Transcript of joint press conference, Sydney
THU 07 JUNE 2012
Subject(s): Childcare; Jobs figures; Business Council of Australia
PM: I’ve called this meeting to get to the bottom of the childcare affordability issue. To get feedback as to what was happening in childcare today, and to make sure that we can be working to get the best possible deal for families for the future.
I’ve been asking the people in the room what some of their answers are to the questions that families are asking themselves about childcare.
It was a constructive meeting and there was very good recognition of the huge levels of support that the Government is giving to childcare, and of the major reform agenda we’ve been rolling out.
Minister Ellis will say something on the feedback about the National Quality Framework, but certainly there was a key focus on quality in the room.
And there was also strong recognition that the Government is investing over $22 billion in early childhood education and care.
That over the next four years around $20 billion will go direct to families to support their childcare costs.
That we have made a difference to affordability, so a family that’s earning $75,000 a year used to see 13 per cent of their income go on childcare fees, now that’s been reduced to 7.5 per cent.
There was a recognition of our reform agenda, and those moves to increase support for families.
That’s including the move from 30 per cent to 50 per cent for the childcare rebate, so working with families to support their out of pocket costs with a 50 per cent subsidy, and also increasing the maximum amount families can receive by more than $3000 to more than $7500.
So good recognition within the room of the steps that we’ve taken. But that still left us confronting a question that we need to answer.
The Government is providing record levels of support, and yet many families are still finding themselves with significant fees to pay and are feeling that burden.
And at the same time childcare wages remain relatively low.
So we’ve got three factors; government providing record support, many families still feeling the burden of childcare fees and worried about increases, and we do confront issues with turnover because childcare wages do remain relatively low.
So in the discussions today we focussed on each of those questions.
We all want to make childcare more affordable for the future, we want to keep our focus on quality, and we want to see kids retaining good relationships with staff and that there isn’t an unacceptable level of staff turnover.
In the room we discussed a number of potential ideas for the future.
We talked about how we could get the best out of existing government assistance, and make sure that parents are getting everything that they’re entitled to.
We talked about transparency and making it easier for parents to understand what government funds are throwing, and what differences those funds are making; smarter ways of doing that, clearer ways of doing that.
We talked about what work could be done on fee increases and trying to, for the future, looking at how we could deal with a better way of managing potential fee increases.
We had some discussion of flexibility of services, and some discussion about the rewards for childcare workers and their career paths.
Now today’s meeting was always going to be the start of a discussion, not the end of a discussion.
But what’s clear from today’s meeting is if we are going to make more headway on childcare and early education that we all need to be working together.
Government’s got to play its part, but so do providers and all of those who are so passionate about childcare. But I do want to see us get to some new answers in the next few months.
I don’t want a situation where parents are concerned that the assistance that government is providing will ultimately be gobbled up in fee increases.
I don’t want people to feel those kinds of pressures. So I am determined to act on this, and I’m determined to keep working with people so that we can address these issues over coming months.
I want to thank everybody who made themselves available for today’s discussion, and I’ll turn now to Minister Ellis for some comments and then we’ll be happy take questions.
MINISTER ELLIS: Well thank you very much Prime Minister.
Today was a very positive discussion with a broad cross-section of the early childhood sector, and we received very positive feedback about the Government’s initiatives to date.
I think what’s noteworthy is that there was overwhelming support for the National Quality Changes which have been made, and this was people recognising that there have been big steps taken from the days when this sector was viewed as a babysitting sector.
We’re now recognising how critical the early years of a child’s life are. We know that their experiences in those first five years of their life will in fact shape their future outcomes when it comes to their education, their development, their social outcomes.
So we believe that Australian children absolutely deserve the best start in life, but of course we also want to ensure that it is both affordable and accessible. We had some positive discussions today about how we get to that point.
We’re a government that has taken big steps already.
We’ve introduced reforms, we’ve also massively increased our investment in this area, but we’re also saying that we know that parents are continuing to have to juggle their work and their caring commitments.
We know that parents are still being burdened with another strain on their family budget, and we want to continue to work to see what further steps this Government can take.
Now in contrast to this, Tony Abbott has made clear that he thinks that there’s more to be done in childcare, but that he’s put it in the too-hard basket.
Instead of coming up with solutions like we’re working on here today, he’s palmed it off to the Productivity Commission to say ‘Have a lengthy inquiry, see if you can come up the answers which we can’t come up with ourselves.’
Well in contrast this Government has said that we’re willing to sit down with the sector, we want to continue to work with them, we want to come up with further reforms, because we recognise and we have shown our recognition for just how important this sector really is.
