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Opinion: new childcare legislation can’t wait

While the Senate Committee charged with considering the government’s childcare package works on its report, parents around the nation continue to cry out for help to make childcare more affordable and accessible.

It’s nearly a year since the federal government announced that more than $3 billion worth of assistance was coming, for the most part in the form of a new single subsidy, which would give many working families a boost of more than $30 a week.

In the meantime, the squeeze on many families around the nation continues. The case for increased support is strong and urgent, families need more help from the federal government to reduce the cost of childcare, sooner rather than later.

Government childcare subsidies have not been keeping up with the increase in the cost of providing care, with the out-of-pocket costs for families rising as a result. OECD data shows Australian families pay more (and the government less) for a 3- to 5-year-old in early learning than in virtually any other developed country. Surely Australia can do better by its families and its children.

As the nation’s largest early learning and care provider, we know that many families are finding the going tough. That’s why we’ve worked hard over the past two years, making detailed submissions to the Productivity Commission, the government and the Senate on the need to make childcare more affordable for low- and middle-income households.

Reform is clearly needed. In a recent survey of Goodstart families and supporters of the Smart Start campaign, people told us that a whopping 83 per cent of them consider affordability their most pressing childcare concern. A further 56 per cent of the 3500 respondents said availability was their second most pressing concern, saying it had a huge impact on how much work they take on.

Almost a third of working parents said they would, or might like to, increase their hours of work, and of these, 67 per cent reported they would look to increase their working hours if their childcare issues were addressed.

We commissioned this extensive survey to demonstrate just how vital affordable, accessible childcare is to Australian families and to boosting our nation’s productivity. Everyone wins if quality childcare is within easy financial and geographic reach: children benefit from the developmental boost early learning brings; families enjoy greater financial security; and Australia benefits from improved productivity, with working mums paying more in tax than they receive in childcare support.

Australia has a prime minister who clearly understands the value of quality early learning. In December, PM Malcolm Turnbull said, “Teaching kids, inspiring them, stimulating them in their very early years, is a great investment because they have the rest of their lives to benefit from that.”

Actions speak louder than words, however, and it is vital that a childcare package is voted on by Parliament before the looming election. If it isn’t, families could be forced to wait another year or more for childcare to be made more affordable. The message we are hearing from our families it that they need the relief as soon as possible.

In the meantime, we, along with many in the sector, continue to lobby for changes to the current package to ensure that children from disadvantaged homes have access to the early learning they need. We are particularly concerned that children from low-income families that don’t meet the activity test but are able to receive two days of early learning each week could see their access halved or cut completely.

The government must take both expert and public opinion into account on this issue. The message sent to the Senate Inquiry from the sector through Early Childhood Australia and others has been that children need at least two days of early learning a week and that disadvantaged children stand to benefit the most.

We’re continuing to campaign to ensure children from low-income families get the access to early learning they need, and for minor amendments to the legislation before it is presented to the Senate for a vote to ensure it is fair for all Australian families.

With some small changes, this reform package will be good for families and great for children – and that’s good news for all Australians. Before the last election, the Coalition promised to ensure that childcare would be more accessible and affordable. We urge the government to bring the childcare package before Parliament for approval before the next election to ensure families have certainty that more affordable and accessible childcare will be delivered, on time, from July 2017.

Julia Davison is the chief executive of Goodstart Early Learning.

Julia Davison

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