I rise today to speak on the Education and Training Reform Amendment (Land Powers) Bill 2023, a bill that we do not oppose. This bill will essentially aim to make it easier for the state to acquire, use and develop land for the purpose of early childhood education and care. This will primarily be achieved by amending the Education and Training Reform Act 2006.
With a desperate need for more childcare providers, particularly in regional areas, this bill has the potential of being a step in the right direction. However, at the moment it is very much just a potential, as many of us have become accustomed to disappointment when it comes to this government. These changes to the ETR act will allow additional and compulsory land acquisition powers that are comparable to what currently exists with schools. The ETR act as it stands only provides the minister with limited powers to acquire preschools, which are regarded as purchased via agreement. This government has stated that the intent is for the provision of new kindergarten capacity, not to replace capacity that exists elsewhere. Let us hope this is true.
As things currently stand, regional Victoria is in dire need of more child care. The idea that child care is becoming increasingly unobtainable has been backed by data, in particular in the Mitchell Institute’s 2022 report on childcare deserts and oases. The report categorises deserts as where there are less than 30 per cent of childcare places per child aged four and under in the region. Sadly, there are several of these deserts in my electorate of Euroa. Kilmore, Broadford, the Benalla region and the Seymour region are all classified as childcare deserts by the Mitchell Institute. These are major towns, not inaccessible backwaters, that are being placed at a disadvantage when child care is so rare. This is a real handbrake on our regional communities. The lack of childcare options is placing a significant hurdle in front of young people who want to raise their family in the country. In some areas we have got incredible local childcare providers, but in most of these places there are up to six kids competing for one place. It is simply not sustainable.
As part of the government’s rollout of new early learning centres, it was pleasing that Seymour was included to alleviate some of the strain on the system locally. Sadly, there has been a clear lack of urgency when it comes to the establishment of this centre and many others in our regional communities. Just four out of these 50 centres have been confirmed in the first round, with three of them being found in Labor seats. From current timetables, it looks as if the Seymour facility will not be built until beyond 2028, despite there being an urgent need for it right now. Sadly, the issue goes beyond Seymour. The early childcare centre promised for Seymour will not be built anytime soon, after this Labor government chose not to include it in the first round of centres being established. After the community was promised that a new early learning education centre in Seymour would be built, there was some sense of excitement, as residents have been stuck with two-year waitlists across most of the region. After I raised questions on notice to the Minister for Early Childhood and Pre-Prep asking for an update on the new centre, it was revealed that the government did not intend to follow through with this commitment until at least 2028.
This government has a clear track record of overpromising and underdelivering for Victorians. I have serious concerns that the Best Start, Best Life initiative will add to this ever-growing list. An initial estimate for the cost of these 50 childcare centres was tabled at $544 million. So far land has only been located for 40 of the 50 childcare centres. On top of that, no-one knows where 20 of these 50 centres will be located, including this government. The government originally said it would co-locate the new childcare centres on existing state school land, but now it says this will not always be possible or appropriate. This is an expensive and likely very flawed plan. Kindergartens across the state are nervously waiting for any scrap of detail. How are they expected to meet the expectations of this government? Will they have to double the hours for four-year-old kindergarten from 15 to 30 hours per week or find more staff in a field that is already dealing with extreme shortages?
As usual, the government has failed to adequately consult with stakeholders, with kinders and childcare centres finding out about the so-called free kinder reforms and the new funding regime mere months before being expected to operate under the new arrangements. Of our local providers, not one was consulted on this whatsoever. Can we really expect the government to deliver these 50 centres within a reasonable time period, let alone without outrageous cost blowouts, like so many of their other ambitious projects? We have seen how the Commonwealth Games, or lack thereof, embarrassingly ended. We have seen the blowouts involved with the Big Build and multiple other infrastructure projects. Now we are expected to trust this government to implement this project without issue, on time and under budget, but they have not earned that credibility.
Towns like Nagambie and Avenel were not even included in their announcements, despite serious problems finding local child care in those areas. I hold out hope that these towns will be considered. However, with the time lines and lack of responsiveness we are seeing, it is hard to get excited. Avenel has a catchment population of nearly 2000 people, and in recent years this has included many young families, with many more set to join the community in the coming year with the completion of a local housing development. With the neighbouring towns like Nagambie also struggling with extreme waitlists, it is imperative these towns have the facilities needed to provide child care locally to parents who need it. There is still plenty of work to be done for even smaller communities like Murchison, Rushworth, Tooborac and Redesdale, who have no child care at all.
I recently set up a survey for young families in my community to fill in, and sadly it highlighted the dire state of child care in the region, with responses from all over the electorate sharing similar concerns. The survey, which was launched in June, asked members of the community several questions about their experience accessing child care. Responses have been received from major towns across the electorate such as Avenel, Benalla, Broadford and Rushworth, as well as other smaller towns in the region, and I thank every parent who took the time to take my survey. The survey was created so that impacted members of the community would be able to have their voice heard, as under this government many of these towns have been ignored. The results simply show there are far too many people in our community who are struggling to access child care.
Some of the issues raised in the responses included multiyear waitlists, a lack of childcare providers in their town and families relocating to other areas to access better child care. One hundred per cent of respondents shared that the limited childcare options have resulted in them being unable to get back to work or training to a level that they would like. Of those that were working, the responses highlighted a significant reliance on family and friends for child care due to limited options and excessive waitlists in the area. Fifty-four per cent of respondents relied on family and friends a great deal, while 85 per cent were relying on family and friends in some form.
My community is not the only one suffering with these issues. I know several of my regional colleagues receive similar concerning messages from constituents, and I am sure many city-based members do too. Having spoken to experts on the matter such as Social Ventures Australia, who have done extensive research on the topic, it is clear that too many Victorian children are being put at a disadvantage due to a lack of child care. They tell me that 132 out of 433 communities in this state are experiencing high levels of disadvantage and child vulnerability. Nearly 22,000 children under the age of six are experiencing high levels of disadvantage. This must be addressed. We cannot sit on our hands waiting for this government to slowly roll out an inefficient program that will likely struggle to address the full scope of this issue. All year, kinder has been mentioned so many times in press conferences by this government and in motions and bills, yet when it comes to action we have seen very little.
While speaking on this topic it would be remiss of me not to mention the fantastic work that all the childcare staff do in the Euroa electorate. Without enough funding, staff or support, you still consistently do an amazing job looking after our children when it is so desperately needed. Thank you for all that you do. I would also like to personally shout out to Yia Yia, my daughter Quinn’s teacher, who has a remarkable ability to manage our little pocket rocket. I would also like to thank my mum, who steps in because we have been on a two-year waitlist for further days, like many families. To all of my son Arthur’s teachers: thank you too. You are miracle workers for never tiring of his unwavering commitment to trucks and car races. Thank you for all of your help. We truly could not be here without you – quite literally.