Resumed from 28 August.
[Speeches and comments from various members]
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [3.48 pm]: I rise as the lead speaker of the Greens and indicate from the outset that the Greens will be supporting the Education and Care Services National Law (WA) Amendment Bill 2018. I also have a number of questions that I wish to ask during my second reading contribution. It is my hope that the answers to those questions may be given in the minister’s reply, in which case, hopefully, there will be no need to go into Committee of the Whole. I thought I would put that on the record from the outset.
This bill will ensure that WA catches up with other Australian jurisdictions to implement reforms to the national quality framework, otherwise known as the NQF. The NQF was implemented in 2012 and reviewed in 2014. Indeed, I stood in this place in 2012 and supported the Education and Care Services National Law (WA) Bill, as it was then, and spoke about that. I expressed some concern about the wages and conditions of childcare workers, in particular. I will say a little more about that in a moment. As I said, the national quality framework was implemented in 2012 and was subsequently reviewed again in 2014. The review identified that the NQF had broad support and appeared to have successfully improved quality—which is what had been hoped when the bill was first introduced—but that there still needed to be better consistency in assessment and ratings, and reduced administration.
In 2017, the Education Council’s “Decision Regulation Impact Statement for changes to the National Quality Framework” identified preferred options for changes to the national quality framework. Last year, starting with Victoria, Australian jurisdictions legislated to implement those reforms, and this bill is faithful to the DRIS and the Victorian legislation, which has been the model for the reforms in each jurisdiction.
The changes made include for the highest rating—which is “excellent”—to be made available only to services that are rated as exceeding standards in all areas assessed, which makes sense; tighter provisions relating to family day care services, including where they can operate; a minimum number of coordinators to oversee educators; and improved monitoring. Again, that is another sensible reform. The changes also include repealing the supervisor’s certificate process so that providers will now assess staff suitability, overseen by the regulatory authority; and increased use of enforceable undertakings by the regulatory authority as an alternative to suspension or prohibition. I note that only yesterday in this place we were discussing the value of enforceable undertakings as a mechanism for ensuring improvement of services. It also does other things and a fair bit of tidying up, including ensuring consistency of language; removing duplication; increasing flexibility, such as allowing more than one supervisor to be nominated by a provider; providing more clarity, particularly in situations in which responsibility lies with the commonwealth government as opposed to the state government; increasing effectiveness, such as the power to enter without consent; and allowing flexibility where needed, such as the capacity to waive prescribed information requirements in contexts in which they are not actually needed, or in exceptional circumstances, such as a temporary relocation of a service due to flood or fire, which unfortunately happens.
I want to focus on a couple of the issues. As I have mentioned, one of the provisions included within this legislation relates to enforceable undertakings. The Education and Care Regulatory Unit’s “Compliance and Enforcement Framework” is currently published online, and enforceable undertakings are one of the compliance tools available within it. The regulator’s acceptance of an enforceable undertaking can be withdrawn at any time, at which point alternative options are reactivated. An enforceable undertaking is really important because it provides flexibility in dealing with contraventions. It is a familiar concept from other legal matters. The Greens have no objection to it in principle, but the DRIS report provides little further information about its use in this context. In the briefing, I asked some questions about it, and it would be really helpful to get the answers on the record. I asked a number of questions about its relationship to the regulator’s other compliance tools. I understand that an enforceable undertaking does not preclude the police bringing about criminal proceedings if an offence has been committed, such as assault. It would be good if the minister could, indeed, confirm that this is the case. I also understand that WA would use civil disciplinary proceedings, not an enforceable undertaking, for a one-off, very serious incident, the cause of which has been addressed, such as leaving a child unsupervised. Again, it would be good to have it on the record from the minister that this is the case.
I understand that WA has used an enforceable undertaking once to date. That was when a family day care educator breached a regulation, but said that they were leaving the sector and undertook to refrain from working in the sector. This was on the basis that if they later wished to return, they could apply to have that undertaking withdrawn, upon providing evidence that they had subsequently attended the appropriate training. I understand that another example of when WA might use an enforceable undertaking is for minor noncompliance that does not impact on child safety—that is, by a first offender with an otherwise good compliance record. Again, it would be helpful if the minister could confirm for the record whether my understanding is correct.
I also asked at the briefing about oversight of compliance tool decision-making to ensure that we are not pursuing soft options when a stronger option is potentially more appropriate. I understand that the final decision on whether to take compliance action—and, if so, what kind—is made by the assistant director general informed by the regulatory unit staff. It would be useful if the minister could confirm whether my understanding is correct.
The department also publishes online all enforcement action that it is legally permitted to publish, and it stays online for 24 months. I also understand that noncompliance information is likely to be shared between interstate regulatory authorities. Again, could the minister confirm whether this understanding is correct? I also asked about monitoring to ensure that the terms of an enforceable undertaking are complied with, and I am satisfied that monitoring occurs.
I will make some comments about the disclosure of information under the legislation. Clause 82 sets out that information can be disclosed by the national authority, the regulatory authority, government departments, public authorities or local authorities. For the most part, it seems to be suitably practical and narrow. However, it is also proposed that the information may be disclosed when —
(a) the disclosure is reasonably necessary to promote the objectives of the national education and care services quality framework;
This seems rather broad, but I understand from the briefing that the intended purpose is to share information to ensure children’s safety, health and wellbeing if disclosure is not already covered by the other proposed subsections. For example, it was explained to me that Queensland has shared information on discussions with councils, emergency services, planning bodies and building standards bodies about early childhood education and care services in high-rise buildings. WA has shared information on water hazards in family day care residences. Members would be aware that this has come about because of a tragic incident that occurred in this state. I am hoping that the minister can please confirm for the record that this is the intended meaning of proposed section 271(4)(a).