PM: Right, we’re happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: PM, in your discussions today, the not-for-profit sector are calling for a change to the rebates, maybe more rebates going to childcare providers rather than parents. Was that discussed?
PM: Look, that was raised in the room and I have to say I don’t think that was just raised by the not-for-profit sector.
Around the room whilst there wasn’t, you know, unanimity about exactly what to do, I think there was broad agreement that it would be good if it was easier for parents to understand what fees were and what the level of government subsidy is.
So, you know, a remark in the room to give you a flavour of it, is you wouldn’t want someone dissuaded from returning to work and accessing some childcare because they’d seen a headline fee from a centre and not realised that they were going to get government support.
So they’ve got a figure in their mind thinking ‘it’s going to cost me this much.’ Actually that figure’s not right because it’s not taking into account childcare benefit and the childcare rebate.
So there was – whether it was not-for profit or the private provision sector, there was a lot of consensus in the room that simplicity and transparency is very important.
JOURNALIST: So would you be looking at something similar to what you’ve done with banking reforms in terms of telling parents, giving them a sheet or something like that, outlining what they’re paying, where they’re getting government rebates and so forth? Would you looking at some sort of similar scheme?
PM: Well we’ve got some work to do and some thinking to do. I’ve been talking to parents, I did that yesterday.
I had the opportunity to exchange some views with people on Mamamia, and I’ve had this feedback today.
So working with Minister Ellis over the next few months, we will be considering what’s been put to us today; we will be continuing the conversation.
But I am determined that we will act to build on the reforms that we have already brought in childcare.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, so you are considering directly funding childcare centres?
PM: Look, I’m not going to at this stage of the discussion or the conversation, get into a, you know, rule in rule out game about, you know, what we’re considering or what we’re not considering.
Our aim here is to make sure that every dollar that government invests in childcare makes a real difference to affordability.
And of course I want parents to understand what support is available to them.
I saw it reflected in the discussion on Mamamia today, the, you know, real wrestling that women do with the decision to return to work having had their first child or their second child, and the real wrestling with ‘how will I make it all work,’ ‘what will it all add up to,’ ‘what will it mean that I get to keep from my pay packet at the end of the week?’
Of course with people working their way through those complex decisions about what’s right for their family, I want them to understand the system and understand that the Government is there supporting them with a 50 per cent childcare rebate, effectively going halves in your out-of-pocket costs, as well as the Child Care Benefit.
JOURNALIST: What about the private sector? Have you looked at inviting employers into these conversations?
PM: They were there today.
JOURNALIST: What sort of things did employers – the government seems to be, the Federal Government, to take care of the childcare centres and childcare when it’s the employers perhaps, what sort of-
PM: Oh I see what you mean, the employers of-
PM: No I understand. We’ll certainly be involving in the conversation people from all perspectives, and many, you know, employers in our nation have involved themselves really actively in supporting returns to work of their highly valued staff, including supporting them through making available care associated with their workplace, so that’s another model.
There’s never going to be a one size fits all solution here, family life and working life comes in too many shapes and sizes for government to say, you know, one model is going to fit.
Families need to work through centre-based care, family day care, care by relatives, care near work, care near home.
All of these things come into people’s consideration about what’s good for their families. But certainly we’re very happy to talk to employers directly.
JOURNALIST: How are you planning to tackle the challenge of low pay for childcare workers, and how will you balance that with fee rises, or the potential for fee rises in centres?
PM: We did in the room today talk about childcare workers and early educators.
We have, through the National Quality Framework that Kate referred to ensured that we’re not only seeing quality care but we’re seeing an early learning framework happen through childcare, and you know, kids obviously get to attend pre-school and kindy and all of that as well.
But we are giving kids a flying start to school by investing in early learning and we’ve absolutely accepted the compelling research from our own nation and right around the world.
If you’re going to make the biggest possible difference to a child’s life, then the early years are the pivotal time for making that difference.
You’ve pointed to a (inaudible) of tension and the tension was remarked on in the room, that we do want childcare workers to be valued, we do want this to be a sector where people can imagine working for a long period of time and making a career out of it.
It’s obviously good for kids to have continuity of care, to recognise the faces in their childcare centre or where they go for family day care, and yet of course when you look at the other side of the coin, wages matter to fees and costs.
So that was one point that was squarely on the table today. Once again, we’ve got work to do in the coming months.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, on maintenance, (inaudible) was the director of a childcare centre. She’s been in the industry 15 years, and she’s earning about $43,000 a year before tax. She’s just been offered a cleaning job for almost twice as much, what’s being done to keep these highly experienced people in the industry?
PM: Well you’ve named an issue that was within the room today, and certainly has been the subject of discussion between me and parents.
