In response to calls for affordable, culturally sensitive childcare for Indigenous children, last week the federal government introduced the new Child Care package.
While the government says the new scheme will improve outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, Indigenous childcare sector workers are concerned that access to early education will be restricted and vulnerable families will be greatly impacted.
What is the new system?
The new Child Care Subsidy has replaced the old ‘Child Care Benefit’ and ‘Child Care Rebate’, combining the package into a single means and activity tested subsidy.
In a statement to NITV News, Federal Minister for Education Simon Birmingham said the new system will benefit nearly one million families, delivering more than $1,300 extra per child each year.
He said low and middle income families will benefit the most, as there is now no subsidy cap for families earning less than $187,000.
And for families earning less than $66,000 per year, the base subsidy will increase from covering 72 per cent to 85 per cent.
However, it is the introduction of the ‘light touch activity test’ that has Indigenous childcare advocates concerned.
Under the new system, both parents must submit online forms through Centrelink proving they work or study at least four hours per week to be eligible for the full package.
For those parents who are unemployed or earning under $66,000, which is the case for a number of Indigenous families, they will see a significant reduction in their hours of subsidised care if they don't meet the new test.
Most vulnerable families affected
Roslynne Webb from Noogaleek multi-functional Aboriginal Centre (MACS) is one educator concerned about the ‘light touch activity test’ policy.
She told NITV News the majority of the families with children at Noogaleek are not working, and under this scheme it will halve their number of subsidised childcare hours from 24 to 12 per week, which is equivalent to just two days of childcare.
She said the early childhood sector attempted to increase the number of hours to at least 15, but the government did not agree.
“Now non-working families are looking at very little time in childcare per week, as they are unable to afford the full price for other days,” she said.
“Consecutive days are proven to help ongoing learning, building friendships, settling in.”
She said with so many vulnerable families unable to meet the working requirement, Indigenous children may fall behind even more.
“I don’t agree with shortened hours, it takes the focus away from education,” Ms Webb said.
“Limiting the hours in which our non-working families can access our service is not the right way to go about things.
"Where we can grab vulnerable families and break cycles, with a holistic approach to life, there can be vast improvements made to these kids lives."
There are exemptions to the activity test, such as for those with a disability and carers, as well as families facing serious illness.
The Centrelink complication
Ms Webb said not only is the activity test a deterrent, the scheme's use of Centrelink has been challenging for many regional families.
With very little access to walk-in services - or the internet, as well as Centrelink's multiple complicated forms, many families still haven’t signed up.
Training Coordinator from SNAICC - National Voice for Our Children, Judith McKay-Tempest, said the combination of technical difficulties and a distrust of the system has left many Indigenous families contemplating pulling out of childcare altogether.
“We fear families do not understand the changes and the new system, or may not be able to access the right information. They also might not trust the system,” she said.
“There is not enough ongoing support for families to keep up with paperwork and requirements, especially in low socioeconomic and remote areas.”
Indigenous childcare services forced to change
The introduction of this subsidy package has also meant the Budget Based Funding program (BFF) has been abolished. The BFF was designed for areas where user-pay models for childcare were not viable.
Under the new childcare package, Aboriginal education facilities will move into mainstream funding models, which educators believe is not in the best interests of the children.
Birrelee MACS director Rachael Phillips told NITV News their centre has been BFF for over 30 years and changing to the new system has been complicated and worrying.
She said the BFF was culturally appropriate and inclusive, and is integral to being determined as an Indigenous service.
“Where mainstream services would target working families, our target was non-working families and Aboriginal children, so that when they went to school we were closing the gaps,” she said.
SNAICC’s Ms Mackay-Tempest said many in the industry are concerned about the long term survival of Aboriginal run childcare.
“The government is forcing them to number crunch. It forces them away from focusing on cultural identity and more about just getting bums on seats.
"It's got them thinking business wise, which a lot of our mob haven't had to do before," Ms Mackay Tempest said.
However Ms Phillips refuses to let the changes stifle Birrelee MACS, saying not everything is negative.
“The changes are not all bad. Being a mainstream service will allow us to grow our services, and become truly multifunctional,” she said.
She said if Birrelee continues the way it is going, this new system gives them the opportunity to grow, earn more money to put back into better services for the children.
“There’s no way I’m going to let our community behind - I’m too stubborn to let that happen.”