your time as well.

KATE ELLIS: Thanks, Virginia.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Thank you and for more on the stories that we are covering as part of our pre-election policy series you can visit the ABC's Australia Votes website. You can also follow the latest election news policy and video as well there.

Media contact: Joshua Cooney 0428 300 514.