I will make a few comments about transitional provisions and the “excellent” rating. The bill raises the bar for a service to be rated excellent, which was one of the recommendations that came out of the review. However, the transitional provisions provide that services that are already rated excellent or that have applied for the old excellent rating will not lose it. Potentially this will be quite confusing to parents because effectively it will create two meanings of “excellent” until the transitioned excellent ratings are reassessed in three years, unless they are revoked in the meantime. Can the minister please confirm that WA currently has no services that hold or have applied for the excellent rating under the old regime? If that is the case, the confusion will not arise. Any WA service with an excellent rating will meet the new criterion of exceeding the national quality standard in all seven quality areas. There are issues associated with the loss of federal funding for compliance assessments. Once again, the federal government is bailing out from its responsibilities. The Parenthood is concerned that recent cuts in federal funding will reduce the state’s ability to monitor compliance and, hence, parents’ confidence that their children are attending high-quality and safe early learning facilities. I note that in the estimates hearings in the other place on 24 May 2018, Minister McGurk indicated that there is no expectation that this reduction will change the very good service delivery of the early childhood regulatory unit. A month later in estimates on 20 June 2018 in this place, Minister Ellery said that analysis was being undertaken to assess the exact impact on the education and care regulatory unit. I hope that the minister can update the house on the stage that analysis has reached and also on the expected impacts of the regulation. I hope that the reduction in funding does not result in a reduction in the quality of particular services.
I now want to make some comments that replicate what I said in 2012 about the inadequacy of childcare workers’ wages. Hon Tjorn Sibma has also commented on this. I raised this matter six years ago when the national scheme was first introduced, but the problem has still not been resolved. Presently, childcare workers earn about $22 an hour. The house will soon be debating the Administration Amendment Bill 2018. It notes that average weekly Australian earnings are $1 632—that is around $43 an hour and is double what childcare workers earn. Wages of childcare workers simply do not reflect the level of responsibility that we rightly expect of them, and they have not done so for far too long. Low wages force childcare workers to take the only action that is left available to them; that is, to withdraw their labour—their internationally recognised right. This continues to cause centres to struggle to get and maintain staff and managers, and workers have undertaken a number of walkouts. All of this is disruptive for children and inconvenient for parents, but most of all it is inconsistent with the whole point of childcare centres—that is, to set children on a strong educational course for life. I do not blame the workers because they are only exercising their rights. They are on appalling wages, but at the same time families cannot necessarily bear to pay more for child care. Child care is a hugely prohibitive cost for far too many families. For many families, childcare costs already are a substantial proportion of their household budgets and they cannot afford them to increase.
The recently published annual statistical report of the HILDA survey—the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey—shows a clear trend in increasing expenditure of families on child care. The median proportion of household income spent on child care increased the most for low-income households. Even for those in high-income households, the increase was substantial. I am talking about a 107 per cent increase from 2002 to 2016 for households in the lowest third of income distribution, a 59 per cent increase for households in the middle third, and a 19 per cent increase for those in the top third—a massive impost on family budgets. It is a real problem balancing the need for affordable and accessible child care and making sure that childcare workers are paid adequately and appropriately. It is difficult to achieve, but we have to keep trying, particularly as we rightfully have high expectations about the standard of qualifications and, indeed, responsibilities of these very important workers.
I want to make some comments about the activity test, which is a federal issue. The federal government’s new childcare subsidy is estimated by the Parenthood to make 160 000 families worse off. As I understand the new arrangement, eligibility depends on families meeting a new activity test that requires both parents to work, study or volunteer for at least eight hours a fortnight. Those with a family income of less than $66 958 per annum do not have to meet the activity test, but their subsidised child care per week is reduced from 24 hours to 12.
We know that investment in early childhood education reduces costs associated with poor school attendance and social disengagement in later years. I am concerned that the new federal rules around the childcare subsidy will lead to some of the children who probably most need to access it missing out on early childhood education and care, even though their need for it is at least as great as that of other children. They, too, should have the chance to benefit from the positive, interactive learning that is available in our childcare centres. Extraordinary educational and socialisation opportunities are offered by child care and they help to offer a very smooth transition to formal education.
I note that there have also been media reports of problems with the transition to the new regime, with 32.5 per cent of centre operators saying that the transition went terribly and 34 per cent saying that it went not so well. They are not great numbers. A common theme was the IT problems and not being able to determine the correct subsidy and not being able to invoice families correctly. This is causing delays in the cash flow of childcare centres. I note that in one of the articles, the Australian Childcare Alliance commented that that is making it difficult to determine ongoing viability. Indeed, some centres have already reported that they have had to cut staff hours accordingly.
There are some real challenges and pressures within our childcare system at the moment. I do not think the federal government has done much good in this space and it has not helped the situation at all. But I applaud the work that is being done within the sector itself to try to always strive to ensure the best possible standards in our childcare centres. Childcare centres these days are a far cry from where they were several decades ago. For many children, it can be an extraordinary opportunity to be exposed to early childhood education. There are some highly skilled, diligent and caring people. We need to ensure that we are providing more support to this area. It is necessary for many new families.
Again, the Greens indicate that we welcome the legislation. It is good to see that we are trying to ensure that we have national consistency. These reforms have been widely consulted on and they are important steps to achieving an even better system.
[Speeches and comments from various members]
Debate interrupted, pursuant to standing orders.