By CAITLIN CROWLEY
CALLS for childcare and early education to be considered a “critical piece of social infrastructure” – as fundamental to communities as hospitals and roads – are growing louder as key stakeholders look to Local Government to play a bigger role in the planning and delivery of services, particularly in rural and regional Australia.
Thrive by Five, an initiative of the Minderoo Foundation, is campaigning to make the nation’s childcare and early education system “high quality and universally accessible”, arguing it would be “the most significant educational, social and economic reform of our era”.
Campaign leader Griffin Longley told the Caller child care deserts were slamming the handbrake on regional economies and causing a wide range of knock-on effects to families and local communities.
A childcare desert is defined as a populated area where there are three or more children per available childcare place. Research from the Mitchell Institute has found childcare deserts were disproportionately found in rural and regional Australia.
“I think the key is reimagining it (childcare) as a critical piece of social and economic infrastructure,” Longley said.
“When we have a child care desert – and we have 9 million Australians living in child care deserts – it impacts a couple’s ability to work. That takes money out of their pockets, it takes money out of the local businesses. But it has all these cascading, flow-on effects too.”
Longley said child care deserts contributed to worker shortages and the lack of volunteers at community groups, sporting clubs and cultural organisations.
“It’s also important for the way we support families. As a parent, if you’re in that parenting unit and it’s all on you for five years before your kid gets into school – the pressure that puts on you, your career but also your relationship is significant,” he said.
“If we don’t support our families, they struggle and then there’s a whole other set of flow-on effects that comes from that.”
“This idea of parenting being just down to two people is a new idea, it’s an isolating idea and it’s not in everyone’s best interests.
“It’s not in the best interests of the child, it’s not in the best interests of the couple and it’s not in the best interests of the community.”
Early Childhood Australia made one of the 176 submissions to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into Australia’s early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector, which is due to release its draft report in November.
CEO Samantha Page said there needed to be a much more “intentional” approach to making early education and childcare services available, particularly in rural and regional areas.
“It’s not reasonable or sensible to just rely on the private market to respond. I think government really needs to be more involved,” she said.
“Hoping that independent, private providers will buy land and build centres and operate centres in communities is not an approach to social infrastructure in any other area.
“We don’t leave it and hope that someone will build a road or hope that someone will build a hospital – we take a much more intentional approach to the delivery of services in other areas and we need to do that in early education. Critical social infrastructure – that’s how it needs to be seen.”
Longreach Regional Council is one of 25 Queensland local governments to offer childcare services. Just over 150 children are enrolled across its daycare, kindergarten, before and after school care and vacation care programs.
Mayor Tony Rayner said having a council-run professional childcare facility was one of the administration’s top priorities.
“You simply can’t attract people to town unless you have that service available,” Rayner said.
“You certainly don’t do it for the dollar return – in fact we tend to make a loss each year, a relatively small loss, but it’s such an important service and so well valued by the community that it’s worth absolutely every dollar that we invest into it.
“Our model is one that’s working well – without it we simply wouldn’t attract the families that we do and retain them in Longreach, and that’s been made very clear to us by many of the professions that come to town.”
Page said Early Childhood Australia’s submission to the Productivity Commission put forward the idea that local government be resourced to produce children’s services plans at a local level.
“I think they need to come back in as a major partner in planning services,” Page told the Caller.
“You just can’t do it with a whiteboard in Canberra. You need to have people who are in that local community who know what’s happening.”
South Australia’s Royal Commission into Early Childhood Education and Care recommended action on child care deserts, including the state government providing services in some circumstances.
When the Productivity Commission’s inquiry was announced in February, Treasurer Jim Chalmers said the Federal Government was committed to identifying solutions that would chart the course for universal, affordable early childhood education and care “in the great tradition of universal Medicare and universal superannuation.”
Samantha Page said the sector needed to be agile enough to respond to population changes the same way public schools do.
“I think what we haven’t nailed yet is ultimately who is responsible,” she said.
“What is the governance model that decides where we need a service and who’s going to build it, who’s going to start it?
“We need to hurry up with that because it’s no good saying to families ‘we’ve got a 10 year plan’ – we need this to happen really quickly.”
This could be our “Medicare moment”, Griffin Longley said.
“We need sustained pressure on our political decision makers to properly fund that and the time is now for that – it’s pushing on an open door,” he said.
“The current Commonwealth Government is red-hot for it and increasingly, states around the nation are stepping up to the plate.”
Longley said fathers’ roles in the discussion also needed to be reimagined.
“Typically when we speak about parents – people hear ‘mums’. Dads hear ‘mums’ when they hear the word parent.
“As long as we push it onto being a women’s issue, we’re not dealing with it in the wholistic way that’s going to bring about the change we need.”