Topics: SA Government’s failure to monitor child care standards, child care reforms

Alan Hickey: But first to our child care centres. And, of course, they are becoming an increasingly important part of our lives, aren’t they? And we learned today that one in five South Australian child care centres have not been assessed. Of those that have, 290 have failed to meet the National Quality Standard. Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham is pointing the finger squarely at the Weatherill Government, saying our kids are being put at risk; and he joins us now. Good afternoon Senator.

Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon Alan. Great to be with you.

Alan Hickey: Thank you, good to have you. Who’s really to blame for this mess? The State Government’s blaming you for cutting funds. They have a point there, don’t they?
Simon Birmingham: Well, no they don’t Alan. Because the South Australian Government receives some financial assistance from the Federal Government in exactly the same way as every other state and territory to get out there and assess child care centres. Now, frankly, they shouldn’t need a bribe or an incentive to do so, because it is actually their responsibility to assess and regulate child care centres, but we do provide some financial incentives. It’s based on the number of centres in a state or territory. And SA gets funded in exactly the same way as every other state or territory, yet lags well behind the rest of the country. All the other states have managed to get out there and assess more than nine in 10 of their centres, and in the likes of Tasmania, getting up towards 98 per cent in terms of their assessment. Yet in South Australia, one in five centres has not been assessed, and that is just unacceptable in terms of the performance of the regulator and the State Government in SA relative to the performance of every other state.

Alan Hickey: Are you confident then our kids are safe in our child care centres?

Simon Birmingham: Look, we have really high-performing, high-quality early education and child care centres in SA as we do right around the country. And I note, Jay Weatherill today has tried to suggest that my comments and highlighting of this problem have been attacking our early education workers – now that’s preposterous. I think they are hard-working individuals and the overwhelming majority are of good quality and are doing the right thing. But, we have standards in place for a reason: to ensure that people are appropriately qualified, that the environment is safe, that the right type of care is being provided. And the reality is one in five haven’t been checked out or assessed by the state government regulator. Now, that is a cause for concern. I am sure that most of them are, again, doing the right thing in the care of our children. But a lax environment like that leaves the door open for people who might be doing the wrong thing. And, frankly, this is a state government who has a very bad track record when it comes to child protection issues, the protection of vulnerable people in environments like Oakden, and I find it unfathomable that they would actually not have made sure that they were at the top of the class in terms of the state assessing child care services around the country rather than being at the bottom of the pack.

Alan Hickey: Yeah, I tend to agree. It is rather amazing that we’re not ahead of the pack on this one given, as you say, the track record we’ve had just over the last couple years – with Royal Commissions even looking into these sorts of areas. The Minister for Education, Susan Close – she’s actually not available today – but she’s bitten back at you saying instead of congratulating the staff and volunteers, you’re giving them a verbal slap.

Simon Birmingham: Well, again, this is, of course, the State Government, Susan Close, Jay Weatherill, seeking to deflect the argument. To make it – is this an attack on child care workers, on early childhood educators. Well, it’s not. As I said before, I have enormous respect for individuals who are there day in, day out looking after very young children, often in difficult circumstances. I’m a dad of a couple of young daughters myself – both of whom have been through different early education and child care centres – and I know how hard those people work. I know the love, the care, the diligence that they put in place. But that’s not the issue here. The issue here is, are our regulators, are our standards actually doing their job and being applied; and in South Australia, sadly, the case seems to be they’re not. That the State Government, who has clear responsibility, is failing to keep up with all the other states in the country and has left one in five services unassessed where nobody’s ever gone out to visit from the state regulator to see whether they are meeting the quality standards that are meant to be adhered to.

Alan Hickey: We’re talking to Senator Simon Birmingham, Federal Education Minister about child care centres. What do you think? 8223 0000. What’s your opinion on this? Senator, given that you stump up the majority of the funding, would a solution to this possibly be that you take over complete control of this sector?

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, that is one option, but it’s not really one that I want to get into. I think the idea of having more national regulators around the traps is probably really not an efficient way of dealing with things. States and territories have a prime responsibility across schools, across early childhood education in pre-schools and child care centres in terms of ensuring the quality of the standards, the licence and regulation, and that that is better done closer to the service delivery point at the state or territory level than it is via a Canberra-based bureaucrat trying to do so. We as a government do take our responsibility in terms of funding very seriously. We are overhauling the child care subsidy and rebate system comprehensively with a new program coming in place in the middle of next year that will give better targeted support to families who are working, more support to working families on low incomes to ensure that the child care dollar is targeted to those people who need it most to be able to participate in the workforce day to day. And we’ve put in place a range of extra compliance steps ourselves around people accessing those taxpayer dollars, which are estimated to have saved around $1 billion across the country. So we know that there are lots of people running family day care services who have been shonks, have been rorters, have done the wrong thing. In South Australia alone we have taken action in terms of suspending or cancelling a number of services who have done the wrong thing around accessing finances, charging the taxpayer for children who frankly weren’t there, where care wasn’t actually being provided. So in terms of that financial accountability, we’re doing our half of the bargain, but around the standards that actually apply in the centres that require physical assessment, that is something that is clearly the responsibility of the state government and where they are clearly failing to meet the standards expected or even keep up with the standards being applied by other states and territories.

Alan Hickey: Senator Simon Birmingham, Federal Education Minister, thanks so much for your time.