This week I woke up and wondered if I had been teleported to a sunny hill in Wellington (where many of my extended family lives).
Not only was it windy and brisk, but the NSW and Victorian governments announced, on Thursday, a suite of early childhood measures that were a triumph of progressive policymaking and bipartisan cooperation.
Could it really be?
Both governments pledged that, within a decade, all children in NSW and Victoria would have access to five days a week of free preschool in the year before they start school.
That’s a full year of play-based early education provided by the state, before a child begins school proper.
The joint announcement called it “the greatest transformation of early education in a generation”, and for once, the political hyperbole matched reality.
The preschool education announcement was accompanied by related, but different, childcare reforms – both states have pledged to create more childcare centres in areas known as “childcare deserts”.
In NSW, those deserts are in western and south-western Sydney and regional areas – where there is only one childcare place for every three kids.
The twin childcare policies will interact with what the Albanese government has pledged on childcare funding federally – to make childcare cheaper for families earning under $530,000 a year (which is to say, nearly all families)
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, criticised by some for sliding into office on a small-target agenda, has made explicit his intention to make universal free childcare one of his signature policies, over the long term. That’s a pretty big reform.
On Friday, both The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald ran pieces about the unlikely bromance between Labor Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Liberal NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet. Following the first meeting of national cabinet following the change of government, Perrottet described the gathering as “refreshingly collaborative”.
The childcare reforms are excellent economic policy because they will lift women’s workforce participation and help end the absurd situation where many women pay more in childcare fees than they are paid to work.
The preschool reforms are excellent social policy – extensive research around the world has shown again and again that children who receive quality pre-school, play-based education have “better outcomes” over their lives.
In civilian terms, this means they are more successful at everything from mathematics to forming relationships as adults.
Early childhood is especially important in addressing inequality – for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, it makes an outsize difference in their development.
The Nobel Prize laureate and University of Chicago-based economist James Heckman has shown comprehensively in his research that quality early childhood education saves money in the long term.
His research on one US preschool program showed a 7 to 10 per cent return on investment, “based on increased school and career achievement as well as reduced costs in remedial education, health and criminal justice system expenditures”.
Heckman’s research on other preschool programs for disadvantaged children showed a return on investment of 13 per cent.
Put simply, he argues that investing in quality early childhood programs is a cost-effective strategy.
The NSW/Victorian bipartisan policy is a plan, as yet, unimplemented.
Both states might struggle to find the educators they need for their ambitions, and Andrews and Perrottet have absolutely announced the policies with a firm eye on re-election.
The Andrews government will go to the polls in November this year, and Perrottet will face his first election as premier in 2023.
Perrottet and his Treasurer Matt Kean are at pains to paint themselves as a new and fresh government with big, future-facing ideas.
This helps fudge the reality, which is that in NSW the Coalition has been in power since 2011, which is an awfully long time for any party.
Each state premier faces a very different set of political realities as they head into their next, electioneering phase of government.
Both think they can please voters by putting forth bold, socially progressive and female-focused policy.
That’s really good news – enough to make New Zealanders envious, if they weren’t too nice to feel envy.
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