In his campaign to be seen as a credible alternative leader to both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison did quite a job at the National Press Council yesterday.
When he was Immigration Minister the media could hardly get hide nor hair of him – now he’s popping up on every talkback radio show out there. And in yesterday’s speech he was certainly showing that he no longer wants to be seen as the baddy.
He was all smiles and peppered his speech with cultural references. One journalist described the performance as a “Scottnaisance”. The contrast between his speech and the stilted speech Abbott made in the same venue a few weeks ago could not have been stronger.
But there is one area where both Morrison and Abbott are doing a double act – in saying that we need to fix childcare to allow more women to participate in the workforce, they are both prepared to sacrifice what’s good for children for the good of the economy. And this is selling Australia’s children short.
The first paragraph of the childcare inquiry report says: “Early childhood education and care (ECEC) plays a vital role in the development of Australian children, their preparation for school and in enabling parents to participate in the workforce. Such outcomes are contingent on quality ECEC services being accessible and affordable for Australian families.”
So the Productivity Commission understands that quality early childhood education and care is good for kids and helps get them ready for school. But for Abbott and Morrison, what is good for children comes second to what is good for the economy. And by taking Australia down this path, they are missing out on one hell of a chance to reshape Australia’s childcare system for children.
According to the PC the cost to taxpayers of ECEC assistance has jumped from 0.8% of total Australian Government expenditure 10 years ago to a projected 1.7% in 2014-15. In other words the government pays two thirds of the cost of childcare and parents pay a third. Sounds bad, right? But Australia spends 6 times less on early education than other OECD countries.
Where the average OECD country spends 0.6% of its GDP on early education, Australia trails at just 0.1%. And in most OECD countries the government pays a much larger proportion of the cost of care than families do.
Why? And why is Australia trailing so far behind? Other countries spend more because they have assessed all the evidence and realised that early education is like the proverbial golden ticket. Give every child in a country access to high quality early education and they will flourish. They’ll do better at school and they’ll earn higher incomes through their lifetimes. Nobel Prize winning economist Charles Heckman has even recently shown that children who have a preschool education have better health outcomes when they are 40.
And this is the message that Scott Morrison could be selling. He could be telling the country why we need to invest more money in early education. He could be telling those companies that were going to be hit for a levy to fund the scrapped Paid Parental Leave scheme that they need to contribute that money to pay for a comprehensive low cost, high quality, early education scheme because this is what is going to ensure that those companies have the highly skilled staff they need to compete against other countries in the next 30 years.
He could be shushing the naysayers who ask why taxpayers should be funding the childcare of others – “if they have children shouldn’t they pay for them?” by explaining that just as no one questions the value in sending children off to school they should not question the value in ensuring they are being educated when their minds are most primed to learn.
The Minister could also be assuring his colleagues that funding high quality education and care for all fits in exactly with the government’s message about the need to avoid intergenerational theft. By depriving current and future generations of children of the early education their peers are getting in other countries, we are ripping them off big time.
When our ‘childcare’ system was set up, nobody had quantified the benefits of early education. Nobody knew that what happens to young brains in the early years, lays the foundation for everything to follow. Nobody knew that spending the country’s money on early education was an investment and not a cost.
But now we do. And that would be a truly great message for Scott Morrison to use in his campaign to become our next PM.