I am delighted to rise this afternoon to address the Children’s Services Amendment Bill 2019, as some other speakers have done.
I make a contribution to this debate as the father of a two-year-old daughter and with a child on the way, so I have a very personal interest in the subject matter being discussed.
I also note for those in the chamber who may have forgotten that the Shadow Minister for Education did note during her contribution that the opposition will not be opposing this bill, and so I would expect the passage of this legislation to be carried in this place in the very near future.
Other speakers have addressed the fact that the Department of Education and Training (DET) is responsible for regulating some 4500 early childhood services. Most are regulated in accordance with the national quality framework (NQF).
Whereas the national quality framework governs ongoing and rostered services, such as kinders and day care centres, short-term and occasional care service providers are instead governed by the amendment bill’s principal act—namely, the Children’s Services Act 1996. Common examples of such occasional care centres include care provided in neighbourhood houses and municipal facilities, gymnasium creches and short-term family day care providers.
This bill, as I understand it, will affect some 350 services that are not regulated in accordance with the NQF.
Every young family, my own included, strives to find the right balance, nurturing the careers of parents whilst adequately nurturing the development of young children.
That is why is it so important to acknowledge the good work that these occasional care providers do in fact provide for our community.
I often say that those who choose a caring profession, whether it be nursing, teaching or other such professions, are doing so through a vocational calling—not because they consider it a job that is 9 to 5 but because there is something else that sustains them in their journey and that carries them in serving the community in that way. So it is important in my view to acknowledge the good work of these occasional care providers and also the balance that young families strike—caring for their own families and providing for their families—and the help that occasional care providers do provide those families also.
This is particularly important in light of the fact that around 250 of the 350 operators—more than 70 per cent of those affected by this legislation—are smaller, single-centre operators who have limited scope to deal with significant bureaucratic burdens. In my view a thriving and dynamic labour force deserves to be certain of the fact that their children are being cared for by professional and accredited operators whose primary focus is the care and development of children and not necessarily dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s for the sake of bureaucratic processes.
Having read the bill and having received a briefing from the Department of Education and Training and the minister’s staff, I understand that this bill is, for want of a better term, a structural renovation of its principal act. Its purpose in essence is threefold, being to: one, standardise terminology and licensing arrangements which apply to ongoing and short-term children’s services providers; two, bolster oversight and enforcement powers vested in the Department of Education and Training; and, third, align learning content and framework requirements between ongoing and short-term service providers.
Licensing arrangements in this act will now comply with those employed by the Education and Care Services National Law Act 2010. I note that the NQF allows for corporations as well as natural persons to be registered as nominated supervisors. This, in my view, is an important step in ensuring that individuals operating short-term care centres are not at unreasonable risk of personal legal liability for responsibilities which can and should be shared amongst multiple persons within a given corporation.
In relation to the additional enforcement powers by DET, this bill will confer two important additional powers on the Department of Education and Training in its capacity as the responsible regulator—namely, the ability to issue enforceable undertakings and the ability to issue a prohibition notice. But perhaps most importantly this bill allows for the alignment of curriculum requirements. Service providers will be compelled to develop learning curricula which reflect one of the three learning frameworks provided under the NQF. Unlike services already regulated under the NQF, occasional care providers will not be assessed by the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority, ACECQA, or the department in their rollout of curricula to the same extent as long-term care providers are. This in my view reflects the fact that short-term care providers are by their nature restricted in their ability to effectively teach and assess children against a comprehensive learning program.
So there are benefits of this legislation that the government has introduced in this house.
I want to speak very briefly, however, following the briefing offered by the department of education about some of the assurances that the opposition was provided during the course of that briefing. Although the coalition, as I mentioned at the start of this contribution, will not be opposing this bill, we do so on the strength of the undertakings made by the government and the department about how the difficulties and pitfalls which are likely to be associated with this bill might be mitigated. One of those is that the department will furnish all affected providers with information packages and paperwork designed to explain and practically help them transition to the new model.
The department will institute an assistance hotline or phone number that can be phoned by providers who require assistance with issues arising out of changes mandated in this bill.
The department will also write to all affected service providers notifying them of the changes.
Optional education sessions and web-based seminars will be provided by the department to affected service providers, and peak bodies and larger providers will continue to be invited to a twice-yearly forum with other key stakeholders to discuss ongoing issues or matters of interest to service operators.
When regulators visit short-term care providers, as it is proposed they do under this bill, they will ask general questions about the centres’ activities in order to test competence, but the centres themselves will not, in fact, be judged or assessed comprehensively as other full-term service providers are.
Although this bill has been constructed as a largely technical and practical amendment to its parent act, it must be recognised that tweaks to bureaucratic standards can carry significant and onerous consequences for small-scale providers. And whilst there are on the face of it sufficient practical benefits to warrant that the opposition will not oppose this bill, this stance is contingent upon those matters that I have raised previously.
In forming this position on the bill before the house this evening we did undertake a significant amount of consultation with key stakeholders, including neighbourhood houses, the Community Child Care Association, the Australian Childcare Alliance, various gymnasiums, the Municipal Association of Victoria and various other councils.
There is nothing more important, in my view, than the care of children, whether they be in full-time care or part-time care, as my daughter is—provided by the Sandringham Children’s Centre, who do a marvellous job of caring for Abigail and other children in their care—but for occasional care centres as well.
What a great privilege it is for those people who work in these care centres to provide care and education for young people in their care.
As I mentioned, the opposition will not be opposing this bill.