Interview on ABC Alice Springs Drive with Paul Serratore
Topics: Overhaul of child care and early learning system; Remote housing




Paul Serratore: Well if you’ve ever tried to get childcare for your little one then you know that- then how did you go actually securing a place? Because so many parents in Alice Springs childcare often must be sorted out during pregnancy. And if you’re lucky enough to find your young one a place the cost of childcare can often eat up most of your income. So how can the system be made fairer?


The Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham is in Alice Springs today. He’s been visiting schools and also urging parents to sign up to the Federal Government’s new child care package. Simon Birmingham joins me in the studio this afternoon. Minister Birmingham it’s good to have you here in Alice Springs.


Simon Birmingham:     G’day Paul, it’s great to be with you.


Paul Serratore:             And he’s also joined in the studio by Alice Springs town councillor and also the CLP candidate for the seat of Glengarry Jacinta Price. Jacinta, it’s good to have you in as well.


Jacinta Price:   Thank you Paul.


Paul Serratore:             So Simon, I might start with you. The Federal Government is keen to talk about giving more money to parents but at the moment the big problem seems to be the lack of places for childcare in Alice Springs. What good is extra subsidies when you can’t find a spot for your kid?


Simon Birmingham:     Well what we hope is by fixing a number of the broken elements in the childcare model that we’re going to also create the certainty for community services, not for profits like Goodstart and others to invest in creating more places, more opportunities to meet the demand. I know full well that yes, there are circumstances where parents struggle to get a place where they want or on the day they want. Often there are others available nearby but maybe not exactly what they may want. But what we’re doing here is ensuring that we fix some of the other big problems that exist in the system particularly the cliff in financial support that many families fall off of with the current capped childcare rebate arrangements. Getting rid of that cap for basically all Australian families, all those earning less than around $186,000 a year and making sure that there’s an unlimited level of support but an unlimited level of support that is targeted according to people’s income. So, the lower the income, the greater the support which means people on the lowest incomes will see around 85 per cent of their childcare costs met and subsidised compared with about 72 per cent at present. So that’s a big lift in that support. And also targeted to those who are working, studying, volunteering, engaging the greatest amount of hours.


Paul Serratore:             So how do parents actually get these subsidies? Because that can be the most confusing thing for a parent. If you get your kid into childcare, actually knowing whether or not you’re eligible is also a completely different task. So, what do parents need to know if they want to get these rebates and these subsidies?


Simon Birmingham:     Yep, so the number one message for parents engaged in the childcare system at present and that could be littllies, little kids, or of course children undertaking afterschool care or school holiday programs or the like, is to visit education.gov.au/childcare and from there they can actually get all of the details. There’s an estimator there that they can use to actually see how much they would receive, and based on our modelling around 7700 families across the Northern Territory will be better off as a result of these changes and that of course would translate to hundreds across Central Australia who are absolutely in a position where some of them will find their potentially thousands of dollars a year better off as we retargeted support and put an extra $2.5 billion in to make sure that families don’t choose to work less or not go to work or not study or train because childcare costs are an impediment. We want people to be free to make those choices to stay at home if they choose and care for their children but equally to go out work, study, engage in the community and not find that childcare costs are the barrier to do so.


Paul Serratore:             So if a parent goes on or parents go on and find yes, they are eligible, yes this is how much they can get in rebates and subsidies, how do they start getting that money back?


Simon Birmingham:     So the new system starts from 2 July this year, so if they follow that link before, if they visit education.gov.au, then that will take them through not just to the estimator page but also simple process of how they register, providing the basic details that are required in terms of their financial circumstances, their work or study or volunteering circumstances, and of course the details required. Payments, subsidies will be paid directly to their nominated childcare provider. So it’s all completely integrated there with the childcare providers across the country, meaning that they will simply pay the gap depending upon what their family income circumstances are.


Paul Serratore:             Now the other challenge in the Northern Territory especially when it comes to many Indigenous families is that a lot of them are on the Basics card even if they are working and having an income. And from what I understand at least in town a lot of the providers do not take BasicsCard as payment, which means they have to use the cash part of their payment to pay for childcare. Why isn’t it easy for a parent who might be working but on the BasicsCard to be able to pay for childcare using the BasicsCard?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, look, it’s a fair question and it’s one that I’ll quite happily take up and look into what it is we can do to address that and we want to make sure that access is there to not just childcare but quality early childhood education. It’s why we’re investing around $1.2 billion in a safety net that will support access for some of the most disadvantaged or vulnerable children across the country. Really focusing there on providing additional support to those who’ve got the most to gain from early childhood education. It sits in addition to our commitment to universal pre-school access. So to make sure there’s assistance for four year olds to be able to attend at least 15 hours of pre-school in the year before school, and of course I know full well that in the Territory there are always some unique factors. Jacinta has certainly made sure I’m aware of that and she’ll be with me tomorrow as we visit a few more local schools as well as local childcare services. And of course I expect to hear more about some of those local factors that we need to make sure are also addressed.


Paul Serratore:             So I mean is that a gap that’s missing at the moment? Because I understand that for example if there was a family out at Yuendumu they could go to their childcare centre out there and it all would simply come out of the Centrelink payments whereas in town that doesn’t happen. So is that a gap that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later?


