PM under pressure to extend free childcare
Scott Morrison is under pressure to permanently extend 'free' childcare to families grappling with the fallout from COVID-19 and help women get back to work.
Just 24 hours after the Prime Minister refused to rule out changes to JobKeeper as Australia flattens the coronavirus curve, pressure is mounting to offer parents greater certainty.
D-Day for the Prime Minister's 'free childcare' pledge is looming with the current scheme set to expire on June 28.
But in a submission to the confidential review of the COVID-19 childcare scheme obtained by news.com.au, Early Childhood Australia is calling for the current scheme to be extended and permanent access granted for two days a week of 'free' childcare for all parents.
Early Childhood Australia's CEO Sam Page said the Prime Minister's 'free' COVID-19 childcare plan, announced on April 2, had reset the debate.
"By giving free childcare to families, that has really opened the debate on why isn't childcare free all the time,'' she said.
"If we are to make an economic recovery, perhaps free childcare is a part of that?"
The current scheme costs $600 million over three months, a relatively modest affair compared to the $130 billion JobKeeper allowance.
Extending two days a week of free care to all parents permanently would cost more than $1 billion a year.
Early Childhood Australia's submission is calling for the rollout of 20 hours a week of 'free childcare' for all families as a universal entitlement from the end of mothers' paid parental leave to the transition to school.
"As a baseline … 20 hours per week of subsidised education and care would give children two days per week of regular early education, and provide stability for families, regardless of the difficulties they are experiencing,'' the submission states.
Childcare is critical to the post-COVID-19 economy amid fears a "pink recession" is unfolding with more than half of all job losses hitting women in the workforce.
Treasury officials are understood to be more open to a radical overhaul of childcare funding to boost productivity in the post-COVID-19 economy.
However, Department of Education officials adopted a more cautious approach in private discussions with the sector, maintaining it is a matter of when not if, the childcare funding arrangements return to the old system.
The Early Childhood Australia submission also provides the first insight into how enrolments and attendance crashed during the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the submission, 189 childcare operators surveyed reported fewer than 50 per cent of children were attending.
Another 129 operators reported attendance was down by 25 per cent. Only 46 operators reported it was about the same.
Childcare operators have also seized on Education Minister Dan Tehan's suggestion that the current arrangements were designed with a six month time frame in mind.
"It will be a system which will mean parents will get their children cared for free,'' he said on April 2 when announcing the scheme.
"What we will be doing is turning off the old system and going to a new system that will provide that relief to parents. Obviously, we've had to calibrate this after we knew the settings of the JobKeeper payments so we could ensure that we got the balance absolutely right to keep the sector functioning and viable through the next six months."
Mr Tehan told news.com.au the current review will determine any changes to the current scheme.
"A review of the package is currently being undertaken and will consider the extent to which the objectives of the package are being achieved and whether policy adjustments are required,'' he said.
Early Childhood Australia is also calling for the abolition of the work activity test for parents when offering least 20 hours of 'free' care per week.
"There is now a growing number of families who are in precarious and uncertain work; these families need stable access to early childhood education and care, just as much as those with more predictable working hours,'' the submission states.
In the short term, childcare operators warn they face a "vicious circle" under the current COVID-19 childcare package which has guaranteed 50 per cent of expected income regardless of enrolments.
The current arrangements are designed to fit with the JobKeeper scheme to subsidise childcare workers' wages.
However, childcare operators say many cannot afford to take on new bookings under these arrangements unless they apply for special grants because funding is frozen at 50 per cent of bookings in March.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has presented the early education and care sector with an extraordinarily difficult challenge: to continue welcoming the families who need ongoing education and care, while absorbing the financial losses generated by families who cancelled enrolments and simultaneously ramping up health and hygiene measures to provide a safe environment for educators and children,'' the ECA submission states.
Australian Childcare Alliance spokesman said Paul Mondo said in the short-term operators needed the current barriers accepting new bookings to be lifted.
"Under the current funding arrangements, if they don't change, there will be people who want to enrol in new places who can't get in,'' he said.
Samantha Maiden is news.com.au's national political editor | @samanthamaiden
Originally published as PM under pressure to extend free childcare