You know, people are concerned that, about childcare workers, I think people have increasingly come to value their work, and I think part of what the Government’s done, and Kate’s referred to it, is we, you know, dispensed with the notion that this is, you know, babysitting women’s work and that there’s no skill in it or no passion or enthusiasm for it, or no career path in it.
Our reforms have been there to speak very loudly and clearly that this is valuable work making an incredible difference to the next generation of Australians.
It’s valuable work enabling current Australians to go and work and to pursue their vocations and what they want to do with their lives, so it’s valuable, and it’s skilled.
And you know, childcare workers have skills, they have qualifications, there’s a career path there, university-educated early childhood educator, teacher.
So we recognise all that, and recognise that there are pressures in the system today. That was squarely on the table today and squarely before us as we work our way through this process.
JOURNALIST: When did you talk about rewarding them? Of course the greatest reward for any worker is wages, are you actually going to consider lifting the basic minimum wage for childcare workers, are you considering that?
PM: Well we don’t, as a government, mandate wages. We’ve dispensed with the gross unfairness of WorkChoices and replaced it with the Fair Work system, and we’ve got an independent umpire that manages that system for us in approving award wages.
So we don’t, you know, just pick a figure. The feedback that I’ve had from providers, both public and not-for-profit is many of them strive to pay above the award rate and a number of them have actually, with current strategies, got turnover down to very, very low levels.
I think a figure used in the room today was less than 3 per cent turnover in one not-for-profit chain or set of centres.
So look you know, there’s different theories out there about recruitment and retention but clearly there’s a question of how this work is going to be done.
JOUNALIST: That’s not the case though with not-for-profit childcare centres - they are willing to pay above the award wages. So they’ve got the two-fold, they’ve got above award wages and their fees are a lot lower than the private sector. But in the private sector it seems that the fees are double or triple what they are in the not-for-profit and the wages are dead on award. Is the Government going to look at doing anything about that?
PM: I don’t think we can generalise too much. You know, you’re trying to generalise across the not-for-profit versus the private sector and I actually think it’s more finely calibrated than that.
You’ve got to look at individual areas and individual circumstances.
We had a discussion today about some parts of the country that have far more places available in centres than people want and there are centres that are struggling for viability because there isn’t enough uptake and yet we also know that there are other parts of the country where people find it incredibly difficult to get a childcare place.
So, you know, there’s not one experience here but, you know, we do want to see quality care in centres where it is possible for staff to be there and to stay working in the centres, stay providing continuity of care that’s part of quality.
Of course we understand that private centres need to make a profit, they’re in a business and the numbers have to add up.
JOUNALIST: What are the nuts and bolts of how we are going to change it?
PM: As I said both going into this meeting and coming out of it this is something that we will be working on over the coming months, but I’m determined that through the process that we will engage in together, Kate and I working broadly with parents and childcare providers, trade unions and representatives right across the sector, these are the type of questions we want to work through.
We’ve got a proud track record of reform and I think that was very, very strongly acknowledged in the room today. We’re looking to build on those reforms.
JOURNALIST: PM, can I just your reaction to today’s unemployment figures? There was a slight increase by 0.1 percent.
PM: We’ve seen in today’s unemployment numbers the creation of 46,000 new full time jobs so that is a very strong result to see that many new full time jobs created and it’s a reflection of the strength of our economy generally.
So yesterday with the economic growth numbers there’s a lot for Australians to be proud of about how we’ve worked together and pulled together to come through the Global Financial Crisis and to see our national economy so strong compared with so many nations around the world and to see that number of full time jobs being created is a good thing.
These figures do have a slight up-tick from the 5.0 percent to 5.1 percent because the last figure has been revised. A slight up-tick and an increase in the participation rate - that is more Australians wanting to go an access a work opportunity.
So I think overall they do speak very strongly of the strength of our economy and I’m particularly pleased to see the number of full time jobs that have been created.
JOURNALIST: And what do you say to Marius Kloppers and the Business Council who say that the cost of doing business in Australia has increased and that they are blaming too much Government regulation and so forth. The Business Council’s saying the cost of doing business in Australia is 40 percent higher in Australia than it is in the US. What do you say to them?
PM: We’ll make this the last question but I have a continuing strong dialogue with the business community.
I’ll have the opportunity to speak directly to them when we have a major economic forum next week but one of the things we have agreed with the business community and we’re working on very strongly is deregulation, better regulation and particularly not having national regulation and state regulation pulling at each other in all sorts of odd directions.
To try and give even more impetus to those reforms at the last COAG meeting we had a special Business Advisory Forum where major business leaders like Marius Kloppers had the opportunity to directly say to, you know, to premiers, to chief ministers and to me what business would like to achieve in deregulation.
Thanks very much.