Dr HAINES (Indi) (18:41): I thank the member for Warringah for bringing this important motion to the House, speaking to the report by The Parenthood and Equity Economics called Making Australia the best place in the world to be a parent. That means making Australia the best place in the world to raise a child would make it the best place in the world to be a child. Just think about that, if our nation was known for that.
Too many Australian parents with children under five are caught in a trap of inadequate paid parental leave, lack of affordable high-quality learning, perinatal discrimination and myriad other social and economic barriers to workplace participation and, indeed, the full enjoyment of family life. Too many Australian children are suffering because of this. In the first five years of life children’s brains are wired to learn quickly. Early learning helps to amplify their natural skills and abilities and to prepare them to thrive in later years. Children who attend early learning services are 33 per cent less likely to be developmentally vulnerable when they start school than those who do not attend early learning services.
Since the introduction of universal access to preschool in 2009 Australia has made progress in the proportion of children enrolled in a preschool program in the year before school. But most of our peer countries in the OECD already provide at least two years of preschool and have done so for decades. Countries in our region are rapidly ramping up access to two years of preschool, framing this as a necessary investment in human capital and future productivity—countries in our region, right next door to us. Investing in an additional year of preschool is really the next big policy opportunity for Australia.
Rural children and families are hit by these failures even harder. Noting that early childhood care and education is a private-public market and that our government has continued to encourage parents to shop around to ensure they are getting value for money—well, when there’s one provider within 50 kilometres, if you are lucky, it’s pretty hard to shop around. UNICEF has ranked Australia 32nd out of 41 nations for child wellbeing in 2020. This is shameful and it needs to change, and we can make it change.
I know from my experience both as a parent and as a frontline worker, as a midwife, the kinds of stresses that parents face. There are parents at the emergency department in what we call the witching hours, between six and midnight—stressed, uncertain, seeking support, worried about a child who they might need to stay home from work tomorrow to look after. I know that we can get better.
The report published today by The Parenthood and Equity Economics provides the solutions, and they’re straightforward and compelling. What we need here is action. We know from this report that we need significant investment in four key areas.
We need universal health and wellbeing support for parents and children, through pregnancy and the early years. Gold standard care requires access to mental health support through ongoing access to screening, telehealth and continuity of care throughout pregnancy—and that’s something I happen to know a lot about. We know that continuity of midwifery care in this nation is only available to a handful of families right across our system, yet, if they receive it, we know it’s good for mothers, good for babies and good for families: they’re less likely to have an operative birth, they’re less likely to have a preterm birth and they’re less likely to have low-birth-weight babies, and they have higher satisfaction and earlier onset of breastfeeding.
We know that mental health challenges are severe and concerning for both mothers and fathers, and we know that fathers are very unlikely to seek help. The transition to parenthood makes them vulnerable to experiencing anxiety and depression for the very first time in their life. A paid parental scheme is important for both parents. I’ve studied and undertaken research in Sweden, where there are 480 days of parental leave which can be shared. So, yes, we’ve made a beginning, but we’ve got so much further to go. We know that women who get more parental leave than the government system have better mental health, and, if the women have better mental health and the fathers have better mental health, we know that the children will do better, too.
Free and high-quality early childhood education and care for families are crucial. We should be increasing our childhood education for these young children. Finally, we need flexible and supportive workplaces, with universal access to paid carers leave. As we’ve seen during the COVID pandemic, we need flexible workplaces that allow parents to work from home in a blended model, if they can.
I commend this motion to the House, and I encourage the government to step up to the plate on improving access to these services.