Andrew spoke on the Early Years Quality Fund Special Account Bill 2013.
Early childhood education and care is obviously an essential service. Clearly it has a long-lasting effect on the children in that care and clearly it allows a great many parents to return to the workforce. It is a very important part of Australia’s education system and should be resourced and recognised accordingly. But I do worry that early childhood education is an industry in crisis. A junior early childhood educator—someone with a certificate III—is paid only about $18.58 an hour. It escapes me why we pay so little to the people who care for our most precious people. I do not understand why those who care for our children and those who care for our aged are some of the worst-paid people in our workforce. For heaven’s sake, you can get $22 an hour packing the shelves at one of Australia’s supermarkets, yet we put our most precious little children and older Australians in the care of people who are earning substantially less. With the cost of living in this country, you cannot run a household and be all that you want to be on $30,000 or $40,000 a year. No wonder something like 180 early childhood educators are leaving the sector each and every week.
I know how hard this is for those people. I was very proud to take part in the United Voice Big Steps Walk in My Shoes campaign, where I was able to work as a childcare worker for just a few hours. I have two young children, so I know about the demands of looking after children, but I have to say that, after a few hours in this one relatively small and very well run centre, I was run ragged—and I was able to walk out at lunchtime. How the rest of the staff stayed on and did their jobs for the rest of the day and the next day escapes me. So I will support this bill by the government. I think the injection of $300 million into the sector is a positive development and worth supporting. But I cannot support it without expressing a number of serious concerns.
The shortfall in funding to ensure that our early childhood educators are paid appropriately in this country is something like $1.4 billion each year; so, while I applaud the government for chipping in $300 million, I condemn the government for not funding this reform properly. The result, as we know, is that only 40 per cent of early childhood educators will see a pay rise, which means that 60 per cent of early childhood educators will not see a pay rise in all sorts of situations, including caring for children in their own home. It is not fair that 60 per cent of early childhood educators will be forced to continue to go about their work and live on $30,000 or $40,000 a year. That is unfair. I make the point that I have made many times already in this place: we live in one of the richest, cleverest and most fortunate countries in the world. There is enough money to ensure that all Australians have a reasonable standard of living. There is enough money in this country to ensure that the people who look after our young children and our elderly get paid a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work.
I will support the government’s bill, but I will only support it because there is no chance of getting the full $1.4 billion. I am certainly not going to stand in the way of the $300 million. I do call on the government to look again at the figures. It is fortunate that the Treasurer has joined us. I call on the Treasurer, if he is the Treasurer after the next election, to look afresh at this issue and to see whether our early childhood educators can be fully funded in the next federal budget. I call on the alternative government, if they are successful at the election later this year, to look afresh at this. The comments that have been made by speakers I have already heard today suggest that you well understand that our early childhood educators should all get a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work. Based on what the alternative government has said in here today I would hope that, if they are successful—I see the Leader of the Opposition has walked into the chamber. I call on the Leader of the Opposition: if you are successful at the next election, look afresh at this and commit to fully funding the shortfall in the pays of our early childhood educators. Three hundred million dollars is a good start, but it is not the $1.4 billion that is required.
I again make the point that it beggars belief that in this country we put the most important people in our community—our very young and our very old—in the care of the lowest-paid workers in this country. Surely that can be rectified. Surely Australia is rich enough to rectify that. It is all about priorities. The federal budget is maybe $350 billion a year. Surely there is enough money that with careful planning we can ensure that our early childhood educators are not being forced to scrape by on $30,000, $35,000 or $40,000 a year. No-one in this place would try to do that; we should not be making other people do that.
I will support the bill, but I do it with the important qualification that the government should not crow too loudly. They should have gone much further and they should have stumped up the full $1.4 billion that is needed to ensure our early childhood educators get a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work.