Simon Birmingham:     Well it’s something that ahead of implementation of the new system in July and there have been years and years of inquiries and reports and so on saying that we needed to do things to fix the childcare model and to fix support for families. We’ve gotten to the point now where the Turnbull Government’s been able to get that legislation through the Parliament to invest more, to better target it. Remarkably the Labor Party opposed just doing so. There of course are a range of other implementation issues for us to work through in the interim and that’s one that you’ve raised today which I’m very happy to take on board.


Paul Serratore:             Now we’ve talked about I suppose the financial side of things; now how do we encourage more childcare workers, more people to come to town to then have more placements for parents so they do have that flexibility?


Simon Birmingham:     Oh look, there is some really good providers across the country and I cited Goodstart as one before that operate in the not-for-profit space with a real social mission behind them in terms of providing quality early childhood education, in terms of attracting and encouraging people to view working in early childhood education as a career, not just a short term job. And indeed, I meet many wonderful people – usually women but sometimes the odd bloke as well – who are working the early childhood sector who are incredibly committed, work very hard to provide outstanding care and education opportunities to our children.


What I would hope is that over time we can of course see more and more people who are working and studying locally decide to go on and fill all of these jobs as well. That it’s not a case of attracting people to come to Central Australia to do so but that some of the wonderful kids that I’ve met at different schools today are encouraged to undertake the training to go and fill those roles themselves.


Paul Serratore:             What are you going to be doing over the next couple of days? As I mentioned you are intending- doing visits and Jacinta Price, you’ve been leading him around and as other federal pollies as well I understand. What are you going to be doing over the next couple of days Simon?


Simon Birmingham:     So Jacinta and I’ve just come from the Old Telegraph Station where we met the kids from Hermannsburg School who were undertaking the annual ride into Alice as part of the Anzac Day celebrations and it was wonderful to meet those children and their teachers and principal and chat to them about the significance of the Anzac Day event, and of course that’s a wonderful feature of commemorations here. But I started the day heading out to Wallace Rockhole School, a very small school, and chatting to a half dozen kids who were there today and the great principal there – Maryse who really was quite inspiring in the eight years of service and commitment that she’s given to that local community and getting a sense I guess, as Australia’s Education Minister I’ve got everything from that tiny remote school through to some of the very large urban schools. But this afternoon we’ve also been at Yirara College. Tomorrow we’ll visit a couple of other schools, the Larapinta Primary and Brailting Primary, as well as host a roundtable of local principals and school leaders to hear from all of them about some of their priorities for the future.


Paul Serratore:             Jacinta Price, I’ll bring you into this conversation right now because as I mentioned you are running as the CLP candidate in the seat of Lingiari. It’s almost I suppose unpresented in a way for a candidate to have access to not just one federal minister but you’ve had three in today. What has been the conversations that you’ve been having with them today.


Jacinta Price:   Oh the sorts of conversations we’ve been having is around obviously education, you know what’s been going on for students and how we’re looking at bush kids and how they can transition into high school and the best opportunities and outcomes for them in terms of either further education or pathways straight into employment, which I think is some really big issues and important issues for a lot of children- Aboriginal kids from the bush particularly. So those sorts of conversations, also very excited about the new announcements and the fact that there will be the public housing issue and remote housing issues being addressed throughout the Northern Territory which I think a lot of communities will be welcoming. So yeah we’ve had lots of different conversations around that and of course it was wonderful to see the kids from Ntaria with the horses today. I’m really looking forward to seeing them particularly in their uniforms, you know. It’s such a sense of pride that they bring when they come on those horses and showing to the rest of the wider community and children in their community as well that- that pride for the Anzacs that they have.


Paul Serratore:             Speaking on remote housing, you were there with Nigel Scullion when he was talking about the money for remote housing. One of the ideas he had which he still seems to be running with, is this whole idea of a Northern Territory Federal Government land council body to oversee remote housing. You’ve been a critic of the land councils in the past. How do you feel that they could be involved with remote housing?


Jacinta Price:   Well obviously they’re engaged with communities throughout the Northern Territory and housing has been a part of that. So, you know I guess it makes sense to when it comes to creating more remote housing to have that involvement there because there are people on the ground. So yeah, look, I’m quite happy for that kind of talk, to hear that kind of talk and know that it’s more about creating more of those opportunities for those in remote communities.


Paul Serratore:             Do you have faith that the land councils will do a good job in administering housing?


Jacinta Price:   Look it’s completely up to the Central Land Council. I’m sure if they’ve been asked to do a job, they will carry that job out.


Paul Serratore:             Have you been talking to the federal politicians because as I mentioned you are at the moment an Alice Springs councillor, have you been talking to them about council issues as well? Or have you been I suppose focusing on federal issues?


Jacinta Price:   I think focusing more so on federal issues at the moment, yeah.


Paul Serratore:             Well, Jacinta Price, Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time and for coming into the studio this afternoon.


Simon Birmingham:     Thanks so much Paul.


Jacinta Price:   Thanks Paul.